The Milky Way
Grand Central Publishing, $27
Meet the Milky Way in its own words.
The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy takes a tour of our home in the cosmos from an unexpected perspective. Astrophysicist and folklorist Moiya McTier presents herself not as the author, but as the lucky human vessel through which the Milky Way has chosen to tell its story. Then she lets the galaxy take it away, with humor, heart and a huge dose of snark.
The book alternates chapters between science and mythology, reflecting McTier’s dual specialties (her bio says she was the first student in Harvard University’s history to study both). “Many of you don’t realize this, but myths were some of your species’ first attempt at scientific inquiry,” the Milky Way tells us.
The Milky Way is telling its story now because it’s sick of being ignored. Once upon a time, humans looked to the glittering smudge of stars in the sky for insight into when to plant crops or avoid floods. We told stories about the Milky Way’s importance in the origin and fate of the world.
Our galaxy ate it up: For an entity that spends most of its time ripping up smaller galaxies and watching its own stars die, “your stories made me feel loved and needed and, perhaps for the first time in my long existence, more helpful than I was ruinous.” But in the last few centuries, technology and light pollution have pulled humankind away. “At first, I thought it was just a phase,” the Milky Way says. “Then I remembered … that several hundred years is actually a long time for humans.”
So the Milky Way decided to remind us why it’s so important. Its autobiography covers big-picture scientific questions about galaxies, like where they come from (“When a gas cloud loves itself very much,” the Milky Way explains, “it hugs itself extra tight, and after a few hundred million years, a baby galaxy is born. Leave the storks out of it, please.”). It also gets into what galaxies are made of, how they interact with other galaxies, and how they live and die. The book then zooms out to cover the origins and possible ends of the universe, mysteries like dark matter and dark energy, and even humankind’s search for other intelligent life (SN: 8/4/20).
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The author takes pains to explain scientific jargon and the technical tools that astronomers use to study the sky. A lot of popular astronomy writing glosses over how astronomers think about cosmic distance or exactly what a spectrum is, but not this book. If you’ve ever been curious about these insider details, The Milky Way has you covered.
McTier’s version of our home galaxy is heavily anthropomorphized. The Milky Way is brash, vain and arrogant in a way that may hide a secret insecurity. Its central black hole is characterized as the physical embodiment of the galaxy’s shame and regrets, a source of deep existential angst. And its relationship with the Andromeda galaxy is like a long-term, long-distance romance, with each galaxy sending stars back and forth as love notes until the two can eventually merge (SN: 3/05/21).
This could have felt gimmicky. But McTier’s efforts to make the metaphors work while keeping the science accurate and up-to-date made the premise endearing and entertaining.
I laughed twice on Page 1. I learned a new word on Page 2. I dog-eared the endnotes early on because it became instantly clear I would want to read every one. I read this book while traveling in rural upstate New York, where the sky is much clearer than at my home outside of Boston. The Milky Way reminded me to look up and appreciate my home in the universe, just like its narrator wanted.
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