Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military by Neil deGrasse Tyson & Avis Lang, W. W. Norton & Company, Pp 576, US $30.00, September 2018, ISBN 978-0393064445
Most scientists including astrophysicists are by nature pro-peace and anti-war. Yet, many of them end up working to promote war. Science and technology have always played a critical role in wars. Tribes, peoples, and nations with better knowledge and/or more use of science have won the war. The role of science and technology in fighting wars has been growing with the passage of science. In Accessory to War, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang say that, in matters of battle, the role of science and technology often proves decisive, providing an asymmetric advantage whenever one side exploits this knowledge while the other side does not. The biologist weaponizes bacteria and viruses. The first acts of bio-warfare may have been a rotting animal carcass catapulted over a castle wall during a siege. The chemist has many ways to contribute to the war effort, from the poisoned water-wells of antiquity to mustard and chlorine gas during World War I, to defoliants and incendiary bombs in Vietnam and nerve agents in more contemporary conflicts. The physicist at war is an expert in the matter, motion, and energy, and has one simple task: to take energy from her and put it over there. The strongest expressions of this role have been the atomic bombs of World War II and the more decisively deadly hydrogen fusion bombs that followed during the Cold War. Lastly, it is the engineers who make all things possible — enabling science to facilitate warfare.
The astrophysicist, however, does not make the missiles or the bombs. Astrophysicists make no weapons at all. Tyson and Lang say astrophysicists and military happen to care about many of the same things: multispectral detection, ranging, tracking, imaging, high ground, nuclear fusion, access to space. The overlap is strong, and the knowledge flows in both directions. Astrophysicists as a community, like most academics, are overwhelmingly liberal and anti-war, yet they are curiously complicit in this alliance. The authors argue that many of the world’s inhabitants derive conspicuous collateral benefits from scientific and technical advances that started life as military projects. Communications and weather satellites, GPS, medical technologies, and mobile phones help both the farmer in rural India and the surgeon in a Manhattan hospital.
Tyson and Lang argue that as a form of protection, the militarization of space might seem inevitable, even desirable, as a kind of shield for our growing orbital assets. But weaponization arrives close on the heels of militarization. On the other hand, humanity has officially embraced a peaceable space agenda. Drawn up by the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies in ambitious and inspiring. Yet who among us believes that humans will act peacefully in space? Space is not a magical place where somehow, suddenly, everybody is friendly. We remain the same species, with the same primal urges as our tribal ancestors. How about working on the peaceful uses of Earth? Once we figure those out, maybe, we’ll be able to envision the peaceful uses of space.
One way to assess a society is to examine how it rewards or punishes those who act on primal urges, how it attempts to encourage, channel, or inhibit those urges. But is war primal? Tyson and Lang answer by saying that civilization exists at all, that at any given moment most people and most states are not waging war on one another, implies that we are not entirely hapless victims of an opportunistic compulsion awaiting a time to kill. We may also be capable of opportunistically seizing a time to heal.
Accessory to War is a panoramic view of the alliance between astrophysicists and the militaries from the ancient times to date. Many scientific discoveries and inventions may have served military goals after they were invented but Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang provide a very readable history of how astrophysics and astrophysicists have served their departments of defense from the beginning of history. They show that many of the inventions in the realm of astrophysics were invented as instruments of war and later put to peaceful uses. However, they were put to use for peaceful programs. A layperson will benefit from Accessory to War as much as a military policy maker.