'Accessory to War': deGrasse Tyson's new bestseller
Neil deGrasse Tyson is something of a national treasure. This is particularly true of any scientist who reaches popular star/celebrity status because the realm of STEM - all highly touted these days as an educational pursuit remains a hard sell.
When combined with history and exhaustive research, science is possibly even a tougher subject to digest, being that so many members of the general public have a hard time scanning their daily newspapers, let alone tacking a thick, comprehensive volume which often delves into the esoterica of astrophysics and military power.
But it seems the stars have aligned — no pun intended — for deGrasse Tyson and his loyal and ever-present research assistant Avis Lang in the recently released "Accessory to War: The Unspoke Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, hardcover, 576 pages, $30.00).
To begin with, the celebrated director of the Hayden Planetarium has been a one-man army in the PR campaign for astrophysics, using his professional station for the past 23 years to help with this noble undertaking. His flurry of published and broadcast commentary on anything and everything related to his subject of expertise has always been laced with an enthusiasm which can only be described as contagious.
Also, let's face it: the stars and the night sky have been a subject of human fascination for millennia, with the crossover range a broad one: from the gravitas of advanced mathematics to the whimsy of fortune-telling.
But in his book, deGrasse Tyson returns to an overarching view widely known in scientific circles but not always acknowledged by the lay public: that so many of our global and major scientific leaps in application and practical usage are often rooted in military research and development for the conduct of war and the exercise of national security.
In addressing this overlap, the book hits a key point as succinctly as the abstract to any exhaustive laboratory report:
"The astrophysicist, however, does not make the missiles or the bombs. Astrophysicists make no weapons at all. Instead, we and the military happen to care about many of the same things: multispectral detection, ranging, tracking, imaging, high ground, nuclear fusion, access to space. The overlap is strong, and the knowledge flows in both directions."
Indeed, deGrasse Tyson and Lang have written an exhaustively researched account which does at times, get into the weeds of technology and theory, but overall looks at this historical alliance between generals and scientists by delving into vignettes from the past and making deep connections to the present day.
One such example is shown by implication, in this brief excerpt from a much longer explanation of the legacy of the German V-2 tactical rocket from World War II:
"Yet by 1947, Soviet missile designers, under the supervision of the indefatigable Sergei Korolev and aided by captured German rocket scientists, had not only mastered the construction of the V-2 themselves, but had convinced the nascent military industry to develop an ICBM with a range of almost two thousand miles - ten times farther than that of the V-2."
Another feature of this book is the aforementioned documentation, something co-author Lang has most certainly had a hand in producing. Not only are credible sources cited, but there is an unusually large amount of discussion for each note, something not seen except in the most in-depth historical publications.
The end notes themselves could be a short book, and take up 130 pages, often with fascinating behind-the scenes reading; the list of selected sources is an additional 15 pages.
Every member of Congress should read this book as well anyone deeply involved in the national legislative planning process. Academics of all persuasions — yes, even the humanities — could also benefit from grasping the societal synthesis which deGrasse Tyson and Lang pursue.
And to the extent that citizens should also strive to understand more of the sinews and underpinnings of our national infrastructure, this book is a must.
But there is also caution herein. While a comprehensive survey, "Accessory to War" is by no means a primer. It is, however, organized in such a way that the narrative not only flows from one chapter to another, but can also stand alone in sections just as a reference work would. This makes it a terrific read for the casual, scholarly, and the informed — and thus highly recommended.
Reach award-winning freelance journalist Telly Halkias at: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @TellyHalkias
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.