Let me begin by offering my two pet peeves, in general, with pop-science authors: (1) sometimes they make a murky subject even murkier, and (2) a lot of times they argue bad theology. They can’t seem to help themselves. The most famous example, of course, is Stephen Hawking, but Neil deGrasse Tyson follows in the dubious tradition.
Tyson is merely the latest best-selling pop-science writer to dip his toe precariously into theological waters. And subtlety is not his virtue. He titles his first chapter “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” followed by “On Earth as in the Heavens,” and “Let There Be Light.” In his final chapter, he reverts to the New Testament, with a near-interminable Sermon on the Mount: “The cosmic perspective is humble,” he intones. “The cosmic perspective is spiritual . . . but not religious. . . . The cosmic perspective shows earth to be a mote. . . . The cosmic perspective reminds us that . . . flag waving and space exploration do not mix.” And so on, and on.
“Tyson doesn’t like religion, and he says as much, yet he thinks the appropriate response to the wonders of the universe is awe.”
From the first page, the reader wonders: Is Tyson mocking scripture, or awkwardly trying to respect it? Because, surely, it can only be one or the other. Yet one senses that this really is something different from the norm: it’s more as if he’s rewriting scripture. As often as the author returns to one of his favorite subjects – humility as virtue — he actually seems to be, in the end, placing himself in the role of a modern-day Jesus. At the very least, it’s one of the preachiest chapters I’ve read yet in a book meant to popularize astrophysics.
Tyson doesn’t like religion, and he says as much, yet he thinks the appropriate response to the wonders of the universe is awe. But don’t let that awe lead to an idea like, “God must be behind it all,” or you’re overstepping the bounds of logic. “Some religious people assert, with a tinge of righteousness,” he claims, “that something must have started it all. . . . a prime mover. . . . God. . . But . . . what if the universe just popped into existence from nothing? Or what if everything we know and love were just a computer simulation rendered for entertainment by a superintelligent alien species?” Now, there’s logic for you. The idea of being precluded from explaining the big bang with God because it’s somehow too “righteous,” but being permitted to imagine a giant extraterrestrial computer simulation — or something spontaneously generating from nothing — is too absurd to take seriously.
Tyson is known to discuss at length his views on the existence of God, possibly because people keep asking him about it. My only problem is that theology doesn’t belong in a book about astrophysics, in any kind of an extended or faux-authoritative discussion. Who or what lit the fuse to the big bang — i.e., whether or not God exists — is simply not something a PhD in astrophysics is uniquely equipped to solve.
“I learned stuff. I’m not sorry I bought it.”
For the purposes of this review, let me disclose that I’m a Bible-reading, non-church-going Christian who is politically liberal and who believes in climate change. The point, however, is not the nature of the author’s agenda, but that he has an agenda at all. In this book, and in particular the last boring and overlong chapter, the author proselytizes against religion and for environmentalism. My point is, simply, that I don’t want to hear any of it. I picked up the book hoping that whoever wrote it could make a difficult subject easy to understand. Why is it that astrophysicists feel duty-bound to pass along metaphysical wisdom that they don’t actually, innately, possess?
Having now devoted 90 percent of this review to one of my pet peeves, I feel obligated to add that I found the book worth reading. The best chapters are those on dark energy and dark matter. The chapter on the periodic table is a snooze. Chapter 1 is confusing and unclear, and I had to read it over several times to glean any clear, new, or durable ideas from it. But in the end, I learned stuff. I’m not sorry I bought it. It’s definitely a mixed bag.