'Why are we here?' and other questions for an astrophysicist-folklorist
Moiya McTier's latest book is an 'autobiography' of the Milky Way — told from the galaxy's perspective
Moiya McTier graduated from Harvard University by boldly going where no student has ever gone before: majoring in both astrophysics and folklore.
It was an unlikely academic course to chart — but as McTier told Tapestry host Mary Hynes, it only made her more effective in her career as a science communicator.
McTier delivers talks about science around the world. She's also an author. Her latest book, The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy, is due out this August.
Here's part of their conversation.
Astrophysicist and folklorist. I'm going to suggest that at first glance, they appear pretty far apart because, of course, the stereotype is the rational, cold world of hard science and the warm, fuzzy human gathered around the campfire. Tell me how they coexist in your world.
I first started getting into this weird intersection in college, and I definitely didn't fully understand the connection then. I'm not sure I fully understand it now, but I am closer to understanding. So these days, the way that I see it is that myths — the stories that people have been telling in cultures around the world throughout time — were kind of humankind's first way of doing science. And by science, I mean very broadly the human attempt to understand the world around us.
The myths were meant to educate. They were also meant to entertain, but a lot of them were pedagogical. And then, after myths, I feel like we moved into philosophy, thinking about stuff in more rational, consistent ways, but without the tools and science that we have today. And then we moved into science. So I see that they are very connected in their purpose, even if they're not super connected in their methods.
I understand that you were the first person to graduate from Harvard with a degree in astrophysics and mythology. And I'm curious about whether it was a hard sell to convince the people around you that these two specialties could somehow be in conversation with one another.
Yes, Mary, it was so hard. Harvard is old. And they are very set in their ways. So they have this list of pre-approved majors that you can combine. Surprisingly, astrophysics and folklore was not on that list of pre-approved double majors. So I had to get a little creative. Both the Astronomy and Folklore departments were two of the smallest undergrad departments at Harvard. They had, I think, four people in the folklore department and maybe eight people in astronomy. So I went to the heads of both departments and I said, basically, "Look, you're too small to risk losing a body. Let me study both."
This is where we get spacey — pardon the expression. Has it ever brought you a sense of connection with something bigger than yourself? In other words, what's your relationship status with the cosmos?
Short answer: Yes.
I am not religious. But one thing I really, really appreciate about astrophysics is that it gives me a wider perspective on the universe. I just finished this big project of writing a book from the perspective of the Milky Way galaxy. It's coming out in August. And that exercise was so valuable — gave me that wider perspective that I have really appreciated. And I know that astronauts have talked about something similar. They call it the "overview effect" — when they can see all of Earth at once, when they're up on the International Space Station.
And something quite profound takes hold. You don't see borders, you don't see cultures differently. It really gives you the sense that we are one species on this little rock alone in the universe, and that if that's the case — which it is — we should be taking care of each other.
As a science communicator, part of your work is to encourage people to think like a scientist. What does that mean?
Getting people to think like a scientist means getting them to think through curiosity, and then try to answer the questions that they're asking in a logical, rational, consistent way. I don't think [it] has to mean memorizing a lot of scientific facts. It's helpful and it's interesting and cool, but it is not the most important part of being a scientist. For me, it's a mindset and it's a rhythm that you go through in the way that you approach problems.
I'm also curious about thinking like a folklorist. What does that approach bring to you, too, to be so steeped in folklore and to think like a folklorist?
Being a folklorist has given me a really great sense of empathy for different ideas and cultures and ways of looking at the world. As a kid, I loved fantasy. I dabbled in Wicca, and I loved learning about paganism. But I didn't really believe it. But since I have started studying folklore, I see the value in looking at the world through a different lens that is not scientific in the strictest sense of the word. So now, I can see that there is truth in a lot of myths that people have told, and I can see that there is value. But I do really believe that most people would be better off in most circumstances if they did understand the science. So I always try to blend them together.
A lot of your work, it seems to me, in astrophysics and in folklore, is done with a very big question in mind: why are we here? If I were to ask you that question now, how would you answer?
"Why are we here?" was actually the title of my PhD dissertation.
And as an astronomer, I have focused on the here part. I have studied why the perfect conditions for life that looks like us just happen to have occurred in this part of the galaxy at this time. I love thinking about the chemistry and the time dependence and the radiation dependence of the galactic habitable zone.
As a folklorist, asking, "Why are we here?" — I mean, I know that different cultures around the world have answered it differently. We are here to carry out God's will, or we are here to even be asking that question. And yeah, maybe as a science communicator, I'll say that: we are here so that we can question everything, so that we can ask ourselves why we're here.
It is absolutely amazing that 13 plus billion years of the universe led to a little average star that created a planet that was just the right distance away from it to have liquid water and then create life. That one day got smart enough to ask why it's there and how we got there. And that's beautiful to me. I can see the connections through history that led to this point.
And I just really like thinking about that sometimes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Jacob Henriksen-Willis and edited by Kevin Ball.