Being a Black Neil deGrasse Tyson fan used to be easy. I’ve always loved space and its acquainted sciences, and when I became aware of him – somewhere around 2000 – it was love at first sight, intellectually speaking. That he also hit my representation buttons was a lock for me. I bought the books, wore the Halloween costume, and watched the lectures.
At some point my activism caught up to my adoration. I wanted Tyson to do more than be a role model; I wanted him to speak on real world issues. It was something he didn’t like to do, as he saw himself as a scientist first. In his mind, the mission of being a public intellectual precluded him from speaking on things like racism and politics. In my mind, his being Black precluded any suggestion that he shouldn’t. So for a time, I wouldn’t say we parted ways, but I came to understand that we were not politically on the same page and tempered my fanfare accordingly.
In his latest book, “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization”, Tyson finally delivers the book I wanted 20 years ago. At the same time, I recognize that he may not have been in the place such a book requires until the world was very much on fire. It’s kind of hard to stay on the cultural sidelines playing at political objectivity when people are being murdered by the state on the evening news.
“Starry Messenger” offers an astrophysicist’s takes on war, religion, race and more through a scientific lens, and it doesn’t come off nearly as Vulcan as it sounds. Tyson allows for some skin in the game on the issues. And while he does lean into that thing he does these days where he oversimplifies an issue to a logical consideration without any concrete concern for its real world application, he manages to pull the nose of the plane up the majority of the time to keep from being outright offensive. In an example I’m totally making up to illustrate his tic, a cop killing is not an imploding sun, and treating the issue like all we have to do is get over ourselves as a viable course of action is ridiculous. But, like I said, he seems to get it more than in this book than he does on Twitter. It’s not perfect – plenty of fodder for arguments to be had here. But at least the on-ramps are about 1000 times more researched than the arguments I’m used to getting into.
If you don’t like Tyson as a person or a scientist, this book probably won’t change your mind. For me, it is the book I’ve been waiting for him to write. And despite my issues with it academically, I’m glad it exists. Because a brother was starting to worry.