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Accessary To War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.

Accessary To War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. By Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2018. Notes. Selected Sources. Index. Pp. xiv, 576. $30. ISBN: 978-0-393-06444-5

Neil Tyson, the well-known director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, also has his own TV show, "Neil De Grasse Tyson Explains Everything." In this book, he and Avis Lang (a research associate at the Hayden Planetarium) take on US space and defense policies over the past 70 years. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my 26-year Air Force career was actually a manifestation of the relationship reflected in the book's title--educated by the Air Force as an astrophysicist, I often did astronomically related things as a "space weatherman" and space-system user.

Although the title leads one to think this will be straightforward account of the relationship between the scientific discipline of astrophysics and military efforts, it is not. The authors range much further afield. As a result, the book is really three threads closely intertwined.

One thread relates the long relationship between astrophysics (and astronomy) and the military, dating back to astronomical devices used in medieval times by armies and navies, and Galileo's telescopes. This part of the book is very informative, especially to a reader new to the subject. Also covered are more recent interactions such as the development of charge coupled devices used both for astronomy and military sensors. Surprisingly, the authors omit the influence of G. E. Hale, a founder of modern astrophysics, in marshaling science for the US effort in World War I--a story at the heart of the book's theme. I also was surprised at the lack of coverage of the Air Force's role in the nation's space-weather efforts; space weather (understanding the sun-to-earth region in space) is really a form of applied astrophysics and is, therefore, of direct import to the book's stated theme.

The second thread of the work is really a history of the space age and the US role in it. It is a stretch to call this astrophysics. For example, the development of rockets is certainly physics and engineering, but not astrophysics as usually defined. Astrodynamics is also a field usually separate from astrophysics, as indicated in any major university's catalog. In this regard, perhaps the subtitle should be the "unspoken alliance between all space stuff and the military."

The third thread of the work is the most problematic and tendentious. Basically, Tyson and Lang engage in a polemic against war in general, and US defense (including military space policies) in particular. Their position is very clear. They discuss along the way pretty much every US conflict after World War II, venturing generally negative judgment on all. For example, leaders--on both sides of the Iron Curtain, to be fair to the account--are psychotic for developing nuclear stockpiles. Curtis Lemay is described as merciless (and I would assume psychotic as well) according to the authors. As claimed in the text, strong US defense is pursued apparently only for some combination of the profit-motive, ill will, or ignorance. Often repeated is how much the US spends and has spent on defense, with no context of total federal expenditures. For example, President Eisenhower's farewell speech warning of the "military-industrial complex" is referred to approvingly, but without indicating that when Ike said those words, the defense budget was over 50% of federal expenditures. Similarly, Tyson and Lang bemoan the current $700 billion US budget for defense (a lot of money, for sure), without commenting that this is out of a budget of over $4 trillion. Most of the difference is for social spending. Without question, a society's priorities are reflected in its budgets. As one might guess, the desire for the US military today to pursue policies that would provide "space dominance" does not sit well at all with the authors, and they use words like combative, aggressive, and offensive-oriented to describe these US space policies. In any event, all these issues have been debated thoroughly in other venues; they are much more complex than Tyson and Lang describe.

The book has over 400 pages of text and 120 pages of footnotes; one can learn much from reading it. It is best when discussing science and history of science, with only small inaccuracies here and there. Overall, the book would have been stronger and more interesting without the third thread--digressions into opinions and subjects only tangentially related to the central story of astrophysics and the military. The history of the interaction between science and military affairs is long standing and fascinating in and of itself.

Lt Col Joe Bassi, USAF (Ret), PhD, Lompoc CA
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Author:Bassi, Joe
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Dec 22, 2018
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