Before we start this, take out your smartphone. If you’re reading this post on one, you’re already ahead of the game. Consider all the things you can do with it. GPS, maps, texting, photography, social media, internet searches, commerce, research, news updates, entertainment… the list goes on. Now consider what it takes to achieve all of that: computer programming, satellite information… You hold in your hands a portable computer that is one of the many, many by-products of the alliance between science and the military. It’s been that way from the beginning, all the way back to the advent of fire. Fire can cook a person’s meal, and it can just as easily cook the person. Likewise, nuclear energy can be used to power cities or to wipe them off the map. Every weapon can be a tool, and every tool a weapon.
In our current era, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson needs no introduction, but in case you’ve been living under a rock, I’ll introduce him anyway. He’s an American astrophysicist, educator, and science communicator who holds the position of Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. He’s best known for being part of the controversial decision to demote Pluto (get over it!), for succeeding his mentor, Dr. Carl Sagan, on the series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and for the multimedia platform series StarTalk. And, of course, he writes books. His co-writer on this book is Avis Lang. She’s a research associate at the Hayden Planetarium, part of the research staff at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, as well as a longtime collaborator with Dr. Tyson on previous books. According to Dr. Tyson’s introduction, this book is the truest collaborative effort between these two that there has been to date, each filling in the gaps of knowledge and insight in the other.
At first blush, it’s more than a bit disturbing to consider that this book’s release date is September 11. Given the association between the authors and their hometown, and given the subject matter of this book, it can’t be coincidence. After all, the book is dedicated to all those who wonder how astrophysicists stay employed. The answer to that, of course, is the collaborative efforts between science and the military. From the time our ancestors first looked into the skies, their observations determined the course of human events. The movements of the sun, moon, and stars helped to tell people when to plant and harvest, when to expect certain animals to be at certain watering holes, how to devise our calendars, how to navigate long distances, and so forth. Agriculture and sailing gave way to rocket propulsion, communications satellites, and atom smashers. Every step of the way through the ages, defense of our cultures — indeed, defense of the planet itself — has proceeded hand in glove with the often (but not always) liberally-minded scientists whose dedication to peaceful exploration is funded by the power of war.
Essentially, this book is one part history, one part politics, and one part dossier on the current level of science as it relates to both military and civilian usage. The sheer amount of what’s in here is overwhelming, with the ramifications of it all even more so. What’s here is political, but it’s not politicized to support one party or another. That said, it should be noted for international audiences that while other countries are discussed, especially for comparison purposes, the emphasis is by and large on the American side of things. The end result is that the book becomes a statement of where we are now, where we’ve been (and thus how we got to here), and where we’re going next. As with pretty much every other tome with Dr. Tyson’s name on it, I consider this book to be a public service, being the master educator that he is. But this one is perhaps of more immediate need to the average person if they are to be an informed voter, for example, or if they’re deciding where the future lies so they can determine what paths they may need to walk in their own career goals. And as is Dr. Tyson’s standard method of operation, the material is designed to be understood at the casual level wherever possible with an emphasis on educating on all the side tangents along the way so as to see how the puzzle pieces fit together. The collaboration between he and Lang is seamless. I certainly can’t tell of a separation in voices, even when I can see where the overlap might be.
For those hungry for such knowledge, I highly recommend this one. The level of insight that has gone into this is a treasure trove.