Q&A

Science communicator


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON

Positions: Host of “Cosmos” TV documentary and “Star Talk” podcast. Director of Hayden Planetarium in New York City since 1996. Staff scientist at Hayden Planetarium from 1994 to 1996.
Notable: Director of the Hayden Planetarium during the reconstruction completed in 2000. In 2004, served on President George W. Bush’s “Moon, Mars and Beyond” commission, which held public hearings and recommended priorities for NASA. Popularized the term “Manhattanhenge” in Natural History magazine to describe the solstice alignment of the sun with the street grid of Manhattan island.
Age: 59
Residence: New York
Education: Bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University; master’s degree in astronomy from University of Texas at Austin; doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has emerged as an outspoken defender in the U.S. of science and its underlying processes, all of which he suggests are dangerously ignored in Congress and the White House these days. As frustrating as things can be, he says it is possible to discuss science without resorting to screaming. I spoke to Tyson on the phone about the Trump administration, the ethos of science and technology, our collective future and the next season of “Cosmos,” his 21st-century update of the groundbreaking 1980 television documentary hosted by Carl Sagan.

In his words

New episodes of “Cosmos”

It’ll be the same spirit and the same DNA as the previous “Cosmos,” as well as the “Cosmos” back in 1980. And that DNA is about what it is to be a participant in the ecosystem of the world, as opposed to being distinct and separate from it. We are trained to think of science in these stovepipes. You’re a biologist, you’re a chemist or you’re a geologist and you have a show that covers all of them and it sounds like it’s broad. But Earth doesn’t care what you are when an asteroid comes. Ann Druyan, who is a sort of creative force of this show, is deeply scientifically literate and even more deeply enlightened with regard to the human condition. She was one of the original writers in 1980 [and later Carl Sagan’s wife].

Scientists as expert commentators

If a bridge falls down, I’m not going to volunteer to be the person who comments on the structural failure of the metal members of the bridge. No, I would say go find an engineer for that. If there is a question that relates to the universe and my answer needs to tap the chemistry, geology, whatever, if that happens to be outside of my specific expertise, then I’ll do some homework and brush up on that.

Scientists advocating in politics

Should scientists address members of Congress? I’m not going to say what they should or shouldn’t. I will never tell someone what they should do. If I’m asked to testify, then I will. That’s just you’re doing a citizen duty. I’m not going to lobby Congress, because that means I’m telling Congress what they should do separate from what their electorate tells them what to do, and I’m not going to do that. I don’t focus on elected officials because they are elected by an electorate. So if the lawmaker happens to not be scientifically literate, it means the people who voted that person into office are also either not scientifically literate, or they do not care that the person that represents them is scientifically literate or not.

Science education and democracy

You could talk yourself till you’re blue in the face getting a [congressional] representative to think one way about science relative to another, and then they’re up for re-election in two years. And somebody else comes in. Now you’ve got to do that again? Well, you can bypass that entire exercise and educate the public. That’s what “Cosmos” does, that’s what books do, that’s what documentaries do, that’s what I do. I say as an educator, I should train people what science is and how and why it works, and what are the consequences of actions and inactions. You can choose to not teach science in the school classroom, because education is local, it’s not federal, because it’s not mentioned in the Constitution, therefore, it is handed over to the states. You can teach Earth is flat and, OK; I’m not going to scream at you, I’m just not, I don’t have the time or energy to do so. What I will say is, if you teach people that Earth is flat, you are disenfranchising your community, your state, from any future industry moving their factory or their headquarters into your community. Because the growth industries of this world are all tech-driven, science-driven, engineering-driven. And if you care about wealth and health and security, then you better start becoming STEM literate so that you can make informed decisions regarding it, including decisions regarding who represents you, not only in municipal government but in federal government. And so if you choose not to, then you will bankrupt your state.

Nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., for NASA administrator

What’s interesting to me is not what he has said in the past, but is he capable of learning things he did not know in the past, and what knowledge will he be taking forward into that job? That’s what educators do, we try to enlighten people. If he says, I’m sticking to my guns, I’m incapable of seeing what the scientists are saying, if he then becomes head of NASA, and then implements the direction of NASA in consort with those ideas, then NASA will fade on the world stage of space exploration. Other countries who do understand what science is and how and why it works will pass us by, like Russia, India, especially China. We can sit here and debate climate change forever, go right ahead, just don’t expect the United States to lead the world in anything going forward.

Republicans and climate science

Not only is it the Environmental Protection Agency that banned lead in paints and other things under a Republican president, it was the EPA that was created under a Republican president, President [Richard] Nixon. And when the EPA came online there was a Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. If you’re a Republican and you’re denying human-caused climate change, that’s odd to me, because you’d have to then be denying science. And there’s a lot of other science that they do not deny, like quantum physics, which is responsible for the computers and the cellphones they use. What I think is really going on is, they don’t want any legislation related to curtailing climate change to negatively influence their investment portfolio or the industries that people think would get hurt, hurt as in economically hurt by such legislation. What should happen is they should say, “Oh, we recognize the science, we just don’t care. I care more about the money I’m going to make in the next six months than the effect that this will have on the environment in five years or 10 years.”

At that point it’s pure politics and money, rather than science.

Targeting of environmental science

[President Donald Trump] doesn’t talk much about science at all. So it’s very hard to link any specific policy being implemented on anything. We have representative government. You never had episodes of people debating what science was true or not, when it came time to think intelligently about legislation. So it means that people who voted for Trump, they either know about the science and don’t care, or they don’t know about the science. So you get the country you voted for in a democracy. If the nation does not embrace STEM, it will cost us economically, it’ll cost us with regard to our health, it’ll cost us with regard to our security.

New York and flood risks of climate change

It seems like people are more able and interested in spending 10 times as much money to rebuild as they are to prevent themselves from having to rebuild in the first place. You say, “Let’s build a higher flood wall, we’ve never had a flood that high before.” And then a flood that never happened before happens and takes out half the city. It may be unique to America, but it’s probably something human. We’re not good at being pre-emptive about things that we don’t physically see or experience. So the countries that have such foresight, that do make such investment are the ones that will assure their survival and their continuance on the other side of that catastrophe. STEM illiteracy could be the thing that completely unravels the standing that the United States has come to build and enjoy out of the 20th century.

Engineers in astrophysics

The last thing you should tell an engineer is “design this however you want and here’s an unlimited budget.” But if you say, “it’s got to be under 30 kilograms and it’s got to happen within this budget and it’s got to be done within this amount of time,” then extraordinary creativity unfolds. In my field, we depend heavily on innovative engineers. For example, how do you put a telescope mirror that’s bigger than the diameter of a fairing, on a launch fairing of a rocket? They figured out how to unfurl a mirror, and then, boom, you’ve got a mirror bigger than the fairing. I still deeply enjoy doing original research, it’s just hard to fold that into the rest of my activities, so much of which are trying to enhance public appreciation for science through books and radio and TV and the like. But I have this fantasy that one day I give it all up and just go back to the lab.

Challenges, opportunities for science careers

Today there are more opportunities to be an astrophysicist outside of academia. There’s an entire space industry, for example. You can be an astrophysicist for Lockheed Martin or for Boeing or for Northrop Grumman. You can work for NASA in multiple ways in many of their centers at JPL and Goddard in Maryland, for example. Possibly even SpaceX or for Bigelow. They all need astro folks who are trained in physics, who think about the universe, who know how to code. So it’s not different from when I was growing up in the sense that the path of study is the same. The physics, the math, the rigor, the focus, the intensity, the commitment, especially. What you do with it afterward is just a matter where your interests fall. Do you want to stay in academia, do you want to go out to industry? The only other difference is today, there are many more occasions for a person to bring the universe to the public.

Diversity in hiring and advancement in aerospace

Advancement is different from hiring, of course. I’m not close enough to that world to have insight into how well it’s doing or not. There were some very powerful women in the aerospace industry in the past, but the fact that I can name them means there weren’t many of them. Joanne Maguire [former executive vice president at Lockheed Martin], for example, was very powerful, highly influential and there’s also the WIA, Women in Aerospace. That’s a very well-organized community of women in the field and they would surely have statistics on this. I just don’t know.

Doing science for defense contractors

I’m not one to judge their ethical compass on this. I can say that some fraction of us do exactly this: They go into an industry and will participate in classified research in the service of the defense of the country. Less than 10 percent do so, but they do and they are paid way better than you are if you stay in academia. That’s also true just for going to industry at all, that’s the allure of industry. They’ll pay you at least 50 percent again of what you would get paid if you stayed being an academic scientist. The best of the managers are the ones who understand the mindset of a STEM professional when it’s time to manage them and inspire them and to make the right decisions going forward.

Coexisting parallel universes, a multiverse?

In a multiverse there’s an unlimited number of universes, all with slightly different laws of physics, in the model that we’re thinking about today. There’s good theoretical justification to think that way [because of] quantum fluctuations in the early universe. We create bubbles, each bubble will then have its own laws of physics that would expand, contract, so we’d be in one such bubble.

Studying the Big Bang

Right now we can see 380,000 years after the Big Bang, using electromagnetic-wave telescopes. However, neutrino telescopes, gravitational-wave telescopes, can pierce that wall, and enable us to see much farther back in time to the first fractions of a second, after the explosion. The LIGO [pronounced lie-go, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory] gravitational light telescopes in Louisiana and in Washington state detect gravity waves, and there’s several others being built around the world. Those get even more sensitive and better designed, then we can part that curtain and see even before [the Big Bang]. We have ideas of what happened before, but it’d be nice to get first-hand evidence.

Risks of artificial intelligence

All technologies have dangers. I don’t see the future of AI in that role being fundamentally different from challenges we’ve had to face in the past. There’s the concern that AI just will get up and say, “Oh, we don’t need humans; humans are a scourge of the world.” I’m glad science fiction writers are portraying those futures. It means these are futures we will know we don’t want, and then put in protections for us. Will AI make us more lazy than television has? With television you have to sit there and do nothing else. If instead, you are in some kind of virtual simulator and you’re spending 30 hours a week on that, I think the net effect is the same.

Autonomous flight

We are already deeply embedded in AI. The Boeing 777 airplane is flown by computers [pilots say much of the time]. We have contained the kinds of decisions they make for very specific roles. I see the future of AI as being very tuned to specific needs of our lives. That’s been the trend and I don’t see why that wouldn’t continue.

Government search for alien life

I think in the next 50 years we will know whether or not there’s any life at all on Mars or Europa or any other places in the solar system. So, SETI [the search for intelligent life] is a small percent of the total money spent on astrophysics. It’s completely sensible that some fraction of any total research budget goes into a very-low-probability, but high-impact discovery. I think if you interviewed the community of astrophysicists, we’re all perfectly happy that some amount of money goes into that exploit. I’d want the Pentagon to look at things that might be a security risk. And if an F-18A infrared sensor finds something we don’t understand, I’d hope they’d be checking it out. As for eyewitness testimony of pilots, this is a very low form of evidence in science.

Is Earth ready for alien visitors?

There is no day where I think we would be ready, it’ll just happen and we’ll all freak out, but then we’ll get used to it. If we meet them, it means they came to us, which means they’re light years ahead of us in technology.

Nuclear weapons: spiritual vs. scientific power

The 20th century didn’t invent war. Every generation since we were hunter-gatherers, a smaller and smaller percentage of people have died at the hands of an enemy force, even into the 20th century. So in other words, if you’re a tribe of 100 people, let’s say, and you have a watering hole and there’s another tribe that wants to fight you for the watering hole, a third of that 100 people could end up dead. There are some countries that were small where a third of the people died in the Second World War, but when you take the war in total, no, that’s not what happened. As much as we ran ramshackle over Germany, the fraction of Germany’s population that died in the war is smaller than that of hunter-gatherers. And by the way, why is a nuke somehow spiritually different than a missile that doesn’t have a nuke? To say today we have a nuclear warhead and so [our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power] is missing the actual likelihood of you dying in warfare.

Astronaut gene editing

We will have very high control over our genome in the not-so-distant future. If there’s some feature that we need to adjust, the spacefarers would get their genes adjusted and then they’d go into space. I don’t see adjusting DNA because you want to be a spacefarer as a moral issue. I don’t see that as any different, really, from what anybody else is already doing with their lives. We make changes to our bodies that don’t involve DNA adjustment. For example, if you’re an Olympic competitor, your body is really different from everybody else’s, and it didn’t happen genetically, it happened because you trained 40 hours a week.

Artificial-gravity spaceships

The concern about zero gravity is then you design a spaceship that spins up, and then you have artificial gravity. It’s solvable instantly and not enough research has been put into that, basically. So if you go on any real long space journey, just design something that rotates. Reality seems to be behind science fiction in that regard.

Hibernation in deep space

I don’t see it as a priority. There is no meaningful talk of suspended animation for space travel. In science fiction stories the premise is we would go into hibernation. The questions you have to ask are how much are you saving? And do people who had spent time in the suspended animation, do they live longer? If you look at mammals that hibernate, you know their heart rate drops and their metabolism slows down. So you have to ask, “Why would we want to do this? Is it to save food?” [If] you’re not going to die later than you’d otherwise die, it’s really just to save food. But really, is food the heaviest thing you’re worried about on this trip? If we’re traveling in the solar system, then it’s five years here, 10 years there. But so what? Just go get a movie account or something, and bring books.

Private space missions to Mars, moon

None of this is going to happen unless there’s an economic return for it. It’s not going to happen because we want to do it. This was a big mistake we all made in the 1960s: “Oh we’re on the moon in the 1960s, yeah we’ll be on Mars by 1985, and we’ll have colonies.” We went to the moon because [the Cold War] took us there. In a free democracy, a capitalist democracy, there’s two reasons why we would do anything that’s supremely expensive: One of them is because we don’t want to die, that would be a war driver, and the other is we can get filthy rich, that’s the economic driver. If neither of those two are satisfied, I just simply don’t see it happening.

Related Topics

Commercial SpaceflightHuman SpaceflightSpace ScienceUnmanned Spacecraft

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