Three Astronomers’ Thoughts on The Milky Way by Dr. Moiya McTier

By Mark Popinchalk, Briley Lewis, and Sabina Sagynbayeva

Cover of The Milky Way by Moiya McTier. THE MILKY WAY is in large font in the middle, with smaller serif font "An Autobiography of Our Galaxy" above, and "Moiya McTier, Illustrated by Annamarie Salai" below. The Background is black with stars and purple and green swirls.
The cover of The Milky Way by Moiya McTier. Image from Grand Central Publishing.
Moiya McTier's author headshot. Image of a Black woman smiling with glasses and large silver star stud earrings, wearing a purple plaid blazer over a black top and black leather shorts, in front of a brick wall with graffiti.
Author Moiya McTier. Image from Moiya McTier via Twitter.

Today, Dr. Moiya McTier, exoplanet astronomer and science communicator, made her writing debut with the release of her new book! Titled The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, this book is a romp through the astronomy of our galaxy and beyond, as told by the Milky Way itself. Here at Astrobites, we’ve interviewed Moiya before and covered her interesting science (from real space mountains to stellar social distancing). Today, we present three mini-reviews of her debut novel (from Astrobites authors Sabina Sagynbayeva, Briley Lewis, and Mark Popinchalk) to give you a look into this literally stellar book.

The Milky Way is teaching us lessons (by Sabina Sagynbayeva)

We usually imagine the Milky Way as just a space full of dust and darkness with no other lifeforms in it, but in this book, it is represented as something much more lively and exciting. Using narrative as a tool to show this entity in a more relatable way helps readers to become fully immersed in the story and emotionally attached to our galaxy, but also to understand why the Milky Way is so important to Earthlings. 

The Milky Way is represented as a self-loving, confident, and even a bit cocky character. Although you don’t see Dr. Moiya McTier’s voice in the main parts of the book (only in the notes), you can still see the connection between the author and her view of the character. Dr. McTier is a black woman in STEM, which already makes her unique and representative of a point of view that’s different from a majority of astronomers. She also attended elite schools (Harvard and Columbia), where she constantly had to prove her self-worth, which, in turn, taught her self-love and confidence. Readers can see the evidence of her experiences in the very first words of the book: “To everyone who’s ever been made to feel that they’re not ‘sciency enough,’ whatever that means.” 

The Milky Way in the book teaches us to reflect on ourselves. Maybe we should normalize saying “I am brilliant, and you should pay attention to me,” because that isn’t encouraged enough in our society? It is not surprising that the Milky Way calls our society “ridiculous” after all. Not only do we yield to the Milky Way in the courage to stop constantly proving our self-worth, but we also make fools of ourselves, as the Milky Way points out, by not acknowledging the important scientific role of Henrietta Leavitt, or naming the major telescope of our generation after a homophobe. This book is full of humor, which, in fact, is a satire of our “ridiculous” society. 

Nevertheless, the Milky Way loves us. It loves us strongly enough to talk to us! The Milky Way constantly acknowledges the tales we’ve been telling each other, generation after generation, our scientific curiosity and achievements, and our existence. The Milky Way even incorporates our scientific units and our view of the Universe into how it tells the story of its life. Imagine, the most important reason of our existence – it even thinks of itself as of our god – is eager to tell us its story! Why would it bother? The Milky Way wants us to study itself and discover more of its secrets, because we are capable of doing it – so we have probably done a good job so far! 

This book is a gentle mix of folklore, satire, and science communication. By mixing these (what might seem like unmatchable) components – like you mix ingredients to get a tasty cake in the end – McTier engages with readers while still explaining concepts like pressure balance, fusion, and other physical phenomena, all to help us understand how, say, stars form. 

Although the Milky Way created the stars in our sky and will keep doing it even for trillions and trillions of years, you will later see that it cannot control everything, which will help you empathize with the character. The Milky Way is capable of being confused (by humans), irritated (by a black hole), and sad after loss (of stars) – just like humans! It will describe its emotions, which will later help you to connect with the character in a way you would have never expected to connect with a galaxy. 

Go on this journey to the depths of our home to learn more about it, and to reflect on ourselves! 

A unique portrait of not just our galaxy, but ourselves (by Briley Lewis)

The Milky Way is by far the most unique piece of science writing I’ve encountered. Dr. McTier anthropomorphizes not just a single star, but our entire galaxy, teaching her audience about the Milky Way from a first person point of view. The character of the Milky Way is almost unlikeable, making snide remarks at our species’ expense, but in a way that feels right — why would a being of such scale be deeply invested in or impressed by us? Despite the constant disses on humans, though, there’s a distinct fondness for us Earthlings. We may not be wholly special or uncommon, but we are, in some way, unique and remarkable (and the Milky Way seems to agree). 

Although at its core this is a book about astronomy, Dr. McTier incorporates issues of science and society in a masterful way, creating an expansive and thoughtful meditation on humankind. Dr. McTier’s Milky Way tackles topics such as mental health, climate change, stereotypes of scientists, and even the homophobia and controversy surrounding the name of NASA’s newest telescope, all interwoven seamlessly with the science content of the book. The Milky Way also recounts the diverse and plentiful myths from human cultures across the globe that honor it, and even touches on our “modern myths” of science fiction and how they reflect our hopes for the future. On the other hand, it takes a critical lens to our myths and religions (“long-standing myths” as the Milky Way calls them), reminding us that they are unique features of our Pale Blue Dot, not necessarily applicable to the whole Universe. The broad perspective of the Milky Way allows the reader to experience the Overview Effect second-hand, putting our human endeavors — both mythical and scientific — into a broad galactic context. For example, there are many references to “your Earth astronomers” where the galaxy describes how our scientists have learned about it, cleverly demystifying the process of science and illuminating how science works and what an astronomer’s job is for a lay reader. 

This book is a great choice for readers of all backgrounds. No matter your astronomy experience, you’ll get something out of it. Dr. McTier’s explanations of complex scientific concepts make even the most esoteric cosmology accessible, such as with a brilliant analogy describing particles and different fields as the “programs” that the Universe runs on in the chapter “Death” about the end of the Universe. There are even a few jokes thrown in for the benefit of the astronomers in the audience, like on p. 76: “If you ever want to cause an uproar among your astronomers, stand in a crowded planetarium and claim that the Kroupa IMF is better than the Salpeter.” My only complaint is that there is a lot of juicy content left to the end notes, and I wish they were footnotes so that they were a more obvious and easy-to-access part of the story.

By the end of the book, the character of the Milky Way really comes around as sympathetic and loveable. It gets into some “galactic gossip,” drawing on our human tendency for curiosity and drama, and demonstrates that it’s rooting for humanity despite our shortcomings. I won’t spoil the wondrous and hopeful last lines for you, but it’s definitely worth reading the book to get there. You’ll have a fun adventure with the Milky Way as your guide and learn a lot of cool science along the way.

THE MILKY WAY IS A JERK, AND I WANT OUT (by Mark Popinchalk)

I don’t know how the sentient galaxy we live in got a book deal, or why someone as great as Dr. Moiya McTier agreed to help write it, but it has to be said. The Milky Way is snobby, condescending, 30,000 parsec long meanie full of hot air (gas). Who happens to have written an entertaining book.

But don’t take my words for it! Let me quote the luminous writer itself. This book is full of examples of just how little effort the galaxy made to understand humans. It can’t comprehend our bodies, referring to various parts as “fleshy appendages.” It doesn’t understand how long we live for – “If I had to guess, I’d say the hardest thing about being a human is your short lifespan. And it has no idea how to talk about death – “Have you envisioned your future corpse’s party?” (Funeral). The book is full of them, sprinkled in throughout almost every chapter just waiting to insult us “flesh bags”. Some might say this is an inspired humorous characterization of how a billions year old celestial observer would consider members of our relatively short lived species. But I say the Milky Way is a rude jerk.

And it’s not just humans! The Milky Way seems to bully anything celestial that is smaller than it. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are given friendly nicknames (Larry, Sammy) which seems nice, but the Milky Way admits to trying to consume them! The supermassive black hole at its center (Sarge) is disparaged (perhaps rightly), and the galaxy’s treatment of stars is coddling and condescending. Does this make these mind boggling huge entities beyond our everyday lives more interesting? Definitely! It plays out almost like a cosmic reality TV show, where the drama lasts for eons and the gossip travels at the speed of light. I bet you can’t guess who is at the center of all that drama…

The worst thing about the Milky Way, and I hate to admit it, is that it is actually really good at explaining some of the more existential subjects, such as the cosmology of our universe. I’ve personally sat through attended many lectures and classes about the start of our universe and its potential endings, and they can be tedious as the scales are so far from human experience. No matter how big a jerk it is, the Milky Way does a great job of not only including just the right level of detail, but also linking it to its own beginning, lifespan and aspirations. Since a galaxy can’t help but care about how they were born and or will die, it made me more invested too. It got me to care about what would happen to our galaxy and our universe in a way that no classroom setting could.

So, do I recommend you read a book by a “galaxy brain” know-it-all, who I’ve accused multiple times of jerkitudinal jerkiness? Absolutely. Because even though its attitude can be harsher than the radiation from a supernova, once you grow to accept it like I did (maybe even appreciate it too), it’s a lot of fun. The Milky Way does a great job of sharing the science behind what it’s been up to for the last 13 billion years, from the interior of stars to the shape of the universe. It also shares fascinating human stories and myths too, even if they are vainly all about the Milky Way. While I still think the Milky Way is a jerk, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I give it 5 stars (out of 100 billion.)

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You can pick up a copy of The Milky Way by Moiya McTier starting today, 8/16/22, wherever books are sold! Stop by your local bookstore or get a copy on Bookshop, so you too can enjoy the galaxy from the Milky Way’s vantage point.

Astrobite edited by: Katya Gozman

Featured image credit: Grand Central Publishing

Thank you to Grand Central Publishing and Dr. Moiya McTier for providing advance copies of the book for this review!

Disclaimer: “Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily intended to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS supports Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content that appears on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by the AAS.

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