You’re entitled to your own opinions, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, but not to your own facts. And nothing is guaranteed to turn the famously affable Neil deGrasse Tyson’s mood sour than to confuse fact and opinion.
His new book, Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military, is a case in point. Written with colleague Avis Lang, it’s a broad-ranging, thoroughgoing study of the relationship between the enterprise of astrophysics and the US military. Based at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, Tyson is an astrophysicist of much renown—responsible in part, as a disapproving Sheldon Cooper noted in an episode of The Big Bang Theory, for Pluto’s demotion from planetary status. He knows whereof he writes, in short, as when he observes that the period after 9/11 has proved “a fine time to be a mercenary, a military engineering firm, or a giant aerospace company.”
It’s also been pretty good for science, which has benefited from military funding for all kinds of research, with practical results ranging from Kevlar and GPS to napalm and extraplanetary rovers—and one day, perhaps, to the flying cars of our childhood dreams.
Calling attention to the close ties among academic researchers, scientists, financiers, corporations, and military planners is an enterprise itself likely to excite controversy: There are those who will condemn all science for accepting blood money, others who will think it unpatriotic to expose the military-industrial complex. Says Tyson, speaking to Kirkus while about to catch one of the many long-haul flights he makes each year, “It doesn’t concern me whether, when I present a fact, someone thinks it’s political. Politics is what you choose to do with facts with regard to laws and policies and such. There’s a relationship between those who study the universe and those who wage war, and that’s a fact. When we tell you how much it costs to wage war versus how much it costs to do science—that’s all just information, and if you take it and say, ‘Yeah, I want to spend that much money on war,’ this would be a political choice of yours.”
Not that Tyson minds a good political scrum. “The other day I tweeted, ‘Let’s make America smart again.’ Someone tweeted back, ‘Oh, now you’re getting political.’ Well, okay. I wanted to say, ‘Now, can you tell me what’s political about that sentence? Do you want to make America dumb again? Really?’ ”
Back to those dreams, for Tyson, of course, would prefer to spend that money on those flying cars—or if not them, on rigorous scientific education for everyone, especially those who have been excluded from science on the basis of ethnicity, class, gender, or other alien construct. “I think we always need to ask,” he says, “whether there’s equal opportunity, equal access, for everyone who has an interest. We need to make equal access to ambition, to encourage, to teach. Imagine growing up if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from—well, then your first choice is not going to be to go into astrophysics, but to find something where you’ll never go hungry again. To increase the ranks of those who haven’t participated means making it possible for people to not have to worry about where that next meal is coming from, so that they have the luxury of doing science.”
Tyson’s work as an educator, as perhaps the most important popularizer of science at work today, has earned him many honors, among which he ranks appearing in Highlights magazine—“the coolest magazine for children ever, as we all remember from childhood”—as a high point. “After that it was just gravy,” he says. Now he’s the star of a biography, Starstruck: The Cosmic Journey of Neil deGrasse Tyson, which he allows is also pretty cool, especially because it models precisely that kind of positive course for minority children. As the book relates, when Tyson was a schoolboy—he’s now 60—he saved and saved for a telescope that, when he took it to his Bronx rooftop, neighbors mistook for a weapon of some sort and called the police. When officers arrived and demanded to know what he was doing, he said, “Looking at Saturn. Want to have a look?” Tyson adds, by way of footnote to the authors’ story, “Saturn wins every time.”
One hopes that’s true in these fraught times as well, with cultural bias, racism, and ignorance rampant and seemingly ascendant. But speaking of popular science, a popular meme on social media goes something like this: The fact that Duck Dynasty ran 10 seasons whereas Cosmos, which Tyson hosted in a reboot from his hero and early champion Carl Sagan, ran only one tells you everything you need to know about where American culture took a wrong turn.
“Right,” says Tyson. “But tomorrow, at Comic-Con, I get to announce that we’ve just been approved for a second season. So, after tomorrow, that meme will go away.” Another supposed fact, then, bites the dust—and fans of both science and of Neil deGrasse Tyson should find that pretty cool, too.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.