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Neil deGrasse Tyson Says Science And The Military Have Always Been Intertwined

On what to make of this connection

“I don’t value judge it. It’s hard to not value judge something like this, but I’ve worked hard to not value judge it. For me, compiling this book, looking at the role that science in general and astrophysics in particular has played in aiding the warfighter, I stepped aside and I said, ‘I will not pass judgment on this. I will simply present it as is. The reader can judge it, like it or dislike it, but it’s what it is.’ So it’s your third choice — it’s not good, it’s not bad, it’s just what it is.”

On President Trump’s calls to create a Space Force

“I don’t have a horse in that race. I can tell you that if you ask generals in the Air Force which currently oversee the U.S. Space Command, many of them will say, ‘We’re fine controlling space under the umbrella of an Air Force.’ But if you do break it off, what you do is you will shift everything under the Air Force’s portfolio that’s about space, and it becomes its own category, a Space Force. And I might throw in a couple of things if you could, I might throw in asteroid defense, maybe? Or, how about cleaning up the space debris? So that my commerce that I’m conducting from space doesn’t get put at risk by 18,000 mile an hour bolts flying through space that fell off of some mission?

“I don’t have a fundamental problem with it, and just because it came out of Trump’s mouth doesn’t make it crazy.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Accessory To War’

by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang

On February 10, 2009, two communications satellites—one Russian, the other American—smashed into each other five hundred miles above Siberia, at a closing speed of more than 25,000 miles an hour. Although the impetus for building their forerunners was war, this collision was a purely peacetime accident, the first of its kind. Someday, one of the hundreds of chunks of resulting debris might smash into another satellite or cripple a spaceship with people on board.

Down on the ground that same winter’s day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 7888—respectably above the decade’s dip to 6440 in March 2009 but not much more than half its high of 14,198 in October 2007. In other news of the day, Muzak Holdings, the eponymous provider of elevator music, filed for bankruptcy; General Motors announced a cut of ten thousand white-collar jobs; federal investigators raided the offices of a Washington lobbying firm whose clients were major campaign contributors to the head of the House subcommittee on defense spending; the inflammatory Iranian president declared at a rally celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of his nation’s Islamic Revolution that Iran was “ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere”; and the brand-new American president’s brand-new secretary of the Treasury presented a $2 trillion plan to lure speculators into buying the unstable American assets that had collapsed the global economy. Civil engineers announced that 70 percent of the salt applied to icy roads in the Twin Cities ended up in the watershed. An environmental physicist announced that a third of the top-selling laser printers form large numbers of lung-damaging ultrafine particles from vapors emitted when the printed image is heat-fused to the paper. Climatologists announced that the flowering ranges of almost a hundred plant species had crept uphill in Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains over a twenty-year period, in lockstep with the rise in summer temperatures.

The world, in other words, was in flux and under threat, as it so often is.

Ten days later, an international group of distinguished economists, officials, and academics met under the auspices of Columbia University’s Center on Capitalism and Society to discuss how the world might manage to emerge from its worse-than-usual financial crisis. The center’s director, Nobel laureate in economics Edmund Phelps, argued that some financial re-regulation was called for but stressed that it must not “discourag[e] funding for investment in innovation in the non-financial business sector, which has been the main source of dynamism in the U.S. economy.” What’s the non-financial business sector? Military spending, medical equipment, aerospace, computers, Hollywood films, music, and more military spending. For Phelps, dynamism and innovation went hand in hand with capitalism—and with war. Asked by a BBC interviewer for a “big thought” on the crisis and whether it constituted “a permanent indictment of capitalism,” he responded, “My big thought is, we desperately need capitalism in order to create interesting work to be done, for ordinary people—unless maybe we can go to war against Mars or something as an alternative.”

A vibrant economy, in other words, depends on at least one of the following: the profit motive, war on the ground, or war in space.

On September 14, 2009, just a few months after the satellite smashup and a few blocks from where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers had stood eight years and four days earlier, President Barack Obama spoke to Wall Street movers and shakers to mark the first anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the investment firm whose bankruptcy is often presented as having triggered the avalanche of financial failures in 2008–2009. That same morning, China laid the cornerstone for its fourth space center on an island close to the equator—the latitude of choice for exploiting Earth’s rotation speed, thereby minimizing the fuel necessary for a launch and maximizing the potential payload. By late 2014 construction was finished, well before the World Trade Center site would be fully rebuilt. An Associated Press reporter spoke of China’s “soaring space ambitions” and, after presenting a daunting list of Chinese space achievements and ambitions, stated that “China says its space program is purely for peaceful ends, although its military background and Beijing’s development of anti-satellite weapons have prompted some to question that.”

Much the same could be said of the background and backing of the lavishly funded space programs created by the Cold War superpowers. Were he alive today, the seventeenth-century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christiaan Huygens might tell us we’d be fools to think that ambitious undertakings in space can be achieved without massive military support. Back in the 1690s, as Huygens thought about life on Mars and the other planets then known to populate the night sky, he pondered how best to foster inventiveness. For him and his era, profit was a powerful incentive (capitalism was as yet unnamed), and conflict was a divinely endorsed stimulant of creativity:

It has so pleased God to order the Earth . . . that this mixture of bad Men with good, and the Consequents of such a mixture as Misfortunes, Wars, Afflictions, Poverty and the like, were given us for this very good end, viz. the exercising our Wits and Sharpening our Inventions; by forcing us to provide for our own necessary defence against our Enemies.

Yes, waging war requires clever thinking and promotes technical innovation. Not controversial. But Huygens can’t resist linking the absence of armed conflict with intellectual stagnation:

And if Men were to lead their whole Lives in an undisturb’d continual Peace, in no fear of Poverty, no danger of War, I don’t doubt they would live little better than Brutes, without all knowledge or enjoyment of those Advantages that make our Lives pass on with pleasure and profit. We should want the wonderful Art of Writing if its great use and necessity in Commerce and war had not forc’d out the Invention. ’Tis to these we owe our Art of Sailing, our Art of Sowing, and most of those Discoveries of which we are Masters; and almost all the secrets in experimental Knowledge.

So it’s simple: no war equals no intellectual ferment. Arm in arm with trade, says Huygens, war has served as the catalyst for literacy, exploration, agriculture, and science.

Were Phelps and Huygens right? Must war and profit be what drive both civilization on Earth and the investigation of other worlds? History, including last week’s history, makes it hard to answer no. Across the millennia, space studies and war planning have been business partners in the perennial quest of rulers to obtain and sustain power over others. Star charts, calendars, chronometers, telescopes, maps, compasses, rockets, satellites, drones—these were not inspirational civilian endeavors. Dominance was their goal; increase of knowledge was incidental.

But history needn’t be destiny. Maybe the present calls for something different. Today we face “Enemies and Misfortunes” that Huygens never dreamed of. Surely the “exercising [of] our Wits” could be directed toward the betterment of all rather than the triumph of the few. Surely it’s not too radical to suggest that capitalism won’t have much to work with if several hundred million species vanish for lack of potable water, breathable air, or perhaps the aftereffects of a plummeting asteroid or an assault by cosmic rays.

Looking down at Earth from an orbiting spacecraft, a rational person could certainly feel that “necessary defence” may have more to do with the vulnerability of our beautiful blue planet, exposed to all the vicissitudes of the cosmos, than with the transient power of a single country’s weapons, policymakers, nationalists, and ideologues, however virulent. From hundreds of kilometers above the surface of the globe, “Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men” might sound less like a standard line on a Christmas card and more like an essential step toward a viable future, in which all of humankind cooperates in protecting Earth from the enemies among us and the threats above us.


Reprinted from Accessory to War by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Copyright © 2018 by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton Company, Inc. All rights reserved.