In pop culture there are two general stereotypes that the public has about scientists. There is the mad scientist of the comic strip and Hollywood fame, the cackling monster whose desire to overcome reality and life itself often drives him to discoveries that cause widespread destruction, including his own. Then there is the more positive image of the tweedy-nerd, whose enthusiasm for knowledge and discovery is sometimes disheartening, but often just contagious.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who has become famous as a scientist and host of the reboot of Carl Sagans TV series & Cosmos, is perhaps the most famous living example of the second public image of a scientist. His nerdy exuberance is more than deserved by his breadth and depth of knowledge, not just about astrophysics, but about the history and culture of science. In his hands, science seems fun, cheerful and not at all threatening.
"The universe is both the ultimate limit and the highest of high grounds," Tyson and Lang write. "Shared by both space scientists and space warriors, it is a laboratory for one and a battlefield for another."
The book describes the history of this entanglement between star-driven scientific research and the more direct on-the-spot continuation of warfare. As the authors explain, soldiers have been relying on astronomers since the beginning of history, depending on star maps to make maps that generals and especially sea captains use during combat. Since then, the world of astronomy and the world of war have spoken to each other and the people in each have worked closely together, relying on their shared need for everything from telescopes to GPS satellite technology to rockets.
In an interview this week for Salon Talks, for example, he refuted the popular version of Albert Einstein that painted him as a pacifist.
& # 39; He was all for the bomb, & # 39; explained Tyson. He wrote a letter to Roosevelt that we have the power, we should make the bomb because Hitler is bad. & # 39;
The letter is known as the letter from Einstein-Szilárd, because it was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd and signed by Einstein. In it Einstein warns that "it could be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, which would generate enormous amounts of force and large quantities of new radium-like elements" and that the German army is on this fact and it is very likely that we are investigating the possibility of making a weapon of this research. He recommends "maintaining a permanent contact between the administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America," a recommendation that led to the Manhattan project and the development of the first nuclear bomb.
As Tyson Salon told, Einstein had complex feelings about the bomb and spoke against its use in Japan. But it is also difficult, as Tyson claims, to argue with the reasoning that led Einstein to warn Roosevelt in the first place. In other words, war is complicated – just like the role of scientists in it.
Tyson writes that "the vast majority of my fellow astrophysicists" do not like to think too much about this reality, and instead "shy away from the prospect of war". But as he himself discovered, it is not that simple.
READ MORE: Wil Wheaton, lifelong fan of PBS and libraries, has a book that he can not recommend
The book begins with a story by Tyson, who was in a presidential committee during the second Bush administration that focused on the aviation industry, and attended a symposium of the Space Foundation that happened to start at the same time that the war in Iraq began . Tyson was aggravated by anti-war protesters outside the event, assuming they were politically naïve & # 39; goods. But inside he discovered that the screening screens during the symposium were geared to the coverage of the invasion of Iraq, and the scene made him more sympathetic to the demonstrators.
Every time a weapon was described, he says, the reporters have "announced the names of the companies that made it," and each time "a company was identified as the producer of a certain destruction tool, the employees and executives in the public were broken. in applause. "
The illusion that scientists can simply float above death and destruction that their discoveries contribute to – or ignore the military-industrial complex that feeds scientific funding and knowledge that helps it grow – was destroyed.
For the sake of clarity, Frankenstein's mad scientist and every other Marvel film on the market is nowhere to be seen in this book. Even scientists who were closely involved in the development of technology directly intended to kill people, such as the atomic bomb, were not the maddening sociopaths of B-film entertainment. But Tyson also does not want readers to imagine that scientists are innocent babes, unaware of the implications of working so closely with the military-industrial complex when it comes to developing their own work.