If our galaxy could tell us its story, what would it say?
Scientists have pieced together a remarkable history of the Milky Way galaxy we live in, tracing how it evolved to its current form and how everything will change when it collides with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy. But astrophysicist and folklorist Moiya McTier imagines in her new book, "The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy" (Grand Central, 2022), a tale that reads very differently, written from the perspective of the galaxy. The Milky Way makes for a prickly narrator in her story — "Larry" in the excerpt below is the galaxy's derisive nickname for the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the closest galaxies to our own.
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Excerpt from Chapter 4: Creation
Do you understand how lucky you are to be learning this kind of vital information directly from me, an actual galaxy? You'd probably be just as nonplussed if it were that almost-dwarf Larry writing this, though I guarantee you wouldn't find Larry's explanations nearly as entertaining. My telling you this story — my story — is a gift. It's like if you learned about . . . oh, what's something you humans admire? It's like Beyoncé taking time out of her "busy" schedule to personally give you singing lessons. Even that falls short, though — she's not supervising a hundred billion stars.
Your ancestors didn't have this book, or the fancy machinery your scientists use, or the thousands of years' worth of accumulated knowledge that you benefit from. They didn't know anything about the truth of the Big Bang. Instead, they had gods: powerful, immortal, otherworldly beings who created and maintained the ever-changing universe. Your ancestors drew the best conclusions they could from the information available to them through their weak human senses, just like you do. Or at least just like you should. That hard work of trying to make sense of the world around them gave them a healthy respect for yours truly. And while I'm neither a god nor a believer in any, I still appreciate a good story, especially one that has just a kernel of truth in it — even, selflessly enough, if it doesn't include me. But let's be honest, the stories with me are always better than the ones without. While I could tell you about the most popular or widely believed creation myths, your lives are exceedingly short, so I'll skip to the ones I favor.
I mentioned an ever-changing universe. Hopefully you comprehend by now, owing to science and the marvels of modern publishing, that the universe is changing, morphing, expanding. If left to learn from first principles, you'd think the universe was fixed and constant, because that's how it looks from your limited human perspective. And yet, somehow, some of the creation stories your ancestors told describe a universe that's in constant flux, operating on an infinite cycle of birth and destruction. Some of your modern astronomers tell a similar story, but they tell it with math and computer code instead of words.
One of these cyclical cosmogonies came from the people of your Indus River Valley more than four thousand years ago. They practiced a religion called Hinduism, the oldest of your planet's most popular current doctrines. Hindus believe that the god Brahma created the cosmos himself — words like "universe," "world," and "cosmos" were more or less interchangeable before they adopted their modern scientific definitions — and that ours is not the first one he created.
Brahma is far from the only god in the Hindu religion. In fact, the idea that there's a single true god is relatively new. There is also Vishnu the preserver, who maintains the balance of the cosmos. It's no wonder that Vishnu was often associated with the sun, as both were understood to sustain life on Earth. To round out the cycle, there's Shiva, who destroys the universe so that it can be rebuilt. But until that time comes, Shiva is said to destroy the imperfections of your world, and so he is regarded as both good and evil. Together, the three gods, this triumvirate, work together to keep the universe moving through its cycle, each doing their part when the time comes, until the end of eternity. Or, if I know anything about immortal beings, until they get bored of doing the same thing over and over. But maybe I'm projecting.
Three thousand years later and 4,500 miles to the north, Norse tribes were telling their own cosmogonies that were somewhat rooted in truth. The stories were passed orally through countless generations, your imperfect human memories and pesky personal preferences introducing slight variations each time, until they were written down in your thirteenth century. Christianity was well established in the north lands by then, and it's hard for even me to say how much the Prose and Poetic Eddas differed from the pagan stories that early Vikings shared around their fires. Honestly, I wasn't paying much attention. Humanity's Middle Ages were boring and I had other stuff to do.
The Eddas describe a great abyss that stretched between the first two worlds: Muspelheim, the world of fire, and Niflheim, the world of ice. Frost and flame met in the middle, and a giant god was born of the melted ice. His name was Ymir, and he was later slaughtered by some of the creatures who sprang from his body, and his parts were used to construct the other worlds in the Norse universe. There are nine of them in total, including separate homes for humans and their gods. These worlds were supposed to have rested among the roots and branches of Yggdrasil, the great world tree.
I'll soon share more details about my body and the shape of the actual universe, but suffice it to say that on no scale is space shaped like a tree. Well, it might kind of look like tree roots if you zoom out far enough.
Still, the Norse story has that improbable kernel of truth that I love to see. Life emerged in the middle of the abyss, between the worlds of ice and fire where the temperature was just right. Right for what, you ask? Liquid water, of course. You know, that sloshy stuff that you're all full of and so dependent on. The Nordic people, having lived on a literal land of fire and ice (volcanoes and glaciers), would have witnessed how life can flourish where the two meet. Water, like the sun, nourishes your frail little bodies, so it, too, often makes its way into your most sacred stories.
So many of the creation stories your ancestors told started not with chaos or nothing, but with a deep primordial ocean. My favorites of these involve a divine creature diving to the bottom of this ocean to gather bits of mud that then get used to build the land. The diver often takes the shape of an animal of some kind, a wonderfully whimsical picture, and many of the stories include multiple failed attempts before the mud at the bottom of the ocean is successfully retrieved.
This kind of account, sometimes collectively called Earth Diver myths, is common among the Indigenous people of North America. But similar stories can also be found in modern Turkey, northern Europe, and eastern Russia. Some of the humans who spend their short lives tracking the evolution of your ancestors' stories — you call them folklorists or anthropologists — believe that the Earth Diver myths share a common narrative ancestor from eastern Asia that spread as the people migrated.
Now, clearly the Earth Diver story as a creation myth is focused on the creation of Earth's land, centering your meaningless little rock. You might think that would put me off it, but you'd certainly be wrong. For all intents and purposes, Earth was your ancestors' universe. Life on Earth did originate in the water. And humanity is the latest attempt at life after so many catastrophic failures. More species have gone extinct on your planet than there are living now. (RIP to the trilobites. I had big hopes for them.) So, the Earth Diver stories get a lot right.
I never expected your ancestors to know everything about me. They obviously appreciated my presence, so I was content to listen to their stories and watch as they marched steadily towards science without knowing what they would find. It was entertaining. And maybe even a little bit inspiring.
But your ignorance of the vast universe around you is neither. You have the tools and the experts and the knowledge all available to you, but you haven't used them. Hence, my decision to finally intervene. Now, as you read the rest of my story — which, again, is a privilege — remember that you're no smarter than your ancestors who believed the sky was made from a dead giant's skull. You were just lucky to be born later.
Excerpted from the book The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Galaxy by Moiya McTier. Copyright © 2022 by Moiya McTier. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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Moiya McTier is an astrophysicist, folklorist and science communicator. Her new book is "The Milky Way: An Autobiography of Our Universe."