Handsome, gregarious, and passionate about his subject matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson was America’s most famous astrophysicist since Carl Sagan. While holding down a day job running the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tyson became a recognizable fixture as a television host, guest, and paid public speaker. Then, four years ago, several allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, and Tyson bowed out of the public eye until the planetarium announced that it had conducted an investigation and decided to keep him on. Now, after a further COVID-19 delay, Tyson is making a comeback of sorts with a new book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization, in which he meditates on what a life studying the majesty of the stars and the planets can teach us about how to deal with all the messy social and political conflicts bedeviling us here on Earth.
When Tyson sticks to his orbit of expertise, he remains as engaging as ever, like the professor of a popular college survey course that students might take to satisfy their science requirement. He is lucidly down-to-earth and charmingly enthusiastic in describing the rigors of the scientific method, explaining the elegance of classic equations such as Newton’s second law of motion and Einstein’s theory of relativity, and cataloguing all the neat technology we fast-tracked by sending people into space. Yet while Tyson extols the virtue of a skeptical mind-set in scientific inquiry, he often comes off as none-too-skeptical in his discussion of how that mind-set can be applied to human and political affairs.