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Accessory to War

Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang
Norton
2018
590 pp
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In Accessory to War, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Avis Lang give a sweeping panoramic overview of the enduring alliance between astrophysics and the military—from the Greeks to Galileo to GPS. The book’s key contribution is in documenting the various ways science has aided military endeavors over the millennia and making the sometimes-arcane source material accessible.

As the authors make clear, this isn’t a one-way street, with science simply enabling greater military prowess or lethality. The military “Vela” satellites of the 1960s and 1970s, for example, were looking for gamma-ray signatures from nuclear explosions on the ground during the Cold War. Instead they serendipitously found celestial gamma-ray bursts coming from the other direction, ushering in gamma-ray astrophysics.

And although space weapons may seem like a science fiction threat, they aren’t; China, Russia, and the United States are all investing in space weaponization capabilities right now. DeGrasse Tyson and Lang do a good job of summarizing the state of play regarding the prospect of weapons in space, describing, for example, how the major powers point fingers at each other to justify acquiring ever greater capabilities. The authors outline the various diplomatic initiatives—draft treaties and codes of conduct—that have been put forth to keep space peaceful and why these efforts haven’t met with much success so far.

In national security lingo, space is now cast as “congested, contested, and competitive,” necessitating weapons to guarantee freedom of passage. But ever advancing science and technology create their own military imperatives in space. This echoes the assessment of Herb York, a prominent Cold War nuclear physicist and first chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), who, speaking about the arms race, memorably stated that, “the root of the problem has not been maliciousness, but rather a sort of technological exuberance that has overwhelmed the other factors that go into the making of overall national policy.”

SANDIA LABS/FLICKR/CC BY-NC-ND

Vela satellites, designed to detect nuclear explosions, serendipitously ushered in gamma-ray astrophysics.

There’s no question that national security imperatives have subsidized science, but they have also helped mold academic research. “Given the Cold War underpinnings of NASA’s very existence, no astrophysicist should see NASA as our personal science-funding agency,” we’re told. “We are the wagging tail on a large geostrategic dog.” Tyson and Lang sum it up succinctly: “Space exploration may pull in the talent, but war pays the bills.”

The Cold War architecture seems to be functioning well enough, but what do the authors envision going forward? This is one of many topics discussed for which more critical analysis and the authors’ personal views could have been enlightening. For those interested in a more analytic take on the interplay between science and the military, Daniel Sarewitz’s “Saving science” is a good starting point.

About the author

The reviewer was at the Space and Advanced Technology Office, U.S. Department of State, Washington, DC 20520, USA.