Starry Messenger Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Starry Messenger looks at the big, human debates of our time — from gender and race to beauty and truth to religion, politics, and war — from a cosmic, scientific angle, bringing the context of the universe to our greatest problems, thus showing us how, with perspective, insight, and empathy, we can solve them together.

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Starry Messenger Summary

Someone once asked Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium: “What’s the most astounding fact about the universe?” In his typical, eloquent manner, Tyson launched right into a full-blown speech:

“The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the [stars]. When I look up at the night sky, I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. Many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big. Because my atoms came from those stars.”

This is “the cosmic perspective,” the concept at the heart of Tyson’s book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. The idea is to zoom out, look at life from this grand, universal, scientific point of view, and then zoom back in to put our problems into the right context.

Religion and politics, war and the environment, gender and race — these are important topics, and they deserve a holistic, rational understanding. Equipped with it, we can, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”

Here are 3 lessons from the book that show how the cosmic perspective helps us improve our understanding, culture, and the world we live in:

  1. Without the moon landing, we might never have grown to care so much about saving the environment.
  2. If we want to keep up with life’s exponential pace, we must continue to explore and discover.
  3. Nature’s exponentiality can show us why we are special and should be grateful to be alive.

Ready for the 100,000-foot view? To the stars we go!

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Lesson 1: If we hadn’t landed on the moon, environmentalism might be years behind where it is now.

A sunrise is always marvelous to look at, but have you ever seen an earthrise? Don’t worry, few people have — because in order to do so, you’ll need to go to space. On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut William Anders took an iconic photograph of the Earth “rising” beyond the moon’s horizon. 

That’s quite a literal way of “zooming out” and getting some cosmic perspective. “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it,” Apollo 14 crew member Edgar Mitchell said. “From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”

Well, back then, politicians did look — at least at Earthrise, Anders’ photograph — because after that picture, a slew of environmental legislation was passed to protect our planet. From banning DDT, a harmful pesticide, to regulating emissions, to Earth Day, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and more, that’s when environmentalism really picked up steam.

Books like Silent Spring had pointed to environmental problems before, but it took some literal cosmic perspective for humans to realize there was “no planet B” and jump into action.

Lesson 2: Exploration and discovery are necessary tools for humans to keep up with life’s hard-to-grasp, exponential pace.

It’s ironic that environmentalism’s massive success can partially be traced back to an event as “ecologically wasteful” as the moon mission. Rockets use tons of fuel and cause huge emissions. Modern activists with their sometimes extreme calls for sustainability would probably have argued against exploring the moon, and their movement might never have taken off!

But exploration and discovery are important not just because they give us perspective and rally us around a common cause, Tyson suggests. They are necessary tools in keeping up with life’s exponential pace. In other words, if we don’t keep pushing the boundaries of what we know and what’s technologically possible, sooner or later, nature will eat us alive!

Imagine the covid-19 pandemic without instant global communication, mass-produced protective equipment, and quickly developed vaccines. How many more than might have died?

Unfortunately, the human brain is bad at grasping exponential growth, from understanding compound interest to estimating distances to internalizing the unfavorable odds of the lottery.

As a postdoc at Princeton in 1995, Tyson measured the length of a journal’s library shelves. Why? He noticed that half of all papers had been published after 1980! The same applied the further back in time he went: Every 15 years, the total amount of research doubled.

It’s not just nature and technology: Even human knowledge is on an exponential curve — and if we are to keep up with the times, it must stay that way.

Lesson 3: Exponentiality can show us how precious and special life is — especially our own.

While exponentiality is both an exciting and terrifying force, it can also be a source of extreme gratitude. 400 trillion to 1, for example, is an exponentially large ratio, marking the chances of being born. “You are more likely to win the lottery 9 times in your life than ‘being Rick,'” Gary Vee said when sharing the idea.

Tyson offers an even larger number: 1030. That’s a 1 with 30 zeros, or “a million-trillion-trillion.” It’s the total number of genetically possible, different people that could ever be born. So far, 117 billion people have been alive, meaning less than a billionth of a billionth of that total has been exhausted.

It also means that you and I are absolutely, perfectly unique — and we will only ever once exist in this special, singular moment of time. So let’s cherish it!

With all his books, talks, and podcasts, that’s what Tyson hopes to inspire: Gratitude, inspiration, and appreciation of this astonishing universe and our place in it. That’s why, going back to his talk about our atoms coming from the stars, he closes with the following words:

“There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected. You want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are. Just by being alive.”

Starry Messenger Review

Starry Messenger is an awe-inspiring, thoughtful, extremely diverse and idea-rich book. It can be a great source of calm in turbulent times. If you’re looking for more about the physical nature of the universe, check out Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, and if you want more cosmic inspiration, check out this article I wrote called “Life Is Full of Cosmic Jokes.”

Who would I recommend our Starry Messenger summary to?

The 12-year-old who’s curious about space and starting to first encounter social dynamics, the 37-year-old, frustrated maths professor, and anyone who’s tired of the constant debates online and in the media.

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!