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Space Chronicles

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Space Chronicles

Cover of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson

W.W. Norton & Company
Space Chronicles

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, at a 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Washington, DC.

Public Domain from NASA

About the Book


This is a collection of various essays, interviews, and speeches by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson focusing on the developing role of NASA in the years to come. Over the last decade, Tyson has been a member of multiple advisory panels to help NASA craft a new mission ... a mission which controversially included ending the NASA Space Shuttle program. As American astronauts go into space getting lifts from Russian cosmonauts, guidance from visionaries like Dr. Tyson will be needed for America to find new reasons to move forward into new areas of discovery.

The book is divided into three sections: Why, How, and Why Not. There are a total of 36 different chapters within the book, focusing largely on the pragmatic considerations of manned and unmanned space flight. If the book has one flaw, it's that since these essays are taken from different places, a lot of the same key points are made over and over. If you've seen Dr. Tyson interviewed, you've probably also heard many of these same points before as well. This redundancy does harm the reading experience a bit. Some examples of the key points that come up over and over again are:

  • It is much more expensive to send humans into space than human beings, so from a scientific perspective it's much more cost-effective (and safer) to have scientific missions conducted primarily by robotic "astronauts," such as the rovers currently exploring Mars.
  • The plan for NASA is and should be to build a launch system that can then be leveraged by private enterprise and the government to get into Earth orbit and beyond, traveling through the solar system. (Unfortunately, the details of such a launch system remain fairly vague.)
  • Human astronauts must remain a part of NASA's programs, primarily because they are inspirational. People love astronauts even more than they love robots.
  • The Apollo program was funded primarily by military and political goals related to the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as opposed to noble ideals about discovery and exploration (even though that rhetoric was invoked by President Kennedy).


Notable Quotes


Some people think emotionally more often than they think politically. Some think politically more often than they think rationally. Others never think rationally about anything at all.

“A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, for example, commented that if an enemy power tried to impose on America the substandard educational system that exists today, we might have considered it an act of war.

Typically, the way our government has birthed new industries is to make the initial investments before capital markets can value them. That’s where the high risk lies. Innovative ideas become inventions. Inventions become patents. Patents earn money. Only when risks are managed and understood do capital markets take notice.

We once thought that a telescope or some other piece of hardware required a surface on which to build it. But where there’s a surface, there’s gravity—which means the weight of the system requires structural support. But in orbit everything is weightless, permitting the building of huge structures that would be inherently unstable on Earth’s surface.

Discovery is the only enterprise that builds upon itself, persists from generation to generation, and expands human understanding of the universe.

As a child, I was aware that, at night, infrared vision would reveal monsters hiding in the bedroom closet only if they were warm-blooded. But everybody knows that your average bedroom monster is reptilian and cold-blooded. Thus, infrared vision would completely miss a bedroom monster, because it would simply blend in with the walls and door.

It’s worth remembering that the act of discovery does not require that you understand, either in advance or after the fact, what you’ve discovered.

... as our area of knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of our ignorance.

The history of human ideas about our place in the universe has been a long series of letdowns for everybody who likes to believe we’re special.

Scientific discovery is rarely the consequence of an instantaneous act of brilliance, and the revelation that our galaxy is neither special nor unique was no exception.

Expensive projects are vulnerable because they take a long time and must be sustained across changeovers in political leadership as well as through downturns in the economy.

There’s no tradition of scientists knocking down the Sunday school door, telling preachers what to teach. Scientists don’t picket churches. By and large—though it may not look this way today—science and religion have achieved peaceful coexistence for quite some time. In fact, the greatest conflicts in the world are not between religion and science; they’re between religion and religion.

Between A.D. 800 and A.D. 1200 the intellectual center of the Western world was Baghdad. Why? Its leaders were open to whoever wanted to think stuff up: Jews, Christians, Muslims, doubters. Everybody was granted a seat at the debating table, maximizing the exchange of ideas. [...] Historians will say that with the sack of Baghdad by Mongols in the thirteenth century, the entire nonsectarian intellectual foundation of that enterprise collapsed, along with the libraries that supported it. But if you also track the cultural and religious forces at play, you find that the influential writings of the eleventh-century Muslim scholar and theologian Al-Ghazali shaped how Islam viewed the natural world. By declaring the manipulation of numbers to be the work of the devil, and by promoting the concept of Allah’s will as the cause of all natural phenomena, Ghazali unwittingly quenched scientific endeavor in the Muslim world. And it has never recovered, even to this day.

Our most precious asset is our enthusiasm for what we do as a nation. Marshal it. Cherish it.

I’m an academic; I lord over nothing on the landscape of people, place, or thing. But we academics, we scientists, like to argue, because that’s how the fresh ideas surface. We hash things out, find a way to do the experiment better, see what works, what doesn’t. So scientists are good at looking at different points of view—which, to some people, makes us look like hypocrites. We can take one point of view one day, and another point of view the next day. But what we do is, we take the Hypocritic Oath. We take our multiple points of view, but—and this is something scientists all know as we argue—in the end there’s not more than one truth. So, in fact, the conversation converges.

[...] when I talk about looking in the middle, I don’t mean compromising principles. I’m talking about finding principles that are fundamental to the identity of the nation and then rallying around them. Our presence in space embodies one of those principles.

A poor nation can’t be expected to dream, because it doesn’t have the resources to enable the realization of dreams. For the poor, dreaming just becomes an exercise in frustration, an unaffordable luxury.

Our nation is turning into an idiocracy.

The strength of economies in the twenty-first century will derive from the investments made in science and technology. This is something we’ve witnessed since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: the nations that have embraced those investments are the nations that have led the world. America is fading right now. Nobody’s dreaming about tomorrow anymore.


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