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The Hemi Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson

In his ongoing quest to bring science to the masses, America’s “rock star astrophysicist” is about to launch a late-night talk show

Author Chris Wright Illustration Joe Ciardiello

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Other than the playground puns revolving around the seventh planet from the sun, astrophysics doesn’t usually lend itself to comedy. All the same, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, has established himself as an audience favorite on such television programs as “The Daily Show,” “The Colbert Report” and “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

More remarkable still is the fact that Tyson is about to launch a late-night chat show of his own, “Star Talk” (debuting next month on the National Geographic Channel), which aims to tap into the lighter side of dark matter and take a sideways look at Doppler shifts by talking science with comedians and entertainers.

The new show follows Tyson’s success on last year’s “Cosmos,” the splashy update of the Carl Sagan original. While Tyson and his predecessor shared a goal—to endow the field of astronomy with popular appeal—their approaches couldn’t be more different. Sagan was the dreamy, contemplative scientist-poet; Tyson’s defining characteristic is a kind of runaway enthusiasm. He fizzes and spins around his subject, as if there are just too many things to think and say. His style is discursive, brash, endlessly interesting.

Perhaps most important, Tyson is a master of the well-crafted analogy—his universe is filled with funhouse mirrors, goal-bound footballs and road-hazard fog—allowing him to bring the loftiest scientific principles down to earth. And he has an unusual (possibly unique) knack for making astronomy seem fun.

This showmanship is very much a means to an end. Ultimately, Tyson is not using science as a springboard for a late-night talk show; he is using the late-night format as a vehicle to bring science to the masses. As he explained to Hemispheres: “My mission is to find things that will make people smile and raise their eyebrows and scratch their heads and ask questions.”

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Hemispheres: Let’s talk about your new show. It’s interesting that you’ll be discussing the complexities of the universe with not only laypeople, but entertainers.
Neil deGreasse Tyson: Yes. My guests are hewn from pop culture—that’s the prerequisite. Our conversations will explore ways in which science has influenced people’s lives. Was there a science teacher someone liked or didn’t like in primary school? Was there a space mission that affected them in some way? The goal is to have people recognize—in a very casual setting—that science is everywhere.

Hemispheres: There will be an emphasis on comedians on the show. Isn’t there a concern that astrophysics will become a vehicle for humor, that the science will become peripheral?
Tyson: Ideally, I’ll have the steering wheel and I’ll let a conversation go into comedy if it feels good, but then I will need to bring it back to my scientific points. If someone’s on a roll, I’ll give them a little extra room, because people who are smiling and laughing are more eager to learn. Also, who doesn’t like comedy?

Hemispheres: You’ve gained a reputation for breaking down complicated scientific principles into a form that ordinary people can grasp. With that in mind, what’s a wormhole?
Tyson: Well, first you would need to know that space—three-dimensional space—can be curved in the presence of energy and matter … [15 minutes elapse] … So how does everything fit inside this hole? Here we are brought to the famous quote: “It’s bigger on the inside.”

Hemispheres: Okay, but this is all conjecture, isn’t it? I mean, no one’s ever seen a wormhole.
Tyson: Here’s the thing. Here’s the beautiful fact of science: Once you understand how things work, and if your equations are a proper representation of nature, you can use them to probe what you have yet to discover. Einstein’s general theory of relativity accounts for everything we see going on in the universe. So while we have yet to find a wormhole, no one doubts the concept as derived from Einstein’s general theory of relativity, because everything else that it describes works.

Hemispheres: In terms of conveying these ideas to people like me, condensing them into sound bites, isn’t there a risk that you’ll end up oversimplifying things?
Tyson: A sound bite is not a college lecture, so you can’t require that it be completely informative. But it should spark interest. So if I’m describing, say, black holes, the first thing I might say is, avoid them. They distort the fabric of space and time, which means they’ll distort you as well—they’ll rip you apart atom by atom as you descend to the center. And maybe you’ll say, “Wow, that’s cool, I want to know more.” There are a lot of things about the universe that are fun.

Hemispheres: Our understanding of space is shifting all the time. Isn’t part of the astrophysicist’s job to increase our stockpile of known unknowns, rather than certainties?
Tyson: Both are happening at the same time. There’s a famous saying: “As the area of our knowledge grows, so too does the perimeter of our ignorance.” Think of [scientific knowledge] as being a circle—the area of the circle is growing, but so is the perimeter, the boundary between what’s inside and what’s outside.

Hemispheres: So your mandate is largely to convey the wonderful mystery of the universe.
Tyson: Exactly. Part of the fun of this is guiding you along that boundary between the known and the unknown. I’m with you in the center of the circle and I take you to the edge, to the perimeter, so we both peer out into the unknown together.

Hemispheres: Isn’t part of the problem that we’re hamstrung by the limits of experience? There could be things out there that are so outside our realm of experience that we can’t imagine them.
Tyson: That’s why experiments have a serendipity mode, so we can discover stuff we never thought or imagined was there. I’ll give you an example: Some years ago, the head of the Hubble space center said, “Why don’t we point the telescope at a completely empty patch of sky, a dull and boring patch, and just see what it does?” What came back was stunning, a rich tapestry of thousands of galaxies that no one even knew were there. It’s come to be known as the Hubble Deep Field, and it’s probably the most famous photo taken by the telescope.

Hemispheres: Do you ever feel yourself bumping against the limits of your own understanding?
Tyson: Yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. I’ve never at any time said to myself, “It’s impossible for me to know this.” I’ve never had that thought. Some things are harder than others for the human mind to contemplate, sure, but it’s not some gate for which I don’t have a key. You can always know more about something, whether or not you can know everything about it.

Hemispheres: Why should I spend my time learning how the universe works rather than something useful, like how to fix a car?
Tyson: Well, just do both!

Hemispheres: I knew you were going to say that. But who has the time?
Tyson: I get emails from people saying, “Could you settle an argument I’ve been having with a friend? What would happen if you fall sideways into a black hole instead of head to toe?” They’re having fights at the bar over these topics. I think if you know something about the universe, it gives you more to think about, to talk about, to smile about, and there’s no denying the empowerment you feel upon knowing how things work—this makes you a participant in the emergent discoveries of the 21st century. There’s a value in knowing how your microwave oven works.

Hemispheres: You’re arguing my point for me: Ordinary people should learn the practical stuff and leave the theoretical stuff to people like you.
Tyson: Einstein wrote a research paper in the 1920s. Maybe a few dozen people in the world could understand it; it was a curiosity, and it kind of languished. Well, later on people noticed: Out of its ideas came the laser. When Einstein wrote that paper, he wasn’t thinking, “This will produce barcodes.” He wasn’t thinking laser surgery. He wasn’t thinking laser weapons or laser pointers. None of this was in his head, but he created the foundations for it. So I don’t believe you if you’re trying to tell me that learning how something works and why it works won’t enhance your understanding of what it is you’re experiencing!

Hemispheres: Fair enough. You’ve talked about science as having an emotional or even a spiritual effect on people.
Tyson: There are certain ideas about the universe that affect people in profound ways—for example, the discovery that the atoms of your body are traceable to the actions of stars that exploded those atoms into the galaxy, out of which our solar system was formed. This fact tells us that not only do we live in the universe, the universe lives within us. You feel connected to the cosmos, which is profound.

Hemispheres: Obviously, there’s value in what you do, bringing science to the people. But I wonder if there’s a part of you that’s frustrated that you can’t just focus on the science, that you can’t lock yourself away for three years to work on a small and arcane problem.
Tyson: I have had conversations with colleagues lately about getting back in the game, so I can be a scientist again, rather than just playing one on television. So yes, I’m frustrated by that. If I wrote my own life, if I had complete control over my own life, I would probably never leave home. I would stay indoors and do research on something that no one else cares about except a few dozen other scientists. But I also know that I’m good at what I do, and I would be irresponsible if I didn’t do it.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright has concluded, following a careful study of the theory of multiverses, that he would like to occupy the parallel universe in which he earns twice as much money.

One Response to “The Hemi Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson”

  1. karl gerds Says:
    March 4th, 2015 at 12:23 pm

    This guy never fails to intrigue me, make me think and make me smile. He is inspiring, as was Carl Sagan too!

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