Astronomers have written the Milky Way’s story often over; scientists have traced violent collisions in its past and future and peered in to the supermassive black hole lurking at its heart.
But astrophysicist Moiya McTier tells the story of our galaxy in a complete new way in her delightful new book, “The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central, 2022). (Read an excerpt from “The Milky Way.”) McTier can be a folklorist, also it shows through the entire book, which zips through from the forming of the universe through the ways scientists think it could come to a finish.
Space.com sat down with McTier to go over her new book and the role of the Milky Way in history and lives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Space.com: How did this book happen for you personally?
Moiya McTier: It sort of all just fell into place at the proper moment. I had not been attempting to write a book, although I was always thinking about writing something, though I believe I thought I’d write a fantasy book before I ever wrote a favorite science book.
The theory to create it from the Milky Way’s perspective originated from several different places. One, I had just finished reading Anne Leckie’s “The Raven Tower,” that is told from the perspective of a rock, a sentient rock that is clearly a god. Therefore i was in the mindset of different perspectives. And I also thought the Milky Way will be a more approachable and in a few ways less intimidating narrator than someone like Stefon Alexander or Brian Greene, individuals who write books concerning the universe. They’re sort of intimidating, and the Milky Way does not have to be. THEREFORE I wished to write it from the different voice than has been heard before.
Space.com: How did you choose the “voice” for the galaxy?
McTier: The supreme sass? Yeah. There have been ideas floated around, perhaps a personality of, like, a jock, or possibly an aristocrat. Basically, our ideas were a person who thinks they’re much better than you. In my own mind, needless to say, the Milky Way thinks it’s much better than us. It really is. It’s bigger, it’s stronger, it’s more important. It’s much better than us.
So following a few attempts of early chapters with different voices, my editor and I landed with this one which is, like, in case a cat was a galaxy, you understand. Very sassy, very “I understand you will need me a lot more than I want you.” (Despite the fact that for cats that’s totally wrong.) But that has been the voice that I was attempting to channel.
Space.com: Is it possible to tell me concerning the illustrations?
McTier: To begin with, the artist Annamarie Salai, very talented, and I’m just a little biased because she’s also my oldest friend. We’ve been close friends since third grade. And she visited school for graphical design, recently opened her very own graphical design company that focuses on books. So that it appeared like a no-brainer.
Whenever we were racking your brains on what the illustrations would appear to be, I don’t believe I was very useful, as the only guidance I possibly could really give her was, “Alright, therefore i want it to check just like a galaxy, but additionally alive, but additionally such as a fun cartoon. Is it possible to do this?” I recall, I sent her several inspiration images and something of these was the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I believe you might note that in a few of the illustrations with the spiral arms that appear to be noodly appendages. And we worked together on each illustration and she was very patient with me, that i appreciated. I needed the illustrations to give people something to picture as the voice I believe is indeed strong that it can help to possess something to picture in your thoughts.
Space.com: Why do you consider it is important for non-scientists to learn the way the universe works?
McTier: We’re area of the galaxy, we have been part of it. Understanding it can help us understand where we result from. But a lot more compared to the scientific, or the folklore tidbits that you discover in this book, I’d like people to leave with should they have to select from remembering several facts, which other thing, I’d want them to select a shift in perspective.
That is, partly, written from the Milky Way’s perspective because putting yourself in the shoes of something much bigger and more durable than you’re helps you observe how you match the grand scheme of things. And I believe that isn’t something we’re excellent at as humans, because our perspectives are so limited. Just what exactly I am hoping people get out of this is something such as the overview effect that astronauts feel if they can see most of Earth simultaneously. I would think it’s great if people like, while they’re scanning this book, should they close their eyes and started picturing Earth from that zoomed out perspective, I believe it could just help us be nicer to one another.
Space.com: That seems just a little ironic given the Milky Way’s voice!
McTier: It’s tough love, that’s what the galaxy is giving us.
Space.com: Is it possible to talk about your projects uniting astronomy and folklore?
McTier: Outside the book, more often than not when I’m combining astronomy and folklore, it’s through the automobile of fictional world building. I teach classes and workshops and host a podcast that’s about using facts and science to inspire a fictional world. Whether you would like to write a tale inside it, or set a casino game in it, or simply reside in it yourself, because our real life is sort of trash at this time.
That’s usually how I combine both. But also for this project, I needed to ensure I included folklore because that’s an important part of the evolution of our knowledge of space. A large number of years back, before we’d telescopes, before we’d accumulated all this observed knowledge, we explained the universe with mythology sufficient reason for legends and folklore. And because it really is wonky when compared to science language that people have finally doesn’t ensure it is any less legitimate. It had been still useful information that helped people live their lives and that helped them remember astronomical patterns. Nonetheless it was just packaged in a far more fun and memorable story. THEREFORE I wanted to be sure to include that because if you wish to know how humans attended to understand about space, you need to focus on folklore if not you’re missing something.
Space.com: Have there been any elements of the book which were particularly challenging to create or to keep carefully the voice going?
McTier: Yeah. I’ve never taken a quantum mechanics class, I’ve never done much with quantum anything. But there is a chapter where I had to describe the best fate of the universe, and which means I had to provide at least a simple introduction to quantum field theory and ways to think about particles as spikes of energy in another of these quantum fields.
I had to describe what quantum fields were, this means I had to understand what these were and then discover a way to describe them to a person who isn’t a physicist, who’s not devoting their life to understanding science. That has been pretty difficult, nonetheless it was also among the elements of the book that I was most pleased with when i was done, because I hadn’t heard someone utilize the analogy that I developed, also it just feels good to create something that I believe is original. And hopefully in addition, it helps people understand it. The analogy was that quantum fields are like software programs on the trunk end of some type of computer, and they connect to one another and you could rewrite them however they have the effect of making the computer run.
Space.com: What can you hope readers eliminate from the book?
McTier: Well, hopefully, maybe some abs since they were laughing so much. I’d like people to celebrate with this particular book and when they find out about space, fantastic. Should they get that shift in perspective, awesome. Should they just have several conversation pieces they can talk about at a social gathering, that’s great, too.
I tried to place something in this book for anybody, for everyone. THEREFORE I just hope that folks get something from it, they find something.
There is also a large chunk of the book that helped me sort out my mental health struggles in the last year or two. There’s another galaxy that the Milky Way mentions that’s actively fighting against its central black hole that’s interrupting its star formation process and essentially killing this galaxy. And the Milky Way at one point contemplates what that might be like, in a manner that I’ve contemplated what that might be like, to die without having to deal with the down sides of life. But ultimately, the Milky Way overcomes that also it faces its trouble also it reckons with it also it comes out another side. THEREFORE I really hope that some individuals are helped by that facet of this book.
Space.com: How did that little bit of the book happen? It isn’t what someone might expect picking right up a book about our galaxy.
McTier: I felt sort of bad when I was sending it to the black hole researchers I understand to check read. I was like, “I don’t hate black holes, I am sorry, I simply needed this metaphor to work with the book!”
Space.com: Does combining astronomy, fantasy and folklore change how you start to see the science?
McTier: I see myth as like our first attempt at science. I love to say that just how we understand the planet all around us, it started with mythology, it shifted to philosophy, and today we take action with science, with telescopes and beakers and laboratories.
I believe one sort of tenuous connection that I see because I studied both astronomy and folklore is that both these fields give us a method to feel linked to one another. Folklore may be the assortment of stories that folks tell inside a culture, nonetheless it can cross cultural barriers, and it’s really what we use to feel kinship, really. And astronomy is really a way that people can hook up to all of those other universe but additionally to almost every other human who has ever lived and looked up at the sky and used it to navigate or keep time or entertain themselves around a fire.
I have already been on a journey of exploring different connections in my own life and on the planet, and both these fields were instrumental for the reason that journey. I needed both folklore and the astronomy to observe how everything is linked to one another, as cheesy as that sounds.
Meghan is really a senior writer at Space.com and contains a lot more than five years’ experience as a science journalist located in NEW YORK. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from NY University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her leisure time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.