Skip to main content

Space Chronicles – Neil de Grasse Tyson **

I really struggled with this book. I love space and space travel – I have lived through and been thrilled by the entire space race and the development of space science. I expected to love a book by a great astronomer and science populariser, but instead I pretty well had to give up, part way through.
There are two problems. The lesser one is the structure of the book. It consists of a collection of articles, interviews and such that Tyson has produced on the subject of space exploration. This inevitably means there is repetition. A lot of repetition. It’s not that what he is saying is not interesting, but after you’ve heard it for the tenth time it loses its novelty. Perhaps the most interesting thing is the way Tyson is so obviously pulled in two directions. On the one hand he appreciates how superior unmanned satellites and explorers are from a bang-per-buck science viewpoint. On the other hand he believes manned missions are essential to raise interest levels. But of course manned missions are very expensive and almost purely political/military in role, so he really does have to go through some entertaining gymnastics to defend them.
But the thing that made me give up was the sheer jingoism of the book. If you aren’t an American, I can guarantee this book will irritate you. Here’s one example, the words of an interviewer speaking to Tyson (who Tyson doesn’t argue with): ‘If we land on Mars, how are we going to know if USA is number one if an American astronaut is standing next to a French guy? Are we going to say, “Go Earth!”? No, we’re going to say, “Go USA!” Right?’ So basically international cooperation like CERN is a waste of time and money – all that’s important, all that space science is about, is knowing that USA is number one.
An even better example, as it is purely Tyson’s own remarks is when he is talking about the aerospace industry, bemoaning the loss of US control. He says ‘In the fifties, sixties, seventies, part of the eighties, every plane that landed in your city was made in America. From Aerolineas Argentinas to Zambian Airways, everybody flew Boeings.’ I’m sorry? I worked for an airline in the 1970s, and I can tell you this is total baloney (which is apparently American for bilge). Remind me, for example, who built the Comet, the first jet airliner. Which American company? Oh, no, it was British. Of course Boeing was the biggest player in the period he describes, but there were plenty of others. (There were even a couple of other US manufacturers. Remember Lockheed?) Could I just point out also who made the only supersonic airliner flying back then. And come to think of it, the only one to fly ever since. The UK and France. And what did the US contribute to this amazing advance? They tied it up with red tape and objections so it was almost impossible to fly it.
This really made me angry, I’m afraid. In another article, Tyson tells off a judge for inaccuracy because he referred to 1,700 milligrams rather than 1.7 grams. Okay, it wasn’t a particularly sensible convention, but at least it wasn’t wrong. Saying ‘all planes were (US) Boeings’ is just factual inaccuracy to put across your political position. A book on space travel must cover politics, but once it is so hugely politically biased towards one country, however significant it may have been to the aerospace business, it loses credibility. This isn’t a book about space science, it’s a rallying cry for Americans. That’s something that has its place. I’m not knocking America, and it’s good that Tyson is proud of his country. But a science book isn’t the place for such sentiments.
Also on Kindle:  
Paperback from March 2013:  
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…