Astronomers have written the history of the Milky Way many times; scientists have traced violent collisions to its past and future and peered into the supermassive black hole lurking in its heart.
But astrophysicist Moya McTeer tells the story of our galaxy in a whole new way in his exciting new book, The Milky Way: The Autobiography of Our Galaxy. (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central, 2022). (Read the excerpt from The Milky Way.) McTeer is also a folklorist, and this is evident throughout the book, which covers everything from the formation of the universe to how scientists think it might have happened. came to an end.
Space.com sat down with McTeer to discuss her new book and the role of the Milky Way in human history and life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
(Read an excerpt from The Milky Way here.)
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Space.com: How did this book come about for you?
Moya McTeer: Everything fell into place at the right time. I didn’t try to write a book, although I was always interested in writing something, although I think I thought I would write a fantasy book before I wrote a non-fiction book.
The idea to write this from the perspective of the Milky Way came from several places. First, I just finished reading Raven’s Tower by Ann Leckie, told from the point of view of a rock, an intelligent rock that is god. And so I was in thinking different points of view. And I also thought that the Milky Way would be a more accessible and in some ways less intimidating storyteller than someone like Stephon Alexander or Brian Greene, the people who write books about the universe. They’re a little scary, and the Milky Way doesn’t have to be. So I wanted to write this in a different voice than the one that was heard before.
Space.com: How did you end up with the “voice” of the galaxy?
McTier: Supreme audacity? Yeah. There were some ideas going around, maybe the identity of an athlete or maybe an aristocrat. Basically, all of our ideas have been from someone who thinks they are better than you. In my opinion, of course, the Milky Way thinks it’s better than us. It. He is bigger, he is stronger, he is more important. It’s better than ours.
So, after several attempts at the first chapters with different voices, my editor and I settled on this one, which is like a cat being a galaxy, you know. Very cheeky, very “I know you need me more than you need me.” (Though it’s completely wrong for cats.) But that was the voice I was trying to channel.
(Image credit: Mindy Tucker)
Space.com: Can you tell me about the illustrations?
McTeer: First, the artist Anna-Maria Salai is very talented, and I’m a little biased because she’s also an old friend of mine. We’ve been best friends since the third grade. And she went to graphic design school, recently opened her own graphic design firm that specializes in books. So it seemed like a no-brainer.
When we were trying to figure out what the illustrations would look like, I don’t think it was very helpful, because the only advice I could give her was, “OK, I want it to look like a galaxy, but also alive, but also like a funny cartoon. I remember I sent her some inspirational images, and one of them was the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I think you could see that in some of the illustrations with the spiral sleeves that look like noodle appendages. And then we worked together on every illustration and she was very patient with me, which I appreciate. I wanted the illustrations to try to give people something to portray because the voice I think is so powerful that it helps to have something to visualize in the mind.
Space.com: Why do you think it’s important for non-scientists to know how the universe works?
McTeer: We are part of the galaxy, we are part of it. Understanding this helps us understand where we come from. But even more than the scientific or folklore facts you will find in this book, I want people to get away with them—if they have to choose between remembering a few facts and this other one, I would like them to choose a shift. in perspective.
It’s partly written from the perspective of the Milky Way, because putting yourself in the shoes of something much bigger and longer than you helps you see how you fit into the grand scheme of things. And I think that’s not something we humans are very good at because our perspectives are very limited. So I really hope that people will get something similar to the view effect that astronauts experience when they can see the entire Earth at once. I would love it if people enjoyed it when they read this book, if they closed their eyes and started to imagine the Earth in such a smaller perspective, I think it would just help us to be kinder to each other.
Space.com: That seems a little ironic considering the voice of the Milky Way!
McTeer: It’s tough love, that’s what the galaxy gives us.
Space.com: Can you talk about your work that combines astronomy and folklore?
McTeer: Outside of the book, most of the time when I combine astronomy and folklore, I use a fictional world builder. I run classes, workshops, and host a podcast about using facts and science to create a fictional world. Whether you want to write a story in it, or install a game in it, or just live in it yourself, because our real world is now some kind of garbage.
Usually I combine them. But for this project, I wanted to make sure I included folklore because it’s an important step in the evolution of our understanding of the cosmos. Thousands of years ago, before we had telescopes, before we accumulated all this observable knowledge, we explained the universe with mythology, legends and folklore. And just because it’s wobbly compared to the scientific language we have now doesn’t make it any less legitimate. It was still useful information that helped people live their lives and helped them remember astronomical patterns. But it was just packaged into a more fun and memorable story. So I wanted to make sure I included this, because if you want to understand how people learned about the cosmos, you have to start with folklore or you’re missing something.
Space.com: Were there any parts of the book that were particularly difficult to write or retain the voice for?
McTeer: Yes. I have never attended a quantum mechanics class, I have never really studied quantum mechanics. But there was a chapter where I had to explain the ultimate fate of the universe, which means I had to give at least a basic introduction to quantum field theory and how you can think of particles as energy releases in one of those quantum fields. . .
I had to explain what quantum fields are, which means I had to find out what they are and then find a way to explain them to someone who is not a physicist, who does not devote his life to the study of science. It was quite difficult, but it was also one of the parts of the book that I was most proud of after I finished because I didn’t hear anyone use the analogy I came up with and I just enjoy coming up with something what I consider original. And hopefully this will also help people understand this. The analogy was that quantum fields are like software packages on the back end of a computer and they interact with each other and you can rewrite them, but they are responsible for the operation of the computer.
Space.com: What do you think readers will take away from the book?
McTier: Well, hopefully maybe some press because they laughed so much. I want people to have a good time with this book and if they learn about space it’s fantastic. If they get that shift in perspective, great. If they just have a few talking points to bring up at the dinner party, that’s great too.
I tried to put something in this book for everyone, for everyone. So I just hope that people get something out of it, that they find something.
There was also a large piece of this book that helped me deal with my mental health issues over the last couple of years. There is another galaxy that the Milky Way mentions that is actively fighting its central black hole, which interrupts the process of star formation and, in fact, kills this galaxy. And the Milky Way at some point contemplates what it would be like, just as I contemplated what it would be like to die and not face the hardships of life. But in the end, the Milky Way overcomes this, faces its trouble, reckon with it and comes out the other side. So I really hope that this aspect of this book will help some people.
Space.com: How did this part of the book come about? This is not what one would expect when picking up a book about our galaxy.
McTeer: I was a little uneasy when I sent it to black hole explorers I knew to check the reading. I said, “I don’t hate black holes, I’m sorry, I just needed this metaphor to make it work for the book!”
Space.com: Does the combination of astronomy, fantasy and folklore change your view of science?
McTeer: I see myth as our first attempt at science. I like to say that the way we understand the world around us started with mythology, then moved to philosophy, and now we do it through science, through telescopes, beakers and laboratories.
I think one kind of weak connection that I see, because I’ve studied both astronomy and folklore, is that both of these fields give us the opportunity to feel connected to each other. Folklore is a collection of stories that people tell within the same culture, but they can cross cultural barriers and are actually what we use to feel related. And astronomy is the way in which we can connect with the rest of the universe, as well as with every other person who has ever lived, looked at the sky and used it to navigate, keep time or have fun around the campfire.
I have been on a journey exploring various connections in my life and in the world, and both of these areas have played an important role in this journey. I needed both folklore and astronomy to see how everything is connected to each other, no matter how trite it may sound.
You can buy “Milky Way” on Amazon. (will open in a new tab) Golden Bookstore.org (will open in a new tab).
Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.