A new book lets the Milky Way speak for itself — and it’s kind of a jerk

Astronomers have dedicated whole careers trying to understand our Milky Way galaxy — like how does it all work? How did it form 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 was a sentient, 13-billion-year-old entity that had 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 is part of her conversation with Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

Let’s talk about the unique feature of your book. Why did you write it as an autobiography in the voice of the Milky Way Galaxy itself?

Really, it boils down to the fact that I know there are people out there who have already written about the Milky Way. There are so many people who have thrown their hat in this ring, and I didn’t want to just throw mine on top of theirs. I wanted a new experience for readers, and who has read something from the perspective of the Milky Way before? So I wanted to bring in that element.

You gave the Milky Way itself quite a sassy personality. Why did you go in that direction?

I was letting myself be inspired by the science. The Milky Way is more than 13 billion years old, and much of that time has been spent alone. Early on in the universe, the galaxies were clustered much closer together, and then, as the universe expanded, the Milky Way’s friends were pulled away from it. And now it spends all of its lonesome time creating stars, falling in love with them, and then watching them die so that their guts can be used in the next generation of stars.

Moiya McTier is an astrophysicist, folklorist, and science communicator based in New York City. (Mindy Tucker)

And to me, that did seem like it would lead to a creature, a sentient being with a chip on its shoulder and with with a lot of sass. And honestly, why would the Milky Way be nice to us? It doesn’t owe us anything, and it’s so much bigger than anything we could ever hope to be. That type of ‘you’re so small, why should I care about you?’ voice made a lot of sense.

If you ended up writing an autobiography of a different Galaxy, like Andromeda our big neighbor, do you think it would have the same voice?

No, I don’t think it would. I think the Andromeda Galaxy would not be as superior in its tone as the Milky Way is. I think that it would maybe have aa softer, more understanding voice.

The Milky Way is more than 13 billion years old, and is the biggest, strongest, most gravitationally attractive Galaxy in our local group, which led the author to imagine that it would be kind of arrogant in nature. (NASA)

Why is that? Is the Milky Way just arrogant by nature or is there something about it?

I think that the Milky Way is kind of arrogant. It has reason to be so. It’s the biggest, strongest, most gravitationally attractive Galaxy in our local group. So, it’s used to being very dominant and literally throwing its weight around to get what it wants out of the world. Andromeda being the other biggest Galaxy in the local group, but not the biggest, I think wouldn’t have that same personality.

You studied exoplanets while doing your PhD, planets going around other stars. What can they teach us about the Milky Way?

So much. When we are studying other planets, we are in a way actually studying our own planet and our own solar system because we have a snapshot in time of what the Earth looks like. It’s really hard for us to know for sure what it’s going to look like in the future and what it did look like in the past.

The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy by Moiya McTier. (Hachette Book Group)

So, we can study other planets that are similar to Earth at different stages in their evolution. We can also study planets that are not like Earth at all, and that helps us understand more about our own solar system and how the other planets in our solar system formed.

And I guess the new James Webb Space Telescope is going to be providing us a lot more information about exoplanets in the future.

Oh, it already is. I remember giving talks when I was in grad school. One of my research projects was looking for mountains on exoplanets, coming up with a way to determine the geological features on a planet outside of our solar system. And at the end of all of those talks, I would say even if we can get a sense for the surface features of these planets, if we don’t know anything about their atmospheres, we really can’t say whether or not they’ re-habitable.

The JWST has been capturing images of distant parts of the Milky Way, like the Carina Nebula. (NASA, European Space Agency, Canadian Space Agency, Space Telescope Science Institute)

And at the end of every one of those talks, I called out JWST, and I was like, when this telescope launches, we will finally be able to say for sure whether or not some planets are habitable according to our criteria. And now we are seeing that we’ve already seen some beautiful spectra coming out of JWST showing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet, showing us water vapor in the atmosphere of a planet. So yeah, it’s a really exciting time.

Your book goes beyond astrophysics, and you look at issues where science and society interact. Why was that important in a book written by a Galaxy that thinks humans and our problems are insignificant?

Exactly, because it thinks our problems are insignificant, and it thinks we’re kind of silly for continuing to breed these problems amongst ourselves. You did mention the JWST telescope, or the Just Wonderful Space Telescope, as some in the astronomy community are calling it. The namesake for that telescope has kind of a sordid history in NASA, persecuting queer and LGBTQ people in NASA in the 50s and 60s. And so the Milky Way does point at that saying, ‘Why are you valorizing this person who was prejudiced against other humans, for something as silly as the shape of their fleshy bits.’ It also thinks that we’re pretty silly for not recognizing 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 am a modern human with thoughts on these social events and activities. So I wanted to include them.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.

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