08/12/2022

Frenemies, Lovers, And The Fate Of The Cosmos: Our Galaxy Tells All

16:22 minutes

A woman with glasses looks into the camera with a thoughtful, gentle smile. A tattoo of a constellation peeks out from the right side of her shirt, by her collarbone.
Author Moiya McTier. Credit: Mindy Tucker

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is 13.6 billion years old, all-knowing, and a little sassy. It has a rich social life of friends, frenemies, and even love interests—all other galaxies in the local group, including the stunning Andromeda. And the Milky Way is a little disappointed that we’ve stopped telling as many stories about it. 

Or at least, that’s how folklorist and astronomer Dr. Moiya McTier imagines the galaxy’s personality when writing her new book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy. The book stretches from the beginning of the universe to the birth of our planet, and then on to the eventual theoretical end of the cosmos. Along the way, we learn both the science of how stars form and galaxies collide, and the many stories and myths humans have told about these bodies throughout our relatively brief lives.

McTier joins Ira to tell all (on behalf of the Milky Way), and explain the importance of story in scientific knowledge and discovery.

Read an excerpt of The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy here.


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Segment Guests

Moiya McTier

Moiya McTier is an astronomer, folklorist and author of “The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy,” based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Picture this. You are a galaxy, a vast collection of stars, planets, dust, and hot gas. You’re 13.6 billion years old. You know pretty much everything, and you’ve decided to tell all. That’s the premise of astronomer and folklorist Moiya McTier’s new book, The Milky Way, An Autobiography of our Galaxy.

She tells the story of our galaxy and the universe from the voice of a sassy, sometimes depressed Milky Way. And along the way, we meet our galaxy’s love interests and frenemies. We spend time with the bullying black hole at its center, and we meditate on the eventual death of stars.

Yes, even our star. But why does our galaxy need to tell us all of this? And what can we earthlings take away for our more mundane planetary life? Dr. McTier joins me now to explain. Welcome back to the show.

MOIYA MCTIER: Thanks so much, Ira. It’s really good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, you’re welcome. You’ve written this book as if our galaxy were, well, shall I say a celebrity, right? A character in a tabloid gossip. Your galaxy has a real attitude.

MOIYA MCTIER: Sure does.

IRA FLATOW: So if this is a person, if it’s a person, who is the Milky Way?

MOIYA MCTIER: Ooh, I think that the Milky Way is your sassiest friend who might be a little reluctant to join all of the friend group activities. Not a Beyoncé, not a Lady Gaga, but someone with that definite queen energy.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, I like that. I like that. And you use this personality as a way to tell the story of the universe from the beginning to the end, really– telling it really, really well.

MOIYA MCTIER: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Tell me, after all these people, all these other people have told stories about the universe and have written about them, why does your story still need telling?

MOIYA MCTIER: It’s not my story, Ira. It’s the Milky Way’s. When I was proposing this book and trying to figure out how I wanted to write a book about the Milky Way, I was thinking about this very question– who am I, Moiya McTier, to add my voice to people like Brian Keating or Michio Kaku, these people who have been talking about the universe already? And I realized, I don’t have that much to add. But the Milky Way sure does. So I wanted to use the science to craft a voice and personality for the galaxy.

IRA FLATOW: You go through the different names that the Milky Way had over the eons. How did it stick, the word Milky Way? How did that get to be its name?

MOIYA MCTIER: According to the International Astronomical Union, which is in charge of the official names for all astronomy objects, the Milky Way doesn’t have an official name. It’s just called the galaxy.

But in the West, we tend to draw a lot of our astronomy names from classic mythology, Greek and Roman mythology, which themselves are inspired a lot by Egyptian and Babylonian myths. So the name Milky Way probably comes to us from Greek mythology, and it has to do with this story where Hera, the Goddess of Marriage and the Hearth, she was, unbeknownst to her, forced to nurse baby Hercules.

And when she looked down and realized that this was not her baby that she was breastfeeding, she pushed Hercules away, and that spurt of breast milk that came out of Hercules’ mouth was the Milky Way. And that’s where we get the word Milky Way from. And even the word galaxy comes from old Greek for milk, [GREEK].

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is a great story. What were some of the other names it had from other cultures?

MOIYA MCTIER: There are so many. I think in the book, I talk about an old Finnish myth, where the Milky Way is called the Straw Thief’s Way. There are people who called the Milky Way the Way of the Birds because it looked like birds were following the path of the Milky Way as they made their annual migrations.

I think that if you look at myths about the Milky Way from around the world, you can see that people had very similar thoughts on it. A lot of it was this drawn-out path, this diffuse milky looking path. But there are also fun differences that different cultures put in their myths.

IRA FLATOW: And you should know because you’re the only person who ever graduated from Harvard majoring in both folklore and astrophysics.

[MOIRA CHUCKLES]

Uh, little opposite ends of the spectrum.

MOIYA MCTIER: Just a bit. At least that’s what most people think when they hear it. But the more you start thinking about that connection, the more overlap you see between them. Initially, it’s oh, you’re going to talk about constellations or astrology, but then when you think about it more it’s, well, maybe you can start comparing creation myths from different cultures around the world and see how they compare to our Big Bang, like, scientific understanding of cosmology.

And then, the direction I took it was just fictional world-building and seeing how space has influenced our culture and our folklore here on Earth because it really has. There’s a lot of influence there.

IRA FLATOW: For example. Give me one of the greatest influences.

MOIYA MCTIER: Mmm, I mean, we have used the Milky Way to navigate, to keep time. So there are a lot of practical influences. But even today, with modern astrology, which has roots in very practical useful things, I think it’s something like 70 million Americans read their horoscopes every day. So that is absolutely a connection we have.

IRA FLATOW: And yeah, we still name satellites and space missions and all kinds of objects we send into space after folklore.

MOIYA MCTIER: We sure do. Yeah. Usually there are competitions. The IAU will often– or NASA will often ask the public what they think something should be named, with a few options. And often, those options are based on mythology because now there’s kind of a naming trend in place, where we want to keep with that same pattern of having constellations and comets and moons that we find in the solar system named after creatures and figures from folklore.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Let’s talk about the Milky Way social life. The Milky Way has friends and, yes, romantic relationships with other galaxies in its neighborhood that we call the local group, which is kind of true in real life. What’s going on there?

MOIYA MCTIER: The Milky Way is just one of about 50 or so galaxies in this little neighborhood that, you’re right, we call the local group, and most of those are tiny dwarf satellite galaxies that orbit around the Milky Way or Andromeda, which is the other really big galaxy in our neighborhood.

When I was trying to think of the Milky Way as a person, it made sense that some of its neighboring galaxies would be really annoying to the Milky Way, and some of them would be more endearing. And so the large and small Magellanic clouds, or Larry and Sammy as they’re called in the books, they make a lot of appearances.

Larry is boring and gets on the Milky Way’s nerves, but Sammy the small Magellanic cloud is more of what the galaxy would consider a friend. And then, Andromeda is this long-term, epic, long-distance romantic partner that the Milky Way has been courting for billions of years.

IRA FLATOW: You call it an absolute smoke show, I believe it says at one point.

[MOIYA LAUGHS]

Right?

MOIYA MCTIER: Yeah. Andromeda’s hot.

IRA FLATOW: And the language you use, you said it was sassy. It certainly is. Do you as a communicator find that that language is appealing to a certain demographic you want to reach– I’m thinking about younger people– than normal astronomy or astrophysics books?

MOIYA MCTIER: No, not really. I don’t think that there was much strategy in coming up with the voice of the Milky Way because I have received some feedback that it’s a little too sassy for some people.

But that’s just what made sense for me at the time. If you have this being that has been alone for billions of years, and much of its time is spent creating stars that it knows are going to die eventually, that it would be sassy. And it would have kind of a chip on its shoulder. So I wanted to stay true to the science in that way.

IRA FLATOW: And the Milky Way is a three-dimensional galaxy, emotionally I mean. It’s depressed, right, as it reveals.

MOIYA MCTIER: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: When discussing the emotional turmoil, that its famous black hole sad J star creates for it, right? What do you have against black holes?

MOIYA MCTIER: Oh, I was worried I would get this question. I, Moiya McTier, have nothing against black holes. But I was writing this book during the pandemic. I got the deal to write it just a week before lockdown happened in New York.

And I myself was going through a lot of mental health struggles over the past two years. So of course, that was reflected in the book that I wrote. And I thought that maybe it could help other people.

Throughout the book, the Milky Way learns to give its inner turmoil a name. It calls the black hole at the center of our galaxy Sarge. And once it gives it a name, the Milky Way can control more of what it does around the black hole. So it learns how to not let all of this anxiety and depression get to it, in a way that I have had to learn how to do that over the last couple of years.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. That’s really interesting. And you do describe the physics of a black hole in terms that general folks like me can understand. And you do it very well, and I thank you for that.

MOIYA MCTIER: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: The Milky Way also thinks that it is the be all of all galaxies. You know, is there really such a special galaxy in the context of all the gazillions of them in our universe?

MOIYA MCTIER: No, not really. But have you ever been a big fish in a small pond? It’s really easy to feel like you are the biggest, baddest thing out there. And in terms of the local group in this neighborhood that the Milky Way spends all of its time interacting with, yeah, it is the biggest and baddest. So that’s what informs its personality. But if it went to a nearby galaxy cluster, like the Virgo cluster, for example, it would not be that big of a deal.

IRA FLATOW: Right. Right. And the Milky Way takes credit for making scientists, I mean, astronomers better at what they do by developing new tools and techniques to study it.

MOIYA MCTIER: Of course. We wouldn’t have this technology if the Milky Way weren’t so interesting that we had to study it. Some people call astronomy the oldest science, and the Milky Way is very proud that it was able to inspire that type of creativity and curiosity in humankind.

IRA FLATOW: And in that science, I find that you make a really interesting observation about how science, by definition, is usually conducted by experimentation but not astronomy, as you say, quote, “some science is observational in nature but not experimental.” Right?

MOIYA MCTIER: Absolutely. I have never touched a star. I have never touched a planet that wasn’t Earth. And yet, I got my PhD studying stars and planets and how they move around the galaxy. So it really is observational. We can’t create control groups out of stuff that we make.

Instead, we have to look out at all of the examples the universe has given us. Say we’re studying stellar evolution, how stars change over time, we have to find stars at different stages of their evolution to study. We can’t just look at one star and trace it over its entire life because they live a lot longer than humans do.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s pretty hard to make one in our laboratory also.

MOIYA MCTIER: Yeah. Exactly. Hard and might be pretty dangerous.

IRA FLATOW: And also, the Milky Way wants to tell us about the end, I mean, the end of the universe, the death of stars, the death of everything. And from our own myths about the end of the world, we have all different kinds of myths about the apocalypse, right? How does the science of cosmological collapse relate to our own stories of creation and destruction and all these myths?

MOIYA MCTIER: Oh, I love that question. I think it’s really interesting that we only kind of recently, in this grand scale of humanity, started thinking about the ultimate end of the universe because we only recently had the technology to know what the universe was and how it could end. But even though that’s a recent thing, humankind has thought about the end of the world for as long as we have thought about the beginning of the world.

I love that we assumed that things would end because that kind of makes the time we have precious. I love the way that you can project our human lifespan, and the fact that we will die, onto the biggest things that we could possibly comprehend, like the universe, which will also die. So in a way, that makes it just like us but a lot bigger.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It gives us a sense of our own mortality.

MOIYA MCTIER: Yeah. And that’s really important for us to have.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. And the Milky Way is also sad about us because we’re not telling stories about it like we used to. And you leave us with the directive to start telling new stories.

MOIYA MCTIER: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Where exactly will these new myths come from?

MOIYA MCTIER: We are creating new myths all the time. There’s a chapter in the book called Modern Myths, and I poke a lot of fun at science fiction, especially Star Trek. In an earlier version of the book, there were a lot more digs at Star Trek than you see in this final copy.

IRA FLATOW: And well, I’m glad you brought that up because one of the digs about Star Trek and other creatures that we make up is a worry that humanoid-looking aliens on rocky planets with breathable atmospheres are going to give us the wrong idea about what lies outside of our own solar system.

MOIYA MCTIER: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Right? And what to look for.

MOIYA MCTIER: Absolutely. Why should anything else in the universe look like us when there is an amazing diversity of planets out there that vary in size, the type of star they orbit. I think it’s a lot more interesting to think about aliens that would evolve and adapt to the environments that they’re in. And there are just so many fun environments out there. Why limit our imagination to stuff that looks like us?

IRA FLATOW: Finally, one last question about the Webb Telescope. I’m sure you’ve seen these wonderful images. What do you think was so special about the JWST images that you saw?

MOIYA MCTIER: I was blown away by how far we could see with JWST for the first time. We were looking at galaxies, some of the first galaxies to ever form in the universe. And that gives us a better understanding of where we came from and where we might go eventually. But I think it also gives us a better sense of the scale of time in our universe.

One thing that I really wanted to do in this book was get people to shift their perspectives and zoom out from their tiny scale, both in time and space. And the more we can learn about the vast expanse of the universe, the easier that will be for us.

IRA FLATOW: And as an aside, the Milky Way says that we need to rename the telescope.

MOIYA MCTIER: Mmm.

IRA FLATOW: And who are we to argue with our own galaxy, right?

MOIYA MCTIER: Yes. There has absolutely been a push in the astronomy community to rename JWST. The Milky Way is all for that because, even though it’s this big thing that doesn’t really care about us, it also thinks we’re pretty silly for judging people based on who they love or what they look like. So the Milky Way is all for changing the name of JWST.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s a good place to stop. I want to thank you for this book. It’s a great book. Thank you very much for writing the book and for taking time to be with us today.

MOIYA MCTIER: Oh, thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it. And it has been a blast talking to you about it.

IRA FLATOW: Dr. Moiya McTier, astronomer, folklorist, and author of the book The Milky Way an Autobiography of our Galaxy that’s coming out next week. But you can get a sneak peek on our website. Read all about it at sciencefriday.com/milkyway.

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