Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most famous astrophysicist of our time. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, where he has served since 1996. He is the two-time host of the beloved TV series Cosmos — rebooting the original 1980 series hosted by Carl Sagan. Dr. Tyson is also the host and cofounder of the Emmy-nominated popular podcast StarTalk and its spinoff StarTalk Sports Edition, which combine science, humour, and pop culture. He is a recipient of 21 honorary doctorates, the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and the Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA. Asteroid 13123 Tyson is named in his honour.
In a time when our political and cultural views feel more polarized than ever, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in his new book Starry Messenger, provides a much-needed antidote to so much of what divides us, while making a passionate case for the twin chariots of enlightenment – a cosmic perspective and the rationality of science.
In this interview, I speak to Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. We discuss life, culture and civilisation as seen through a scientific perspective and look at how the universe provides us with the perfect palette to examine truth, beauty, identity, life, and death.
Q: What has space done for us?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: People ask why we’re spending money on space exploration when we have problems here on Earth. That question comes from a very honest perspective where space can seem irrelevant compared to the very real problems of crime, violence, homelessness, and poverty which feel like they’re not getting addressed…The first reaction I have to this the fact that we’ve had wars, poverty, and homelessness long-before anyone wen t into space. It’s not accurate to say, ‘we’re doing space exploration, and that’s why we have poverty…’ – if we stopped space exploration, those problems wouldn’t be solved, they haven’t been solved in thousands of years. Jesus commented on the poor, needy and weak long before the advent of space travel. Next, people look at the work NASA does- the International Space Station, the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble, The Lunar Missions… they argue, ‘well, why don’t we take that money and put it to better use?’ – how much money do you think it is? In the United States, it’s 0.4% of your tax dollar that funds all of that – Why don’t people look at the other 99.6% of the money and ask why that hasn’t solved poverty? Well… it’s because what NASA does is hugely visible, so people think they are getting all the money in the budget! Wouldn’t it be amazing if we started a movement that meant government agencies would get funded to the level people thought they were funded? In that case, NASA’s budget would probably increase 10x. Space innovation has improved our health, wealth, lives, and security. We have satellite images of hurricanes now – it wasn’t long ago when that was impossible- when there was just a storm on the horizon that came to sweep everything away or- further back- an angry God. We can’t control the weather (yet) but we do understand it. It’s incredible – we can now predict the weather 10 days out with reasonable accuracy… I can tell you accurately what time it will rain in 10 days. When I was growing up, we didn’t know if it was going to rain that day. Weather prediction? Space. Navigation? Space. The miniaturisation of electronics? Space. Medical advances? …a lot of those are from space innovation too. In the life of our grandparents, the radio shrunk from being the size of a room to something so small you can’t even pinpoint where it is on a circuit board.
So, sit back and celebrate what this kind of knowledge and exploration has done, and then look at the rest of the budget and see if you can solve your deepest problems with that.
Q: Does the cosmos help us understand the great philosophical questions?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: The universe provides us with the most excellent palette from which to draw creative ideas. Look at the burgeoning of science fiction storytelling for example- stories set in black holes, wormholes, that use antimatter, time travel and warp drives… that’s all my stuff being used! That’s the vocabulary of astrophysicists being used – you see it everywhere… the Milky Way Candy Bar…. Do you know how many car names are inspired by the universe? The Chevy Astro… the Saturn car company… Subaru? That’s the Japanese word for the Pleiades Star Cluster in the night sky, and their logo even has the six stars of the cluster! These are all examples of the universe being felt by artists and creatives to make something.
It has been said that we went to the moon to explore the moon, but while we were there, we looked over our shoulder and discovered Earth. Seeing the Earth in that perspective upgraded the firmware of all our brains, of everyone’s subconscious. Those missions sparked Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a comprehensive Clean Air Act… a Clean Water Act… a ban on Leaded Fuels… So much change came from seeing Earth in space alone, adrift, in darkness, illuminated on one side by the sun. So much activism came from seeing that there’s no hint of anyone coming to help us from somewhere, that we’re here by ourselves on one planet, one ecosystem. If we trash this ecosystem, we’re trashing the very thing that sustains us.
These are the kinds of cosmic perspectives that not enough people have, certainly not enough people in power. We shouldn’t need Greta Thunberg, people in power should already have that point of view, and they don’t – and that’s sad – without any major adjustments to our conduct and behaviour, we will see the unravelling of an informed civilisation,
Q: Do we really understand the complexity of us?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: The human genome is admirably complex and it’s fair to ask whether there’s a finite number of humans it could make. The answer is yes, but it’s 10^30 – an incomprehensibly big number. The fact that you and I are alive is against stupendous odds. One day we will die, and that’s sad, but there are people who will never die because they were never born. We’re the lucky ones, we get to die. You can only die if you were alive. That knowledge of being alive against all odds might bring a sense of comfort and pain to those struggling with illness, or those who may wish to shorten their lives or create pain. Today, we live twice as long as we did 150 years ago. For most of human history, with some exceptions, life expectancy was in the mid-thirties. Life expectancy for our species didn’t improve until we entered the industrial era – it’s only in the last 50 years of the 20th century that we’ve seen major progress in the average life expectancy of our species. This is all because of science. It’s not about just eating free range food… cavemen ate the most free range animals you could imagine.. they were agrarian… they didn’t have pesticides or herbicides… their food was organic… but they barely got to live to half the age we do now.
Q: How do we fight back against the trend to ignore – and dismiss – scientific perspectives?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: Well firstly, we live in a free country. If you want to think the stars affect your life, the Earth is flat or that Mars is in the seventh house in the age of Aquarius… your thoughts are constitutionally protected – I honestly don’t care unless you rise to power and have control over resources, legislation, and laws. If you take your ideas that have no scientific foundation and try to apply them to everyone? Then I have a problem.
Let’s think about star signs… They’re not that fundamentally different from the tenets of religion in the sense that they’re making claims and statements about the world without any real scientific enquiry. The reason that religions can- and do- persist is because we have free expression. So, on one side, I’m not going to have a go at people with non-scientific views per-say, but on the other side, I’ll encourage them to not bring those ideas to my science class. Don’t pretend that religion is a science… don’t try and slip religion into a science curriculum. It’s not science, it’s something else. It’s harmless to thin the Earth is flat, but if you want to believe that chanting will cure cancer, you’re putting your health at risk. If you want to believe that ancient medicine is better than modern scientific medicine, you’re putting your life at risk. You need only look at life expectancy in ancient times to know that their ‘medicines’ were not as effective as ours.
Q: Is part of the problem that we’re not geared to understand the mechanics of how the universe works?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: Our brains are not wired to think statistically or in terms of probabilities. That’s sad because whole industries have emerged to exploit this reality – top of the list, casinos. A roulette table is one of the simplest forms of gambling – you bet on a number, or colour, and that number, or colour, may or may not appear. You have people in casinos betting on 7 because they think it’s due. No, it’s not. That’s not how this works. Casinos exploit the fact that our brains want that to be true. The whole point of the scientific method is to do all you can to prevent yourself from thinking something is true that is not – or conversely, to prevent yourself from thinking something isn’t true, that is. In school, we tend to not teach probabilities as a fundamental thing, like reading, writing and arithmetic. It should really be reading, writing and statistics.
Let me tell you a story. The American Physical Society (the nation’s community of Physicists) meet every year for a big blow-out conference. There was a year in the 1980s when this group of more than 4,000 descended into Las Vegas. There’s a newspaper article about 4,000 physicists coming to Las Vegas, and how it was the lowest casino take, ever. Guess what… as scientists, every single one of us is trained – not at beating the house, but in statistics. So we didn’t bet! You have to be able to understand your biases – most perniciously, confirmation bias. This is where you see something you want to be true, and even after looking at all the information, you don’t see the conflicting ideas and conflicting data. You only see the data that agree with you. Society is rampant with confirmation bias! Maybe they should teach whole classes on cognitive biases, and how those biases disrupt our ability to make rational decisions.
Q: What does legacy mean to you?
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: I don’t care about legacy, I’ll be dead. I don’t need to be remembered; I don’t want a statue. I already know what I want on my tombstone… It’s a quote from Horace Mann, an educator who was giving his farewell address to a class, ‘I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these, my parting words. Be ashamed to die unless you have won some victory for humanity.’
[Vikas: But what about your work as an educator?]
[Neil deGrasse Tyson]: If you know something, and if the reason you’re confident is that I told you that thing? That means I wasn’t a good educator at that moment because you decided that based on some authority figure, something is real, or true. Instead, an educator should teach you how to think about a problem – how to come to some form of understanding – how to come to terms with the challenges you will need to face. Education should give you the tools to solve problems so that the next time you hit a problem, you attack it with all the resources available to you. Perhaps the world is a little better off for my having been in it in that regard, but that’s not my personal legacy – that’s a goal everybody should have. Nobody should make the world worse off for their having lived in it. Everyone has the obligation to add their brick to the edifice of civilisation, and whether that brick is big or small, it means you have contributed to building- not destroying. If everyone thought like this, I think the world would be a much better place.