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Astronomers have written the Milky Way’s story many times over; scientists have traced violent collisions in its past and future and peered into the supermassive black hole lurking at its heart.
But astrophysicist Moiya McTier tells the story of our galaxy in a whole 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 is also a folklorist, and it shows throughout the book, which zips through everything from the formation of the universe through the ways scientists think it might come to an end.
Space.com sat down with McTier to discuss her new book and the role of the Milky Way in human history and lives. 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?
Moiya McTier: It kind of all just fell into place at the right moment. I was not trying to write a book, although I was always interested in writing something, though I think I thought I would write a fantasy book before I ever wrote a popular science book.
The idea to write it from the Milky Way’s perspective came from a few different places. One, I had just finished reading Anne Leckie’s “The Raven Tower,” which is told from the perspective of a rock, a sentient rock that is a god. And so I was in the mindset of different perspectives. And I also thought the Milky Way would be a more approachable and in some ways less intimidating narrator than someone like Stefon Alexander or Brian Greene, people who write books about the universe. They’re kind of intimidating, and the Milky Way doesn’t have to be. So I wanted to write it from a different voice than has been heard before.
Space.com: How did you settle on the “voice” for the galaxy?
McTier: The supreme sass? Yeah. There were some ideas floated around, maybe a personality of, like, a jock, or maybe an aristocrat. Basically, all of our ideas were someone who thinks they’re better than you. In my mind, of course, the Milky Way thinks it’s better than us. It is. It’s bigger, it’s stronger, it’s more important. It’s better than us.
So after a few attempts of early chapters with different voices, my editor and I landed on this one that is, like, if a cat was a galaxy, you know. Very sassy, very “I know you need me more than I need you.” (Even though for cats that’s totally wrong.) But that was the voice that I was trying to channel.
Space.com: Can you tell me about the illustrations?
McTier: First of all, the artist Annamarie Salai, very talented, and I am a little biased because she’s also my oldest friend. We have been best friends since third grade. And she went to school for graphic design, recently opened her own graphic design company 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 I was very helpful, because the only guidance I could really give her was, “Alright, so I want it to look like a galaxy, but also alive, but also like a fun cartoon. Can you do that?” I remember, I sent her a few inspiration images and one of them was the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I think you might see that in some of the illustrations with the spiral arms that look like noodly appendages. And then we worked together on each illustration and she was very patient with me, which I appreciated. I wanted the illustrations to try and give people something to picture because the voice I think is so strong that it helps to have something to picture in your mind.
Space.com: Why do you think it’s important for non-scientists to know how the universe works?
McTier: We’re part of the galaxy, we are a part of it. Understanding it helps us understand where we come from. But even more than the scientific, or the folklore tidbits that you find in this book, I want people to walk away with — if they have to choose between remembering a few facts, and this other thing, I would want them to choose a shift in perspective.
This is, in part, written from the Milky Way’s perspective because putting yourself in the shoes of something much bigger and longer lasting than you are helps you see how you fit into the grand scheme of things. And I think that’s not something we’re very good at as humans, because our perspectives are so limited. So what I really hope people get from this is something similar to the overview effect that astronauts feel when they can see all of Earth at the same time. I would love it if people like, while they’re reading this book, if they close their eyes and started picturing Earth from that zoomed out perspective, I think it would just help us be nicer to each other.
Space.com: That seems a little ironic given the Milky Way’s voice!
McTier: It’s tough love, that’s what the galaxy is giving us.
Space.com: Can you talk about your work uniting astronomy and folklore?
McTier: Outside of the book, most of the time when I am combining astronomy and folklore, it’s through the vehicle of fictional world building. I teach classes and workshops and host a podcast that is all about using facts and science to inspire a fictional world. Whether you want to write a story in it, or set a game in it, or just live in it yourself, because our real world is kind of trash right now.
That’s usually how I combine the two. But for this project, I wanted to make sure I included folklore because that is an important step in the evolution of our understanding of space. Thousands of years ago, before we had telescopes, before we had accumulated all of this observed knowledge, we explained the universe with mythology and with legends and folklore. And just because it is wonky compared to the science language that we have now doesn’t make it any less legitimate. It was still useful information that helped people live their lives and that helped them remember astronomical patterns. But it was just packaged in a more fun and memorable story. So I wanted to make sure to include that because if you want to understand how humans have come to learn about space, you have to start with folklore or else you’re missing something.
Space.com: Were there any parts of the book that were particularly challenging to write or to keep the voice going?
McTier: Yeah. I have never taken a quantum mechanics class, I’ve never done much with quantum anything. But there was a chapter where I had to explain the ultimate fate of the universe, and that means I had to give at least a basic introduction to quantum field theory and how you can think of particles as spikes of energy in one of these quantum fields.
I had to explain what quantum fields were, which means I had to learn what they were and then find a way to explain them to someone who is not a physicist, who is not devoting their life to understanding science. That was pretty difficult, but it was also one of the parts of the book that I was most proud of after I was done, because I had not heard someone use the analogy that I came up with, and it just feels good to come up with something that I think is original. And hopefully it also helps people understand it. 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 making the computer run.
Space.com: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
McTier: Well, hopefully, maybe some abs because they were laughing so much. I want people to have a good time with this book and if they learn about space, fantastic. If they get that shift in perspective, awesome. If they just have a few conversation pieces that they can bring up at a dinner party, that’s great, too.
I tried to put something in this book for anyone, for everyone. So I just hope that people get something out of it, that they find something.
There was also a big chunk of this book that helped me work through my mental health struggles over the past couple of years. There is another galaxy that the Milky Way mentions that is actively fighting against its central black hole that is interrupting its star formation process and essentially killing this galaxy. And the Milky Way at one point contemplates what that would be like, in a way that I have contemplated what that would be like, to die and not have to deal with the difficulties of life. But ultimately, the Milky Way overcomes that and it faces its trouble and it reckons with it and it comes out the other side. So I really hope that some people are helped by that aspect of this book.
Space.com: How did that piece of the book come about? It’s not what someone might expect picking up a book about our galaxy.
McTier: I felt kind of bad when I was sending it to the black hole researchers I know to test read. I was like, “I don’t hate black holes, I’m sorry, I just needed this metaphor to work for the book!”
Space.com: Does combining astronomy, fantasy and folklore change the way you see the science?
McTier: I see myth as like our first attempt at science. I like to say that the way we understand the world around us, it started with mythology, it shifted to philosophy, and now we do it with science, with telescopes and beakers and laboratories.
I think one kind of tenuous connection that I see because I studied both astronomy and folklore is that both of these fields give us a way to feel connected to each other. Folklore is the collection of stories that people tell within a culture, but it can cross cultural barriers, and it’s what we use to feel kinship, really. And astronomy is a way that we can connect to the rest of the universe but also to 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 been on a journey of exploring different connections in my life and in the world, and both of these fields were instrumental in that journey. I needed both the folklore and the astronomy to see how everything is connected to each other, as cheesy as that sounds.
You can buy “The Milky Way” on Amazon (opens in new tab) or Bookshop.org (opens in new tab).
Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.