Astronomers have devoted entire careers to trying to understand our Milky Way – how does it all work? How did it emerge from the infinite cosmos?
What if we could ask the Milky Way itself – and actually get an answer? A new book does just that, imagining what we would learn if our galaxy were a sentient 13-billion-year-old being with a particular disdain for humans and a fondness for its neighboring dwarf galaxies.
dr Moiya McTier is the host of the Exolore podcast and author of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy. Here’s part of their conversation with Quirks & Quarks Host Bob McDonald.
Let’s talk about what makes your book unique. Why did you write it yourself as an autobiography with the voice of the Milky Way?
Really, it boils down to me knowing that there are people out there who have already written about the Milky Way. There are so many people who have thrown their hats in this ring and I didn’t want to just throw mine on top of theirs. I wanted a new experience for the readers, and who has read something from the perspective of the Milky Way? So I wanted to bring that element in.
You’ve given the Milky Way a rather cheeky personality itself. Why did you go in this direction?
I was inspired by science. The Milky Way is more than 13 billion years old, and much of that time has been spent alone. Early in the universe, galaxies crowded much closer together, and then as the universe expanded, the Milky Way’s friends were pulled away from it. And now it spends all its lonely time creating stars, falling in love with them, and then watching them die so their guts can be used in the next generation of stars.
And to me it seemed like it would lead to a creature, a sentient being with a chip on its shoulder and a lot of cheek. And honestly, why would the Milky Way be nice to us? It owes us nothing, and it’s so much bigger than anything we could ever hope for. That kind of “You’re so small, why should I care for you?” voice made a lot of sense.
If you ended up writing an autobiography about another galaxy like Andromeda, our big neighbor, do you think she would have the same voice?
No I do not think so. I think the Andromeda galaxy would not be as superior in tone as the Milky Way. I think that maybe it would have a softer, more understanding voice.
Why is that? Is the Milky Way just inherently arrogant, or is there something to it?
I think the Milky Way is kind of arrogant. There’s a reason for that. It is the largest, strongest, and most gravitationally attractive galaxy in our local group. So it’s used to being very dominant and literally throwing its weight behind it to get what it wants from the world. Andromeda is the other largest galaxy in the Local Group, but not the largest, I don’t think it would have the same personality.
During your PhD you studied exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars. What can they teach us about the Milky Way?
So much. In a way, when we study other planets, we are actually studying our own planet and solar system because we have a snapshot of what Earth looks like. It’s really hard for us to know for sure how it will be in the future and how it has been in the past.
This allows us to study other planets similar to Earth at different stages of their evolution. We can also study planets that aren’t at all like Earth, and this helps us understand more about our own solar system and the formation of the other planets in our solar system.
And I think the new James Webb Space Telescope will give us a lot more information about exoplanets in the future.
Ah, that’s it. I remember giving lectures when I was in grad school. One of my research projects was searching for mountains on exoplanets to find a way to determine the geological features on a planet outside our solar system. And at the end of all this talk, I’d say even if we can get a feel for the surface features of these planets, if we don’t know about their atmospheres, we really can’t tell if they are or not. habitable again.
And at the end of each of those conversations, I called JWST and I thought, when this telescope launches, we’ll finally be able to say for sure whether some planets are habitable by our criteria or not. And now we see that we’ve already seen some nice spectra from JWST that shows carbon dioxide in a planet’s atmosphere, shows us water vapor in a planet’s atmosphere. So yeah, it’s a really exciting time.
Her book goes beyond astrophysics and addresses issues in which science and society interact. Why was that important in a book written by a galaxy that thinks humans and our problems are insignificant?
Precisely because it thinks our problems are insignificant, and it thinks we’re kind of silly for continuing to hatch those problems among ourselves. You mentioned the JWST telescope, or the Just Wonderful Space Telescope as some in the astronomy community call it. This telescope’s namesake has a pretty sordid history at NASA, going after queer and LGBTQ people at NASA in the ’50s and ’60s. And so the Milky Way points to this saying: “Why do you value this person who had prejudices against other people for something so stupid as the shape of their fleshy parts?” It also thinks we’re pretty stupid if we don’t acknowledge the amazing work of women and people of color and queer people throughout history.
So, there’s a lot of modern social thought and commentary in this book because, you know, surprise, surprise, I’m a modern human with thoughts on these social events and activities. So I wanted to include them.
Produced and Written by Amanda Buckiewicz.