A New Way of Seeing

 “We are trying to create conditions like those in ancient Greece, which saw the flowering of ideas because people looked at the world with new eyes.”

 - Neil Turok, Director of The Perimeter Centre, Waterloo, Ontario, welcoming Stephen Hawking

Young Neil Tyson kept talking even while he walked out of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan. He had just toured it for the first time. Part of the American Museum of Natural History, the Hayden regularly shows people things about space they could never even guess at. Small wonder this kid from the Bronx turned skeptical: based on what he had seen night after night with his own eyes, the sky they projected at the planetarium was just plain wrong.

“It’s nothing but a hoax! The sky doesn’t look like that!”

Did he let his doubting be the final word? No way! Neil got hold of a pair of binoculars so he could peer at the moon. When he was 14 he went to a youth camp in the Mojave Desert; there in the clear night air he saw stars he had never known from city streets. He took a course in astrophysics at the Bronx High School of Science. He pursued his education at Harvard, then at the University of Texas/Austin and at Columbia. Earning his Ph.D. didn’t slow him down: he used telescopes over much of the world. He is now Astrophysicist of the American Museum and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the very planetarium that had so upset him as a youth. To many, his face and name are familiar as the frequent and ever genial host of TV’s NOVA or as writer of a monthly essay, “The Universe,” in Natural History Magazine. To mark their esteem, the International Astrophysical Union even named an asteroid in his honor.

Shall we read this as a modern success story? African-American youngster from poor neighborhood achieves world renown as space scientist. If so, the account resembles a typical Horatio Alger narrative, mixing elements of high intelligence, strong determination, an independent spirit, community support, the ability to stay with a problem until it surrenders its secret. And maybe a generous helping of good luck, too.

At another level the story grows even more fascinating -- though more straightforward. Everything hinges on Tyson’s ability to look at things in a new way. To let go of the idea that what he had always “known” was absolutely right. To dream. To test ideas. To open himself to new possibilities. Without that openness of mind, Tyson’s story would have dead-ended before it began.

That’s what this book is about. Clearly, it’s about maps – many maps – with special attention to the Peters map of the world. At a deeper level it’s about how we shape and use maps and how they in turn shape us. In short, it’s about you and me and ways of seeing: how we see the world and therefore how we understand our place in it, how we connect to it and to all the people with whom we share this spaceship called Earth.

Such concerns have always been important; never have they been more central to the way we live on the planet. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001 and in the context of relentless technological shifts, runaway social change, and budget crises, talking about maps may seem impractical, even trivial. This book aims to persuade you otherwise. We contend, to be upfront about it, that in the world we are now entering maps belong front and center.

We offer no guarantee that this book will raise your IQ or your ability to steer an independent course or provide round-the-clock support for whatever goals you set. We don’t promise you a Ph.D. or an important job. Nothing in these pages will by itself heal a wounded world. What we will be focusing on is the need and the possibility of gaining a new vantage point, a different perspective.

Welcome to a great and useful adventure -- and even, possibly, to the satisfaction of making a difference!