Neil DeGrasse Tyson Explains Why The Cosmos Shouldn't Make You Feel Small
Originally published on Fri February 28, 2014 9:45 am
When it comes to "callings" we usually think of people who feel drawn to religious career paths. But if you ask Neil deGrasse Tyson how he became an astrophysicist he says: "I think the universe called me. I feel like I had no say in the matter."
Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York, is a prolific writer and frequently cited authority on astronomy in the popular media. He's hosted a four-part series on Nova and appeared everywhere from The Tonight Show to The Daily Show to Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!
This spring, Tyson hosts a new TV series called Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. It's an update of the influential 1980 PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Journey. Tyson was entering graduate school in astrophysics at the time and remembers watching Carl Sagan host the original Cosmos.
It was "proof that a scientist can communicate with the public in a manner that was very different from a professor in front of a classroom or pontificating from up on high," Tyson tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "His style was very conversational and fireside-chatty. There he was on the screen, but he was really with you in the living room."
Tyson worked with Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow, in developing the new series, which debuts March 9 and 10 on Fox and the National Geographic Channel.
If you are one of those people who don't like thinking about astronomy because it makes them feel small, Tyson suggests looking at it a different way: "Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy," he explains. If you "see the universe as something you participate in — as this great unfolding of a cosmic story — that, I think should make you feel large, not small. ... Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up in the universe; we feel large."
On how to balance science and show biz
[I don't think] that one of the two has to be compromised for the both to be successful; I don't agree with that premise. I think if you have not thought deeply of how to communicate science you might get stuck saying, "OK, I have to dumb this down. I have to be flashy but with no real content." But if you really think deeply about the visualizations, the visual effects and the content, you get to have both.
On what Gravity got wrong
Cosmos has as its priority to get the science right, above all else, and we will then tell the story with the properly represented science. In Hollywood ... I think they take some latitudes, either out of ignorance or because they feel as though the truth would somehow constrain their flexibility of storytelling.
In the film Gravity ... I just felt compelled to put out 10 tweets or so on things I thought they could've gotten right but they didn't get right. ... One of which was, why is it that Sandra Bullock, who is portraying a medical doctor, is fixing my Hubble Space Telescope! Get her the hell off my telescope! As an astrophysicist I don't walk into her operating room and say, "I got this." ... So little things like that, and I was just having fun. ...
For example, her hair — her hair should've been sort of floating in zero-G and it was not. It was like heavy mousse, or something, that kept that stuff down. ... That's the first thing we notice when we see astronauts floating in space is the hair sticking up and it's kind of comical and funny, it's the great reminder that they're in zero-G.
On Pluto losing its status as a planet
So Pluto is not only the littlest planet, all right, that alone shouldn't hurt it, but more than half of its volume is ice. No other planet has that. So if you moved it to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate the ice and it would grow a tail. That's no kind of behavior for a planet!
Pluto, its orbit is elongated so severely that it crosses the orbit of Neptune. Now, we have words for objects that cross the orbits of other planets and are made of mostly ice; they're called comets. By the way, there are six moons in the solar system that are bigger than Pluto including Earth's moon, which is five times the mass of Pluto. So really, Pluto was never the ninth planet; it was the first of a new class of objects that we didn't really discover the rest of until the early 1990s.
On the big questions astronomers are trying to answer
We can measure the influence of this thing we call dark energy, which is forcing an acceleration of the expanding universe. We don't know what that is, we don't know anything about it, other than what it's doing to the universe.
Then 85 percent of the gravity of the universe has a point of origin about which we know nothing. We account for all the matter and energy that we're familiar with, measure up how much gravity it should have — it's about one-sixth of the gravity that's actually operating on the universe. We call that dark matter, but what we should call it is "dark gravity." We don't know what that is either.
We don't know how [Earth] went from inanimate organic molecules to self-replicating life. We got top people working on that as well.
We don't know what was around before the universe. We don't know what is at the center of a black hole. We don't know whether or not the universe is actually one of many in a multiverse. We want to know if there's life thriving in under-ice oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa. ...
But my favorite question is one that we don't even know to ask yet because it's a question that would arise upon answering these questions I just delivered to you. ... If you're a scientist and you have to have an answer, even in the absence of data, you're not going to be a good scientist.
On becoming an "innovation nation"
When we find an asteroid headed our way, what's your first thought? Is it "run!" or "stockpile toilet paper!"? No. If that's your first thought, you are not an innovation nation. If you have enough people who are influenced by this way of thinking, the innovative way of thinking, their first thought is, "How do we deflect that asteroid? How do we destroy that asteroid? How do we mine that asteroid?" ... That's a culture that I don't think the United States is a part of right now.
On the "cosmic perspective"
You will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective ... leading nations into battle. No, that doesn't happen. When you have a cosmic perspective there's this little speck called Earth and you say, "You're going to what? You're on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what? Oh, to pull oil out of the ground, what? WHAT?" ... Not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
On how he (very) briefly considered a career as an exotic dancer
You're broke in graduate school, basically, and I was flexible from having danced and I was pretty cut from having wrestled, and I also rowed and so on the dance team; there were some fellow male dancers who told me about this club, these ladies' clubs but there are these male dancers, and they said they danced moves we do just in the normal training for our dance performances ... and they invited me because I needed more money, I was broke.
So I went just to observe it [to see] if it was something I could do and they came out with jockstraps having been soaked in lighter fluid, asbestos jockstraps, ignited, coming out dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire."
I said, "Nope. Not for me." I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't until that moment when I said to myself, "Maybe I should be a math tutor." I don't know why I didn't think of that first.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York. But that doesn't begin to tell you who he is. Tyson is a prolific writer, having authored many books and essays, and he may be the country's most frequently quoted and interviewed authority on astronomy in the popular media.
He's hosted a four-part series on PBS's "Nova" and appeared everywhere from "The Tonight Show" to "The Daily Show" to NPR's WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME! This spring he hosts a new 13-part TV series, "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey." It begins March 9 on Fox and March 10 on the National Geographic Channel. The programs recall and update the influential series "Cosmos: A Personal Journey," which Carl Sagan hosted on PBS in 1980.
Tyson worked with Ann Druyan, Sagan's widow, in developing the new series. Here's a moment from the first episode, which begins with Carl Sagan and finishes with Tyson.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY")
CARL SAGAN: The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Come with me.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: A generation ago, the astronomer Carl Sagan stood here and launched hundreds of millions of us on a great adventure: the exploration of the universe revealed by science. It's time to get going again.
DAVIES: Well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of us who are old enough to have seen the original series remember it dimly, and of course you've been involved in it again. Looking back on it, what struck you about it? What did you want to honor?
TYSON: Well, I, at the time, it was 1980 when it first aired, and I was entering graduate school in astrophysics. So "Cosmos," unlike its influence on others, where it may have first awakened them to the glories of the universe or to science, for me I was already sort of a committed student to the subject. So for me its influence was primarily an existence proof that a scientist can communicate with the public in a manner that was very different from professor in front of a classroom or you know, pontificating from up on high.
His style was very conversation and fireside chatty, and there he was on the screen, but he was really with you in the living room. And I said to myself, if I'm ever in a position to communicate with the public on such a scale that I would want to do it in that way.
DAVIES: I want to play a clip from the first episode, and in this one you're explaining a narrative device that was also used in the original series, the cosmic calendar, which gives us a sense of the scale of the 13.8 billion years that have passed since the beginning of the universe. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COSMOS: A SPACE-TIME ODYSSEY")
TYSON: The cosmic calendar begins on January 1 with the birth of our universe. It contains everything that's happened since then, up to now, which on this calendar is midnight December 31. On this scale, every month represents about a billion years. Every day represents nearly 40 million years. Let's go back as far as we can, to the very first moment of the universe, January 1, the big bang.
It's as far back as we can see in time, for now.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)
TYSON: I donned sunglasses for that one.
DAVIES: That's from the series "The Cosmos" on Fox TV, which will be hosted by our guest Neil DeGrasse Tyson. You know, I played that in part because of that huge boom. We see you actually kind of experiencing the big bang. You know, the blast kind of shakes your clothing and all.
TYSON: Yeah, and not getting vaporized, right. We needed special clothing for that.
DAVIES: And somehow surviving it. And it kind of raises the question of, you know, the tradeoff between kind of substance and show biz. And I know you've done a lot of popular science education. I suspect this is something that you deal with a lot. Talk a little bit about how you address that issue.
TYSON: Well, the very question presumes that one of the two has to be compromised for the both to be successful, and I don't agree with that premise. I think if you have not thought deeply about how to communicate science, you might get stuck saying, OK, I have to dumb this down, or I have to be flashy but with no real content.
But if you really think deeply about the visualizations, the effects, the visual effects, and the content, you get to have both. And I don't think I've ever been accused of dumbing anything down. The audience knows it if you're dumbing it down. In the "Cosmos" series, I'm speaking real science to you, and the visualizations are supporting that real science.
So yeah, the big bang is as far back in time as we can see. These are just facts. And yeah, the cosmic calendar is an awesome way to capture the flow of events in a way that we can kind of understand better, can kind of relate to. On a cosmic calendar, our galaxy, our galaxy forms on March 15. So the universe has been around for a while before we formed.
Our solar system forms August 31. You can calculate this out and find out where it fits. These are visualization tools. So yeah, I don't see that as a tradeoff, at all.
DAVIES: Right, I didn't mean to suggest that you were compromising the science in doing all that.
TYSON: Yes you did.
DAVIES: No, I didn't. But what I do suspect is that there are people involved in the production that, you know, without the diligent care might do that, and there are probably times you've got to say not so fast, that isn't quite right.
TYSON: Oh yeah, I'm all over him if that happens, and the good thing about the universe in this, the 21st century, we have extraordinary sources of data, the Hubble Telescope and many other telescopes that are just as important but don't have quite the PR machine that the Hubble did, that inform the visualizations that we provide.
So there's a limit to the freedom that an artist is given to portray things. You know, if you look at a first-run movie, they just want the thing to look good, whether or not it follows laws of physics. And occasionally I'm on top of them too, after the fact. I commented on the film "Gravity"...
DAVIES: I was going to bring that up. Yeah, I think you did this on Twitter. Why don't you share some of the kind of scientific inaccuracies in "Gravity"...
TYSON: Well, yeah, so "Cosmos" has, as its priority, to get the science right above all else, and we will then tell the story with the properly represented science. In Hollywood, in the dramas that are portrayed, I think they sometimes take some latitudes either out of ignorance or because they feel as though the truth would somehow constrain their flexibility of storytelling.
And in the film "Gravity," I saw that pretty early, I mean, maybe day two or something, and I just felt compelled to put out, you know, 10 tweets or so on things I thought they could have gotten right, but they didn't get right. And I phrase them mysteries of "Gravity," one of which was: Why is it that Sandra Bullock, who's portraying a medical doctor, is fixing my Hubble Space Telescope? Get her the hell off my telescope.
TYSON: As an astrophysicist, I don't walk into her operating room and say I've got this, open-heart surgery. I'm an astrophysicist. So, little things, they're just little things like that, and I was just having fun. And by the way, I don't spend that much energy commenting on a movie unless I think the movie has deserved it, has earned it in particular.
I don't comment on the physics errors of "Star Wars," all right. I just - you let that one go. So the fact that I even did this, for me, was quite a compliment to the film.
DAVIES: Give us a couple more examples of science that wasn't quite right there.
TYSON: For example, her hair. Her hair should've been sort of floating in zero-G, and it was not. It was like there was heavy mousse or something kept that stuff down.
DAVIES: We wouldn't have liked that look. That's the problem there.
TYSON: I know, and that's what we - that's the first thing we notice when we see astronauts floating in space, is the hair just sticking up, and it's kind of comical and funny, and it's the great reminder that they're in zero-G. Also this poignant scene where they're at opposite ends of a tether, and George Clooney character says, you know, I'm going to unclip because if you try to come get me, we'll both die, right?
So it's this noble, the right stuff kind of move. And then he unclips and then floats away. I'm thinking, no, that's not how physics work. If you are - if the system is not rotating, which it wasn't because Earth was just stationary in the background, and if he unclips, he would just stay there.
And all she needed to do was give a tiny little tug, the tiniest tug, and he would have then slowly drifted towards her. And I'm thinking they could've written something for that, this slow approach, you know, this sort of - this frustrated sexual tension between them could've been enhanced or explored with this slow drift between the two of them.
But no, no, he unclips it and flies away. I mean, we've known the physics of this since Galileo.
DAVIES: All right, it sounds like you've got a director's future ahead of you, maybe.
TYSON: And not only that, all the debris - by the way, the debris scenario, if there's any listeners that haven't seen the film yet, it describes a scenario where a satellite is destroyed, and the pieces, the fragments of that satellite, then become projectiles that then take out 10 other satellites. And then they break apart and become projectiles and each take out 10 others. So there's an exponential destruction of satellites in orbit.
This is a real scenario, by the way, that has been calculated and has people in the business deeply concerned, a catastrophic satellite destruction scenario. So that's real, except it had all the satellites coming at them from east to west, but nearly all satellites orbit the Earth from west to east, for an interesting reason.
When you launch, you want to launch in the direction Earth is rotating, so you get a little extra Earth boost, and it requires less fuel to accomplish that. So they didn't think that one through. They just thought just be in space and have these things fly at you.
I mean, it wouldn't have taken much to think it through and get that right. I think, people, they didn't do all the homework they could have.
DAVIES: We're speaking with...
TYSON: By the way, I like the film, and they got so much else right. I mean, I had to write a disclaimer. I said, look, I put out 10 tweets, but there's 500 other tweets I could've put out that show what they got right. So chill out, people.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He hosts the forthcoming series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey" on Fox TV. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the host of the forthcoming series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey" on Fox TV.
You were among the scientists, if I have this right, responsible for removing Pluto from its place as the ninth planet in the solar system.
TYSON: No, I was an accessory to that.
DAVIES: OK, an accessory.
TYSON: I drove one of the getaway cars, that's all. But yeah, at...
DAVIES: Which a lot of people had a pretty emotional reaction to. Explain what it's all about. What is Pluto, and why did it arouse such emotion? Yeah.
TYSON: Pluto is not only the littlest planet - all right, that alone shouldn't hurt it - but it's made - more than half of its volume is ice. No other planet has that. So if you moved it to where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate the ice, and it would grow a tail. That's no kind of behavior for a planet.
Plus Pluto, its orbit is elongated so severely that it crosses the orbit of Neptune. Now we have words for objects that cross the orbits of other planets and are made of mostly ice. They're called comets. And by the way, there's six moons in the solar system bigger than Pluto, including Earth's moon, which is five times the mass of Pluto.
So really Pluto was never the ninth planet. It was the first of a new class of objects that we didn't really discover the rest of until the early 1990s. And we realized that Pluto orbits the sun in a swath of real estate where there are countless thousands of other icy bodies that have similar orbits.
And so we learned something new about the solar system. You didn't lose a planet; you gained what we call the Kuiper Belt of Comets, predicted to be there by Gerard Kuiper, an astronomer at mid-20th century, who hypothesized that there would be this leftover repository of frozen objects that never got included in the formation of the planets.
So that's the basis for this, and back in New York at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, when we re-opened the facility in 2000, brand new facility, we repositioned Pluto with these other icy bodies, and that pissed people off. There was a Page One headline in the New York Times: Pluto not a planet? Only in New York.
So we didn't make it - we were the first to do it publicly, but this was already a debated topic in the field. And like I said, we just drove the getaway car.
DAVIES: What are some of the most important questions astronomers are seeking to right now? You mentioned the subject of dark matter or dark energy, which...
TYSON: Yeah, I can - top four, I've got, I live with these four. OK, so we can measure the influence of this thing we call dark energy, which is forcing an acceleration of the expanding universe. We don't know what that is. We don't know anything about it other than what it's doing to the universe.
Then, you know, 85 percent of the gravity of the universe has a point of origin about which we know nothing. We account for all the matter and energy that we're familiar with, measure up how much gravity it should have, it's one-sixth of the gravity that's actually operating on the universe. We call that dark matter. It really should be called dark gravity. We don't know what that is, either.
We don't know how we went from, we Earth, went from organic molecules, inanimate organic molecules to self-replicating life. We've got top people working on that, as well. We don't know what was around before the universe. We don't know what is at the center of a black hole. We don't know whether the universe actually is one of many in a multiverse.
We want to know is there life thriving in the under-ice oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa, waters kept warm from the stress of Jupiter's gravity. It's a tug-of-war between Jupiter's gravity and that of other surrounding moons, squeezing and pulsing Europa, pumping energy into it, melting the ice, giving us an ocean of liquid water that's been liquid for billions of years.
For me these are top questions. But my favorite question is the one that we don't even know to ask yet because it's a question that would arise upon answering these questions I just delivered to you.
DAVIES: That's the scientific process.
TYSON: Yes, and in fact at some point, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke noted, you have to - the scientist, above all actually, has to learn to love the questions themselves. And this is what gets people into trouble. They say - they ask me what was around before the big bang, and I say I don't know. They say well, there had to be something. And they say God or - they have - and they have to have an answer.
And if you're a scientist, and you have to have an answer, even in the absence of data, you're not going to be a good scientist.
DAVIES: We know the phrase SETI, S-E-T-I, which stands for Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. I mean, there are initiatives to try and figure out whether we can connect with other life forms in the universe. Is this, do you think, a good use of scientific resources?
TYSON: Well it started out when we spoke of alien life only thinking of, you know, little green men with antennas. But since then, that search has broadened to consider not just life we might think we'd have a conversation with but any life at all. And this birthed the whole concept of exobiology and astrobiology - is just such a search.
And I think that's a healthier search because it allows there to be what we might think of as intelligent life in the search parameters, but more than likely, the first life we find would be microbial. And that would be fine, too. That could transform biology, especially if that life is - has its identity encoded in ways that doesn't even use a DNA molecule because that would be life as we know it if it had DNA.
The fun part would be finding life as we don't know it, for starters. Now, if you want to focus on the search for intelligence, there's a whole organization devoted to that, and it's SETI. They work out of I think Mountain View, California, and people who are trying to think about how might we send a signal to an intelligent alien who would then decode it with radio receivers, or how might we receive a signal sent by them.
What might that signal look like? And oh yeah, we should put some percentage of money to that. Otherwise what, you know, what are we? What do...
TYSON: But putting some money to it recognizes that we're probably not alone, and it's a huge universe, and it's a - you're being honest with your research money saying are we the only intelligent species in the universe. If we think that, that's inexcusably hubristic of us given how old the universe is, how prevalent the molecules that are in our body are found across the universe and how many opportunities there are to form life.
So yeah, oh by all means, let's look for it.
DAVIES: You've served on a couple of presidential commissions and have had some, you know, some input on national science policy. How big of a priority is continued space exploration? I mean, could we get to Mars?
TYSON: Yeah, one of my great concerns in the current plans for NASA, as put forth by President Obama, is the - so he gives some great - he always gives a great speech. So in his space speech, which he gave just a few years ago at Kennedy Space Center, by the way, so it was all, you know, and it had the trappings of a real speech that'll get us into the future, he talked about going to Mars and visiting asteroids.
And I'd never heard a president talk about asteroids before in their conversation. So this was all quite hopeful. And then you give the applause, and then you stop and say, well, wait a minute, what time frame did he say? Oh, the 2030s. So wait a minute, is he president in the 2030s? No, he's back on the beaches of Hawaii by then.
Well, on what budget? Well, the budget is not established for it. So then I thought: What does it mean for a president to promise a future that will be executed by a president to be named later on a budget that is not established? And at that point I was very disappointed because I couldn't see how this would actually become reality.
That's me speaking as a scientist who's a space enthusiast. But speaking as just simply an American who cares about the economic health of our country, I see one of the surest ways to bring wealth and prosperity to the country is to innovate in science and technology.
And I see space as a frontier, as the greatest STEM driver there ever was, science, technology, engineering and math. This is where dreams are made. This is what rises people out of their seat and say I want to invent that. I want to create the airplane that flies in the rarified atmosphere of Mars. This is what galvanizes a generation to want to become scientists and engineers in the first place, not we need a scientist to develop a plane that's 20 percent more fuel-efficient than the one your parents flew.
That might get some people, but that's not the stirring rhetoric that we all remember from the 1960s that made us scientists in the first place.
DAVIES: Neil DeGrasse Tyson's series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey," begins March 9 on Fox TV. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He's director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York. And this spring, he hosts a new, 13-part TV series, "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey." It begins March 9th on Fox TV, and March 10th on the National Geographic Channel. The programs recall and update the influential series "Cosmos: A Personal Journey," which Carl Sagan hosted on PBS in 1980.
Do you see evidence that the scientific efforts in space exploration in the past led to the kind of innovation that had real economic impact - the kind that you describe...
TYSON: Oh, there's no question about it. Oh-oh, my gosh. And I'm not talking about spinoffs. There's plenty of spinoffs we could all talk about, including safe and affordable Lasik surgery, which derive from the docking algorithms between the space shuttle and the space station, all right. And there's the intracochlear device that enables people who couldn't previously hear to now hear, which tickles the nerve endings of your, in your ear canal. There are - and connects it to your brain.
I can go down the list. But that's not even - yes, and that's good. But the real driver here is the stimulation in your culture to become an innovation nation. And when that happens, when we find an asteroid headed our way, what's your first thought? Is it run, or stockpile toilet paper or - no. If that's your first thought, you are not in innovation nation. If you have enough people who are influenced by this way of thinking - the innovative way of thinking - their first thought is: How do we deflect that asteroid? How do we destroy that asteroid? How do we mine that asteroid? That's the kind of thinking that that environment stimulates.
Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were 13 and 14 when we landed on the moon. Those are ripe pages to want to invent something new. Just look at that influence from that era. The miniaturization of electronics, which ultimately was driven by the marketplace, was started by NASA, because it costs money to - every extra ounce that you don't need to launch into space, you want to shave, because that costs money and fuel, real money - $10,000 a pound to get something, anything, the extra pound of fat on your belly - into orbit. So you want to trim your electronics, miniaturize your electronics, miniaturize your satellites. The whole push to miniaturize to begin with was NASA.
And so no one with a living room radio that was a piece of furniture at the time would say, gee. I want to carry that around on my hip pocket. That was not a thought until NASA initiated this whole exercise. So there's an influence that's not just spinoff. It's how it influences culture, and that's the culture that I don't think that the United States is a part of right now.
DAVIES: You're saying that a docking technology led to Lasik surgery. What was the connection there?
TYSON: Yeah. So, Lasik surgery is quite old. It's, as you know, it's sort of cutting areas of your eye and have it re-heal in a new shape, so that it precludes the need for corrective lenses. And that procedure was expensive and was at risk of error or failure, because how do you keep the eye steady while you're making cuts? And so there's a docking algorithm that attaches the space station - the space shuttle to the space station, that lines up the docking nodes, and it uses lasers to do this. And that algorithm, when applied to Lasik surgery, allows the cuts to be made even if the eye - as I understand how it works - even if the eye is not exactly stationary for this to happen. So it can move with the eye. And so this will enable it to be faster, cheaper and more effective than any previous attempt to do this.
And so I've joked about let's go around and remove everything overnight from your home that was brought about or inspired by space exploration and have you wake up in the absence of it. So you'd wake up with poor vision, among other things...
TYSON: ...and you wouldn't have all your miniaturized electronics, and you can just go on down the list. And it's - even simple things, by the way. Do you know there are grooves in the curved exit ramps of many freeways? And that, of course, improves traction when the road is wet. You say, oh, that's a great idea. That came from NASA. It doesn't have to be high-tech to be a great idea. Why did it come from NASA? Because someone was more interested in the space shuttle landing and maintaining its course because it's not - a spaceship shuttle is not powered when it's landing. It's a glider. And you want that thing to sort of not skid off the runway coming in for a landing. So they came up with this grooved idea, which keeps the tires aligned. It channels out the water. And someone thought it up because they were inspired by NASA, not because they're inspired by cars on exit ramps from freeways. So, high-tech and low-tech creativity are stimulated by this kind of activity.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Neil Degrasse Tyson, and we'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Neil Degrasse Tyson. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He's an astrophysicists who is also hosting the 13-part series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey," coming soon on Fox TV.
You grew up in New York City. Were you a science nerd as a kid?
TYSON: Yeah. I would say so. It depends on how early you start the clock is being a kid, but from age nine, that probably counts.
TYSON: A first visit to my local planetarium, which was the Hayden Planetarium. And it took me a couple of years to realize that it was something you could make as a career. But - so, by age 11 onward, that's when I had the answer to that annoying question that adults ask you, like, what do you want to be when you grow up? And I'd say astrophysicist, and that really just shut them up, because they had - there's no comeback on that one.
TYSON: It's not like, oh, I know an astrophysicist. No, they don't know any astrophysicists. So, it's a funny kind of little exchange there. But no, I've known since - for that early. So I was a card-carrying nerd child.
DAVIES: You were just captivated by that planetarium show?
TYSON: Oh, yeah. So I don't think I was more captivated than anybody else's first experience in a planetarium. I think every human with a beating heart remembers their first encounter with a nice guy in a planetarium. The difference for me is I think the universe called me. I don't - I feel like I had no say in the matter, because by the end of that experience, when the lights come out - the lights turn out and it gets dark and the stars reveal themselves, I was hooked ever since. I don't remember consciously saying: This is for me. I think it was just - became part of my bloodstream, if you will. And to a New Yorker, we have no relationship with the night sky.
TYSON: If you look up, there's a building there. And you look higher up, there's still a building there. Our buildings are very tall. And back then, there was not only light pollution, as there still is today. Back then, there was also air pollution. Air is much cleaner in New York than ever, since the 19 - early 1900s. So I was struck that such a sky even existed. In fact, I didn't even believe it. I thought it was a little bit of a hoax. I know how many stars there are in the night sky. I've seen them from the Bronx.
TYSON: You can't lie to me, but I'll enjoy it anyway, you know.
DAVIES: So I know you excelled at this and got involved in some special programs. And I read that you were recently asked to give, I think, a commencement address at, was it your elementary school, and declined. Did you feel let down by the public school system when you were a kid a kid?
TYSON: Oh, no, no. So everyone has all different experiences in school. I just know that throughout my life, at no time did any teacher ever point to me and say, hey. He'll go far. Oh, he's someone you should watch. You know, I had some OK grades. They ran the gamut. I had some high grades in math and science, and medium grades in other subjects, and slightly lower grades in other subjects. You've got to remember, the school system is constructed to praise you if you get high grades. And if you get straight A's, you're the one that everyone puts forward, and they prognosticate that the straight-A person is the one most likely to succeed, because that's the way the school system is constructed and conceived.
DAVIES: Simple. Yeah.
TYSON: And there I am, getting grades all over the place, but I know my interest in the universe and I owned a telescope that I bought with money I earned by walking dogs, because I live in a huge apartment complex. And 50 cents per walk, per dog, and that accumulated quickly. I bought a camera, a telescope. I taught myself astrophotography. I did all this.
I took classes at the American Museum of Natural History at Hayden Planetarium, advanced classes for adults in modern astrophysics. I did all this, but none of that showed up as a high grade on an exam in school. So, there I am, and teachers complaining about my social energy, as though that was something bad, and, oh, he's disruptive. Not purposely, I just had energy, right.
So my elementary school wanted me to come back - because I was already well-known by then - to talk and say what a great education I had. I said no. That's not the talk I would give. I would say I am where I am today not because of what the teachers said about me or did for me, but in spite of it. And I don't think that's what you want, so I will decline. Invite me back one day, and I'll talk just to the teachers, all right, and then I'm happy to tell - give - you know, tell them what they should be looking for, perhaps, in their students.
Also consider - now, see you've got me started here. Also consider that if you a straight-A student in your class, that student has straight A's not because of teachers, but in spite of teachers. That's what having straight-A means. It means you do well, no matter the teaching talent of the teacher. That's what straight A's mean. So if you're a teacher and you put forth your straight-A student as though you had something to do with it, you are deluding yourself.
TYSON: The greatest teachers are the ones that turn a B student into an A student, or a failing student into a B student. Then let's talk about your teaching talents.
DAVIES: Having done some teaching, I completely agree with what you say there. But I wanted to ask: Were you discouraged from getting into science, or maybe not taken seriously - then and even through college and graduate school - because you were African-American, at times?
TYSON: Oh, so the African-American thing. So there you get, oh why are you staying late for the physics club when you have this athletic talent? You could be really great at that. And that happened a lot. So that's not explicitly racist. It's sort of implicitly - it's not like the stories my father could tell you, right, because he grew up in the '30s, '40s and early '50s. Those are - that's a whole other kind of story that he can tell you. So, compared to that and those stories I heard, I wasn't, you know, I wasn't going to complain about this. I just made sure I had a fuel tank ready to draw from to just get over and get past whatever these obstacles or absence of support was there.
DAVIES: I know you wrestled, I think, in high school and college. And I also...
TYSON: Yeah. Captain of my school's wrestling team. Yeah.
DAVIES: And I also read that you were a medal-winning Latin ballroom dancer at the University of Texas?
TYSON: Yeah. So...
TYSON: I entered graduate school, but didn't finish graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. And I was athletic, you know, as society had expected of me, and so I was pretty limber and flexible from having wrestled. And I've always liked the art of dance, and so I was a member of two or three performing dance companies. College troops, they were. One of them was a dance team that was engaged in competitive international Latin ballroom. And I was on a dance team of eight couples, and we would perform. And we were national champion in one year. So that was fun.
DAVIES: Is it true that you, at one point, thought about making some money by becoming an exotic male dancer?
TYSON: In graduate school - you're broke in graduate school, basically. And I was flexible from having danced, and I was pretty cut from having wrestled, and I also rowed. And so, on the dance team, there were some fellow male dancers who told me about this club where - it's this ladies club, right, but there's male dancers. And they said they danced, do the moves we do, just in the normal training and for our dance performances. It's in the range of what the flexibility would be for anything else we'd be doing. They invited me, because I needed more money, I was broke. So I went...
TYSON: ...just to observe it, right. Say, is this is something I could do? Just - and there they came out with jockstraps having been soaked in lighter fluid, asbestos jockstraps ignited, coming out dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire." I said no - not - no. That's not for me.
TYSON: And I'm embarrassed to say that it was not until that moment when I said to myself: Maybe I should be a math tutor.
TYSON: I don't know why I didn't think of that first. I'm embarrassed by that, because, yeah. I can tutor math, I mean, and physics. And from then on, I tutored math and physics. And that's how I closed my budget.
DAVIES: When did you realize you had a gift for communicating with people about science? I mean, you're, you do this in a lot of venues, and have for a long time.
TYSON: Yeah. People call it a gift, and that implies you sit there and someone hands it to you. I want to encourage people to not think in terms of gifts, but think in terms of, wow. You work hard to succeed at that, because that's exactly what I do. For an example, before my first interview on Jon Stewart - you know, that's a tough interview right there, all right, because he's brilliant and he's laden with pop culture referencing.
And so I said to myself: If I'm going to have a successful interview with Jon Stewart, I want to study how he talks to his guests. So I sat there and I timed how long he lets you speak before he comes in with some kind of wisecrack or a joke. And what's the average time interval of that? Is it a minute, 90 seconds, 30 seconds? And I would create a rhythm in the parceling of the information I would deliver to him so that a complete thought would come out. So that when he does interrupt, there's a complete thought and then a fun joke, and then there's a resonance to that where you can then move on. Yeah. No, it's not a gift.
TYSON: I work at it.
DAVIES: Oh, OK. OK.
DAVIES: Did Stewart notice that you were prepared?
TYSON: No. People say, oh, you're such a natural. That's what they say. I guess I'll take that as a compliment.
DAVIES: You make it look easy. Right. OK.
TYSON: Oh, by the way, this is - this goes back. I mean, you mentioned a race thing earlier. Generally I never talk about race but you did. You remember the comparisons between Michael Jordan and Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics. When they described Larry Bird's very high, obvious talent, they say, well, he's a student of basketball and studies where the ball is and where people - and they talk about Michael Jordan and say, oh, he's just a natural.
DAVIES: Gifted athlete.
TYSON: There's a denial of, yeah, he's a gifted athlete. Meanwhile, he was not a first round pick out of his college or getting into college. The man worked at it. And so at some point one needs to say, yes, black people who are talented work at what they did to become talented. All right? Oh, it's just genetic. Oh, it's fast twitch muscle. It's low twitch. Shut up. Give me a chance to tell you how hard we work at this stuff.
DAVIES: In the epilogue to your book "Space Chronicles," you tell the story of a psychologist who had been to the Hayden Planetarium, you know, where you're the director and had seen this show, "Passport to the Universe," and he, you relate, wanted to do some research on whether it increased depression among people who saw it. And his thinking was it made him feel so small and insignificant to see the vastness of the cosmos.
And you say he's really misreading nature. Explain.
TYSON: Yeah, exactly. That was our inaugural show for the opening of - reopening of the Hayden Planetarium. As part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space. And that show was written by Ann Druyan and Steve Soter, who are the principal writers of the current "Cosmos".
DAVIES: Ann Druyan, who's the widow of Carl Sagan.
TYSON: Widow of Carl Sagan and a huge talent in her own right and was one of the co-authors with Steve Soter of the original "Cosmos." So we're genetically linked to the original series. And so that original sky show was a zoom out from Earth and Earth just shrinks to nothingness. Our solar system shrinks to nothingness, as does our galaxy.
So, yeah. I think if you walked in there with an ego that says I'm large, I'm important and I'm significant, that's going to hurt. This information is going to hurt. And so I think he went in there with the wrong attitude. This is an academic psychologist, by the way, who does research on feelings of insignificance. So this was right up his professional research alley.
I claim that if you went in there with no ego at all and then you saw the grandeur of the universe, recognizing that our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy, then you would see the universe as something you participate in, as this great unfolding of a cosmic story. And that, I think, should make you feel large, not small.
So I claim he entered the room with the wrong attitude to begin with.
DAVIES: So that's...
TYSON: Any astrophysicist does not feel small looking up at the universe; we feel large.
DAVIES: That's the cosmic perspective - you're part of it all.
TYSON: That is a cosmic perspective, that's correct. And in tandem with that, you will never find people who truly grasp the cosmic perspective such as the entire community of astrophysicists leading nations into battle. No, that doesn't happen. When you have a cosmic perspective, there's this little speck called Earth and you say you're going to do what? You're on this side of a line in the sand and you want to kill people for what?
Oh, to pull oil out of the - what? What? What? And you have this whole universe of resources and perspectives? So not enough people in this world, I think, carry a cosmic perspective with them. It could be life-changing.
DAVIES: Well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
TYSON: Well, thanks for having me. Thanks for having me.
DAVIES: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York. His series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey," begins March 9 on Fox. Coming up, John Powers has an appreciation of writer, director and actor Harold Ramis, who died Monday. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.