Neil deGrasse Tyson has a thing for precision. That’s a useful trait in his line of work: He’s an astrophysicist, probably the world’s most famous living specimen not named Stephen Hawking. But Tyson, 59, has been known to take it to an extreme.
As a science educator, it’s his job to inspire wonder in the marvels of the universe, something he’s done for more than two decades as director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, as the author of seven books and as host of TV shows including PBS’s Cosmos and Nova ScienceNow. Most recently, he’s been doing it on National Geographic’s first late-night talk show, Star Talk, where he interviews people like Morgan Freeman, Katie Couric and Lance Armstrong. “I want you to come for the celebrity and stay for the science,” he says of the show, now in its fourth season. “The goal here is to demonstrate that science touches everyone in fascinating ways.”
But it often seems as if Tyson’s greatest passion is snuffing out popular misapprehensions, even harmless ones. When all of America was freaking out about the total solar eclipse last summer, he was on Twitter telling us to chill the hell out, since a total eclipse happens somewhere around the world every two years. (Easy to say when you witnessed your first one at age 14 from a cruise ship in the Atlantic as a guest of the Explorers Club.) A favorite pastime involves critiquing works of pop culture in terms of how accurately they portray science. (Thumbs down to Sandra Bullock’s hair in Gravity; thumbs up to the dragon anatomy in Game of Thrones.)
In an hour-long conversation, Tyson was true to his reputation, offering a string of corrections, whether to a layman’s phrasing of a finding from quantum physics or a characterization of him as a less-than-stellar student in middle school. (While his grades were average, he was a highly engaged pupil with numerous extracurricular interests, he says.) When I pointed out that precision seems like a bit of an obsession for him, he allowed that it’s something he cares about—but only to a specific point. “Not crazy stupid precision,” he said. “Just if losing the precision means the argument is no longer as strong.”
As our hour ended, he excused himself, saying, “I have about two more minutes. I have an Apollo 16 astronaut I’m hosting this evening.” Precisely how you’d expect Neil DeGrasse Tyson to say goodbye.
The National: There have been some pretty incredible developments in your field recently that probably would be generating more headlines in an ordinary news environment. I’m thinking of the discovery of gravitational waves, which won a Nobel Prize for the scientists involved; the recent announcement that half the universe’s “missing” matter has been detected in intergalactic space; and the witnessing for the first time ever of two neutron stars colliding. Are we living in a golden age of astrophysics without appreciating it?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The way to think about this is that science is growing exponentially. It turns out, when you grow exponentially, at any time you cut into that timeline and look around it will look like all the great discoveries were happening just recently. That’s a feature of an exponential growth curve, and we’ve been growing that way since the Industrial Revolution. Things always look like you’re living in a special time of discovery, and that will continue as long as we remain on an exponential growth curve.
We’re getting better at discovering things, basically.
There are more scientists than ever before. Our methods and tools are better than ever before. And you would expect, then, that there would be more discoveries. By the way, there’s nothing written in a tablet anywhere that says a nation will stay enlightened in its investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That can all go away. You can end up stagnating—socially, culturally, economically, in terms of your security, which requires fertile foundations in these topics.
Do you have concerns about that for our nation right now?
Yeah, I do, because I don’t see the enthusiasm here for STEM fields that you need to make sure we maintain a leadership position. There are committees and meetings held between other countries about the future of technology that we’re not even invited to.
Who is it that’s not as enthusiastic as they ought to be?
It’s the general population. I see signs this is changing, but if you look at the relationship between science literacy in the electorate and decisions made about who they elect into office, there’s a profound absence of understanding of what science is and how and why it works.
Are you talking about candidates who disagree with established science on things like climate change?
Sure, that’s right, but liberals do not have scientific high ground here. If you look at where the seats of vaccine denial are, they tend to be in liberal communities. Look at more extreme examples like people who are into crystal healing or feather energy or alternative medicines, all of these, if you would embrace them, you have to simultaneously reject some or all of mainstream science.
Neil, I’m calling you from Berkeley, so you might want to keep your voice down or my neighbors will hear you talking about them. So are we backsliding as a society with regard to scientific literacy?
I think there are some restoring forces there, but yes, we’re backsliding relative to how science has served as a priority. Our science priorities have had two watershed moments. The first was 1863 when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the existence of the National Academy of Sciences. He did that in a year when he clearly had other challenges on his plate because he thought it was important that science be a guide to policy. The other moment was at the end of the Second World War. There was a report by Vannevar Bush titled Science: The Endless Frontier. In that document was a recipe for establishing the preeminence of science research in America relative to the rest of the world.
And that document actually created broad, lasting public support for science?
Well, yes, because the public knew that science won the war. Physicists building a bomb ended the war in the Pacific. That knowledge was clear and present. They also knew the future of war might not simply be how many soldiers do you have. It might pivot on other kinds of innovations. Out of that came, for example, the National Science Foundation. There are various agencies we take for granted as always having existed, but they have birthdates commensurate with moments when the country recognized the value of science.
We all now carry supercomputers around in our pockets and are so obsessed with them, we can barely make eye contact. Clearly we as a society love what science gives us. Is it just that we’re taking it for granted because we haven’t been through something like World War II lately?
I think so. And I’ll make a stronger statement. We’re taking for granted the fact that we’re taking science for granted.
Hmmmm. Unpack that for me.
[Laughs] I don’t mean to be obtuse. We all take science for granted because the smartphone just works. The GPS in your car just works. Everything just works. But there are people who invented this stuff. Taking for granted that you take science for granted, I think it’s the least enlightened place to be in.
Okay. So you said you see signs this is changing. I assume you don’t just mean your own considerable popularity.
I could certainly cite that, but it’s not the whole story. My Twitter following recently hit 9.6 million, and that’s a crazy number. Every morning I wake up and say, I don’t understand this. But beyond anything I’ve done, there is the fact that The Big Bang Theory for many years was the number one show on television. You have biopics of scientists—The Imitation Game about Alan Turing, who pioneered automatic computing, and The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking. Look at CSI, with beautiful people playing scientists, not just nerd types. Four of the top 10 movies at the box office are science fiction. Look at the rise in attendance at Comic-Cons, which has grown into a huge celebration of the geek-osphere. I think if you add all that up, it bodes well for the United States.
The venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who invests in companies like SpaceX, has criticized science fiction for too often depicting a dystopian future that makes people afraid of science. Do you agree with that critique?
When someone asked him why he painted such dystopic futures, Ray Bradbury once said: “I tell you about these futures so you will know to avoid them.”
You’re on record as being a big fan of Star Trek but cool on Star Wars.
I would word that differently. I’ve never volunteered that information. It’s always just been asked. I really don’t care if anyone agrees with me, but if you asked me which I prefer, I’d say Star Trek. At least it has a premise of being founded in scientific truths.
How is Star Wars any less scientific?
There’s no attempt, or at least there wasn’t when it came out, to explain anything that goes on in terms of scientific grounding. The floating cars, the diversity of animals across the galaxy. How is it they can bring the TIE fighters into the dock, which is open air, from the vacuum of empty space? No one’s thinking about that because they don’t give a shit. They just don’t care. They just want to tell a story. Whereas in Star Trek, when they came up with the warp drive, they thought about warping space. There’s a photon torpedo, phasers. These are things that have anchors in what is real. For me, that makes it a stronger platform for science-fiction storytelling.
Star Trek has a pretty amazing record of predicting real-world inventions and discoveries. Most recently, a team of scientists managed to “teleport” electrons from Earth into orbit. Can you explain how that’s possible?
So, you can entangle two particles and then separate them. Once they’re entangled, they know about each other by virtue of what we say is their wave function, which is described mathematically by a wave, because particles and waves are one and the same. When you describe particles as waves, you can entangle them so they’re basically sharing the same wave. When you separate them, they still know about each other. Now, how far away can you separate them and still have them know about each other? Because if there are two particles, quantum-mechanically speaking, one will be spin “up” and the other will be spin “down.” The moment you measure one of your particles to be either “up” or “down,” it forces the other one to have the opposite property. That’s entanglement.
So it’s really information about the state of a particle that’s being “teleported” rather than, say, a Vulcan first officer.
Right. Two particles, one on earth, one in orbit, were able to communicate with each other instantly, faster than the speed of light. Now, let’s talk about whether you can communicate faster than light speed this way. The answer is: not likely.
Because you want to be able to send a coded message that will get to your destination instantly. How would you create that coded message? You have a two-state particle, spin-up or spin-down. How is that particle going to represent, say, a military command, like the word invade? You have to somehow represent the word invade in these particles where you are and then separate the twin particles the great distance where you happen to be, and do that without doing it physically. It’s not clear how you would pull that off.
There are so many concepts in astrophysics, like quantum mechanics and extra dimensions, that we know through math but that are almost impossible to understand intuitively. Do you feel like you have an intuitive understanding of ideas like that?
Quantum mechanics is not intuitive, and anyone who claims otherwise, they may be lying to themselves. You can understand what the equations do but intuition comes from life experience and the applications of your senses to your environment. None of your life experience exists in the realm that quantum physics so strongly controls. If it’s classical physics, it has a chance of making sense.
As an educator, do you have a way of approaching things that aren’t intuitive to make them graspable to people without a science background?
Yeah. What I do is I recognize that everyone carries with them a scaffold of pop culture. I can clad that scaffold with science. The best example of this was, I was at home channel-surfing and a football game was on that had gone to sudden-death overtime. The team that received the ball got to within 55 yards and attempted a field goal. The kick went high and long and far, then careened off the left upright and went between the uprights for the goal. I checked the math of the stadium and then I tweeted that the winning field goal from the Cincinnati Bengals was likely helped by a ⅓ inch deflection to the right enabled by the rotation of the earth. That’s the Coriolus force, which rotates storms into shape.
So if this had been Australian rules football, the kick would’ve been wide.
You’ve said you think human exploration of space is important, not so much for the pure science involved but for the way it can galvanize society.
No. That’s what I sound like, but it’s not actually what I said. I hardly ever tell people what to do. I will not tell people what’s important. I will not tell you how you should vote. What I have said is: Innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy. So if you want to participate in a growth economy of the nation going forward, that cannot happen in the current configuration. If you care about the health, wealth and security of the United States, you’ll do all you can to stimulate scientific literacy.
And what does that have to do with manned space travel?
If you bring forth the universe as an object of interest in the school curriculum, it could stimulate interest in science. We’ve known that astrophysics is a gateway science. You come for the planets and you stay for the hard science. The value of humans is we care about other humans more than we care about robots. So if you send a human into space, the level of media interest will be unlike anything since we last sent someone into space, like to the moon. If you said, “I want to create an astronaut class I’ll draw from to send people to Mars and choose a slate of eighth graders,” well, that will make Teen Beat, won’t it? People will be going, Are they doing their homework? Are they keeping themselves healthy? There would be a collective interest in the fate of these kids.
Do you think we’ll see humans on Mars in your lifetime?
I think we’ll only get to Mars if we somehow convince ourselves China thinks of it as a new military high ground. Then we’ll get to Mars in 10 months: One month to design, fund and build the spaceship and nine months to get there.
Elon Musk said he’d like to die on Mars as long as it’s not on impact. Would you go with him?
Nah, I’ll visit Mars and then come back to Earth. I want to die in my own bed. But we need somebody thinking the way he does. You need someone on the limits of where everyone else is.
An increasing proportion of science, both basic and applied, is happening not at universities or in government labs but at big technology companies like Musk’s SpaceX and Google. How do you view that trend?
Many people are thinking these private companies will lead the future in space. I don’t see that. Government can do it because it has much longer time horizons for return on investment. Government can do something that pays back in 10 years, but not a corporation with quarterly reports. My read of things is the government has to do it first. Then they can tell you where the hostiles are and where the trade winds blow. Once you have that information, you can assess risk and assign cost.
One of the great mysteries in astrophysics for the last few years has been an inexplicable pattern of light coming from a distant star called KIC 8462852. One theory put forward is that it’s a “megastructure” built by an advanced alien civilization, perhaps a so-called Dyson sphere built to capture the star’s radiation and convert it into useful energy. A recent paper argued it’s just a planet with rings like Saturn and a weird orbit causing the light interference. Got a take on this one?
I think if your best guess is “aliens are doing it,” it means you haven’t thought deeply enough about the problem. [Laughs] It’d be great if there was a megastructure. Nobody doesn’t want to meet aliens. Certainly not my professional community of astrophysicists. We’d love for there to be aliens out there. But to be scientifically responsible based on the history of what we’ve discovered, it shouldn’t be your first assumption. Not even your second assumption.
Another recent paper challenged the so-called simulation hypothesis, which says it’s likely our reality is a computer simulation created by a more advanced civilization. The authors said the math doesn’t work out. Should we be relieved?
I didn’t read the paper itself, just accounts of it, but as best I can judge, the authors said something slightly different. They said the actual universe and the sense of free will we have depends on quantum phenomena in the brain, and these phenomena can’t be modeled with a classical computer. So, to me, all it said was with computers we have today, we can’t make a simulation. That doesn’t mean someone else couldn’t have way better computers and create us in their quantum computer, so...
Okay, so we might be living in the Matrix after all.
Yeah, just because our computers can’t program a quantum world doesn’t mean alien computers can’t. Maybe I should withhold comment until I read the actual research paper.
No! That would be boring. OK, so we’re not living through a special era for science. That said, what are some of the discoveries from the past few years that have gotten you most excited?
It’s hard for me to rank them. It’s like choosing children—I love them all. I love the Higgs boson, I love the colliding black holes, I love the colliding pulsars. It’s all good. If there’s something we didn’t know today that we discover tomorrow, it’s all good.