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A turnround from Tyson

Tyson's new book
I am delighted that one of our reviewers has been able to give a five star review to Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book. The astrophysicist has taken over Carl Sagan's old post as the number one science populariser in the US, but his written output in the past has been patchy, to say the least.

There have been at least two significant problems. One is dubious history of science. For example, in the cases of both Galileo and Bruno he has passed on undiluted the comic book version of history where Galileo is persecuted for mentioned heliocentricity (rather than his disastrous political handling of the  pope) and mutters 'Eppur si muove!' at his trial, and Bruno is burned at the stake for his advanced scientific ideas (both misrepresentations). Some argue that it getting history of science accurate doesn't matter if we get the right message about science across - but if we are prepared to distort historical data, why should anyone take scientific data seriously?

The other, and perhaps more dramatic, problem is a parochial view of international science, typified in Tyson's book Space Chronicles. To quote my review of that book:

Here’s one example, the words of an interviewer speaking to Tyson: ‘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?’ [Now this interviewer is apparently well-known in the US as a politically biassed one, but the point here is not so much that he said it, but that Tyson quotes it without contradicting it.] 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 impossible to fly it.  

However, Andrew May is very positive in his review of Tyson's Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and I am genuinely delighted. We get so few science communicators who can reach a very wide audience (think Brian Cox in the UK), it is absolutely brilliant when they do a great job.


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