Tyson unplugged

By Lawrence Cosentino

On Jan. 14, staff writer Lawrence Cosentino interviewed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and host of PBS Nova scienceNow.

Lawrence Cosentino: Hello, Dr. Tyson. How are you this afternoon?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well. Thank you for your interest.

LC: A fond greeting from the iron atoms in my blood to the iron atoms in your blood. They haven’t hung out together for a while.

NDT: Trying to get nerdy on me, eh?

LC: We’re honored and excited that you’re coming to East Lansing.

NDT: I’ve never been there before. I have colleagues who moved in and out of there and colleagues who went there, so Lansing is in my head, but I thought it was fictional until I was invited to go there.

LC: It’s all too real. Now you have said you never met anyone who isn’t interested in the origin of the universe. But for a lot of people, it’s a forbidding leap from that innate interest, translating that into a zeal for scientific inquiry. How do you — what can you say to help them make that leap?

NDT: That’s an excellent question. We can broaden that innate curiosity to — the broader question is, what is our place in the universe? You can attack that from multiple levels. One is: What is our relationship to the rest of nature? That’s kind of useful. Our relationship to other animals and the rest of life on Earth. One is the relationship of Earth to other planets, and other objects, in the solar system. We get slammed by meteors, for example. That’s a relationship. What’s the relationship of the Sun to its environment and to other stars? What’s the relationship of our local group of our galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy? What’s the relationship of the galaxy to the rest of the universe? And what’s the origin of all this? I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t at least reflected on that. We live in a time — basically, the 20th century going into the 21st century — when we actually have the methods and tools to answer those questions.
Back across the centuries, people may have come up with those questions, but they were left to mythology to give answers to them. For the first time, we can actually answer them. We don’t have an answer to all of them yet. We’ve got top people working on them. One of them is: What was around before the Big Bang? That’s kind of a cool question. It’s a frontier. We don’t have the answer to that yet. But we’ve got the Big Bang pretty well figured out. We’ve got the origin and birth, the life and death of stars figured out. We’ve got the fate of the Sun figured out. The risk that Earth sustains in the presence of asteroids that cross our orbit. So there’s a lot we do know, that we can be quite proud of.
So I don’t think the leap is as big as you implied. It depends on how you pose the question. If the question is, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ then that doesn’t lend itself to specific scientific inquiry, and you’re left philosophizing over beer. But if you say, ‘How old is the Sun? When will the Sun die?’ If you have that question, you’ve got to be interested in the answer to that question. And then we say, “Here are the methods and tools to arrive at that answer.’ And those methods and tools are all drawn from the principles of science.

LC: Well, let me put it another way. And it’s kind of a humble analogy, I hope you don’t laugh, but when I go to a restaurant or a grocery store I pick out a place that gives me personal service, that looks after me, and I think a lot of people have the same attitude toward cosmology. They’d like a cosmology where there are angels, where there’s a God looking after them, that has them in mind, and they find the scientific view of the universe rather cold and impersonal. No one is looking after them, and maybe that accounts for some of the gap.

NDT: That’s another excellent perspective. That one is very — it highlights a very significant aspect of what it is to be human. If you look at how long it took science as we now practice it to be invented, science as we now practice it is basically traceable to Galileo’s time, so, 400 years. ‘As we now practice it’ means you have an idea, you test it, you test it enough to see if the idea is secure, and then you form a theory to give you an understanding of the behavior and operations of nature that allows you to predict things you haven’t even seen before. That all began 400 years ago. But human beings have been around for thousands of years. Thousands and thousands of years. Written history has been around for 6,000 years. Our species has been around for tens of thousands of years. Why did it take so long to come up with this seemingly very simple approach to knowing? It took so long, from where I sit, because it doesn’t look like the human brain thinks that way naturally. So you have to overcome the urges to think that the world is how you want it to be rather than how the world actually is.

LC: That’s a huge leap.

NDT: It’s a huge leap, and you see it today with the press debates about global warming. Something doesn’t become not true just because you don’t want it to be true. It is what it is, and the argument you bring to bear on the problem won’t change that fact. In so many other walks of life, it’s just the person who argues the best who wins the conversation, such as what goes on in a court of law.
Two lawyers who each believe they are correct, yet the person who has the best argument wins. And as a scientist, we look at this and say, ‘Huh? Don’t you want the truth to be what wins, not who the best lawyer is?’
And so we end up with these dialogues in pop culture and politics and in religion and in all these other aspects of human life, where people get into arguments where it’s all about who argues best, not what the truth is.
Because what should happen in the end is people should say, ‘Oh, that’s what works, oh, that’s the truth of it. Fine. Let’s go out and have that beer.’ But these talk shows that pit one person against another, they never end with people shaking hands, walking out and saying ‘We agree.’ It never happens that way. Because the very construct of the conversation prevents it.
In science one person is right. The other person is wrong. Or they’re both wrong, and something else is right that neither of them is arguing. What you can’t have is that both people are right. Whereas we allow people to hold different views and say ‘Well, that’s just life.’ Well, that’s not the universe. The universe doesn’t have that luxury. At least all that we know of it tells us that. So, getting back to a long answer to a very simple but important question, the universe can be cold. Can be even heartless. What of the zebra that just got taken down by the cheetah? It’s not good for the zebra, but it’s all the cheetah knows. Can you get angry with the cheetah? The cheetah is not going to grow carrots.

LC: The classic one is the wasp that lays its eggs inside the —

NDT: Exactly. And its larvae eat away the flesh but leave the nervous system intact so the worm stays alive. No one ever said life is fair, or even that the Earth loves us. In fact, 95 percent of all species that ever were are now extinct. That’s the sign of an Earth that wants to kill us, not one that’s the cradle for life. In other words, while life thrives on Earth, any given species is fighting for survival at all times. Earth is life-friendly, species-hostile. Because some other species is ready to stab you in the back, take your niche in the ecosystem.
So here’s my problem. If you’re waiting for somebody to come save you, and that’s your solution to a problem, then you’re going to be badly disappointed — if it’s an asteroid that’s coming for you, for example. If an asteroid is coming, what are you going to do? Are you going to pray the asteroid doesn’t hit, or are you going to go invent measurements and design apparatus to determine if it’s gonna hit, and then deflect it? Between those two activities, what are you going to invest in?
Of course, if you’re not a scientist or an engineer, praying can’t hurt. But it would hurt if you’re praying instead of actually finding a solution to the problem. We need to understand that the power of our mind can be quite useful in protecting us from those aspects of the universe that are cold and heartless and out to kill us. What that means is, what we have is each other. I think the prospect that the universe is a cold, dark and unfriendly place is a call for us to treat ourselves better than we do. So I take the opposite view. The opposite view is: I know it’s cold and heartless out there. All the more reason to treat each other like we’re brothers and sisters. Rather than saying, ‘Somebody out there is gonna save me, so therefore nothing else matters.’

LC: I’ve never had the privilege of seeing you in person, but I’ve watched some of your talks on the Internet. I get the impression that in spite of how frustrating it must be to communicate the wonder and awe that you obviously feel at the cosmos and the human mind’s ability to explain it — to get it out of your head and into my or someone elses’s head — you don’t show that frustration. You don’t retreat into — people have compared you to Carl Sagan, and I sensed a sadness in Sagan, almost as if he felt he was fighting a losing battle, while other public intellectuals, like Richard Dawkins, have gone the other way — ‘the hell with you if you don’t agree with us’ — but you maintain that childlike infectiousness. It’s not a drag to hear you speak, and that’s kind of rare.

NDT: Well, thank you for that. It’s not some act or anything. I genuinely feel what you feel back as a listener. The universe brings great pleasure and intellectual enlightenment to me, and I can’t not share that when I’m speaking in front of you. You’re going to feel that. I’m not there to make you a scientist, but it isn’t my universe, it’s our universe. By the way, I’ve looked at the extent to which someone I’m speaking with, and the content I’m sharing, to see their reactions. I share some content and they just look politely back at me. With other content, their eyebrows rise, their pupils dilate, and I see biophysiological responses to some information compared with others. So I’ve looked at what that was, so that when I present the universe to the public, I’ve been pre-edited by the response of the public in the past. There are things I could tell you about, but I’m not, because you’d just be bored. I select from the universe those things that I think are really cool — because I’ve been informed by you, the listener, that they’re really cool — and they are actual subjects we work on, as professional scientists. So it’s not a stretch. So I do monitor that. All you need to do is get someone curious enough in the subject and eager enough to learn the answer, that they’ll do all they can to figure out how to arrive at the answer. If it means going back to school, learning science, learning math, I think they’ll do it.

LC: As you become more and more of a well known — I don’t like the word ‘celebrity,’ but I can’t think of another word — a person in the public eye, do you miss your life as a solitary observer, researcher, thinker?

NDT: It happened very gradually. It’s very quantitative. I remember when one stranger a week would stop me in the street. Then it went to two a week, then three a week, then one a day, then three a day, and now it’s about 20 or 30 a day, depending on how many people I walk past, obviously. If I’m walking in the desert it’s a slow day. But in the city, getting in and out of cabs, walking in airport corridors, walking down the street, it’s between 20 and 30 a day. What’s frustrating is that I can’t — I’ve got to be on my best behavior all the time. I can’t pick my nose, I can’t do things I might otherwise have done if I were completely anonymous.

LC: George Clooney said exactly the same thing. He missed being able to pick his nose.

NDT: Yeah, just scratch my nose, whatever. I have to be a little more ‘on’ when I’m in public. But I don’t have a problem with that. Because whatever is my celebrity is, is incredibly far away from crossing the paparazzi line, where you don’t actually have privacy. Yes, I’ve been in restaurants where people come over, but it’s innocent. They want an autograph, or they ask me a question about black holes. Many people are polite. There are no cameras waiting for me outside the restaurant.

LC: You must understand how cool that is — for once, having someone who really has something to say have that kind of status and celebrity.

NDT: It’s interesting you say that, because let’s say you see your favorite actor on the street and you run up to them. What are you going to talk about?

LC: ‘Oh gee, I saw all your movies, blah blah blah…’

NDT: Exactly. What do you do? So I’m happy to report that most of the people — there are exceptions to this — but most of the people who come up to me, whether or not they ask for an autograph, they’ll say ‘Aren’t you the guy that’s on the PBS,’ [I say] ‘Yeah, yeah,’ then they’ll say ‘that’s great, but tell me more about black holes.’ So they see me not as the object of their interest, but something that feeds their interest. That’s an important — that’s how I know I’m doing my job. They don’t ask me my favorite color. They feel enlightened, empowered by the information I’ve previously conveyed to them by writings or YouTube clips, and now they just want more. As an educator, if I can’t do that, what am I doing?

LC: You mentioned gaps in knowledge. We’re learning more all the time, and knowledge seems to be accelerating, but is there any way you can briefly summarize the biggest gaps that are left?

NDT: There are three nice ones, three very tasty ones. We have no idea what dark matter is. We don’t even know if it’s matter. It’s just a source of gravity, and we have no idea what’s causing it. In fact, 85 percent of all the gravity in the universe traces to something, entities, about which we know nothing. 15 percent of the gravity in the universe comes from things like matter, the stuff that comes from the Periodic Table of the Elements. That’s a big gap.
Another one is, the universe is accelerating its expansion and we have no idea what’s causing it. We have a place holder term called ‘dark matter’ or ‘dark energy.’ We could have called it ‘Fred and Ethel.’ We don’t know what it is!
Don’t be swayed by the terms we are using. We are completely dumb-stupid about what it is.

: When I was in school, that was an open question about whether or not the universe was going to keep on expanding and collapsing, back and forth, in upon itself, over and over, or … .

NDT: It wasn’t as open a question as your professors might have indicated, because data always showed that we were on a one-way trip. If you paid attention to the data, it was a one-way universe.

LC: So we’re never having this conversation again, basically.

NDT: That’s correct. It’s done. That dialogue is done.

LC: I have a brief summary of the topic you’ll be talking about here at Michigan State, and I wonder if you could expand on it: ‘Scientific and technological innovations through time and across cultures have allowed some nations to leave their mark on our understanding of the world.’

NDT: This is a discussion about what went on in those cultures for that to be true. What kind of investments in their infrastructure, in their education, in their science literacy, in their conversations with other nations who are different than they are. How open are you to other philosophies, for example.

LC: You just said a lot of magic words for 2009.

NDT: I’ll be discussing how nations rose and fell based on how they invested in their technological and scientific literacy. And what America is doing today on that very same landscape.

LC: Can you bring out one example?

NDT: Here is an example that will occupy a large fraction of my talk. The stars in the night sky — two-thirds of those that have names have Arabic names. Our numerals are called Arabic numerals. Why is that so? How could it be? What’s going on over there in the Middle East?

LC: For a very long time they kept the candle lit, didn’t they?

NDT: Exactly. And that was for 300 years, 1,000 years ago, that was the intellectual center of the world. That is no longer the case. So why is that? It turns out there was a leader who came of age at that time who declared that mathematics was the work of the devil, and he gained traction among adherents. The fear factor got very high among those who were engaging in these mathematical exercises. By the way, algebra came out of that period as well. ‘Algorithm’ is Arabic. That fear basically halted what was one of the greatest intellectual movements in the history of culture. And the Islamic community has yet to recover from that.

LC: Do we have a fear factor now, here in the West, or in the United States in particular?

NDT: Well, we’re not investing. We don’t have the Supercollider anymore, that’s in Switzerland. Our bridges are collapsing, our steam pipes explode, dikes break. America’s not what we’ve always held it to be in our mind’s eye.

LC: That brings me to the space program. I can’t help but wonder whether it can flourish, or even survive, without some kind of geopolitical or quasi-military thruster underneath it.

NDT: That’s a pretty sad fact, and not many people understand it. We went to the moon because we were at war with Russia, not because we were explorers or discoverers. We reflect on that error, telling ourselves that we were, but nothing could be farther than the truth at the time. We were at war with Russia, plain and simple. Historians know this, but the public kind of cleanses that period in our memories. So here’s a movement, driven by war, but it catalyzed an entire generation of people to go into science and engineering and technology fields, which then birthed the IT revolution. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were, like, 12 or 13 during the Apollo era, when we landed on the moon. It was the right age to be looking at that stuff.

LC: Is it possible that the next push we get may come not from war, but from climate change or other catastrophes on the planet?

NDT: You can do science to solve life’s problems, or do science just to push a frontier, and I think in the end you want to do a little of both. When you try to solve a problem, you may be oblivious to a solution that might come from an entirely different branch of science, that you’d only learn by funding all research paths.

LC: With the change in administrations, are you optimistic that the investment in infrastructure and science will happen?

NDT: I’m neutral right now. I want to see what he does in the first couple of months. There’s a lot of broken things that need to be fixed, and it will take a lot of restraint and foresight to say, ‘I can put all my money to fix these things, but none of this would be a long-term solution.’ Long-term solutions require an (research and development) level of investment that allows you to say, ‘We can’t fix this now. In fact, let’s abandon it in place because we’re going to get a better solution to it next time that won’t even break.’ I’m paraphrasing a thought there, but that’s the, ‘Do you repair the levee, or do you invent a new system that doesn’t even use levees, and then install that?’ If you only go around repairing things, you never advance your frontier.

LC: That’s not a level of planning and foresight we’re used to.

NDT: Especially when our representatives have to be back on the street in two years.

LC: Finally, I’m going to ask a lighter question. Is your office upstairs from the planetarium?

NDT: Yes it is.

LC: Do you ever wish you could go down there in some kind of time warp and show your nine-year-old self the kind of life you’re leading right now?

NDT: No, that never, that thought never came up. It would make an interesting sci-fi story. But it never came up because I’m leading the life I imagined I would back then. So it’s not like, ‘I can’t wait to tell my nine-year-old self what I became when I grew up.’ I was nine when I first saw the planetarium. At 11 I wanted to become an astrophysicist. So as a kid, I’d have said, ‘yeah, and your point is?’