If that seems like a lot for one year, don’t worry. The Milky Way is on a tight schedule, so it has condensed a galactic lifetime of advice and insight into a compact book entitled The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy. “My telling you this story — my story — is a gift,” the Milky Way reminds its readers, “[i]t’s like Beyoncé taking time out of her ‘busy’ schedule to personally give you singing lessons.” But who is the Milky Way galaxy to invoke Beyoncé, tell us how to live, or, for that matter, talk at all? And why is it speaking out now?
The Milky Way presents its sassy, snarky narrator as an admirer of human pop culture, a STEM whiz, a folklorist, a feminist historian, an environmental activist, and a literary genre theorist. The Milky Way — which also goes by the “Straw Thief’s Way,” “Way of the Birds,” or “another name that feels right to you” — yearns for the days when people would look up at the sky, see the stars unobstructed by smog, and tell each other stories. It is people’s curiosity and capacity for narrative, according to the Milky Way, that first drew its attention to us and inspired its nonverbal communication with astronomers. Yet, with the number of astronomers dwindling and people growing increasingly distant from nature (as well as from each other), the Milky Way has decided to offer us an autobiographical narrative in order to bring us together and inspire us to resume telling stories about the stars.
McTier, the author behind the Milky Way’s voice, became the first Black woman to earn her PhD in astronomy at Columbia after majoring in astrophysics along with folklore and mythology at Harvard. She has since built a career in science communication and storytelling that includes collaborations with PBS and Disney. In an interview for this publication, McTier described the Milky Way as a “larger-than-life character” who “looks at us and sees a homogeneous group.” She elaborated that “the idea that there are different types of humans is absurd to the galaxies,” but to McTier, who grew up in a log cabin in rural Pennsylvania, this idea was a formative influence. The autobiography’s foreword reveals how, in a community that “had only ever seen a Black person on TV,” McTier looked to the sun and moon as her imaginary parents and emotional support system. She also stayed in touch with her best friend from the third grade, AnnaMarie Salai — now a graphic designer specializing in literary projects — whose quirky illustrations make the Milky Way as endearing as it is cocky.
McTier reached out to Salai soon after she received a cold call from a literary agent asking if she would be interested in writing a popular science book. It was a week before the COVID-19 lockdown started in New York, and with her research at Columbia wrapping up, McTier had been studying the galaxy for a decade. While she had always wanted to write a book, McTier walked into the project with a greater affinity for fantasy novels than works of nonfiction, much less popular science. She knew that she wanted to borrow formal elements from the fantasy genre to make her work of nonfiction palatable, yet she reports that “in our initial meetings, the idea of an autobiography never came up.” McTier “brooded” over her book offer, which she felt obligated to accept since she had (coincidentally) declared the COVID-19 year her professional “Year of Yes.”
Then, at one of the last open mic nights before the NYC lockdown began, McTier found herself onstage, telling the Milky Way galaxy’s life story. It was the story of the Milky Way’s romance with the far-off, sexy Andromeda galaxy with which it will one day merge; of the anticipation of receiving one of Andromeda’s hypervelocity star “messages”; of the social tension in the Milky Way’s “Local Group” of nearby galaxies, one of which — that pain-in-the-spiral “Trin,” short for Triangulum — once flirted with Andromeda.
When the audience didn’t boo her off, McTier decided to start writing. As her topic was capacious in the extreme, McTier had the Milky Way give its readers a note on genre, to help us understand what else (besides romance and science) its story is about:
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.
Although the Milky Way playfully comes across as a bit of a narcissist, it devotes loving attention to some long-ignored scientists who contributed to its story. Take Vera Rubin, for example. In 1968, Rubin discovered the first evidence for the existence of dark matter — one of the many parts of the galaxy, which McTier discusses in accessible, refreshingly unacademic prose — by observing the rotation speeds of stars. Rubin was only studying these speeds, as the Milky Way reveals, because they were considered a relatively uncontroversial and therefore appropriate topic for a female astronomer. While the brilliant Rubin ended up being in the research context at the right time to make her discovery, the Milky Way wants its readers to understand that “[t]he amount of human knowledge that’s been prevented by your species’ asinine ideas about what kind of human deserves notice is truly staggering.”
This careful attention to human prejudices and feelings pervades even the Milky Way’s self-image. Between dense yet clearly written blocks of science, McTier invests the galaxy’s black hole — Sagittarius A* — with allegorical potential, making “Sarge” into “the physical embodiment of everything I have ever hated about myself.” For the galaxy, that means “[e]very galaxy eaten, every misguided flirtatious blunder, every undeserved snide comment,” which, at least from this human’s perspective, sounds pretty relatable.
Salai illustrates the Milky Way staring into a mirror at Sarge, confronting all that internal negativity and finding a way to cope with the knowledge that it is there to stay. For McTier, writing the Milky Way’s story was also a way of coping during the COVID-19 lockdown. In her interview, McTier described how it was always at the front of her mind while writing that “so, so many people had to grapple with mental health over the past couple years.” In reply, she created a character who speaks about the restorative power of storytelling. “Your stories,” the Milky Way addresses all of humankind, “made me feel loved and needed and, perhaps for the first time in my long existence, more helpful than I was ruinous.”
Some readers and reviewers are of the opinion that the Milky Way’s snarky tone is out of step with this message, but as McTier explained in our interview, over the course of the book, “the Milky Way does become less of a jerk, because of love.” If you experience pause while reading the galaxy’s most self-important prose, it may help to think of it as speaking in the voice of a cat. Not just any cat, but McTier’s tiny, feline New Yorker named Kosmo. To get into the Milky Way’s voice and balance its all-knowing superiority with the capacity for love and deep curiosity, McTier watched Kosmo practice “that slow blink cats give you,” taking in the “air about them that they don’t think they need us” even though “they rely on us a lot.”
Beyond Kosmo’s invaluable contribution, McTier took inspiration for the Milky Way’s capacious voice from her own hybrid career in science communication, astrophysics, and folklore studies. She balances out her denser scientific chapters with “palate cleansers” of mythology about the origin and future of the universe, ranging from Armenian legends about the god of fire (Vahagn) to a Khoisan story from southern Africa about burning straw, scattered across the night sky. To McTier, these stories are necessary “context” about “how other people have been introduced to the Milky Way throughout time.” Her book illustrates how the boundaries and supposed hierarchy amongst scientific explanations, science fiction, and mythology are not as ossified as modern readers may think. “Science fiction stories are aspirational myths,” as the Milky Way argues, and “you can see elements of your scientists’ Big Bounce hypothesis [for the end of the galaxy] in the Ragnarok myth.”
Modern astrophysics, McTier’s book argues, is in part a translated tradition of asking questions and telling stories in reply: “Some of your modern astronomers tell a similar story [to a variety of creation myths], but they tell it with math and computer code instead of words.” It is the work of science communicators, like McTier, to translate these stories for us. To quote McTier herself, rather than her Milky Way: “When I was studying folklore, I was studying early forms of science communication.” While McTier is a historic first in the ivory tower — it bears repeating, the first Black woman to earn her PhD in astronomy at Columbia — she has chosen to democratize all that she has learned, dedicating her first book “[t]o everyone who’s ever been made to feel that they’re not ‘sciencey enough,’ whatever that means.”
So when you, your neighbor, your neighbor’s kid, and your best friend are all reading McTier’s book, don’t stop when you come to a particularly dense patch of quantum mechanics or an annoying boast from the narrator. In McTier’s words, when people read The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, “I don’t care if they remember the numbers … what I want them to remember are the concepts, and the stories give them that.” Ultimately, McTier hopes that the galaxy’s story will help us see past our “imaginary borders that divide us” — political, social, and, yes, academic — to understand how “fragile” and “interconnected” our world is. You don’t have to be an astrophysicist to be curious about the galaxy. In fact, it may take a humanist or two to help write its stories. As the Milky Way galaxy puts it: “Hurray for inventing new genres or whatever.”
If you loved McTier’s book, listen to her new space podcast, Pale Blue Pod, which offers “a warm cozy vibe helping people feel closer to the universe.”
Joani Etskovitz is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University. You can find her on Twitter at @JEtskovitz.