The broad community of space science has lacked the vocal prowess required to keep both lawmakers from being myopic with our future, and the public informed, educated and engaged. Not an easy undertaking by any means, as that type of pedestal requires the accredited individual who is smart, well-spoken and forward-thinking enough to address the US Congress, but also able to shake off the frigid, deep nerdiness typically associated with said talent. Toss in some humor with a shake of average Joe vitality useful in appearances on radio and late night talk shows, and you would be describing Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Born in the Bronx to a sociologist father and gerontologist mother, Tyson took his youthful interest in astronomy full steam into higher education. After earning a Bachelors of Arts in physics at Harvard, he earned his Master of Arts in astronomy at the University of Texas, later taking home a Master of Philosophy in astrophysics and Doctor of Philosophy in astrophysics at Columbia University. In addition to his post-educational career in institutions such as the Hayden Planetarium and American Museum of Natural, his journalistic expertise began to trickle down over the last two decades into mediums outside of scientific journals, starting with articles in publications such as Natural History, to hosting the NOVA four-part TV miniseries, Origins. This lead to a future slot as host of the TV show scienceNOW (also on NOVA) and regular appearances on shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Real Time with Bill Maher and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Somehow in his spare time, he’s found the ability to be a husband/father, co-host an online radio show and author eleven books, with a new paperback scheduled for February 2012 (stirring rumors that Tyson has applied some sort of secret time/space algorithm to himself). As a sci-fi geek, I’m honored to interview the undeclared spokesman for all space enthusiasts, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview, Dr. Tyson.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Not a problem. How did Comic-Con turn out?
It was awesome. It was my 7th Comic-Con.
Is it in San Diego every year?
Yes. It’s been here since 1970. I believe they had around 200k in attendance this year.
My gosh, That’s insane. So it’s been growing precipitously each year.
Definitely has. So, first off, are you working on any projects right now?
Thank you for asking. I’d say the two lead projects at this instant – there will be others in the future, but they’re not formed yet and I don’t want to talk about them until they have shape – right now I’m the host of a radio show called StarTalk. It’s a science talk show that’s different from your traditional NPR-type format. Normally on NPR, you’d have a journalist interview a scientist, and that conversation would be used as proxy for what the listener might want to ask the scientist. The listener would not have necessarily heard of the scientist; they’re interested in the subject. On StarTalk, I’m the host, and my guest is hardly ever a scientist; it’s someone drawn from pop culture who has a profession that, in some way or another, has been influenced by science. So in that way, that persons following has been brought in to this science conversation.
I listened to your interview with Jon Stewart.
Yes, that was a good interview. Make sure you listen to both parts. Another project is a book that I’m editing the final stages of [which] includes every thought I’ve ever had on the past, present and future of the space program. My original title got nixed by the publisher. That original title was Failure to Launch: The Dreams and Delusions of Space Enthusiasts. [The publisher] said that was too depressing, so it will likely have a title more denuded than that. The one we’re working on is Space Chronicles. I think there is a lot of things that people say about space, and very rarely is it informed by truth. [The book] is an attempt to offer a reality check to this aspect of our culture. There’s a couple of other little [projects] but those are two lead efforts right now.
Would you describe your upcoming book as a eulogy to the space program?
It’s a wake-up call to the space program. You’re doing this, and you think you’re doing it for these reasons, but you’re actually doing it for these other reasons, so if you want to go to Mars, this is how you make that happen, not for any of the reasons that you’ve been giving, that you think you have to give to make it happen. That is why there are so many disappointed space enthusiasts. When we landed on the Moon in 1969, all the enthusiasts said we’d be on Mars in the 1980s. Bush Sr. in 1989 said we’ll land on Mars in thirty years. Well, that would be in ten years [from now] and clearly is not happening. Those promises never got fulfilled, and there are deep cultural reasons why that’s the case, that no one ever talks about, in part because they don’t know it, and another set of them are in denial of it even if they do hear it. It’s a reality check on our dreams and ambitions.
Earlier this year, I interviewed Dr. Lyle Broadfoot, who lead the team that developed the Ultraviolet Spectrometer (UVS) on the Voyager 1 satellite, one of the few instruments still active as the Voyager continues its journey through the heliosphere –
No, the heliopause! (laughs)
(laughs) Yes, sorry, of course, the heliopause! Dr. Broadfoot’s biggest issue with the disconnect between the space program and the public, was that the consumer uses technology every day that can be drawn straight from space research. Devices such as the Apple iPod and cell phone, optimizing the size and efficiency of electronics, are connected with engineering from our space program.
All true, especially the miniaturization. The notion that the space program has spin-offs, indirect and direct, is an important one, but is not the best reason to go into space. Nor is it a reason that works when you actually have to defend it in congress or in front of lawmakers. All of this is inside my book, not to delay you from hearing the answer (laughs) but I’ve thought deeply about these issues, and from a non-partisan invested position, many people with strong opinions about NASA don’t always see the picture through the clearest of lenses that are available to them. The counter-argument to the spin-offs is that you should use the same money and invest directly into an iPod, instead of making the circuit of going into space first and coming back. If you want to miniaturize electronics, miniaturize electronics. That’s why you will never hear me make the spin-off argument in defense of the space program. While it’s all true, it’s not enough to defend the $18 billion dollar expense that it represents.
How much of a role does religion play in the anti-space movement?
I’ve never seen it play any role at all. I can make a stronger statement, this is in the book too (laughs), that NASA has had the luxury, up until a few years ago, they’ve had a remarkable level of bipartisan support, that you could even call it non-partisan. There are ten NASA centers spread across eight states, and those eight states have about equal balance of republican and democrat representatives and senators. NASA has never been partisan over its history, and a way to determine that is, if you learn a person is a republican, or democrat, or a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or black, or white – is that sufficient information for you to know, or to guess accurately, if that person is pro-space or anti-space? And the answer is no. None of these variables correlate, strongly, with whether or not a person is going to support the space program. That is the evidence that it has become a fundamental part of American culture that transcends everything else that would otherwise divide us. So, I simply haven’t seen any forces from the religious community with any strong opinions one way or the other, with regards to space exploration.
That’s interesting, considering.
There are some that don’t like the big bang, and there is science research that NASA does on the big band, but the lion’s share of spending by NASA is on the manned program, and I take in your question in reference to the manned program. There are always religious fundamentalist who object to scientific discoveries that might conflict with their religion dogma, scriptures, or whatever it is that establishes their belief system. But that’s on the edges and they tend to be religious fundamentalists, not the mainstream community.
In your book Origins, one of my favorite chapters when you –
Can I interject something? Almost everyone I know, who quotes or makes references from Origins-
(laughs) -they’ve not read, Death by Black Hole, which, in spite of its morbid title, is all about what it is to think like a scientist, to investigate the world through a scientist lens, and to question how the world works. It has been so fulfilling to people who have read it, they go on to twenty other things and they never get to my Origins book. I invite you to put on your list, Death by Black Hole. Read two chapters of it, and if it doesn’t keep you going, send it right back. (laughs)
Okay, will do. My reference to Origins was the chapter, Searching for Life in the Solar System, where one of the topics you address is SETI [Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence – a program that monitors the sky for alien communication transmissions, such as radio waves]. Do you still have the same opinions of SETI today, as you did when the book was written?
Sure. There’s not that many people engaged in it, and all told there’s not that much money in it, but any discovery would be the largest payoff in the history of research, so I think, why not?
The ROI is there.
Hugest ROI there ever was!
Do you think the Wow! Signal was real, or an anomaly?
I’m not convinced. You know, singular signals are not useful: you need something to repeat, to have any confidence that it’s real. Just because you haven’t seen it before, if you can’t duplicate it, it’s just not useful, it just becomes a curiosity. So, it can live as a curiosity, I don’t have a problem with that, but without a repeated signal, there’s no measure of its integrity, because a lot of things will only happen once in a collection of data.
What’s your favorite science fiction movie?
I have three. Contact, Deep Impact and just as a sentimental favorite, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just how audacious that vision was for the future, is a lesson for us all, as a reminder on how we’re no longer dreaming about the future. But definitely Contact or Deep Impact, were the best made out there, and they each had compelling story lines, and you didn’t have to be embarrassed to view it if you’re scientifically literate, which is a good litmus test.
Do you ever watch films such as The Core?
Of course! In Death by Black Hole, there’s a chapter called Hollywood Nights, which is a critique about Hollywood movies and their efforts to get the science right. Like how [director James] Cameron messed up the night sky in the sinking Titanic scene.
Contact is a great film, which received mediocre reviews as a sci-fi film, likely because it didn’t fall under the stereotypical sci-fi action film.
No attack aliens, right. In my book, there is a whole section on the search for alien life in the universe, as a mission statement for our future in space, and I talk about aliens and how they’re portrayed.
What would be your favorite science fiction book?
Generally, I read less fiction than non-fiction, and I have no hesitation to wait for a science fiction book to become a movie, in spite of the perennial criticism that movies that are made from books get, lobbed by people that are avid book fans. The movie never lives up to the book, apparently. Of the few science fiction stories that I’ve read, two rise up. One is the The Andromeda Strain. I read that when it first came out, and I liked the premise: life that has no common foundation to life as we know it. Also, I liked the portrayal with Rendezvous with Rama, by Author C Clarke.
Speaking of books, your book comes out in February 2012.
Yes, and I’m trying to get the old title back but if not, it will be under Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.
Will that be available in digital form?
I don’t see why not. I’ll double check on that. Death by Black Hole is, and it’s the same publisher.
I remember your tweet about the Titanic sky, by the way.
Thanks for following the tweets! They’re a fun avocation of mine, and I’m glad they serve your interests.
Do you find that, when tweeting, you fire off the thought immediately, or do you analyze before sending?
Every tweet that I put out, takes five seconds to think up, and about ten minutes to compose to fit within 140 characters. In fact, I put it into 125 characters, and I hate abbreviating. I don’t put a ‘u’ as a replace for ‘you’ so they’re full sentences by in large, and as the saying goes, ‘Sorry this letter is so long, I ran out of time to make it short.’ I spend whatever time it takes to contain the idea in 125 characters. And every tweet that describes night sky phenomenon, or anything that is going on in the sky, takes extra effort as well. Notice I didn’t say poetry, which implies a command of rhymed words that I don’t have, to just rhyme. (laughs)
The world is curious: what is Dr. Tyson’s diet?
If it tastes good, I eat it. And I give high premium to whether or not it tastes good; I value efforts put into the culinary arts. And a good bottle of wine to go with it.
You can follow Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on his Twitter account, the StarTalk Radio show, Nova scienceNOW series, or at his website. His new book, Space Chronicles, debuts in February 2012. I originally recorded and wrote this interview during my time as Editor-in-Chief at SanDiego.com.