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A Starring Role: Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our man Brenner talks with the famed astrophysicist, because science.

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 2:35PM, Tue. Nov. 26, 2013

The Good Doctor of Infinite Spaceways
The Good Doctor of Infinite Spaceways

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the celebrated astrophysicist, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, the subject of a thousand Facebook quote-posters, the Daily Show's new man-about-science, the former Austinite, the man whom media wags refer to as Carl Sagan 2.0.

That Neil deGrasse Tyson will be onstage at Austin's Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, December 17th, to regale the crowd with what he's learned of the wonders of the universe. (Note: The already sold-out crowd, as ticket sales moved near tachyon-speed from the moment of announcement.) But, in case you didn't get tickets to the show; or in case you wanted some background before attending; or in case, like most thinking humans, you're interested in what the popular science communicator has to say on various subjects …

Or maybe you just want to hear him dissing string theory, giving the state of Florida a mild raspberry, and confirming what a popular song has always asserted about the big sky of Texas?

In any of those cases, you're in luck, because see below: Brenner's recent interview with that good doctor of the infinite spaceways …

Wayne Alan Brenner: Dr. Tyson, with the entire universe at your disposal, what are some of the things that you're gonna focus on for your presentation at the Paramount?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I think I've confirmed that there's not a pre-required talk title – and, in that case, I'll talk about the loss of science literacy in America and what we might be able to do about it. And I might throw in some current events – just because there's some cool things happening in the universe right now, so why not? And I'll end by sharing with everyone the sort of cosmic perspective of the world. There's a lot of fertility in those three topics, and I blend them in a way that people feel like they had a full night out.

WAB: Why is it important for humans to know what goes on beyond this planet, this solar system, and eventually the entire galaxy?

NdGT: Well, there's a three-layer answer to that, so allow me to go through all three layers. The first layer is, the urge to learn something tomorrow that you didn't know today – I think is lost in so many of us. Because your life is prioritized for survival, and when each day you have to survive, to know if you're gonna have your next paycheck or if your job is secure, you don't have the intellectual freedom to just reflect on the unknown. And that's unfortunate, because only when you have such freedoms can you break out of this grind of life and recognize the full expanse and majesty of the universe. So, as an educator and a scientist, I live in that state of mind – and I never take it for granted that I have the luxury of finding where we don't know something in our place in the universe – and exploring at that boundary. Because we have the capacity to do so: No other life form that we know of asks questions about its place in the universe. So the fact that we can ask questions and answer them, seems to me to be an obligation of our species rather than a luxury. So that's the first layer: That we should do it because it will tap the full expression of what it is to be human. Second layer: When you discover things tomorrow that you did not know today, they can greatly increase your outlook on what you previously knew or what you thought to be true. For example, when we went to the moon in the 1960s, the goal was that we were gonna explore the moon. Of course, it was driven by war

WAB: Yeah, "We're gonna beat the Russians!"

NdGT: Right, exactly. But so we got to the moon, and the first astronauts to orbit the moon were Apollo 8, in 1968. And they didn't land, so no one remembers that. But they were the first astronauts to ever leave this point for another destination. They went to the moon, orbited the moon, and came back. And while they orbited the moon, they took a picture of the earth rising over the lunar landscape. Earthrise – one of the most recognized photographs ever taken. And, at that moment, we saw Earth not as we remembered it, not as a schoolroom globe – which had color-coded countries and political boundaries and it certainly didn't show clouds – and now here was Earth, seen as nature had fully intended: Ocean, land, clouds. We went to the moon and discovered Earth for the first time. And the birth of the modern conservation movement is traceable to the publication of that photo. Not many people will tell you that, they'll say it was Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring in 1962 or they'll mention some other movement. But I have strong evidence to show that it was precisely the publication of that photo that had us all turn back to Earth and say "We have to protect this place."

WAB: Sure, and the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog.

NdGT: Precisely – that's one of many examples. And the first Earth Day was 1970. We were going to the moon in this short period – '69, '70, '71' and '72 – four years, while we were going to the moon the Whole Earth Catalog gets published with that photo on the cover. The Environmental Protection Agency gets founded – signed into law by a Republican president. The comprehensive Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act. In 1973, lead is phased out of gasoline and the catalytic converter is introduced. Meanwhile, we're fighting a hot war in Southeast Asia, a cold war with the Soviet Union, there's a Civil Rights movement still unfolding, there's campus unrest – yet we found time to think about the environment. And if you don't see the cause and effect with the space program, you'll just say something like, "Oh, well, hippies thought about it, and it was just time." And, noooo – it was directly traceable to the publication of that photo. The hippies in the 1960s were not thinking about conserving the environment. You look at the aftermath of Woodstock [laughs] and you know for sure they weren't thinking about the environment. It wasn't about the environment before the publication of that photograph. It was an anti-war movement, and no one gave a rat's ass about the environment.

WAB: Maybe we need to keep that photo in print, keep publishing it on the web every day, to remind people. Because we seem to have back-slid a whole bunch, into environmental crap and defunding of science.

NdGT: The point is, some of the greatest contributions science makes – to who and what we are and our understanding of our place in the universe – come about not because the experimenter planned it that way; it's just a natural consequence of discovering the unknown. So discovering things beyond Earth can completely transform our perspective, can grant you a cosmic perspective. And a cosmic perspective is why you'll never find astrophysicists leading nations into war: Because we see Earth from space, and that persecutive is humbling, allows to see how arguments people give for wanting to kill one another on this speck we call Earth, how they're laughable to a person with a cosmic perspective. I don't mean laughable in a trivializing way. I mean, really, it makes you cry.

WAB: Yeah. Yeah, it does.

NdGT: I tweeted about this. I said that if an alien came to visit, I'd be embarrassed to tell them that we fight wars to pull fossil fuels out of the ground to run our transportation. They'd be like, "Whaaaaat?"

[laughter]

NdGT: That's the second layer. The third layer is that, when you go into space in a big way, you have astronauts everywhere and you put mining colonies on asteroids. If the military wants to build something on the moon, let 'em do it. And you have tourist jaunts to the far side of the moon, and scientific excursions to Mars, looking for life, and space becomes your backyard, and you're destination driven, not frontier driven. And when that happens … by the way, NASA is looking for life, and so I need some biologists to help me out. Maybe I wanna fly around Mars – I'll need an aerospace engineer to design an airfoil that can navigate the rarified atmosphere of Mars. I'll need geologists – except now we'll call them planetary geologists. All the STEM fields – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math – are represented in the NASA portfolio when NASA explores space on all those frontiers. And so when you do that, you have to innovate, because no one's ever done this before. And when you innovate, it makes headlines – because discoveries unfold. The universe flinches, it's a page-one story. Voyager crossed the boundary of our solar system, and it was a page-one photograph, beautifully reproduced in color, on The New York Times, for example. And when you do this, you stimulate interest, people are talking about it, they're having arguments about it in bars – that's how you know when something is mainstream. So when that happens, you've transformed the country into an innovation nation. And when you're an innovation nation, you're working with things that become the seeds of tomorrow's economies. Because innovations in science and technology are the engines of a twenty-first century economy. So I claim that, if the first two things aren't interesting enough for you, then we, as residents of a capitalist democracy, would find that third reason, that third layer, reason enough to invest whatever it takes to explore the universe. Because the return on that investment has nothing to do with spin-offs, and has everything to do with shifting the culture that is conducting that exercise.

WAB: Huh.

NdGT: And that culture goes beyond the scientists. If you're an attorney, maybe you want to study space law about who owns the mineral rights on that asteroid you just sent a spaceship to. Or an artist, who might draw the vistas that the ships would have that are visiting colonies or LaGrangian points a million miles on the other side of the moon. If you're a novelist, you might write the next screenplay for a drama that takes place on one of these space outposts. So you become a participant in the shaping of the future, no matter your profession. So that's my very long answer to your simple question.

WAB: Well, you speak like a beautiful textbook.

NdGT: [laughs] Depending on my audience, I have to go straight to number three.

WAB: Not for Austin, though. That audience would be in either Houston or Dallas.

NdGT: Oh yeah? Or, ah, Florida.

WAB: Oh god, yeah. Please stay out of Florida – we need you healthy and happy!

NdGT: I know, right?

[laughter]

WAB: OK, ah, we hear so often about how we need to make the STEM subjects more available to young women and minority students – because this is something that will seriously benefit them. But what about the other side of that equation, sir? How would such a shift in demographics benefit science?

NdGT: Well, a couple of things. I don't have any special insight to how to best bring science to underrepresented groups – which implies that they're students still in the pipeline. Most of my entire professional educational output focuses on adults. The world is messed up because we have scientifically illiterate adults, not because we have scientifically illiterate children – and adults outnumber kids five to one and they're in control of everything. So when I hear adults say, "We've got to train our kids," no, we've got to train the adults first. Then the adults will be enlightened enough to create programs that will serve the kids. You can't train kids in a world where adults have no concept of what science literacy is. The adults are gonna squash the creativity that would manifest itself, because they're clueless about what it and why it matters. But science can always benefit from the more brains there are that are thinking about it – but that's true for any field. The larger the sample size from which you draw, the more competitive it is to get to the carrot. So if twice as many people want to become scientists and we don't have any empty slots for them, the ones who do become scientists, that set of people is going to be smarter than if the pool we're drawing from were smaller. That's just normal statistics. It's why the smartest one-fourth of everyone in China outnumbers the entire population of the United States. It's because of large numbers that you can get to large quantities of things that are otherwise rare.

WAB: Ah.

NdGT: So … so, ah, where was I? I distracted myself. Oh yeah: So you always want more brains attached to a problem – always – and if there are groups that are underrepresented, that can't be good for the field. You know the biggest underrepresented group in the sciences are Muslims? There's a century of Nobel Prizes, and there are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and they've won, like, two Nobel Prizes.

WAB: Which seems especially weird since, unless I'm forgetting history myself, Muslims pretty much started all the astronomy and a lot of the math.

NdGT: If that tradition of a thousand years ago had continued into this century, the Muslims would have every single Nobel Prize to be given. The fertility of that period, now known as the Golden Age of Islam, was never duplicated. It came to a crashing halt. And it's indicators such as that that force me to take pause when I watch the shifting of investments in America away from science and towards more prosaic enterprises. And that tells me that the leadership that America enjoyed in the second half of the 20th century is not forever. Which is hard for me to even accept, because I grew up in that period – and when you grow up in it, that's just what it is, it means everything. You're not thinking we had to do something special to get to that place. But now I'm wondering, what are we doing wrong and how can we fix it? Now other countries are rising up past us. So it's not a forever thing. The Egyptians didn't keep building pyramids – they built them and then they stopped. The Muslims had a fertile period – and it stopped. There's the Roman Empire – and it stopped.

WAB: So do you think the future of space exploration is gonna come primarily from the private sector or from large government programs?

NdGT: Oh, not in the least – the private sector can't do it. If you ask them, they say they can – but they're delusional.

WAB: But then, the government – do you think  it's gonna be America, or another country or group of countries –

NdGT: Wait, let me explain. If you're going to lead a space frontier, it has to be government, it'll never be private enterprise. Because the space frontier is dangerous, and it's expensive, and it has unquantified risks. And under those conditions, you cannot establish a capital-market evaluation of that enterprise. You can't get investors. Because they'll say, "How long will it take?" Well, I don't know. "Will I die?" Maybe. "How much will it cost?" I don't know. And they'll walk away and go somewhere else. There's no business model for being in space. So the governments are doing it, and they establish where the tradewinds are and where the hostiles are and where the friendlies are – and then private enterprise comes in behind. That's what SpaceX is doing now: They're taking cargo to the space station – that's what the shuttle's been doing since the late 1990s. So, once the government establishes the maps, then private enterprise can come in and take the less – as you'd expect them to. That's fine – they'll just never do it first, that's my only point.

WAB: So which country or countries do you see leading the next wave of human space exploration?

NdGT: Well, I joke that I wanna get China to leak a memo that says they want to put military bases on Mars.

WAB: [laughs]

NdGT: It doesn't have to be true, they just sort of have to fake it and leak it. And then the Pentagon gets a hold of it – and we're on Mars a month later. Astronauts, weapons. There's no doubt that America – when we have resolve – that we can get stuff done. But if people aren't aligned in these vision-statements, then nothing gets done.

WAB: OK, vision-statements, and earlier you were speaking of large numbers of a sample size – and there's a sample size of large numbers of asteroids out there. And you're a strong advocate of the idea that we need to put together an asteroid defense system – but nobody in elected office seems to take the idea seriously.

NdGT: Ah, for me, I wouldn't use the word "advocate." It's a subtle point, but, ah, I don't tell people what to do. I offer them "if-then" statements. "If you do not put in an asteroid protection system, we may go extinct."

WAB: [laughs]

NdGT: I'm offering people scenarios, and they decide. I will not tell people how to vote, what they should think – that's their business. I will alert you of the causes and effects of your actions or inactions.

WAB: So you wouldn't think of running for elected office to make such a thing –

NdGT: Never. Not only that, I don't even like talking to politicians.

WAB: [laughs]

NdGT: But the politicians have been duly elected by their community, by their –

WAB: By their lobbies.

NdGT: Yeah – [laughs] – so they represent a community of people that does not include me, if I go to Congress and start addressing members of Congress. So I have nothing to say to the members of Congress – which is the opposite of what lobbyists do, of course. But as an educator in this society, I have plenty to say to the electorate. And I'll say, "Here are the causes and effects of things that I've researched and understand – and it's up to you to decide how you want to carry this forward."

WAB: Ah.

NdGT: It's not up to me. That's why I don't like to use the word advocate – that's always a person who's trying to get you to do something. You'll never see me signing petitions, endorsing candidates, telling people what to think, what to vote on: I'm not in any of those scenarios.

WAB: You seem more like The Watcher, from the Fantastic Four mythology.

NdGT: Oooh – interesting.

WAB: But, ah, here's a more philosophical thing: Among the many web-based posters of you-pictured-with-a-quotation, of which there are many and they're delightful and informative, there's one that quotes you as saying, "My view is that if your philosophy is not unsettled daily, then you're blind to all the universe has to offer." So, with that in mind, what is something about the universe – something that hasn't been discovered or confirmed, but it's at least within the realm of possibility, but you'd still be surprised to find out that it's true?

NdGT: I don't think that way. It's, there's the universe – and I don't have any particular expectations of anything. To have a philosophy is to believe you know how the universe works – and I don't claim that insight. It'd be nice if we found some life on some other planet – that'd really transform biology, and it'd be really cool, it'd make headlines – but I don't have insight into knowing if that's a real possibility or not, in our backyard. Surely it would be somewhere else in the universe, though, given the prevalence of the ingredients of life – and how long the universe has been around to make it. But I welcome the possibility of learning what happens to dark matter – there are a lot of unknown questions out there. But, for me, I like thinking about what questions are we not smart enough to even pose? Or haven't yet reached an understanding of the universe that we know what's the right next question to ask.

WAB: Along the lines of alien life, in fact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, and, knowing that I might be interviewing you in the future, I asked Ken if he had a question he'd like to ask Neil Degrasse Tyson. In case he'd missed the Reddit AMA or whatever.

NdGT: Well, how come he didn't know the answer?

WAB: [laughs]

NdGT: He's the guy who lost to Watson.

WAB: He's the guy that – yes, he did lose to [IBM's supercomputer] Watson. But here's what he wanted me to ask you: "I was reading this thing where Stephen Hawking was saying we shouldn't be broadcasting radio signals out into space, because there's a certain quantifiable risk that aliens will hear them and come after us and want to colonize us, rule over us with their, you know, electrical whips, and put us to work in the salt mines or whatever. I'd be interested in what Dr. Tyson's take is on that." Unquote.

NdGT: Stephen Hawking's been watching too many Hollywood movies. I think the only kind aliens in Hollywood are the ones created by Steven Spielberg – Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., for example. All other aliens are trying to suck our brains out. So here's the issue there: Stephen Hawking is worried about the conduct of aliens not from any actual knowledge of how they would behave if they arrived, but from the real knowledge he has of how we behaved as a species, when we crossed the oceans with higher technology and met the natives of the lands we came upon. His fear of how aliens would treat us comes from his knowledge of how we treat each other.

WAB: Ah, so he's projecting.

NdGT: That is correct.

WAB: OK, here's another theoretical thing –

NdGT: Now, I'm not saying they wouldn't suck our brains out …

WAB: [laughs] OK, now, ah, the last scientist I saw – like there's an endless supply of them – at the Paramount was Dr. Brian Greene. Are you also a proponent or a follower of string theory? Or, if not, what's your preferred cosmological theory?

NdGT: Well, they're the only game in town, so I give them a wide berth. Plus, they're really cheap to keep employed: You give them a pencil, some paper, throw in a laptop, you have a string theorist – it's a minimal expense. So I wish them well, but it's just that … I've been following the effort of these brilliant minds to solve the greatest physics problem of the century. And, beginning in 1982, they said "Oh, we're almost there, we're almost there!" In '85, "Oh, just a couple years!" 1990, "Couple years!" So they've been saying "Just a couple years" for the last 28 years. So I asked Brian Greene, you know, "How come you haven't gotten the answer yet?" And he said, "Well, it's a hard problem." And then I said – I swear to you I said this to him – I said, "Well, that's hubristic of you. Maybe it's just that all of you are too stupid to figure it out."

[laughter]

NdGT: So he playfully chuckled at that comment. And recognized, in principle, the possibility that maybe the human species is not intelligent enough to understand the plight of the universe in this way.

WAB: Well, it is a hard problem, though. Because you and the other astrophysicists are out there at the edge of the universe, as it were, and yet – relative to Dr. Greene and all the string theorists, the other theoretical physicists – you guys are like the practical engineers, the hands-on, what's-actually-going-on hardware people.

NdGT: Well, it's not completely hardware. But, yeah, with string theory they're really out there. Like, if they take another step, they're gonna fall off that cliff. So, no, they may come up with something – but I'm doing other things while they're busy trying to find a theory of everything.

WAB: OK, to bring this back to Earth – and, specifically back to the Lone Star State – Wikipedia tells me that you got your Master's degree in astronomy at the UT right here in Austin.

NdGT: That's an actual, correct fact. Although my website is even more accurate.

WAB: Alright! So I've got just two more questions for you. The first one: As a former Austin-based astronomer, and as someone who so many people all over the world respect the knowledge of, can you confirm that the stars at night are indeed big and bright, deep in the heart of Texas?

NdGT: [laughs] Yes, I can.

WAB: Fantastic. And, finally, on a more serious note: What do you think about UT's College of Natural Sciences defunding its own natural history museum?

NdGT: Ah, this is the first I've learned of it. What's their motivation?

WAB: Um, the motivation is that the college needs to save money somehow, to invest it differently? And I think – according to the article that we ran here in the Chronicle – that they need to focus, they say, on attracting better professors, more esteemed – ah, I'm not sure exactly what, but they're definitely taking the money away from the natural history museum: The outreach programs are going away, the public-oriented programming, the amount of employees working on that are dwindling to almost nothing. So how does a person, especially someone who's a science communicator like you, how does a person deal with colleagues who don't seem to recognize the connection between communicating science to the public and the funding structure that pays for researchers to do science – not to mention the benefits it brings to future generations of students?

NdGT: I work at a natural history museum.

WAB: Well, yeah – the natural history museum.

NdGT: And over the past five years, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, we've had record attendance. So if the university deems that the public has lost interest in a natural history museum, it's because the university isn't presenting it the way it ought to. They're blaming the public, rather than themselves, for the lack of success for that institution, for that branch of the university. And inexperienced educators tend to do that. They'd say something like "Well, these kids just don't wanna learn." An experienced educator finds out how they learn, and then communicates that way to them – and transforms the learning space for having done so. So if we have record attendance at our natural history museum, and UT is ready to close theirs – something's wrong. Now, if all natural history museums were failing around the world, I'd say, "Go ahead, I can't help you there." But they're not. And we're using the natural history museum to stimulate interest – in all the sciences. And this is a time when we want to promote interest in science – so, you know, get the money from somewhere else.


[Note: Thanks to Rowan Hagemann, Kurt Hildebrand, Hayley Gillespie, Maggie Duval, Kristin Hogan, and Jennifer Blair for suggesting gambits of inquiry for this interview.]

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