By Will Guess
Science in America has taken a backseat in recent years to many other things, but there is one person who is trying to reinvigorate people’s interest and show how important it is to humanity’s survival – Neil deGrasse Tyson. Dr. Tyson has a laundry list of accomplishments from writing over 10 books to serving under President Bush on the Moon, Mars and Beyond Commission to being the current director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. FPH had 30 minutes with a guy who is, at this moment, probably the most prolific and famous scientist in the world. People Magazine’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive”, one of Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and a master of Latin ballroom dancing. I mean, the guy has a comet named after him.
FPH – In one of your statements online you said, “When you’re scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. It’s a particular way of questioning what you see and hear.” Can you expand on that and tell me how it affects your relationships with people?
NDT – First off, thanks for bringing that up. I think it’s a very important concept and idea. Many people think of science as just a topic that they either learned or didn’t in school. Like, oh did you learn about the War of 1812. I think for many people it’s compartmentalized as just something that they either know or don’t know. Without reflecting on the value to how you think for being scientifically literate. Because as you walk around through life, things will happen in front of you. Someone will try to sell you a product that has a claim that’s scientifically testable. Someone will make a statement about the gas mileage of your car or the octane level or the health benefits of one food or another or the fat content or the calorie content. Or they’ll tell you about the chemistry of some corporate plant – the chemicals coming out of a corporate plant or the molecules that are in the air. There are so many things around us that become transparent to you when you’re scientifically literate and they’re otherwise opaque to you if you’re not. So, science literacy is often people think of it is as do you know how your microwave oven works or how does an internal combustion engine work. That’s an aspect of science literacy, but that’s not the primary task from where I view it. The primary consequence of being scientifically literate is knowing how to think about something that you’ve never seen before. So, it can mean how to ask questions. It doesn’t require that you have an answer to something, but it would empower you to know how to ask. Someone says, “I want to sell you these crystals, if you rub them together they’ll heal you.” Well, okay, but what are these crystals made of, where did you get them, how are they grown, what is the evidence that they’ve healed people before, what kind of ailments are they supposed to heal, how long does it take to heal, what do they cost, can you demonstrate it? By the time you ask these questions, the person runs away in tears. Those questions are the consequence of being scientifically literate. If you’re not scientifically literate, someone says, “I have these crystals, they can heal your ailments,” and the person says “Great, I’ll buy them! How many do you have?” That’s not being scientifically literate. And notice, in each case, you don’t have to know about them in advance, but one case carries a level of skepticism, and the other carries a level of gullibility. Science literacy is a kind of vaccine that inoculates you against charlatans who would otherwise exploit your ignorance of the natural world for their own gain.
It’s pretty well known that you and Seth McFarlane are working on a sequel to the Cosmos. The original Cosmos had this sort of iconic, droning, expansive song. I was wondering if you two have thought about how you’re going to do the music for the new series.
We have thought about it but we haven’t landed anywhere yet. Seth is one of the executive producers. Among others that are key players in this, are two of the original three creative principles from the original Cosmos which includes Anne Druyan and Steven Soder. I’m working with them as well and serving as executive editor and of course as the on-screen host and narrator. We might borrow some of that music again just for the continuity from one series to the next, but we’re open to new music and so that’s not yet resolved.
What was your relationship with Carl Sagan like?
Actually, there’s a clean, quick in and out YouTube clip of me retelling this for the Public Television of Arizona. But, I first met him in high school and I was already interested in the universe and I applied to Cornell where he was on the faculty and they saw that my application had all this universe dripping from it and they forwarded it to him, unknown to him. He would then send a letter to me saying “I learned that you might be interested in Cornell and you like the universe. If you can find the occasion to come up and visit, I’d be happy to show you around.” That’s exactly what he did. I couldn’t believe it. He’d already been on The Tonight Show and had famous books. He had not yet done “Cosmos” but he was already well known and there he was spending time with me, and who am I? Just some 17-year-old kid from the city. So, I’d say his greatest influence on me was that day because I swore to myself if I was ever as remotely famous as Carl Sagan, that I would give students the time and attention that he gave me to the exclusion of any other priorities that might be competing for my attention in a day.
You’re one of the few scientists to attain this level of fame that’s on the same level like that of a movie star or a rock star. What does that feel like and how does it affect the way you do your job?
It means I have to dress a little better and comb my hair a little extra. I can’t be as sloppy as I might naturally want to be because people recognize you in the street. So there’s that. I was a little disappointed when people initially people would recognize me and they would say “Oh, aren’t you the guy, Dr. Tyson, right? Tell me more about the black hole that I saw you talk about on TV.” So, initially maybe the first 10-20 a day that recognized me, they would just want me to continue their dining on the universe. I’m just their servant, they’re hungry and they want more. So, I said okay – that works – my role as an educator in this capacity is working. But when it hit 20, 30, 50 a day and it’s probably 70 a day now – most of the rest of that are people who just want to take a picture. In the old days, it was an autograph, now it’s a picture. Initially, I was concerned about that because I asked myself “Am I becoming the object of people’s interests?” Then I’m failing as an educator. If they’re no longer hungry for the universe and they’re just hungry for a picture of me, I must be failing in some fundamental way. Then a friend of mine, Bill Nye, who I’ve become latter day friends with – He highlighted for me that there’s a point where people just simply might not have otherwise cared about the universe at all. And now that I’m there, I’ve enabled them to care about the universe, but they’re so enchanted by the fact that I’m the one doing it, it’s the picture with me that they seek, but that I should still celebrate the fact that – I don’t play in a rock band, I’m not any of these things that normally trigger fan reactions – I’m a scientist. I was told that I should celebrate the fact that be it science or the scientist – if it’s getting the same fan reaction that a rock star does, then there’s still hope for the universe.
What do you think about sites like Reddit where there are these huge pushes to double the NASA budget?
I think any grassroots – that’s such an overused phrase and I wish we had a fresh one to use – effort to improve NASA, which carries with it our dreams of a future that is brought to us by science and technology. I think any effort to accomplish this is the right effort and to do it in venues like Reddit, Twitter, or YouTube – you’re affecting the electorate and that’s where I think the energy should be invested. Those people who want to convince their members of Congress what they should do, well, 88% of Congress stands for re-election every 2 years so then you have to do it again for whoever replaces that person. And plus that’s a little subtrifugal, because these are representatives of a community of people. So why not just convince the community and then the politicians have to follow in behind that because at the end of the day, they, as does the President of the United States, they work for us. We don’t work for them.
Do you ever get frustrated with the lack of interest in science in America?
No, as an educator and as a scientist, I have some obligation to remind people of what it is to be excited about the universe. So, my disappointment is not if you don’t know science, my disappointment is if you think you know science but you don’t or you somehow fear science because you think it’s bad. There’s some failure going on in the educational system that needs to be rectified. If you think science is your enemy, if you think science is the root of all evil, then you’ve been brainwashed by somebody at some point and that’s gotta stop, otherwise America will just slide back into the cave.
Do you think that’s a problem because of religion?
I think it’s dogma. Dogma is a problem wherever it has revealed itself in the history of culture. Here’s what I believe – Dogma is “an evidence does not matter” belief. That’s dogma. You can have political dogma, religious dogma, and even scientific dogma. Scientific dogma is rarer because we have mechanisms in place to weed out such thinking and the people weeded out are other scientists. There’s a reward system if you weed out that kind of thinking. Whereas, I don’t see that happening in other systems be they political, religious or economic. So you can have other kinds of dogma. Wherever there is dogma, a system stagnates. So, there can be religious dogma and in some sectors of our culture there is. But there’s also other kinds of dogma. There’s the Luddite dogma – all technology is bad. Meanwhile, the person is alive because of some vaccine that was developed through the efforts of technology. So that’s a kind of an ignorance where people are critical of science without ever actually understanding the ways that it has made their lives better.
Does your perception of yourself in the public eye motivate you to be better?
Well, no – I just think if you can do anything you might as well do it as well as you can do it. Imagine if more people felt that way about everything they did. So, I think not enough people seek to improve whatever it is they’re doing and I try to. So, if I’m called to be on a talk show, I’ll do research on the host, what their rhythms are and what kind of jokes they tell so I can be ready for it.
What, if any, are your thoughts on hallucinogenic drugs?
Well, that’s out of the blue. I am stupefied by how easy it is to completely alter your capacity to think rationally. Another way to say that is, I’m stupefied by how susceptible the brain function is to the influence of simple chemicals. And that can be alcohol, hallucinogenic drugs, the active ingredient in marijuana – it can be any of these. Cocaine, heroin, even caffeine – they are all a chemical that influences your conduct as a human being. They do it in very simple ways – so that tells me something about the human brain – that it’s not a robust organ. It’s waiting to fail. It’s going to find any excuse to fail. So, if you’re not in the business of thinking deep thoughts about the physical world – because our brain only barely works in the physical world – think about it. Think about books that we call optical illusions. Who doesn’t love a good optical illusion? I do just as much as the next person. What those books really should be called are brain failures. “Oh, I don’t know, is it a lion in the pattern, which lion is longer? I don’t know!” They’re brain failures – every last one of them. Simple brain failures. So, here we have to trick the brain that doesn’t even require much of an effort. The brain’s association with reality is a tenuous one and if reality doesn’t matter much to you and you’re into recreational drugs then OK. When I think of reality, I think my brain has got to be as sharp as it possibly can be just to take in the reality that is the object of my interest. I don’t know anybody who made major discoveries while they were on LSD. They might have reflections on those times afterward.
What about Francis Crick who said he discovered the double helix structure of DNA on LSD?
Ok, let’s suppose that were even true. How often do people who are drunk or otherwise influenced by chemicals make great discoveries? I think if everyone went on LSD at the same time, that would be the end of culture or civilization as we know it. So at some point, reality has got to matter because it’s reality that we are doing the investigating on.
In 1991, Texas began construction on a Supercollider particle accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider currently operating in Switzerland. Due to budget problems, the project was cancelled in 1993. I was wondering what your thoughts on the failed project were.
It’s an absence of vision by Congress. It was the beginning of the end of our leadership in expensive frontier science projects in America that’s been ceded to Europe and Asia. I don’t think the case was made. Somebody has got to make the case and it can’t be just “I like discovering new particles.” The intersection of science with funders of science needs a better argument than that and that’s an argument that I know I make. The question is whether it’s made effectively. In my recent book Space Chronicles, I talk about things that fund major projects – drivers that are behind them.
Was there a moment you realized people needed to hear what you were talking about?
Well, no. There’s a moment where – I don’t force this on people. All of the YouTube videos I’m on and 85% of any time I’m on TV, it’s because the universe flinched and I got a phone call and they want me to show up and talk about it. Period. I offer people perspectives so that they understand the consequences of action or inaction based on how they apply their science literacy or not. That’s what I do. Then, I go home. I don’t lead marches, I’m not running for office, I don’t have websites that try to promote this, I don’t start letter writing campaigns – I’m just putting it out there.
For you personally, what would be the most exciting thing that the Mars rover discovers?
I want an alien to crawl out and go joy riding on Curiosity. I want Curiosity to find life. That would be an extreme version of life and it’s not looking for life, but it does have cameras. The search for life – it would be fun if we found it – it would transform biology.
In your opinion, what is the single most significant discovery in science since you’ve been in the field?
I would say dark energy – the one that just got the Nobel Prize.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I hear good advice, I amalgamate it into tapestry and so it’s not sitting out alone, away. Let me think. It’s a quote from Horace Mann that I want to use as my epitaph. It’s “Be ashamed to die until you have scored some victory for humanity.” That’s my credo I would say and I take it as advice, even though I never met the guy, but I live by that.
If aliens abducted you and you could get take one book, one album, and one movie, what would you choose?
If it was to keep myself entertained, the book would probably be The Complete Works of Shakespeare for a non-science book. I would take Beethoven: The String Quartets. What movie can I see a thousand times over? The Matrix.