Sunday, November 18, 2012

Space Chronicles

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier
© 2012 Neil deGrasse Tyson; edited by Avis Lang
384 pages

On July 20th, 1969, America mesmerized the world by landing men on the Moon. For the first time in history, human feet stepped on the soil of another planet. But on July 21st. 2011, the Space Shuttle Atlantis touched down on the runway and the United States ceased to be a spacefaring nation, for the shuttle program had ended. Space Chronicles collects essays by astrophysicist and science advocate  Neil deGrasse Tyson which looks back on the history of the American space program and reflect on its legacy both to science and the human endeavor before arguing that the United States need to return to space with  bold ambitions.

Tyson first caught my attention a few years ago when a book described him as "the next Carl Sagan".  Here, he lives up to expectations as a passionate science communicator: he is earnest, witty, and urgently excited about the matter at hand. Although  ostensibly about the exploration of space, Chronicles is more fundamentally a book about the value of science -- and not just the knowledge itself, which enriches human experience and provides the spark for material progress, but of scientific thinking -- skepticism and wonder. The epilogue, which stresses the value of the "Cosmic Perspective", practically channels Sagan.

Science advocacy is the message, but Tyson uses the inspiring and exciting adventure of space exploration  as the messenger. Although enthusiastic about humanity's accomplishments thus far, Tyson avoids being labeled a starry-eyed optimist by consistently stressing the pragmatic aspects of space exploration, the technological boons. It's not the spin-off products like Velcro that Tyson has in mind, though: he points out that NASA's endeavors have  effected progress in other fields through "cross-pollination": one example he uses is that of the Hubble research team pioneering methods to put together meaningful conclusions from scant data while the telescope was impaired, methods that were adopted by cancer researchers to improve their analyses of mammograms.  More strikingly, though, he makes no attempt to interpret the space race of the 1960s as a bold, purposeful step forward in human exploration: instead, he sees it as being motivated by the desire for economic and military gains. Tyson emphasizes this not to convey cynicism about space exploration, but demonstrate how much was accomplished even though the motivations were less than inspiring, and to to point out that aerospace can continue to be a source of economic progress today.

In fact, aerospace is a source of progress for humans today, but not for Americans. Americans, Tyson laments, have gone backwards by standing still. Other nations are becoming the technological leaders of tomorrow, and Tyson -- an American, writing to motivate his fellow citizens to start believing in and working for the future again -- despairs of this. He sees hope in China's aggressive ambitions in space: if competition with Russia sent us to the moon back in  1960s, perhaps competition with China will take us further.For the time being, however, even our past accomplishments are beyond us now.

Space Chronicles sees Tyson communicate a great deal -- the history, motivation, and practical aspects of space flight, the value of science, critical thinking, and wonder, the United States' emphatic need to re-prioritize science, mathematics, and industry -- and do so with style. There is a slight weakness in the fact that Chronicles is an edited collection of essays and interviews, and not a monograph written as a cohesive whole. Repetition of certain facts, examples, and so on exists, but this is a weakness only and not a glaring flaw. As it stands, Chronicles  is impressive and engaging, of interest to both space enthusiastic and critics.

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