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The Milky Way
An Autobiography of Our Galaxy
By Moiya McTier
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After a few billion years of bearing witness to life on Earth, of watching one hundred billion humans go about their day-to-day lives, of feeling unbelievably lonely, and of hearing its own story told by others, The Milky Way would like a chance to speak for itself. All one hundred billion stars and fifty undecillion tons of gas of it.
It all began some thirteen billion years ago, when clouds of gas scattered through the universe's primordial plasma just could not keep their metaphorical hands off each other. They succumbed to their gravitational attraction, and the galaxy we know as the Milky Way was born. Since then, the galaxy has watched as dark energy pushed away its first friends, as humans mythologized its name and purpose, and as galactic archaeologists have worked to determine its true age (rude). The Milky Way has absorbed supermassive (an actual technical term) black holes, made enemies of a few galactic neighbors, and mourned the deaths of countless stars. Our home galaxy has even fallen in love.
After all this time, the Milky Way finally feels that it's amassed enough experience for the juicy tell-all we've all been waiting for. Its fascinating autobiography recounts the history and future of the universe in accessible but scientific detail, presenting a summary of human astronomical knowledge thus far that is unquestionably out of this world.
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Foreword from Moiya
I HAVE LOVED THE STARS too fondly to be fearful of the night."
This last line from Sarah Williams's poem "The Old Astronomer to His Pupil" has often been a sort of mantra for me. And not just because it makes me sound like a spooky Victorian recluse.
I don't remember how, but as a young kid, I got it into my head that the sun and moon were my celestial parents. I imagined that they watched over me, and I actually talked to them, told them about what I was learning in school and what my friends were like (because, as I was surprised to learn, those friends didn't talk to the moon and sun, so someone had to tell our celestial mom and dad what was up). When my earth parents started having arguments at night, I cried to my celestial mom. And when my birth dad stopped showing up for scheduled home exchanges,i my little kid mind decided to blame the sun, too. To this day, I don't like LA because it's too sunny.
My earth mom fell in love again and we moved from our small Pittsburgh apartment to the strangest place I could imagine: a log cabin in the middle of the woods without running water, so close to the West Virginia border that I had to cross state lines to reach the nearest bookstore. The forest was the best playground an only childii could ask for, a space to invent epic quests, hunt for faerie rings, or find the perfect branch to use as a fighting staff in mock battles with my new earth dad. But the community surrounding that forest, full of people who had only ever seen a Black person on TV, probably wasn't the hometown I would have picked for myself if my mom had asked.
For that reason and so many more (you try getting your period at ten years old when you don't have a working shower in your home), I sought comfort from the moon well into my adolescence. I developed a great love for the nighttime, the time of quiet, secrets, and peace. Declaring myself a creature of the night helped cement my desired place as the Weird Kid, as if being the smartest and also the blackest person at my small, rural school didn't already make me stand out enough. That's not an empty flex; I was voted most unique and was easily the valedictorian of my class after skipping sophomore year. People still said I only got into college because of affirmative action.
Don't get me wrong, most people I interacted with were very kind, and I'm grateful for the experiences had and connections made that let me empathize with a part of the country that rightfully feels ignored by the very class of intellectual elites I worked my ass off to break into. I learned valuable lessons in coal country, like how to chop firewood, do a deep-conditioning treatment with nothing but a bucket of water and a cup, and look past obvious differences to find common ground. But I also learned early on that my life would be better if I got myself out of there ASAP. Lucky for me, Harvard admissions officers are much fonder of bizarre, brilliant, Black girls than a lot of miners' sons were.
Even though I always felt most comfortable at night and lived in a place with a beautiful view of the stars, I was never interested in the academic study of space before college. I merely loved the celestial aesthetic. But it didn't take me long to fall in love with the logical, data-driven nature of astronomy. The summer after sophomore year, I did a research internship where I spent hours analyzing five-dimensional data cubes to measure properties of a distant star-forming galaxy that I nicknamed Rosie. Falling deeper into astrophysics felt like learning how to talk to space in a whole new way, one that let me listen a little bit more to what the universe was saying instead of making up responses in my head. I was learning the language of gravity, cosmic rays, and nuclear fusion. With my new dictionary in hand, I set out to research as many different aspects of space as possible: star formation, the cosmic microwave background, X-rays from distant quasars, exoplanet characterization, stellar dynamics, and the chemical evolution of galaxies.
At the same time, following my love of mythology, I was learning about the stories that cultures used as devices to entertain, educate, and explain. Fairy tales to pass a night by the fire, fables to share a community's values with the next generation, and myths to make sense of the world around them. I realized that, like my unusual mix of backgrounds, science and myth weren't as contradictory as they seemed on the surface. Both are tools that we humans use to understand how we fit in with the rest of the universe. And after spending almost ten years studying the physics of space, five of them in a PhD program that inspired three stress tattoos and multiple rounds of therapy, my perspective on everything has widened in the most illuminating way. I feel more connected to people and nature, and more comfortable with my place among all of it.
Astronauts feel this same shift in perspective when they view Earth from orbit, because when you're in space, you can't see the imaginary borders that divide us. You see how fragile the complex, interconnected ecosystem we call home really is, and our petty human squabbles seem small and unnecessary. Philosopher Frank White called this life-changing cognitive shift the overview effect, and I've always thought Earth would be a much nicer place for all of us to live if we each got to experience just a little bit of it.
Realistically, we won't all get there by visiting space. Some people get to this same point through faith or meditation or drugs. I got there through science, by spending an inordinate amount of time picturing Earth, our solar system, and the Milky Way as their own small parts of the grander whole. Okay, maybe there were some drugs, too, but it was mostly the way the science mixed with my gentle artist's soul.
Now that I know how to speak its language, I'm more enamored of nighttime than ever. That's why I was honored when the Milky Way itself picked me to relay its story. I hope that by the end, you've grown so fond of the stars and the galaxy that made them that you, too, start to hear what the night has to say.
i Don't worry, we've worked it out since.
ii I do have some half brothers on my birth dad's side, but obviously I didn't grow up with them because, well, see previous note.
I Am the Milky Way
TAKE A LOOK AROUND YOU, human. What do you see?
Actually, don't answer that. Why would I bother listening to you when I know you'll get it wrong? You'll start naming objects and places, but that chair you're sitting in isn't just a chair. That book you're holding isn't just a book. Even the planet your kind is on the brink of ruining isn't just a planet. They're all me.
Everything you've ever seen or touched is a part of me. Yes, even you, you vain, filthy animal.
I made it all. Not intentionally, of course. I have no need for chairs, and I really couldn't have cared less about whether or not one of my worlds produced life, especially in a form that was so picky about where it sat. You humans just appeared one millennium, and then it took another several thousand years for me to actually notice you. I guess, in some ways, I'm glad that I did. (But if anyone else ever asks me, I will absolutely deny feeling any sort of affection for your fleshy species.)
Before we get too far along, allow me to introduce myself. I am the Milky Way, home to more than one hundred billion stars (and yet you still think yours is special enough to have its own name) and the fifty undecillion1 (that's five followed by thirty-seven zeros) tons of gas between them. I am space; I am made of space; and I am surrounded by space. I am the greatest galaxy who has ever lived.
If you have even a portion of the requisite curiosity needed to engage with this volume, you might be thinking to yourself, "How can the Milky Way talk?" Well, with your short lives, you certainly don't have enough time for me to teach you everything there is to know about theoretical physics and schools of consciousness, but I can tell you a theory or two that might answer your question.
Some of your human physicists predicted what they considered to be an absurd consequence of your second law of thermodynamics, which says that the entropy of a closed system always increases. In other words, the universe as a whole should always be trending towards chaos. But how can that be true if our universe appears to be so organized? One possible explanation, which your physicists have since learned is wrong (this will become a trend), is that our universe as we see it is simply a very fortunate but extremely random distribution of matter. The extreme consequence of that explanation was that as entropy increased and more random fluctuations appeared, some of that matter should take the form of human brains,2 or at least a similar network of thought cells. Your physicists thought the idea was ridiculous, but you'll soon see that there are plenty of seemingly random fluctuations in the universe. And if matter can combine to form brain-like systems on your little planet, why shouldn't it do the same everywhere else?
Separately, your philosophers have postulated that consciousness isn't a quality inherent to humans, or even living animals. According to them, consciousness, or sentience or awareness or whatever you want to call it, is the result of how a system functions, not a consequence of what it's made of. Some of your philosophers are even starting to believe that consciousness is an inherent quality of the universe, something that every amount of matter possesses in different quantities. In other words, I can think and communicate even though I don't have what you would consider a brain. So if you're imagining I'm anything like one of you, cease immediately! It's insulting, and that human-centric mindset will just make it harder for you to understand all that I am going to deign to teach you.
If your question was more like, "How can the Milky Way talk to me," well, it's not like human language is that hard to learn. You're such simple creatures.
Now that the obvious questions are out of the way, you're probably wondering why I—the greatest galaxy ever, who never even wanted humans to exist in the first place—have chosen to communicate with you.
Whether I like it or not, our lives are intertwined. My existence is, of course, much more important to you than yours is to me, but over time your kind has demonstrated that you aren't completely useless. (You'll have to forgive me if I don't always phrase things in the most pleasant way; the concept of niceties in the manner that you deploy them is fairly new to me. Also, you'll be dead soon, so why should I care if I hurt your precious feelings?)
You see, as far as I can tell, I'm more than thirteen billion of your Earth years old. The story of my glorious birth will come later, but all you need to know right now is that I'm nearly as old as time itself. To use a comparison your kind seems to be fond of—even though it's not even close to an adequate description of my age—I am literally older than dirt. I was alive when the individual atoms that make up your dirt were created billions of light-years away from where they are now. For most of that time, I've been so bored and—though it may not look like it to you—lonely.
If you've heard anything about me at all, you probably think that my life must be so glamorous and full of important, gratifying tasks. Creating all those stars, building all those planets, molding the very essence of the universe according to my will like clay…yeah, it was the ultimate thrill. For a few billion years.
There are only so many new perfect combinations of stars, planets, and moons that a galaxy can forge, so I started making imperfect ones. I experimented until I made something that was kind of a star and kind of a planet, but ultimately failed at being both.3 I flung black holes at each other until I became numb to the ripples they produced. I built planets on orbits that I knew would result in their either spiraling into their stars or getting flung out of their systems. Hot Jupiters4 that orbit mysteriously close to their stars? Yeah, that was just a casual experiment, and now they're everywhere. You're welcome, astronomers.
You likely can't relate, but even being the best at something gets old after a while. So, when the beautiful chaos I'd created stopped exciting me, I put it all on autopilot. That's why I became much less active nine billion years ago. Your astronomers have noticed that I slowed down my star production back then, but they all chalked it up to a decrease in available star-forming gas. They're technically not wrong, but did they ever think to ask me why I lost so much gas? How I was feeling at the time? No, none of you ever think to ask me anything anymore. That's the problem.
You might be wondering what I was doing in those nine billion years. Well, while what I do in my sleep is orders of magnitude more impressive than anything you could ever accomplish, I spent most of my time thinking. You know, reflecting on past deeds and reveling in my triumphs. I passed the occasional message back and forth with other galaxies in my neighborhood, mostly the dwarf satellites who hang around because they're just so attracted to me. Literally. It's a gravity thing. I've grown a bit fond of some of them.
That might not seem like much activity to fill nine billion years, but you must remember that our lives don't operate on the same timescales. I've already lived for more than ten billion years and I'll still be living at least a trillion years from now, long enough after your puny sun has self-destructed that an exact date is meaningless. It would be generous of me to compare your life span to a blink of my eye, except I don't actually have eyes. You can call someone on the other side of your world and talk to them immediately with the help of signals traveling at the speed of light. It takes me more than twenty-five thousand years to send a light message to my nearest neighbor. Taking a million years to think about that one time I said, "You too," when another galaxy told me to enjoy my supernova? That's nothing.
I'm getting carried away, which you'll realize happens often. My point is that I was steeping in my own thoughts for literal eons until you humans popped up about two hundred thousand years ago.
It was…astounding how much you didn't understand. And I wouldn't say you've come much closer to solving the deepest mysteries of the universe, but at least back then humans knew the most important thing: that I'm incredible.
Through your stories, you taught your children to look up at me when they lost their way. It took you ages to stop chasing all those four-legged creatures—some of you still do—but eventually you figured out that you could track my motion to determine the best time to plant your crops. And I saved thousands of lives once you learned you could use me to predict oncoming disasters. That wasn't just your ancestors attempting a kind of magic; it was their knowing that my movement aligned with cyclical events in nature like regular floods5 or insect swarms, even if they did often end up explaining away such events with magic or religion.
Your stories made me feel loved and needed and, perhaps for the first time in my long existence, more helpful than I was ruinous. Every galaxy should feel so lucky as to know it has positively affected the universe. Well, for other galaxies, it's luck. For me, it's just raw beneficent talent.
It's not that I craved your attention or needed a group of people to worship the ground that I don't walk on. I wasn't just waiting for ten billion years for you to come around and stroke my ego. But once you did, it was comforting to know that I could help you along. So much of what I do is destroy.
Then, in what felt like no time at all, that feeling dissipated. It started in the 1300s when you made the first mechanical clocks, and it only became worse when you invented telescopes three hundred years later and finally saw me in more detail. Once you could keep your own time and realized I wasn't merely a celestial reflection of divine will, most of you assumed you didn't need me anymore. You stopped looking up, stopped telling my stories, stopped letting me guide you. At first, I thought it was just a phase, that you were lost and would come back to me when you were ready. I've gone through enough phases of my own to afford you a brief neglectful period. Patience, after all, is one of my best qualities.
Though, in the interest of transparency—I hear that's how one builds trust on Earth, no?—I did briefly, only for like fifty years or something, consider asking your sun to throw out a flare that would wipe out all of your electronics so you would depend on me again. But you know how kids are. Just because you create them doesn't mean they'll do whatever you ask. So I graciously abandoned my murderous plan.
Then I remembered—because wisdom is another of my best qualities—that several hundred years is actually a long time for humans. Your silence wasn't just a brief distraction; entire generations had passed without bothering to think about me.
In some ways, I felt better realizing that it's not specifically your fault that your kind stopped caring about me. Your world is no longer set up to appreciate my splendor. It hasn't been since well before you were born. In the last one hundred years, your human cities have become blinding beacons of light that your distant ancestors never would have imagined. The electricity you all value so much has stolen something precious from nearly 80 percent of you: an unobstructed view of my gorgeous body.6 And that's just the light pollution. The tiny smog particles that you've been overproducing since you started your little industrialization project in the 1700s aren't merely damaging your lungs and trapping heat in your planet's atmosphere. More importantly, they're blocking my light from reaching Earth's surface. There are humans alive right now who have only ever seen a handful of my stars, which is a tragedy! And I am as much a victim in this as all of you for being rendered basically invisible.
If you're an astute reader—and your choice to read this book does imply some advanced cognitive ability—then you might be wondering why I'm not satisfied by simply aiding astronomers in their research. The sad fact is that there are only about ten thousand human astronomers total, out of nearly eight billion humans. They do excellent work—honestly, it's amazing what they've been able to learn without leaving your tiny little rock—but the typical astronomy paper gets read by at most twenty other people. And those people already know most of what's in the paper anyway, so helping astronomers does little for your planet's ignorant masses.
Also, it's more entertaining to watch your astronomers struggle through the learning. When they become extra frustrated, many of them start chewing frantically on their nails, and it's just too darling to forgo by giving them the answers.
I realized that either I could remain bitter and sullen about the fact that most humans have forgotten about me, or I could do something to change it. And although I don't actually have an ass that I could get up off, to employ one of your crass expressions, I chose the latter.
The issue is that too many of you don't know enough about me to understand how I can assist you. You literally live in me, but most of you don't even know what I look like, let alone what I'm made of or how I move. And it's probably asking too much to expect that you would learn those things on your own. It's definitely asking too much of your astronomers to expect that they could effectively teach their fellow humans what they've learned. So, alas, the responsibility falls to me. Lucky for you, I'm willing and more than able to do you this service.
So here I am, introducing myself to you officially for the first time. I am the Milky Way, the galaxy whom you probably enjoyed staring at when you were young—the human children, at least, have retained enough of a sense of wonder to let me into their lives—but promptly forgot about as soon as you hit puberty and decided you had more important things to do.
I've kept your kind safe and entertained for millennia, and I'll continue doing so by telling you my story. You have a word for when a person writes about their own life: autobiography. That's what this book is. I'll tell you how I was born and where I grew up. I'll talk about my deepest shame and how I instigated the greatest love story in the universe. I'll even reveal my feelings about my—and by extension your, if your kind survives that long—impending death. And if my story moves you to share it with your fellow humans and maybe make up some tales of your own, then I shall consider it a triumph.
Based on what I've seen, your world isn't likely to backslide into antiquity anytime soon. Light pollution won't go away completely, and your species' days of building stone henges to track time are over. I can't guide you in the same way that I did your ancestors, but allow me to explain how you, an average modern human, can benefit from both space research and personally knowing more about the galaxy you should call home.
Take for instance that piece of technology glued to all your hands. Even I can see how much you love your cell phones, and we've already covered that I don't technically have eyes. You use them to communicate with each other, keep track of your appointments, navigate your world, and take your—ugh—selfies. Honestly, you use them for a great deal of the same things your ancestors used to use me for. But you only have those phones because of me.
It's not just that the physical materials used to make your phone were created when my stars died. All of the atoms in the phone—and in you, for that matter—were made in me. That Sagan fellow was correct; you are all made of star stuff. But the technology your phones rely on also exists because of me. Or rather, because of your scientists' fascination with me.
Every time you use your phone to find the nearest coffee shop—seriously, what makes you so tired that you need that much coffee? I make at least five new stars and move ten billion miles every year, but you don't see me chugging caffeine every morning—you interact with satellites. Your phone receives radio waves (which you can't see because your eyes are so tragically small) from multiple satellites at once and uses the slight differences in the signals' arrival times to pinpoint your location.
Are you following, human?
It doesn't really matter. The important thing is that without satellites, you wouldn't be able to navigate your tiny rock. You also wouldn't have high-speed internet, long-distance calls, or—to get back to your oh-so-important coffee—the option to pay for your morning cappuccino with your credit card. And the only reason you have satellites in the first place is that human scientists wanted to study me.
After thousands of years of tracking my movement, your ancestors started to understand how motion, gravity, and light waves work. They used that knowledge to launch machines out of your atmosphere, and now you can call your international friend while simultaneously buying things online with money that you've never actually touched.
Beyond this recent global positioning technology, your broadening understanding of space has introduced other life-altering innovations like digital cameras, wireless internet, and noninvasive security checks like X-ray machines. Even the procedures your doctors use to sterilize hospital rooms so your delicate human bodies can stay free from contamination were originally developed to protect telescopes while they did the vital work of observing me.7
That's enough about you for now. It's time for more important things. It's time for you to learn something about me.
I INTRODUCED MYSELF AS THE Milky Way because that's what most of you call me now, but that's not how you've always referred to me, and to be clear, it's certainly not what I would have called myself.
- "Astrophysicist McTier delivers in her debut a delightful report on the Milky Way’s inner workings. . . McTier writes that her goal is to help people 'understand how ephemeral [our] existence is.' She succeeds smashingly. The result is truly stellar."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- "[C]reative, humorous and enormously entertaining. . . As with any translation from another tongue, readers may marvel at the role of the translator in creating a book that is both informative and truly inspirational. Here, it's clear Dr. McTier has harnessed the sense of marvel she felt as a child, when she imagined the sun and moon as celestial parents who watched over her and talked to her on a regular basis. That childlike wonder, combined with her expertise in mythology and astronomy, makes her the perfect human to assist in telling this story."—Bookpage, starred review
- "As a character, the Milky Way is a cross between a Greek goddess and GLaDOS, the artificially superintelligent computer system from the Portal video-game series. She gossips about other galaxies, teaches us about her past and imparts a primer on astrophysics, all the while relishing every opportunity to throw shade on humankind’s egocentrism and closed-mindedness."—Scientific American
- "[A] one-of-a-kind look at our galaxy. . . Educational, informative, and original, this will leave readers eagerly anticipating McTier’s next book."—Booklist
- "McTier sprinkles humor throughout her whimsical look at the cosmos. . . [T]he author clearly knows her subject and delivers enough fascinating information to keep the pages turning."—Kirkus Reviews
- "It's about time we heard the story of the Milky Way in its own words. The good news is that our galaxy is not only ancient and majestic; it's also whimsical, amusing, and downright chatty. Moiya McTier's book is an entertaining introduction to some of the most profound features of our astrophysical neighborhood."—Sean Carroll, New York Times bestselling author of Something Deeply Hidden
- "If you want to learn about the Milky Way, who better to go to than the source? Well, up until now, the Galaxy hasn’t been talking – but all of that has changed! Turns out, the Milky Way has a sense of humor, an attitude, and, frankly, isn’t super impressed with us as of late. If you’re looking for a fun and unique way to learn about astrophysics – this is the book for you! "—Kelly Weinersmith, New York Times bestselling author of Soonish
- "A direct, fun, and charming mix of the science, folklore, and history of our Milky Way galaxy. And since that galaxy is technically composed at least in part by ME, I cannot help but take some of the credit."—Ryan North, New York Times bestselling author of How to Invent Everything
- “With The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, Moiya McTier gives us an exciting romp through the universe from the perspective of a most unexpected guide: our local sentient collection of stars, gas, dark matter, planets, and its wayward humans. What an exciting way to learn about everything in the universe, from its earliest moments to star births and deaths. Only here will you learn what the Milky Way thinks of its neighbors. McTier invents the genre of cosmic gossip -- what fun it is!”—Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred
- "McTier's sharp wit and sharper intellect strike the perfect tone for this breezy take on the history of our galaxy. Truly the biggest tell-all story in the universe!"—Paul M. Sutter, PhD, astrophysicists and author of Your Place in the Universe
- “Brilliantly blending astrophysics and mythology, McTier has crafted an out of this world work of genius. The Milky Way is a remarkably clever, eye-opening entry into the astrophysics cannon that radically changes our perspective on space and our place in the vast cosmos. As entertaining as it is informative, this book is an essential read for earth dwellers who want a better understanding of our galactic home.”—Stephon Alexander, author of Fear of a Black Universe
- “A deliciously hilarious/irreverent and irresistible romp shimmering with astrophysics facts and cutting edge observations. A first “person” perspective that only an astrophysicist can provide. McTier’s humor and keen eye for detail pens the autobiography that our home galaxy deserves!”—Brian Keating, Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Physics at UC San Diego and author of Losing the Nobel Prize and INTO THE IMPOSSIBLE: Think Like a Nobel Prize Winner
- On Sale
- Aug 15, 2023
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing