review – space chronicles: facing the ultimate frontier

ImageFor an astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks plainly. Whether conversing on behalf of presidential space commissions or to the local trash collector, he knows his audience well, brilliantly conveying the place of space and science in the lives of everyday people. Such is his tone in Space Chronicles, a compilation of recent addresses centering on the possibilities and precariousness of our glacially paced emergence among the stars.

A proponent of the world’s “second oldest profession”, there’s no doubt of Tyson’s feverish talent for presenting astoundingly wondrous insights of the universe. This work isn’t as focused on that as it outlines the astoundingly small-but-giant steps we’ve achieved in the infancy of our space exploration, and the current factors decelerating the improbable momentum gained from such achievements as the Apollo and Hubble endeavors. Of the many points of emphasis, a select few are consistently repeated: that our focus on war and defense has historically been the trigger for space exploration, coupled with China’s surplus of scientifically literate citizenry (more than the entire population of the United States), and the invisible, unheralded contributions of NASA (not only for space exploration but humanity’s welfare) on mere fractions of the US tax dollar. These are but a few hindrances to consider when faced with the more looming obstacles such as preventing the inevitable asteroid collision, commoditization of the fledgling aerospace industry, and providing more interesting reasons for gravitating students toward science, like designing anti-matter propulsion or theorizing light-speed travel rather than incrementally increasing our fuel efficiency for outdated systems.

Aside from lacking a more thorough bibliography of sources cited (apart from a grand set of space budget appendices), the only detractor to the book is that it can seem more an anthology than the entreaty it is. Tyson will in one instance expound upon his concern of the emergent cultural embrace of anti-intellectualism, while in another ponder the feminist implications of the traditionally phallus-shaped propulsion rockets, no better represented by the exalted Saturn V.  But the occasional disparate topic highlights Tyson’s theme of the necessity of cross-pollination among his audience in the interest of solidarity in scientific inquiry; the more disparate entities and peoples that can be tied together for a common purpose, the more likely we are to generate lasting interest in exploration and science itself, beyond even the realms of space.

Space Chronicles is a gentle though unsubtle reassurance of the popular meme that although we as a species have accomplished much, we are really not that special. If we see ourselves as otherwise in this unfathomably large universe and thus are lazy enough to abandon exploration beyond earth and take scientific inquiry for granted (as we are), humans are destined to ensure our own extinction. While preaching to the choir for space enthusiasts, Space Chronicles is a good primer for the space curious.

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