Called by the Universe
The following is a transcript of an interview with Roger Bingham from The Science Network.
Roger Bingham: My guest today at The Science Studio is Neil DeGrasse Tyson who is an astrophysicist, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the host of PBS' magazine series NOVA ScienceNOW. We have talked before, obviously, we have talked at Beyond Belief, we talked recently at the Arizona State University Origins Initiative and when I introduced you on that panel, if you recall, one of the terms that I used was that you are a
Pluto Demoter and that got a huge roar from the audience. You have a new book out, obviously, called The Pluto Files.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson: It was an angry roar, not a supportive roar.
Bingham: It was an angry roar, no, it was not supportive, It was a lot of angry people and in this book Unscientific America by blogger Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the entire chapter one is called
Why Pluto Matters, and basically seems to be an indictment of scientists for actually doing this foul deed, demoting Pluto. Why Pluto matters, remind me again why Pluto matters.
Tyson: It doesn't. I was minding my own business until we made a decision in the year 2000 to reorganize our newly conceived exhibits of the solar system. We reorganized in a way that included Pluto with other recently discovered icy, small, cockeyed orbiting objects in the outer solar system. That's really all we did. We didn't say the solar system only now has eight planets, we never said that. There's not a count of planets enumerated in the facility. All we did was say, Pluto, let's group it with these other folks, this belt icy objects that have just been recently discovered. Back then, recent was the 1990's. And so it went a year without much outcry until the New York Times broke a page one story on that decision and it said
Bingham: And what did you understand from looking at that mail?
Tyson: It's all because of Disney's dog. I'm certain of it. Mickey's dog, Pluto. Yeah, I'm convinced.
Bingham: Nothing to do with astronomy?
Tyson: If someone wanted to say they wanted to demote Neptune, do you think people would care? Do you think anyone would give any attention at all? No. They would say fine. The scientists need to do it, fine. Pluto, they learned about Pluto as kids. Pluto was the ninth planet. The littlest planet. You learn about Pluto around the same time in life that you are watching cartoons and learning about Mickey's dog Pluto. And the dog, and the cosmic object, of the same name, were discovered, the cosmic object was discovered in 1930, the dog with the same name was first sketched in 1930. So they have the same tenure in the hearts and minds of Americans. I polled Europeans and others from other continents over their concern over the demotion of Pluto. They didn't care a rat's ass. They didn't care. They were intrigued by it, curious as to why, but nobody lost sleep, no one was driven to write editorials on it. It all happened in America. And I though maybe it was because Pluto was discovered by an American. Maybe we just have a little bit of a jingoistic attitude towards it. Clyde Tombaugh in the 1930's. And I asked them, do you know who discovered Pluto? No. do you know what the nationality of the person who discovered Pluto? No. Nine out of ten people who felt strongly about Pluto did not that an American had discovered it. So that couldn't be the reason. So I just blame Disney. It's that simple. In all fairness, though, to the book, the book is a celebration of the public's reaction to this scientific debate and so there [unintelligible] in there and I got extensive permissions to reproduce comic strips and there's some songs inspired by the Pluto plight. So it's really a celebration and I save my pontificating for the very end. The rest of it, I think there's a lot to learn about the Pluto story there.
Bingham: Did attendance and the Hayden Planetarium go up or down afterwards?
Tyson: Attendance at the Hayden Planetarium was at it's highest when we opened our doors at the new facility in 2000 and then it sort of tails off and then it levels. Actually, we took a hit, as did everybody else in the fall of 2001 because of the terrorist attacks in New York. Once we climbed back out of that we had high numbers but I wouldn't credit it entirely to Pluto. We have other exhibits that might have attracted people.
Bingham: So how many people actually go through that facility? It's a lot, isn't it?
Tyson: It's hard to measure because one, admission gets you through the whole museum and there's not a ticker as you enter the Rose Center for Earth and Space compared with the dinosaur halls. But the best guess we can give to this is about between one, one and half million people go through the astro part of the museum each year. So that's a lot. So that means more than ten million people since we've opened in the year 2000.
Bingham: Ok, so you have a large public audience there.
Tyson: Yeah, so we did this to Pluto and we got raked over the coals by the New York Times, I started getting hate mail. And about six years later, exactly six years later, the International Community of Astrophysicists voted to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet. And so the whole rest of the world sort of caught up with our decision. But it took about six years, and henceforth, the focus of ire on our decision was diffused by now the entire community of astrophysicists was the object of ire.
Bingham: I got the impression from this
Why Pluto Matters chapter in Unscientific America, that there was an arrogance and disdain on the part of the scientific community, which was representative of the disconnect at the science and society level between the practitioners and the recipients, that, sort of, handing down wisdom.
Tyson: Well I can't comment on how their interpretations are. I can tell you that there was a lot of talk about the fact that astronomers should listen to the public about how we might classify our cosmic objects. And I thought that that was not how science proceeds. You don't go to medical doctors and find them polling the public to find out what they should call their next medicine. Or what their next discover is under the microscope. No other science subjects themselves to public participation in how they are going to classify the frontier of their research. So astrophysicists should be under no obligation to poll the public. I don't care how deeply affectionate you felt for these objects that we had talked about. Now that's not arrogance, that's just simple common sense about what it is to move a frontier and the sensitivities you need on that frontier to classify or not. Now, what I was entertained by is, if scientists can't agree, it's kind of fun to get the public to weigh in on it, which is kind of what happened here. Just to see maybe there is someone who has some insights because clearly the scientists are not agreeing so why not look somewhere else to find out who can help out. And I don't have a problem with that but not as a matter of policy. You do that because it's a fun diversion, not because, ok, now it's time to get the public to help us. No other science does that. You wouldn't want another science to do that. It's not how it works. So if that's what's called arrogance, that's a misuse of the word arrogance. Arrogance would be we don't even want to tell you what's going on. An arrogant scientist is one who distances his or her own research from the tax paying public that enabled the research to happen in the first place. That's an arrogant scientist. An arrogant scientist is one who doesn't even take the effort to communicate what's going on in the frontier with the public. That's an arrogant scientist. That's a scientist who sees it as beneath them to communicate with the public. We live in a time now where there's no room for that.
Bingham: It's very difficult, isn't it, to figure out how to do that?
Tyson: Bull! It's more difficult to figure out how the universe works and we have people actively engaged in that. It's more difficult to understand the structure of the atomic nucleus. That's more difficult than figuring out how to talk to another human being. I don't buy that for a minute. It's just a matter of spending some brain energy, some of the formital brain energy that's otherwise deducing the nature of the physical world, now figure out how to talk to your neighbor. Just take a class in interpersonal communication. That's not hard. Just do it. Whatever it is you accomplish, you will be better at it, whether or not you'll ever become great at it, you'll be better at it tomorrow than you were today. And you keep that up for a little bit, not only does the frontier of science benefit from that, because the public that now understands your science is voting for congressmen to allocate moneys to the agencies that fund that science. Everybody benefits. It's a challenge, but it's not the biggest challenge those scientists would have faced in their lives.
Bingham: It's a challenge, and it's obviously a challenge that's been met well by people like Carl Sagan and Jacob Bronowski, you're doing it yourself, now. My point was that nobody would claim that Richard Dawkins is a bad communicator. I mean, he spends a lot of time, major effort, websites and so on trying to put out information. Yet as you well remember at Beyond Belief I in 2006, even there, you, sort of, had to have a word with him.
Tyson: That is to this day my most viewed YouTube clip.
Bingham: It's actually the seventy-sixth most discussed all time in the ninetieth most rated of all time in the How to and Style section on Youtube, not even science and technology.
Tyson: Of all time?
Bingham: Yes, over seven hundred thousand views and what you said to him after he had felt that one of the other presenter's presentations perhaps was lacking, you said,
You are the professor of the understanding of science, not the professor of delivering truth to the public. These are two different exercises, you said.
One of them is, you put the truth out there, and they either buy your book or they don't and that's not being an educator, you said,
that's just putting it out there. Being an educator is getting the truth right but there has to be an act of persuasion in there. Persuasion is always here are the facts, you're either an idiot, or you're not. It's here are the facts and a sensitivity, and you talked about that.
Tyson: A sensitivity to what the person brings to the table to understand what it is that you're describing.
Bingham: Right, Richard took it well, if you recall, and said he gratefully accepted your rebuke, which was a really nice moment.
Tyson: And everyone broke out in laughter, because no one expected that. They were ready for a fight.
Bingham: It was a nice exchange but it does make my point that it is not as easy to convey very complicated information at a level that is satisfactory to the practitioners of it and is informative to the recipients of it.
Tyson: It's hard, but so what? So, do we do things to make it easy? No. We sound like Kennedy. We choose to do it because it's hard. You do hard things because there's the reward of having achieved it when you're done.
Bingham: It sounds here as though, this is something else you said…
Tyson: Wait, by the way, I would distinguish, no one would deny that Dawkins is one of the great communicators of our day. He's got his books, they are best sellers and all the like, but I'd rather unpack the word communicator and split it into two categories. One of them is, are you effective at what you do? That's kind of what communication means. It means you have a message and someone receives it. There are two ends to that line segment. That's different from are you articulate? He's articulate. That man, Dawkins, he's got a level of articulation of his deliver that would make any American jealous. It's why we all wish we had some kind of fraction of the literary education that goes on in the United Kingdom, over here. So he'll make his point, and he'll say exactly what he means and he'll mean exactly what he says and he'll say it with brilliant juxtaposition of words. Words that we hardly ever hear much over here but are brilliantly put together in a sentence. Yes, he's articulate. Is the message working? If it's not working, why not? Because being articulate is not the same thing as communicating. Communicating is understanding the mind of who you are talking to. Much as how great your communication, let people come to it, and paw at it and study it. Are you speaking straight to the soul of the person you are communicating with? And I don't think he is. Because there are people who are not as articulate as he is who are actually put off by the weight of his expertise of oration. And I'm not trying to say that he should, what am I trying to say? I'm trying to say that if he took more time studying the mind of his listeners and wanted to have an effect on that mind, he would not speak in the ways that he does. Because there's a sharpness to it, there's a wit to it. It's so sharp and so witty that it's almost aggressive and it can turn people off. It does turn people off.
Bingham: But in terms of education, you can't claim to have had a bad education, I mean you went to Bronx High School of Science. Seven Nobel laureates came out of there.
Tyson: Seven. All in physics, by the way.
Bingham: Steven Weinberg and a whole collection of folks.
Tyson: By the way, it's a public school in New York. It's not a private school. Just a shout out for public schools.
Bingham: But also to add in the Hayden Planetarium part of this, just trying to get a picture of what lifted you off on this trajectory and you said it yourself, again, this was at Beyond Belief. This was an almost evangelistic moment, if that's an appropriate way,
I didn't accidentally land at the Bronx High School of Science, I knew I wanted to become an astrophysicist not because I chose it, in a way, the universe chose me that first day in the Hayden Planetarium at age nine as a kid. And I looked up, and the lights dimmed and the stars came out and I was called by the universe. I had no choice in the matter and became a student of the university with the ambition of one day being one of the participants in research on the frontier of cosmic discovery.
Tyson: I don't remember being that articulate. Did you edit that or something?
Bingham: No, no, you remember saying you think we didn't need transcripts? We have transcripts.
Tyson: I was in the zone that morning. I still mean every word of it. But don't expect me to retell it as poetically as it came out then.
Bingham: Where did you come from? Where is your background? Are your parents in science?
Bingham: How did you get into the Hayden Planetarium? What were you doing there that day?
Tyson: Oh, my parents took my brother, my sister and I to, every weekend we went on some trip in the city to visit some cultural institution, or some place where grown ups are exhibiting expertise in some way or another. So we went to the zoo, we went to the art museum to see the works of the great artists, we'd go to the opera, we'd go to the symphony, we'd go to the natural history museum, we went to the planetarium and that was just one of the trips. And I happened to be struck, star struck, by that trip. My brother ended up as an artist and he was taken by the trips to the art museum. My sister is a sell out, she went into business.
Bingham: So were you born in New York?
Tyson: Born and raised in New York City. Specifically born in Manhattan, but that's just where the hospital was. I was a resident of the Bronx, New York.
Bingham: And were your parents American?
Tyson: Yeah, I'm second generation American.
Bingham: And did they have any interest in science?
Bingham: So this just happened?
Tyson: You just read the transcript. I said I'm in the planetarium, the stars hit me, and you're asking me what other forces? That's the force. The universe called me. My uncle didn't call me, nobody else called me, the universe called me. So what are you asking for? I already answered the question before you asked it.
Bingham: Because Natalie Angier and The Canon quotes Peter Galison, History of Science and they talk about the fact that what happens is that kids get taken to museums, science fairs, science festivals, planetaria, right, and they get turned on to science. And then they get taught science in schools and you manage to get these bright, young little objects that are full of inquisitiveness and make them bored. And what happens after the age of about twelve is their parents go and buy them a membership card to the museum of contemporary art and they stop going to those things anyway and they don't bother more with the science. That was their argument, anyway, there was actually a reservoir of people out there, if they were getting better scientific information, beyond the museums, could not only be turned on to science, but stay turned on to science. So how did you stay turned on to science.
Tyson: I would take issue with that interpretation of the data. I would say in my life experience, it's not that bringing kids to a museum, taking kids to a museum, makes them interested in science. The goal here is not to make everybody a scientist. That's not the goal. What a boring world that would be. You want artists, you want musicians, you want novelists, poets, comedians, actors. You want the rest of this. What matters is whether they're scientifically literate and maintain that literacy and that curiosity throughout their lives no matter what becomes their profession. Kids are born scientists. You don't have to turn them on to investigating the world around them. They do that coming out of the womb. Kids turn over rocks and poke at the millipedes. They pick apart flowers. They bang on pots and pans. They will do things that are experiments in the world around them. And so the challenge is not getting kids interested in exploring the world around them, the challenge is staying out of their way. That's the challenge for the adult. How many parents do you know, when the kid drags the pots and pans out of the cabinet, how many would say
stop doing that, you're making a racket and you're getting the dishes and the pots dirty, put them back. They just squashed an entire experiment on acoustics. At least that's how I look at it. That's the kids exploring. So the trick is to get out of their way. And people do become scientists even when they have boring science teachers. Those, I think, are kids who never lost the curiosity for nature. And you're right, there are some classes where it gets squashed. The enthusiasm is drummed out of them. So you've got to put in some ways to keep it going. I don't have a problem with that. You put in some ways and you would continue to go to the museum. I took classes at the Hayden Planetarium, I was a member of the Amateur Astronomer's Association of New York, I had a telescope, we went to meetings, went to star parties, so I had ways to sustain it and they were all sort of self driven because I had the interest cast upon me by the universe when I was nine years old. So maybe the question here is how strong is that level of curiosity? Because it needs to be strong enough to resist the forces that might try to squash it. Maybe that's what this should be about.
Bingham: If you're trying to have a scientifically literate populous, not second hand scientists, but people who are informed enough about the process so that they can make the appropriate decisions on policy issues when they are asked to vote on them.
Tyson: that's a good definition of science literacy.
Bingham: Fine. So then, you say, ok, now we have a Speaker of the House who says that her agenda in four words is
science, science, science, science. And you have a President who says to the National Academy of Science when he goes and does his visit, that he wants to
restore science to its rightful place.
Tyson: As was spoken in the Inaugural Address.
Bingham: Right. What is its rightful place in your opinion?
Tyson: The rightful place of science. Rightful, I'd rather not use that word. Because while I have strong opinions on a lot of things, I don't care whether you share my opinion. I don't lobby people, I don't write congress to try to get them to do something that affects other people who are not me. That's not how I approach life. I approach life as a scientist and as an educator to try to get people thinking straight in the first place. Alright? Not teaching people what to think, but how to think. How to interpret information that comes to you. How to think about what somebody says. How to judge what someone else says. Judge the likelihood of it being correct or not. And that's how I view my role. So what is the rightful place of science literacy? It's that as many people in this nation should be as science literate as possible so that they can make informed decisions about the issues that affect the health and well being of this nation and of themselves. One should be science literate for selfish reasons. It inoculates you against people who would take advantage of you for you not being science literate. Who's to say that the financial collapse of the markets would not have been completely avoided, or certainly mitigated if the borrowers had the power to calculate the affect of a variable interest rate on their monthly payments? If you could do that, then you could make a decision separate from the lender and say nope, I can't afford this if the interest rate fluctuates to this point, I can't afford my house. You can make that decision yourself. It's empowering.Not only that, science literacy allows you to vote in ways that provide moneys for the people who are scientists to do science because you know that innovations in science and technology are the engines of all economic growth of the future. And there's no greater engine of economic growth since the industrial revolution. And countries that know that like China and many nations in Asia, already know this. And so their investments are targeting, are directed that way. So what is the rightful place of science? If you care about your economic health, it should be number one. If you don't care about your economic health, then spend money on other stuff. But when you make that decision, I want it to be an informed decision on your part as a voting member of the electorate. I'm not going to tell you how to vote. I'm going to tell you the consequences of your vote. And it's a subtle point, but for me it's a very important distinction. Between me telling you how to vote, and me telling you how to think about the information before you make the decision on how you want to vote.
Bingham: Ok, two things. There seems to be a sense, and I'm not allotting blame here but there seems to be a sense that the only way.
Tyson: That means you are. If you have to say that in advanced that you're not, let's here the blame. Go on. That's like saying I don't mean to sound obnoxious, but…
Bingham: The question is how newsworthy is the object, is what we are talking about? The problem with all of this is a misunderstanding in my view…
Tyson: Problem with what?
Bingham: The problem of the relationship between the scientific community and the public which consumes what they produce and they purveyors of the media that purvey what they think is up.
Tyson: And there are two forms of consumption. One is just learning what is happening on the frontier, the other is benefiting from an actual marketable product is the consequence of that innovation. So these are two ways that they are consumers of that frontier.
Bingham: If you want to sell, I mean, you're doing a program so I assume that the producers and you jointly figured out what would be interesting subjects in your view to put out there and I see that…
Tyson: Not only interesting inherently, but make good television. Because it has to work in the medium otherwise you just write a book.
Bingham: And we can talk about some of those in a minute. I want to talk about some of those segments. But here's a general point, it's sort of a large overview point, but in general, people seem to want to require certitude from science. They believe it will deliver certitude. They can use the information they get from it to plan things. Science does not deliver certitude, as you well know, science is not in the belief business, it's in the doubt business. So when people are astounded that a newspaper story three months later said sorry, there isn't actually a depression gene, we were wrong on that one. Then they start thinking, well, what good is science, anyway? They keep on changing the stories, what can I trust? What can I believe in? Now, what's that about, because, plainly, the media has put out a story, were they too fast to put out a story because it was newsworthy? Should they have waited a little?
Tyson: It's about scientifically illiterate journalists.
Bingham: Scientists who need to get the grants and therefore need the story out there?
Tyson: Two things, when you learn science in school, because you put two separable variables together and I want to keep them apart. One of them is, do people understand that science is more a process than a list of answers? That's a separate issue from whether the public requires the answer to something. I'm sorry, whether the public comes to doubt the value of science because a result changes from one week to the next. And with regard to science being a process, that's just a missing part of the science curriculum K through twelve. That's got to get in there somehow. We get textbooks and there's a problem at the end of the chapter and there's an answer to it and you've got to get the answer and you start to value the answer rather than the process that would lead to that answer or another. So uncertainty as well as ambiguity are not elements of a science curriculum but they clearly need to be. Otherwise you are incapable of thinking in meaningful ways about the frontier of science. And it wouldn't be hard to teach this. For example, you could say what's the shape of the Earth? Say, well, it's a sphere. Well, no, it's not quite a sphere; it's a little wider at the equator and at the poles. Ok, so it's a little squashed sphere. There's a word for that, two words, oblate spheroid. Say, well, it's not quite that, actually, because it's slightly wider below the equator than at the equator. So in fact the earth is kind of pear shaped. So that's the shape of the earth. But how pear shaped is it? If you held Earth out here and looked at it, if you used Earth as a model for a cue ball in a pool table, it would be the smoothest cue ball anyone ever made. So these variations from the equator to the poll and from below the equator to the equator are so small that it would make no difference to you if I handed you that sphere with that shape. You would not be able to feel it and tell the difference. So that's kind of interesting. There's no right or wrong answer here, it's a conversation about what the shape of the Earth is. Not enough of that goes on in the science classroom. And because we are seduced by the right answer, rather than by the journey to the answer. Now getting back to science fluctuating on the frontier, journalists got to learn that you can't hang out at the editorial offices of the journals and take every single research paper that shows up and declare that to be the next truth. That's not the next truth. The next truth is if that article gets corroborated by other research groups, then if a consensus emerges, then you can talk about a new emerged truth. Until that happens, there is no truth. It is the bleeding frontier, moving frontier of science. And journalists need to convey that. If they don't, then they're failing at the job.
Bingham: Let me take up your first point there which was the one about how you can invoke a situation which people become conspirators in the act of discovery.
Tyson: I like that. See.
Bingham: I just invented that.
Tyson: It's the British thing. Conspirators in the act of discovery. That's shortening five paragraphs that I just gave into one phrase. I'll take it.
Bingham: So we had a meeting the other evening, it was actually a book store signing in La Jolla, Chris Mooney was there and a person came up from the audience afterwards, and said that the reason for the scientific illiteracy was that people didn't understand numbers. One primary reason. His name was Ilan Samson, a visiting lecturer at CAL IT 2 in UCSD and he'd taken a calculator, a handheld calculator and he jimmied it so that you couldn't so that you couldn't get an answer from it unless you did certain things. So he said,
come up with a problem and I said, I don't know, square root of three sixty times the square root of five twenty. So you put those terms into the calculator and then you push equals. There's nothing. There's no answer. He said,
so, alright, now, what do you think the answer might be? How would you get familiar with the numbers and actually become friends with this whole process of calculation and what's going on. I said, well, the square root of three sixty is a bit less than the square root of four hundred, that's twenty, so it's got to be less than twenty so make it in the eighteen region, don't know, but it's something like that. The square root of five twenty, twenty four, or something, multiply those two together, maybe get four hundred and forty something, I don't know, four fifty. Put that in. the calculator, at that point, allowed me.
Tyson: This is a real calculator?
Bingham: Yes! He had changed it. He had made it. It then gave me an answer of 433.6184. In other words, it gave me the answer only when I had done the effort. And he thought this was one technique to getting people more familiar with numbers. This goes to your point about, because you stand in the checkout line, and it's eighteen dollars and forty seven cents and you give them eighteen twenty three and you get a calculator to figure out that its twenty four cents you have to get back and that happens. Now is this just people being grumpy old men, does it matter that there's a calculator?
Tyson: It's worse than that. In fast food shops the cash register doesn't have numbers on it, it has pictures of the food you just bought. They touch the button that has the picture on it.
Bingham: But are we in a situation where, for example, all the complaints about the amount of screen time that people spend, this is in the same neck of the woods, same issue.
Tyson: What do you mean screen time?
Bingham: How much time people spend on computers, playing video games, tweeting, the twitterverse, whatever you want to call it. It's very easy to take a negative position on that as with the lack of mathematical skills. And we tend to forget that once upon a time, fifty years ago, people would say get your head out of that book and go do something practical. Is the mechanization, the use of calculators, machines and so on, which obviously makes doing that kind of intuitive math bad, is that a good thing, bad thing, or what's your position on all of that?
Tyson: I think I understand the question. The fluency with numbers is another feature of science literacy that is not doing any better than the absence of science literacy itself. So something needs to happen there, no matter what. They're not good at guesstimation any more. Is that your concern, perhaps?
Bingham: I think his point was they didn't have a feel for numbers. Feel for computation.
Tyson: Yeah, that's an aspect of it. But I wouldn't say that that's front and center. I think front and center is what do you do with information that's handed to you? How do you react to it? What does it mean to you when somebody says, I have these crystals, when you rub them, you'll get better, it'll cure your ailments. How do you react to that information? Is the first thing,
really? Oh I'll try it, or,
how does that work? See, what's the first question you ask of the person who tells you this? And the question you ask is part of what science literacy is about. What level of skepticism, skepticism is almost a dirty word. Let me say, what level of inquiry do you bring to statements that others make to you?
how big was the wall?I said it was huge, as big as a wall, but walls can be different sizes. So she did not have enough information to react to what I told her so she came back for more information. I submit to you that that's a manifestation of science literacy. It's not how much science can you recite, that's an aspect of it, it's not can you give the details of how your microwave oven works, that's an aspect of it, but that's not the most important feature. The most important feature is the analysis of the information that comes your way. And that's what I don't see enough of in this world. There's a level of gullibility that leaves people susceptible to being taken advantage of. I see science literacy as kind of a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance. Why is it you have this uncountable number of web pages given onto the apocalypse in 2012? And you look them up and you see what they say and it says the Earth, the sun, the center of the galaxy will come into perfect alignment on December 21, 2012, and the extra gravity is going to knock Earth off it's axis and it will be the end of the world as we know it. So do you just believe that? Or do you ask questions about it? The next question should be how often does Earth, the sun and the center of the galaxy align? That really should be your next question. The answer to that is, it aligns every year on December 21st. So the statements that the world is going to end in 2012 because of that alignment are patently false otherwise we would have ended a long time ago on some previous December 21 and that hasn't happened. So if you are not equipped to even know what next question to ask, I'm not requiring that you calculate the force of gravity, I'm not requiring that you study Newton's Laws, I'm requiring that you know how to ask questions. To inquire about the flow of information that's ready to enter your head and affect what kind of decisions you'll make about your own life. Why is it that every newspaper article that describes an eclipse says
rare eclipse in China?Rare? Eclipses happen every two and a half years. Were you paying attention the last time? Apparently not. You don't say rare Olympics coming up and Olympics are rarer than solar eclipses. So, in the end it comes down to how plugged in are you? What is the wiring of your brain as information lands upon it.
Bingham: One of the questions I tend to ask people is that if, anybody in history, if they wanted to sit down and have a conversation with them, have dinner with them, who would you choose? Now, having listened to you lecture, I would actually guess, I'm going to ask you the question anyway, but then I'm going to tell you who I'd have guessed you'd say. I might be wrong, but who would you have liked to have a conversation with?
Tyson: Isaac Newton. No question about it.
Bingham: Yes, exactly.
Tyson: No question about it. Isaac Newton.
Bingham: And I got that right because something you'd said before.
Tyson: Then you didn't get it right, you copied it from what I said. That's not you getting it right. There's no thought on your part.
Bingham: That's another scientific response on my part. So my point would be Newton is guilty of some of the things you were talking about. I mean, we are taking him out of his period but the man is the last of the magicians. Right, he was doing computations about when the universe will end, and so on and so forth.
Tyson: Well, he's basing that on biblical, Revelations, and other biblical prophesy. So he was a very religious man, so your point is? He was using the Bible as a reference and his formidable mathematical intellect to try to deduce what the Bible means. Beyond, perhaps, the visibility of the words on the page. So, in the premise that the Bible is accurate, he's doing what any curious scientist would do. I don't fault him for that. He's an alchemist, by the way, chemists like we're making fun of, alchemists, but, excuse me, alchemists were at least experimentally driven in their activities. Their work was in laboratories. They kept notes. They bet on the wrong horse, but that doesn't make their exercise any less useful to the progress of science. Without alchemists, you would not have the beginnings of what ultimately become the periodic table of elements.
That's what distinguishes alchemy from astrology. Many people say alchemy predates chemistry, astrology, predates astronomy, and their, sort of, kindred spirits of the past. No! No, no, because no one today still does alchemy. It's recognized as a flawed approach to understanding the behavior of matter. You still have people today getting paid by other people to read their horoscopes. So one did not lead to another, astrology was, sort of, always there and is always still there. Meanwhile there are people actually trying to figure out the universe. Like Ptolemy. He had the wrong idea with his geocentric model but he's not invoking astrology. That's two thousand years ago. So, astrology, as old as it is, is not a modern precursor to modern physics the way alchemy is a modern precursor to modern chemistry. They are not corresponding enterprises. So, since we don't know that you can't change base metals into precious metals, you don't know that yet, it's a philosophy you work on, and so he works on it.I'm happy to report that Newton's writings on religion, of which he penned many words, and his writings on alchemy and his writings on physics are very distinct written investments of his time. In other words, these did not cross contaminate each other. And so whatever else was true about Newton, he knew that when he was thinking about physics, he was writing physics. He knew when he was doing alchemy, he was writing alchemy. He knew when he was writing about religion, he was writing about religion. He kept those separate and other writers did not. There's a fellow named Thomas Wright who in 1750 published a work called A New Theory of the Universe. Where he actually hypothesizes galaxies outside of our own and he's got illustrations of them and in that he actually put eyes in the middle of each galaxy, which was the eye of God, watching the universe and it got very cross contaminated with his religious philosophy and his science. So it's hard to disentangle the two. Newton, you don't have to disentangle anything. I don't fault Newton. Bring the man on. We'll talk. I'd say, did you know that you actually can't change the nucleus of an atom on a table top? The energies are too great. But we can do it today. We do it in particle accelerators. I can turn lead into gold in a particle accelerator. I can turn gold into lead. That would give him a heart attack, for sure. If I told him we had that power. I don't have an issue with that. By the way, he's smart enough, and clever enough and scientifically literate enough so I can just simply tell him that the energies to reach the nucleus, which defines what the element is, are significantly higher than the energies to make molecules. And nothing you could do on a table top can change the nucleus. So, therefore, the foundations of alchemy are flawed, but thanks for this list of chemicals that you were playing with. The salt-petre and the this and the three parts that and two parts this. That's a good beginning. If I told him that he wouldn't say
no! I refuse to believe that.He wouldn't say that. Because he's open to new ideas. Completely. What gets me is people who get, sort of, emotionally attached to a concept even in the face of contrary evidence. That's the absence of science literacy as well.
Bingham: There's this quote that I read out of Beyond Belief that you will recognize.
Tyson: A quote of whom?
Bingham: well, let's see if you recognize it. It's
The seeker after the truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them. The one who submits to argument and demonstration and not to the sayings of the human being who's nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads and apply his mind to the core of margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself, as he performs his critical examination of it so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.
Tyson: That's got to be Galileo.
Bingham: Actually, it wasn't.
Tyson: Was it Gerardo Bruno?
Bingham: It was this tenth century Muslim.
Tyson: Hang on, I do know that quote. Give me a second.
Bingham: Yes, it's Ibn al Haytham otherwise known as al Hasan and his doubts.
Tyson: He figured out how vision works.
Bingham: That's pretty good.
Tyson: Yes. That's from the era of Islamic science a thousand years ago. Had that continued, Islam would have discovered everything there is to know about the world given the rate at which discoveries were made back then, in Baghdad, what a tragedy it is that no longer exists. I think of the billion Muslims who are not participants in that exercise and what thoughts could have been had among this huge community of people that populate the world. In fact, I lose sleep at night asking why absence of opportunity or political, cultural, religious philosophy, what discoveries could have been made but, in fact, were not because of these constrictions on how to think.
Bingham: Next year is the three hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founders of the Royal Society. An argument could be made that that was actually a seminal event in the history of science. Not that there was a scientific revolution, fine, we know about that, not that there hasn't been all this invention in the tenth, eleventh, twelfth centuries, fine, we agree on all those, but to actually have a body that came together to realize Bacon's vision of a cooperative community of people working together to extensiate knowledge that they could then use to benefit society.
Tyson: I agree. Seminal moment. I agree.
Bingham: That's a game changer and I think that some historians of science would argue, would certainly question whether that could have happened anywhere else than in that particular social and political climate. Even if there had been a Bacon in Basra, or wherever it would have taken off because it's just a different culture and a different situation.
Tyson: I won't claim to have historical expertise the way professional historians would but I would say that the Royal Society is a codification of what was already going on in Baghdad back a thousand years ago. It's a codification of the exchange of ideas between creative people who are open to having new ideas. That's all that is. You can codify, you can have journals, fine, but that's what crossroads of ideas are all about. If you do not have anyone to challenge your ideas, you live in a self-delusion that you're correct, so you've got to be open. And Baghdad a thousand years ago, was open to all manner of people traveling through who had new ideas, new products, new thoughts. People's ideas were not left unchallenged. And if an idea is correct about the physical world, it survives challenges and ratchets up a few notches ultimately becoming the true nature of reality, rather than your perceived nature of that reality. So I think it's an important time, don't get me wrong, but to say it could have only happened at that time in that place, that sounds like someone's thesis that makes their thesis sound great, when, in fact, it doesn't take organization, it just takes an open mind.
Bingham: You just did the Colbert Show again for the sixth time and Stephen said that if you did seven you then owned the show, I think.
Tyson: Or owned part of the show, yeah.
Bingham: He used an interesting phrase. He called you a knowledge pusher. Does that sit well?
Tyson: I don't think that's what I am but if you had to sort of paraphrase and make it a quick little two word epithet, sure. Sure, knowledge pusher. But I don't think that's exactly what I do. I don't think I push knowledge. If I were a knowledge pusher I would be like this encyclopedia, giving you things to memorize with every session that we sit together. My goal as a science educator and as a scientist is to empower you to think for yourself, and that's not the impartation of knowledge. That's, I think, the sharing of outlook and perspective, and wisdom, so that you're empowered to make your decision. If you have to reference back to me to make your next decision, then I failed.
Bingham: I'm looking at stories from Nova Science Now. This is the fourth season of Nova Science Now.
Tyson: We're in the fourth season, yeah.
Bingham: And you started at the end of June, so quite a number of episodes left to go, so it's Tuesday nights on primetime.
Tyson: Tuesday nights, yeah, nine o'clock on PBS.
Bingham: Now, some of this you just top and tail, some of this, you do the introductions. Are there any of these where you're actually correspondent?
Tyson: Every program, I'm a correspondent in at least one of the segments. It's a magazine format program and there's multiple segments. I take you in and out of every segment and I'm the voice for the profile we do for a scientist in every program and typically there are one or two segments that I am actually, quote on quote, the correspondent where I go into my lab and talk to my colleagues.
Bingham: So you've got the ‘Moon Smasher?' Is that one of your things?
Tyson: Oh, that's LRO, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that had a daughter probe that dropped off, that would smash into what's called LCROSS. That's an acronym for Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, something like that. The LRO is just an orbiter around the moon to photograph its surface. It just released images of the landing sites of the Apollo, so you can see the shadows of the base of the LM that was left behind. It's cool. So it dropped off a piece of itself that will go into a decaying orbit that will crash in the south pole of the moon creating a plume that will then get observed by detectors that are in orbit on the spacecraft. And so we did a whole segment on that.
Bingham: So this would be proof that there was a moon mission if you've got the photographs now from this LRO. This was what Lance 53:07 was saying at the meeting, a presentation he gave the other evening.
Tyson: I don't use the word proof. Proof should be reserved for specific cases of mathematics. If someone requires a photograph to be convinced of something then we now have photographs of the landing sites. But to say that that's proof but anything else we've said about the moon launches are not proof, I'm not going to go there. I can tell you that you can calculate how much fuel is in the Saturn 5 rocket and it's enough fuel to get the capsule to the moon and back. It's not going to the local grocery store. When the thing launched, they had enough fuel to go to the moon. So it went to the moon. We should celebrate the fact that there are people in our own culture who are so enchanted by advances in our technology that they can't even believe what they see. I'm impressed by that.
Bingham: Look, let me be a Luddite for a minute, Luddites being the people who wanted to overthrow technology in Britain in the 1800's.
Tyson: They were follower of Ludd, if I remember correctly.
Bingham: Right. You have a segment on dark matter, for example, or you now have a large Hadron Collider producing yet more miniscule shards of matter, right? And we have astronomers using great giant cosmic terms about the size of everything. None of these things are things that people's minds can actually come to grips with, do you agree? You can't do those kinds of numbers.
Tyson: I agree entirely. So you have to train yourself to not require that your mind have to grip it to appreciate what it is. So you work at that.
Bingham: So how popular are these things? Why would these things be popular?
Tyson: Because they're mysteries.
Bingham: As opposed to what you were talking about before, which is people learning how to communicate with each other, to navigate through social space more effectively.
Tyson: They are mysteries. People like it when scientists don't know something. And the funny thing is, any scientist on the front of research doesn't know stuff. That's why they're there with a foot in what is known and a foot in what is unknown and trying to push that boundary. So that's why you see newspaper articles that begin
This new data will data will have to send these scientists back to the drawing board. They'll have to release their cherished theories. You'd think that we were just sitting back in our office, legs up on the counter, basking in our brilliance. No! No. If there is a day that goes by where I'm not ignorant of something, I'm not in the game. You're only in the game if you can speak fluently about what you don't know. Dark matter is a profound area of ignorance in astrophysics. So is dark energy. So is the transition of inanimate molecules to animate life. That's a frontier of biology. These are fascinating frontiers and in my life experience, the public is fascinated by them.
Bingham: Do you really want to speak fluently about something you don't know? That sounds like an economist or a lawyer.
Tyson: what I should have said is speak candidly about my ignorance. Fluently and candidly.
Bingham: Have you got any read at all about which stories tend to be the most popular?
Tyson: The stories that are most popular are profiles. We find that scientists, typically on the youngish side, youngish would be fifty and younger rather than, sort of, senior, you know, grey and established, and typically our profiles are people who have had some struggle that they overcame, or they have something unusual about their background that makes better story telling for television. We would do a profile every single episode. We tell you about their childhood, we interview their family, their mother, this sort of thing. And people will relate to that. People feel more connected to the science when they learn the personality of the scientist.
Bingham: If you look in the lists and magazine articles, TIME is most influential, this and that and the other. The phrase tends to creep in with you ‘Rockstar Scientist.' There was a season a year or two ago where you did actually have a rock star scientist, [unintelligible]
Tyson: Yes, she was a scientist who played in a band.
Bingham: Here's a question for you, you got into Jimmy Hendrix garb for that. For the opening for that thing.
Tyson: Oh, in the little interstitials that I do to get you in and out of a segment. We do fun things and I usually dress up as some character or another. And in one of them I dressed up as a rock star with a bandana, maybe Jimmy Hendrix. I can't play a guitar so we had to splice in some.
Bingham: So you are playing air guitar there?
Tyson: I was pretending like I was playing and I think they put in some real strong guitar riff.
Bingham: So those kinds of people are really interesting people.
Tyson: Yeah, they show you, by the way, it's not an attempt to show that no scientists are nerds, but it's definitely to show you that there are enough who are not that you should rid yourself of the stereotype that the media and movies have given to you of who and what a scientist is.
Bingham: You originally read physics, you studied physics?
Tyson: In college, yeah, my undergraduate degree is in physics. Knowing all along that I was going to do astrophysics.
Bingham: What do you do? Do you actually ponder about some of these issues like the work of David Bone or John Stewart Bell, or non locality issues and whether those kinds of enigmas have any connection to ethical position? The connections between physics and philosophy and so on.
Tyson: No, I'm so disappointed with philosophy. Philosophy in the twenty first century, philosophy conducted by philosophers who were trained in the twentieth century have made, as far as I've been able to judge have made no contributions to the advance of our understanding of our physical universe. There was a time when they did but not in the era of modern physics which is basically the twentieth century and onward, relativity, quantum mechanics and the like. I don't have the time or the energy or the interest in occupying myself with those thoughts because in my experience, they don't actually get you anywhere. They are conversations to have over a beer when you've got nothing else to talk about. Those are strong words and I don't say them lightly. There are plenty of philosophers, Kant made some significant contributions to our understanding of the Nebular Hypothesis. It is what we still invoke to understand the formations of solar systems and galaxies. I would say the last, sort of, great contribution that comes out of, I would call a philosophy, even though it was principally math, was Godel's Theorem. After that, I don't see anybody who is trained as a philosopher in a philosophy department advancing physics. I just don't see that.
Bingham: Let me push you there, specifically on the physics on locality again. Because I had this conversation with a number of leading physicists and because there are no hard and fast answers, obviously the jury is still out but at least we are now seeing books coming out, albeit from Louisa Gilder, who's not a professional scientist, but has done a wonderful book called The Age of Entanglement. It seems like there are more physicists going into entanglement. Perhaps because string theory isn't your favorite theory, string theory is not panning out, I have no idea. So what's your sense of the state of play in these various physics fields that intersect, always, wherever you go to a conference with philosophy. It's entanglement of philosophy, it's string theory, what does it mean, dark matter and so on?
Tyson: We have our five senses. Our celebrated five senses. In fact, they are over celebrated because we can make detectors that are better than all five of them. And we know how feeble they are, or how incomplete they are in their tasks given what is possible in the natural world. So, from those five senses, from birth, you acquire an understanding of what makes sense to you because those are the things that you see happen and repeat in your lifetime according to your five senses. Only on the frontier of science, physics in particular, have we been able to extend, grant us access to the universe, beyond the capacity of our senses to do so. And what we have found is that the universe does not make sense outside of the realm outside the access that our senses has to it.So, you look down what's in a microscope, at a drop of pond water. It's teeming with microorganisms. That doesn't make sense. How can they all fit? How can they be this big? We get used to that and then we have atoms and molecules. There's a whole branch of physics that had to be invented just to account for what we see. Particles popping in and out of existence, tunneling through barriers of energy and space and time. No longer can you invoke common sense to judge whether or not that's accurate, whether or not it's true. Because all that matters is that it's measured to be true. Period. Leave your senses at home. They have no use to you. And so here we have our senses and this limited vocabulary and I tell you this is a particle and a wave, well which is it? Your brain doesn't experience particles and waves being the same thing at the same time. So to question that is not truly questioning nature. It's questioning the feeble vocabulary to account for nature outside of our senses. So I'm not going to make a federal case over things we don't understand that happen in the quantum mechanical world. I'm just not because that's trying to invoke our common sense on something that's outside of our common sense. I'm happy to create a whole new common sense, a quantum sense, that allows the quantum universe to unfold in just whatever way it needs to unfold and I don't need to question it. And if it's issues of the Einstein Podolsky Rosen experiment, the dual slip, is the cat alive or is it dead? Go on, make your list of these experiments and call on the philosophers to help you understand them. The philosophers are going to bring their five senses along with yours. That's not going to help. You are going to think you are on to some new question when in fact you are just revealing the limitations of our biological senses. So I don't distract myself over questions that sound inherently contradictory if in fact experiment bares them to be true.
Bingham: Would you describe yourself as an agnostic? Or a believer in some faith, or another?
Tyson: Agnostic is probably the closest.
Bingham: A Huxleyan term.
Tyson: Yeah, as Huxley intended the word to be used, I would say that's what I am.
Bingham: Because those debates when we first met at those meetings, it still goes on, obviously.
Tyson: You mean Beyond Belief? Gatherings of rabid atheists.
Bingham: Religion and science meetings continue. Do you still have a dog in that hunt?
Tyson: I never had a dog in that hunt. Never. The only dog I had was because I got pulled into it. So I had to, like, find a dog. Alright, here's my dog. I need a dog, here's my dog. But I had to, like, get a dog to put into the fight. And the dog I put in was simple. I just said that intelligent design, as the subject of the day, if you might remember, has, actually, a long and interesting history invoked by many brilliant and famous scientists of the past. It's not a new phenomenon and so it's not something that you should sweep under the rug. It's a real and fundamental part of how people used to think about the world and how some people still do. That doesn't make it unworthy of knowing about. But since it does not produce discovery, in the classical invocation of intelligent design where you approach a problem that you can't solve, and you say this is the product of intelligent design because it's beyond the ability of the human mind to understand it, which, by the way, is inexcusably hubristic when you unpack that sentence. It says not only can I not understand it, neither can any one of my colleagues, and neither can anyone who will ever be born will understand this problem so therefore it's the product of a higher intelligence. That's audacious. Since when are you the measure of who will be smart to follow you?
The point I made was the intelligent design, being a philosophy of ignorance, where science is a philosophy of discovery, intelligent design does not belong in the classroom. If you need it, put it in the history of science class. It's there. Put it in the philosophy class. It's a point of philosophy. But it's not science. That was my dog I put in the fight. I never once mentioned the word religion. I never once mentioned the word god. And then I went home. But people keep tugging on me to come back in. I get claimed, broadly, by atheists. I'm on their list and my Wiki page, whoever writes these things, said ‘Neil Tyson is an atheist,' I said I'm not really an atheist. Because you can add it, I changed it as an agnostic. Four days later it went right back to atheist. So there's some urge to claim me. Which is odd because my writings are not about religion, the way it is of many others that you've interviewed, all your pals. You know, Hitchens and Dawkins and Sam Harris. You want atheists, there's not a shortage of them right now so why are you reaching towards me? So I said I got to be cleverer about how I edit this, so I said, alright, widely claimed by atheists, he is actually an agnostic. So that's managed to stay. There you have it.You know, on my facebook page, I was in Florida, for the launch of the repair mission of the Hubble telescope, and I know some of the people on board. Some of them are astrophysicist colleagues and friends of mine. So I said ‘Beautiful launch, beautiful day, Godspeed Atlantis astronauts,' as my status update. Well. In comes, ‘well I thought you were an atheist, why could you use such a word?' It's like, then someone else says, ‘well it says right here that he's agnostic.' So this became the subject in the thread. I had to jump back in and I said ‘God speed was the banner headline the day that John Glen was put into orbit back in 1962 and since then, it has been an iconic phrase deep within the culture of the airspace community. If you are religious it means God be with you. If your not religious, it's just being culturally honest about how aerospace people communicate with each other.' Then I posed the question, I got this award from American Humanist Association, these are people who cross off the word ‘God' on every dollar bill that comes through their possession. This was like an energy level that I can't even imagine having. You know, I said, because they were upset about this too, and I said, ‘How many people here have ever used the word goodbye?' All the hands went up. I said, ‘Goodbye comes from God be with you.' Oh we didn't know that. That's where goodbye comes from. A contraction of God be with you and when would you say that? When you left the city gates and had to go between cities in the dangerous countryside where you might get mugged or robbed or raped or worse. So you say God be with you to protect you on your journey. Well, we don't have city gates any more, we have space. So Godspeed is the counterpart to that expression because it's speed that's going to kill you going into orbit. So I'm okay with that. It's an interesting cultural history in the community of aerospace. And so that's why I can't claim myself, I can't agree to the claims by atheists that I'm one of that community. I don't have the time, energy, interest of conducting myself that way. I'm perfectly happy going to see the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I have Handel's Messiah on my iPhone along with Bach's B Minor Mass. Some of my favorite bits of music. This is what I do and I'm perfectly fine with that. I'm perfectly fine with having religious people live all around me. I'm not trying to convert people. I don't care. We are a religiously pluralistic society, most of what accounts for the immigration waves into this nation were people fleeing religious persecution in their hometown. And no one will deny the richness of this country is a product of the immigration that unfolded. I'm ok with that. Just keep it out of the science classroom. That's my little dog. Maybe it's a poodle, I don't know. So you ask me if I'm agnostic, I'm agnostic. And it's more that I don't really care. I don't want to have to spend all this energy but I keep getting called out into the boxing ring. Largely against my wishes.
Bingham: I'll go on to Wikipedia now, is a passionate agnostic.
Tyson: Passionate! Devout agnostic.
Bingham: If you had not been a scientist, if you can even contemplate this, if one looks at your biographical stuff, you wrestled, you rode, you danced, what other career could you imagine having had, if you had not been a scientist.
Tyson: Do I have to be good at it? Or do I just say I would do it because I liked it?
Bingham: I said career, so you obviously would have had to have a career.
Tyson: Oh, man, I have to be good at it.
Bingham: Well, no, not everybody's good at their careers.
Tyson: If I had a second career it would be as a lyricist for Broadway musicals.
Tyson: Yeah, I love, I get misty eyed over simple lyrics in a Broadway musical where boy meets girl and they have to pause under a tree and sing their love for each other. As corny as that is, if the words are chosen just right, so that they rhyme and there's rhythm and there's meaning and there's sincerity, I get misty eyed. And I like composing simple sentences that convey emotion and idea at the same time. It's the act of writing word to page that gives me an appreciation for that art. The art of the simple Broadway song and were I to have another career, that's what I would try to do.
Bingham: Do you actually have a favorite in terms of musicals?
Tyson: Yeah, Jesus Christ Superstar is very high on my list. Don't tell the atheists. And I like My Fair Lady. A lot of good songs in that one. A lot of other musicals, they're just songs you have to, sort of, pick and choose. You have to be surgical about what songs worked in them. Some good songs in South Pacific.
Bingham: So, music, interesting.
Tyson: That's what my other career would be. I don't know that I'd be very good at it. I know I could write the songs, but I'm not very musically talented so you've got to write in a way that someone could come behind you and put musical notes to it and I don't know that I have that talent. I'd have to work at it very hard.
Bingham: There's a story, which, I assume is true.
Tyson: And why do you assume it's true? Just checking your science literacy.
Bingham: Because it's on your Wikipedia page.
Tyson: Who knows? Go on.
Bingham: I figure that you would have, sort of, had it exorcized had it not been true.
Tyson: No, because I don't get to my Wiki page.
Bingham: Alright, what was your first meeting with Carl Sagan?
Tyson: First meeting he invited me to visit him at Cornell. I was in high school, I had applied to colleges, I was admitted to Cornell and shortly after I was admitted I got a letter in the mail from Carl Sagan. This is in an era where he's really famous and I'm just a seventeen year old kid and he'd been on TV, then, on the Johnny Carson Show, written several books, not quite, this is pre-cosmos so he's not as famous as he will be but I already knew who he was. And he said, I understand you are interested in Cornell, you might choose to come and if you had the occasion to swing by, I'd like to show you the lab to help you decide whether you want to attend Cornell. I said, mom and dad! Look! Is this real? We arranged for me to go up to Ithaca, New York, took a bus ride up there. He met me in the snow, well it was cold, it hadn't been snowing yet, outside of the lab, he took me into the lab, this was on a Saturday, by the way, sat down, gave me a tour, talked to me about my ambitions and what he did, reached behind him, pulled a book out of a shelf. Didn't even have to look, just pulled out a book. One of his books, and he signed it to me and I still have that book to this day. We were done, the afternoon came, and this was in late winter. He drives me in his car back to the bus station, it begins to snow, he's worried whether the bus will come through, he writes, on a piece of paper his home phone number, if the bus doesn't come through, give me a call, spend the night at our place.I said, who am I, for him to give this level of attention to me? I'm nobody. I'm just a high school kid. Why did he know about me? Because the admissions office saw how, sort of, rich in cosmic interest my application to college was, and said we got to get another opinion here. So they sent it to Carl Sagan for his judgment on that. I was already admitted so were just trying to drum up interest from one department to another. I think they did that with various applications if they had, sort of, extra interest expressed as mine certainly did, because I'd been interested in the universe since age nine.
Bingham: And the Hayden Planetarium.
Tyson: And the Hayden Planetarium. So I, to this day, have vowed that I would treat students the way he treated me. I can now say that when students come to my office, I get to reach behind my desk and pull out a book, because I thought that was the coolest thing, you just have a book you wrote and it was so remote to me that I would ever be in that position but I said at the time, if I'm ever, ever in a remotely similar situation that he was to me, that I will be no less respectful of students who express an interest in the universe. And to this day that is what I do. If you call me and you're the president of a museum or somebody important in Washington, or a student calls me up, I handle the student first. I'll get to you later. That was not so much on how to be a scientist, but how to be a person mixed in with what it is to be a scientist. How to be a person that cares and, sort of, how to pass a torch and ignite flames and promote interests. That's a sensitivity that I don't know I would have had if it were not for that encounter. I didn't ultimately go to Cornell but I'll never forget that first encounter.
Bingham: Why not?
Tyson: Because I judged, well, there are two reasons, one is the arithmetic reason and then there's another reason. Which one do you want to hear first?
Bingham: Whichever comes up first.
Tyson: Ok, so the simple reason is were I to go to Cornell, it would have been because he was there more than any other reason but I knew enough about how academicians move from institution to institution that I didn't want to commit my four years on the assumption that he was stable here for four years. So I wanted a broader baseline access to people and research. So I went to Harvard. Do you want to hear the other reason?
Bingham: Yeah, alright.
Tyson: So that's the simple reason, but the more accurate, complex reason is I subscribed to Scientific American all throughout middle school and high school and I had this treasure trove, I kept them, my favorite part of Scientific America is the part called About the Authors, which is a little mini bio on the scientists that wrote the articles. Back then, and what is largely still true today, scientists write the articles for Scientific American, not science journalists. And so I made a list of all the articles on the universe, where those authors when to college, where they got their masters, where they got their Masters, where they got their Ph.D. and where they were on faculty. And I made a checklist among the schools that I had to choose from, where most of them came from, and in the end, Harvard's list was four times the length of anyone else's. So more of the people who wrote for Scientific American had a Harvard affiliation, either as an undergraduate, graduate or faculty than any other place. And I said, well, this has got to be for me. Had that been Osh Kosh State University, that's where I would have gone to college. I had no caring or concern for the legacy of Harvard as an institution. I still don't. Other than that, it was a fertile place to do astrophysics. I don't wear a Harvard tie, or a Harvard ring, because that legacy of Harvard The Institution offered no seduction for me. So that's why I went to Harvard.
Bingham: So it must be, kind of, gratifying though, it occurs to me, in the panel that we just did lately, one of The Science Network's Advisory Board Members, Ann Druyen, Carl's widow, was on that panel so you know her, you guys collaborated to some extent, I think you were working on something together. You became President and/or chairman of the Planetary Society.
Tyson: President of the Planetary Society that Carl Sagan co-founded.
Bingham: So it's kind of a nice continuation.
Tyson: Yeah, he left large shoes to fill. He died too early, as we know, he was sixty-two or something. He'd still be alive today, seventy-fifth birthday it would be this year, I'm pretty sure. So, no reason he still couldn't be alive at seventy-five, so there's large shoes to fill. And I'm not alone out there filling those shoes. There are others, I'm happy to report, that in my field, while he was singular in what he did at the time, today, I can name a half dozen, at least, of colleagues who are doing what I'm doing as part of the wall of the landscape that Carl Sagan created. And we are all doing our little role writing the books, doing interviews, which now a days would be including blogs and other web presents to try to bring the universe down to earth.
Bingham: Who are the smartest people you've ever met and who would be the wisest people?
Tyson: I have to think about that. Because I don't go through life ranking people in that way. People have different strengths and the word smart usually means book learned, typically, but I like people who are not so much book learned but have a capacity to think of solutions to problems they've never seen before. Then you get people who are, like, really smart but can't have a conversation with someone else because they are not socialized. So they are not as effective as what they could have been because they can't communicate. It's a complex function for who and what a person is to themselves or to others and how to rank that. So I'd have to think about that. Maybe by the end I'll tell you.
Bingham: In terms of where the communication in science issue is going at this point, public understanding of science, are you optimistic about this?
Tyson: Yes, quite optimistic. For many reasons, for example, some of the most popular television shows have science as its foundation. The Crime Scene Investigation franchise, CSI, they use science to solve problems every episode. And it's beautiful people with real life problems, not wire-haired, lab coat donning scientists in a lab but real people who you might want to date. Who are smart, talented in their science, be it chemistry, biology, physics, and they are solving crime problems. And so the fact that that's primetime television, expensively produced, is a very helpful sign. And if you speak anecdotally today, but I'm sure the statistics with bare this out, when they are actually conducted, go speak to chemistry professors in college, and biology professors and ask them to tell you what's driving the reason for who's majoring in those subjects, and they'll tell you it's CSI. Especially girls coming in from middle school, I mean, from high school. They saw crimes being solved by beautiful people invoking science. And the power of the media in this regard knows no bounds. So that's a good sign.It's not just the sciences, it's mathematics as well. There's another hit series called numbers where FBI agents are invoking math to solve problems. That's a hit series as well. And there's more popular level books being published on science today than ever before. And there are more TV stations devoted to science programming than ever before. Back in my day, you can go months changing channels on the TV without ever finding a science program except for maybe the nature, animals in Africa. Nowadays you can find shows on the Big Bang, on DNA, on robotics, just channel surfing once, you can land on a show that's about science. You've got Mythbusters on TV, you've got radio programs, in fact, I'm host of a radio program, just a fledgling radio program called Star Talk intended for AM radio talk market. Not your MPR and I have a co-host who's a professional stand up comedian. And I bring current events into the conversation and she takes them and rips on them and it's intended to reach Joe Six Pack, intended to anybody who wants to listen. But it's targeting people who did not know that science was something they could like. I think that's a demographic that is ignored by PBS, it's ignored by the book writers, it's starkly ignored by those who are bringing science to the public.
Bingham: It's interesting because you obviously see the glass as half full. There are other people out there who would say to me, so CNN let go of it's entire science and technology team. Miles is gone, they are all gone.
Tyson: They don't need it because you can get your science in twelve other places.
Bingham: Washington Post is gone.
Tyson: Because nobody reads newspapers anymore. We read the internet.
Bingham: So, newspapers are gone? Print journalism on the way out?
Tyson: The science coverage is not the only thing that's suffering in print news media. It's a symptom of a larger problem with their industry. It's not, oh, they are dropping their science people but they are keeping everybody else, take a look at the thicknesses of newspapers. They are losing their add revenue, they're letting people go left and right. Don't take it personally that they let go of their science section. So I look at all the outlets that people can now get science. I look at the fact that when the Hubble telescope was announced that it would not be serviced, there was a public outcry. The loudest voices were the public and not NASA and not even the scientists. The public took ownership of a scientific instrument. That's never happened in the history of the world. And it was the Hubble Space telescope. Why is it that I am on a TV show delivering science to the public? How is that even possible? How is it possible, I've written nine books on the subject? How is that possible? How is it possible we have scientists writing best sellers? Beginning I would say with, we can go back to the double helix and things, but those are exceptions. If you want to talk about the rule, starting with the Feynman books, all these books that made it into the top ten back in the late 1980's and preceding that was The Brief History of Time, before any of the public knew who Stephen Hawking was, and you don't have to go more than a few months before a science book rises up into the best sellers among readers. And the fact that the Discovery Channel still exists and has an entire Science channel spawned from their mother channel. Wake up and smell the roses. Or smell the coffee, and see the roses? How does that go? Wake up and check it out. So it's helpful. It doesn't mean it's being successful, but access to science is greater than ever before.
Bingham: A lot of the shows that you mentioned, are you sure that you weren't talking about, I have to make the distinction here, applications of technology? There's a lot of guy shows out there.
Tyson: There is on the Discovery Channel but not on the Science Channel.
Bingham: When we were looking at who watches the Youtube thing, it's a highly skewed male audience. The clip I was talking about before. The issue is, how do you get more women involved in science?
Tyson: Watching CSI. The biggest change in the majors are in women majoring in chemistry and biology. And today, last my records show, there're more women declaring chemistry as a major than men in college. And there are more women majoring in mathematics than men in college today. You want to make sure there's not a leaky pipeline that they start out that way and then there's a discouragement factor because it's male dominated, you got to watch out for that as the pipeline proceeds but these are very promising signs.
Bingham: Let's just do the Devil's Advocate thing for a moment. The discovery that came out recently, the forty seven million year old fossil primate was a huge media frenzy about it. A book came out, it was all very carefully staged, a TV show came out. Nature wrote an editorial that says,
In principle, there is no reason why science should not be accompanied by highly proactive publicity machines, but in practice, such arrangements introduce conflicting incentives that can all to easily undermine the process of assessment and communication of science.
Tyson: Did they say why they made that sentence? It's a nicely composed sentence but it's not defended by any factual information. Tell me why they believe that sentence is correct.
Bingham: I think that there was a lot of contrived hype accompanying something which should have just been peer reviewed.
Tyson: It was peer reviewed and published and then there was the news conference. Contrary to what happened with Pons and Fleischmann where they had the news conference before it actually appeared in print. No one could double check what they were saying because the article was not yet available for people to see. That's the transgression of the cart before the horse. In this one, they decided to create this publicity machine in tandem with the publication of the article, so who cares? So what? Suppose they did they article, then it got a lot of attention, on its own by the press, and then they decided to write a book about it? What's the difference? One of them happens simultaneously, the other happens later. So what? What's your problem? It's egg on their face if after it's published other people show flaws in the work. Then they got egg on their face because they committed to the video and book and that's kind of embarrassing. So that's the risk that they take, nobody else takes that risk. If they want to take the risk, fine let them take the risk. What do you care if it happens before or one day after? Who cares? This sounds like sour grapes. This sounds like Ivory Tower. It sounds like we can't have science be popular. No! Then it's not science. What's important is you don't have the media machine before the thing gets published. And there wasn't. there was not an article about it, unless something leaked, there might have been some leakage, but in terms of formal press release, the press release followed the article. Didn't proceed it and as far as I'm concerned that's all that matters here.
Bingham: I'm not taking any position, I'm just curious to hear what your feeling was about that.
Tyson: And their the ones taking the risk. If they get it wrong, nobody buys their book. The publisher is pissed off because they had high expectations for their results being correct.
Bingham: What's the last book you read? Just for fun, I'm curious.
Tyson: I'm in the middle of Atlas Shrugged.
Tyson: Yeah, I've never read it before. I feel embarrassed that it had been around for so long.
Bingham: There seems to be a resurgence of Ayn Rand readers.
Tyson: I don't know that I'm in the movement. And I always have some Newton at my bedside. I have everything he ever wrote.
Bingham: Tom Levenson has a new book out about Newton [unintelligible] his detective activities, which looks rather good and got some great reviews.
Tyson: Tom Levenson produced and directed the Origins Series that I hosted for PBS.
Bingham: We mentioned this a little bit on the way over here, we're actually in Francis Crick's old house, apart from being one of the co-discoverers of DNA, he wrote a paper at one point, he was interested in the origins of consciousness, obviously the origins of life, he wrote a paper with Leslie Orgel, another member of the Salk Institute, in which they proposed a theory of directed panspermia, which is this notion that life arrived on Earth from elsewhere, hitching a ride on a piece of some cosmic cinder. When you did your series did you have any conclusions about origins to that level, anywhere life came from?
Tyson: Oh, sure, that could easily happen. No one's in denial about that. That only became a realistic scenario when we had high performance computers calculating the effect of a terrain of a planet in the presence of an asteroid impact that you can send shockwaves through, basically shockwaves, high energy waves through the material surface of the planet that can fling rocks into escape velocity from that planet and then these rocks would float through space and they land on other objects. So that's fact number one. Fact number two, we know that certain branches of the extremophiles of life can survive long voyages without water, high radiation environments which is, such as what it is in space, to the point where you are practically freeze dried in space. And if you can survive that, and you're a stowaway in a nook and cranny of a rock, cast off of one planet, you can land on another planet. So it's an interesting idea, but it just pushes the question of where life came from to another planet. So it's not really deep. It's interesting but not deep. You wanted to know how life started here on Earth, oh, it started over there on that planet and traveled here. Ok, well, how did it start on that planet? There's a point where you cant say it's panspermia because it had to begin somewhere without panspermia, I'm presuming. It's fine. No one denies the possibility of that given that we know that rocks move between planets.
Bingham: You mentioned your kids are being subtly imbued with some sense of science.
Tyson: Science literacy.
Bingham: Science literacy. Do you have a vision of their being scientists?
Tyson: No. Whatever they want to be is fine by me. If I would tell you what they want to be today, my daughter wants to be a novelist, and my son, he's a little bit distracted by baseball at the moment, so he probably wants to be a baseball player, but he's eight so that's kind of to be expected. I'm not pushing them in any one direction or another. Neither did my parents push me. They explored what our interests were and then supported it. So I'm perfectly fine with that. My daughter's written some twenty thousand words of what will be her first novel she's working on. It's a cool concept with a cat.
Bingham: Called Shrodinger?
Tyson: No that's [unintelligible]. This is, what's it called, Midnight Shadow is the name of the cat, it's a cat that can walk into a shadow at night and then that shadow is a portal to another dimension. It's an interesting thing. So she's working on her novel writing skills and that's fine by me. But she's science literate, I'll tell you that right now. That's for sure.
Bingham: What's the biggest mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?
Bingham: You want to ponder that one at all?
Tyson: Yeah, I don't know. I have to think about it. I don't, sort of, log mistakes and dwell on them. I move on very quickly. So I'd have to think about what would be the biggest mistake.
Bingham: Well, something positive then. What are you optimistic about?
Tyson: I'm pessimistic about the future of NASA. I don't think people understand its value even with all the effort I've put in to convey the value of NASA to the nation, no one understands. I've tried and I've failed. I worry that NASA's just not going to have the money to do anything.
Bingham: Well, there's the TIME magazine cover.
Bingham: This is a historical document really, isn't it? This is wow that was great. The problem with NASA is what's the second act.
Tyson: No, that's not the problem with NASA. That's the problem with the public that votes for money and with leadership to give vision to what NASA should do next. Not the problem with NASA. NASA does what we tell it to do.
Bingham: Aren't private people doing that now? Branson and various people.
Tyson: Branson goes up and comes back down. It's an expensive lift off. He doesn't go into orbit. He doesn't tell you that he's very far from going into orbit. He goes sixty miles up and falls back down to earth.
Bingham: Isn't there an X PRIZE for a lunar…
Tyson: Lunar unmanned, yeah. Go to the moon. So, these X PRIZEs are good and incentive and they might bring an economic driver to space exploration that's going to need some source of money, if not government, it's going to need some source to happen at all and historically, war has been a good driver for dislodging funds to go into space. We went to the moon because of the cold war. We forget that when we tell that story. We say oh, we were Americans and we were explorers and we were discoverers. No, we were at war and the Russians were going to beat us into space and they already did. They beat us into Low Earth orbit, they had the first animal in space, first non human animal, the first human, the first orbits, the first space station, the first space walk. They had the first landings on the moon, they had a rover on the moon. The only thing we did first was land people on the moon. Russians did everything else first, practically. And then we declared ourselves winner, once we did something finally that they didn't do. Kind of funny. It's part of the cleansing of that era that goes on in our memory. If we are not at war, I don't see how we are going to end up going to mars when we can't make an economic case for it. A capital markets case for it. I fear for the future of NASA. I don't want it to become just some service organization that puts satellites into Low Earth orbit just to monitor Earth. Yeah, you want to monitor Earth, but you don't need NASA to do that.
Bingham: Have you had any interest going into politics at all?
Tyson: No. Never ever, ever, ever. I have no interest in trying to convince a person to believe one thing or another, at all. Believe what you want, just do it in an informed way. And for every person who runs office, there's someone who's trying to say why what you say isn't right and trying to convince other people to vote for them instead of you. I don't have the patience for that. I don't have the interest in it. I respect those who have the patience and the tolerance for that but it's not for me.
Bingham: So now I asked you what you were optimistic about and you told me you were pessimistic about the future of NASA so what are you optimistic about?
Tyson: I'm optimistic that this experiment that is America, this cultural experiment that is America, is actually working, slowly. It's working in a way that is better than I think people admit. I see it in my own lifetime. Consider, what is this experiment that is America? I'll just tell you. 1963 or '64, President Johnson sends a letter, President Johnson, a Texas politician turned President of the United States, sends a letter to Wernher von Braun, the German Nazi during the war turned aerospace. Capture German pioneer Wernher von Braun. So a Texas President sends a letter to a German engineer in Huntsville, Alabama, which is the Marshall Space Flight Center, where they're designing the Saturn 5 rocket, tells him to hire more black engineers into that operation. And if he can't find black engineers, he should work with the historically black colleges to attract students to go into engineering fields so he has a workforce in his lab that reflects the population in the United States. That was 1964. Alabama is the seat of the Civil Rights Movement where there's a German rocket pioneer gets a letter from a Texas President. Forty five years later, the head of NASA is black. That's extraordinary. That's extraordinary.Now, one could give a similar story in reference to Obama, but I'm intrigued though, because Obama is exactly half white. Yet no one says he's white. They say he's black. And so you say he's black because that's how you treat him. That's how you categorize him. But I look forward to the day when we look back at this time and saying that he's black or saying that he's anything, we just laugh at it. Because he's as white as he is black but no one says he's white. That's kind of curious. Why don't you say he's white? Well, because he's black, because he looks black. Well, he's half white. So, are you going to call things what people look like? And what does it mean he looks black? In Africa, he's got light skin. Compare skin color to Africa. He's got skin color closer to a white person than the very dark skin of Africans. So the fact that anybody's having that conversation at all, I look forward to the day that we just look back and laugh at it. We are looking for people with talent we need to lead the nation. Obama was just such person. The current head of NASA is just such person. So, seeing where America was to where it's trending to go, I see that as a very positive sign for a nation that could just simply value people's talent no matter what their point of origin is. And I think they are describing such an era as being trans racial.
This whole thing with the supreme court appointee, Sotomayor, where there's an issue that she was Hispanic-American, or female, there will be a day when neither of those issues come up. Then you'll know you've actually arrived. Because no one cares that you have Hispanic heritage. They just care what kind of decisions you are going to make in the Supreme Court. They're not going to care that you are female, they'll care what kind of mind you have. When those no longer become issues then they are not issues, and we are more there than ever before. When I am interviewed on TV, no one says well, how do black people feel about the universe? Doesn't happen. There was a day when that would happen because all they could think about was they have to reference my skin color when in my line of work, it's irrelevant, but people feel compelled that they have to mention it. So, I'm hopeful that America could one day declare that our experiment was a success despite the fits and starts of the Civil War and the slave trades and all the rest of this and the Civil Rights Movement and the Women's Lib Movement, Gay Rights Movement, that the day will come, I know it sounds like kumbaya, I understand that, but the trends are real and I see the day when we look at the rest of the world and say, you're fighting over what? Oh, you are one religion and you're another and you're, like, killing each other? You have that skin color and that skin color and you're killing each other? It will be an example of how to behave when you are different, because the human race has really abysmal history of how they treat people who are different from themselves.
There's this talk about cloning the Neanderthal, you know, because they found some tissue of Neanderthal in the ice. They shouldn't do it. I don't want Neanderthal walking around. No siree. You know why? Because we kill each other for less, we kill other members of exactly our species for less. You're going to bring up a whole other, something that's almost human, but not, Neanderthal? And we are pretty sure that our cognitive abilities are greater than that of Neanderthal, how are we going to treat him? I don't trust us. That's why you shouldn't clone him, because I don't trust the behavior of human beings. Leave him uncloned until we can demonstrate behavior befitting that experiment. Not that you asked, but that's the extension of my opinion from when you asked what am I hopeful about.
Bingham: Well just to extend the kumbaya moment and the positive stuff, I mean, I would assume you agree that science might have something to say about how to implement all those sorts of things.
Tyson: Science, I think, is the solution to it all. Particularly neuroscience as a frontier, something you are closer to than I am. We don't understand the brain. That's as much a frontier as the edge of the universe. And it's hard to study something using the organ that it is you are trying to study.
Bingham: You know, you wrote something that I was struck by. There's a chapter in, I guess it must have been Death by Black Hole where you talk about bafflement.
Tyson: Yes, on being baffled. Death by Black Hole.
Bingham: There were a couple of quotes by Lewis Thomas, who you will probably remember, who wrote The Medusa and the Snail and Lives of a Cell.
Tyson: Which were compilations of his other writings.
Bingham: He said,
At the moment we are an ignorant species flummoxed by the puzzles of who we are, where we came from and what we are for. It's a gamble to bet on science for moving ahead, but it is, in my view, the only game in town.
Tyson: Why does he think it's a gamble? I don't even think it's a gamble. A pretty good bet. It's not only the only game in town, it's actually a pretty good bet, given its rate of success. I'm surprised he had that level of skepticism.
Bingham: His other great quote was
The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without the special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.
Tyson: But blunder implies intent that went awry rather than an actual random fluctuation in a genetic code. So I wouldn't have used the word blunder there. Blunder implies an incompetence and a cosmic ray striking a DNA strand. Plus he also used another word, ‘flummoxed.' Flummoxed is like oh my God, I have no idea, let me go back and eat a chocolate chip cookie and warm milk.
Bingham: What's bafflement, then?
Tyson: Flummoxed is you're stumped and you're giving up. Baffled is, I'm stumped but I want to figure it out. Something can be baffling, let me keep looking. Flummoxed makes you out like you're an idiot. Flummoxed. But I bicker. I'm just bickering with word choices here.
Bingham: In terms of how to communicate science, even when you are using words, I think, rather nicely, to convey a general texture and feeling.
Tyson: I don't think they are the best words, and I told you I care about words because I want to be a song writer. So I'm not pulling this out of the ether to complain about it, I'm saying a word has to be just right and because you hadn't thought of the right word, it's not an excuse.
Bingham: So what's the right word for saying goodbye?
Bingham: Neil Tyson. Thank you, very much.
Tyson: Thanks for having me.
Copyright © 2017 Neil deGrasse Tyson. All rights reserved.