Here’s a new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, just published a couple weeks ago. It’s blurbed as a ‘companion’ to his previous book, ASTROPHYSICS FOR PEOPLE IN A HURRY; post about that one here.

This is a collection of 101 letters (or emails) he’s received over the years, with his answers. In a few cases he summarizes the original query. Throughout Tyson is polite and restrained where he could be confrontational. Keeping the outline of the book, here are some highlights.

  • Prologue is a “Happy 60th Birthday, NASA” Facebook post, from Oct. 1, 2018. Tyson was the same age, and he recalls seeing the early space missions on TV as he grew up.
  • Ethos – the characteristic spirit of a culture, manifested in its beliefs and aspirations
    • Ch 1, Hope
    • About what to hope for in a universe that seems designed to kill us. How not to fear change, or failure. About how he doesn’t intend to ‘convert’ anyone, just show them how to think for themselves. About how no one should care what your IQ is; what matters to succeed in life are many other things. About it wouldn’t matter if he, or anyone else, is president; what’s needed are voters who are not dysfunctional.
    • Ch 2, Extraordinary Claims
    • How there’s no evidence for aliens, and how UFO sightings are most likely explained by anything other than alien spacecraft. How eyewitness testimony is unreliable (especially after decades). How the world will not end in 2012, citing previous such predictions. Dismissing gravitics and astrology. How sometimes relatively small investments in outlandish ideas (the example is ‘psychic teleportation’) can be prudent. How if someone sees ghosts, try asking them questions. Why Jonathan Swift might have imagined there would be two moons of Mars, long before they were discovered (by extrapolating Kepler’s ‘laws’ given one moon around Earth, four around Jupiter). About perpetual motion: if a claimant is so certain, then just build the machine. About how the African Dogon tribe might have heard about the discovery of Sirius B and incorporated it into their mythology. About why people would believe in Bigfood, or psychic premonitions.
    • Ch 3, Musings
    • About how simple rules do, in fact, lead to complex realities—DNA; 92 elements. About why he is not particularly curious about exploring his ancestral ‘roots’. About how BC/AD, despite being religiously inspired, nevertheless represents the most accurate calendar ever devised. About an elderly lady who had never seen Venus until the high-rise outside her apartment window was taken down. Some generous advice to a filmmaker anxious to be technically accurate. And his vote for the movie with the worst scientific accuracy—The Black Hole, in 1979, and then Armageddon, in 1998.
  • Cosmos – the universe seen as a well-ordered whole
    • Ch 4, Hate Mail
    • Replies to readers upset at his support for the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. Debating a correspondent about the value of settling on the Moon. Defending his comment that, compared to Europe, the US sucks at science. Responding to an angry letter someone who doesn’t want his tax dollars going to the space program, with a list of other things everyone’s taxes pay for, and a specific list of technological devices that he would have to live without, by rejecting what the space program discovered or enables. And a long reply from a Christian who thinks scientists would feed Christians to the lions, if they could.
    • Ch 5, Science Denial
    • Defending the conclusion that global warming is human caused. Defending the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Defending evolution as a matter of evidence, not belief. Responding to a claim that the Qur’an predicted many scientific discoveries by pointing out the connections were made only after the discoveries were made; no religious text has been found to offer clues to things as yet undiscovered. And patiently explaining the evidence behind evolution and the age of the universe to a writer who thinks these must be lies because they conflict with the Bible.
    • Ch 6, Philosophy
    • About whether science deals with truth, or meaning. The difference between how and why. Rejecting the suggestion that everything in the world is a matter of yin and yang, of balance. About how he thinks philosophers aren’t of much use, since the discoveries of modern physics.
  • Pathos – a plaintive appeal to emotions that already reside within us
    • Ch 7, Life and Death
    • About a writer who thinks his dead father spoke to him: next time this happens, ask him some questions. He consoles a writer whose mother is dying with the points of his ‘cosmic perspective’ that ended his previous book. Responding to the dilemma of whether spending money on, say, space projects make sense when cancer still hasn’t been cured.
    • Ch 8, Tragedy
    • The most striking section of the book, with several letters describing the morning of 9/11, from where Tyson lived just four blocks away; each observation ends with “Upsetting enough, but then…” and is followed by something even more horrific. And later deals with a 9/11 conspiracy theoriest who thinks it was staged.
    • Ch 9, To Believe or Not to Believe
    • Does a NASA photo show the Eye of God? No, it’s just the Helix Nebula. His list of 8 great books, leading with the Bible, for a reason that upset some readers (to understand how it’s easier to be told what to believe, than to think for oneself). Does he believe in God? The evidence is against a god. He replies to a Christian fundamentalist by pointing out how many fundamentalists of other religions believe things entirely different. About another Biblical literalist who thinks science is a liberal conspiracy, with advice about how science never ‘proves’ anything. About how a numerologist ‘proof’ of the value of pi, from Bible passages, simply shows that anything can be ‘proved’ with numerology if one hunts long enough. He points out the obvious objections to notions of intelligent design. Asked about meaning of life if there is no God: how most people find meaning or purpose in life without reference to religious texts.
  • Kairos – a propitious moment for decision or action
    • Ch 10, School Days
    • How to learn: read and think and read. On the perceived respect for teachers and scientists. To a police officer, how to think about the world. About problems with ‘gifted’ students—those who succeed are instead those who work hard. About pointless accuracy in certain contexts.
    • Ch 11, Parenting
    • About motivating children: expose them to many things, but pushing them too hard in one direction often backfires. About home schooling and what he teaches his own children: how to think, how to explore, not what to believe. How Bible stories can be treated as traditional stories that don’t have to be literally true.
    • Ch 12, Rebuttals
    • Objecting to rules about taking advanced placement tests. Responding to a hip-hop artist who believes the earth is flat. Responding to an Idaho paper’s criticism of his work as liberal and therefore anti-American. And a NYT op-ed wondering why Hollywood films can’t be bothered to get various details correct.
  • Epilogue—A Eulogy, of Sorts
    • A farewell letter to his father upon his death.
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