I Wanna Be Literated #220

I Wanna Be Literated #220

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I know Neil deGrasse Tyson is often the victim of ridicule, but I can’t help but like the guy. At the very least he’s considered annoying because he likes to challenge our understanding of things, and people don’t like that. He can sometimes be that guy at parties who likes to correct people, so of course that’s annoying. It’s just that NGT (those who know him personally call him that, or those who want to simplify his name for a review) has a very introspective and very science based opinion on things, and that’s different from the blowhard at parties who imposes his opinions on other people. Also, NGT isn’t being invited to your house or your parties: you can avoid him or consult him to your heart’s content.

His latest book Starry Messenger is an interesting concept, which is to interpret our earthly problems from the point of view of visiting aliens. I like this concept and always like to read NGT, so of course I was game. I mostly find his writing to be enlightening and that he makes me think about subjects that I think actually matter, instead of the fate of characters in a Lord of the Rings TV show. Starry Messenger’s power is not just that it challenges ideas that are not scientifically founded, but does so using plain language. As I grow older, I find popular science books incredibly rewarding and NGT has a skill with breaking down science into interesting digestible chunks. This book also is written as a short introduction to these important societal “problems” and how we should maybe be rethinking them. Unfortunately, it’s here that Starry Messenger sort of fails because it’s trying to have its cake and eat it too. The topics covered here are all very interesting but they don’t go in depth enough to really build a good foundation for understanding. Other times, it simply neglects to address the main idea driving an argument. For example, when speaking about vegetarianism, NGT argues that vegetarians neglect to recognize that plants are also alive and maybe do not respond to pain as animals do in response that vegetarian preaching is just being arbitrary in its value of life. This is interesting, sure, but what about the argument that plant diets are cheaper and safer for the environment than, say, raising cattle? I’m not saying this is the right argument, but it would have been interesting to conduct a thought experiment on the money and resources put into growing certain crops (like soy?) to feed an individual for one day versus feeding them flesh. There are morel examples that I won’t go into here, but I hope you get the point.

There are some truly fun and interesting moments in Starry Messenger, but I guess I expected more from such an esteemed science-nerd.  

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