Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT)

As published...

As published on 12/15/13

Arranging an interview with the well-known astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was not a particularly easy task. After about a month of emails back and forth between me and the good doctor’s various people, a time was arranged and on Nov. 22 I found myself on the phone with him, from his office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. “Tyson here,” he said, and we were off for about 38 minutes–mostly him speaking and me listening, as it should be. I consider this one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done; although I enjoy my usual beat of interviewing touring comedians and musicians, the chat with Dr. Tyson was a very welcome departure. (The full, minimally edited Q&A, which runs to a bit over 5,000 words, is now available here.)

Deftly demonstrating how he applies the scientific method in daily life, Tyson gently corrected me a few times when he questioned the premise behind a couple of my questions. For example, Carl Sagan was neither a mentor nor a close friend of his; the two men only met four or five times, though Tyson clearly has great respect for Sagan as a scientist and a person. And as a web-only extra of sorts, here’s an excerpt from our conversation that illustrates his thought process rather nicely. [And by way of a timely tie-in: on Feb. 14, 2014, the National Science Foundation released the results of a study of 2,200 people conducted in 2012 in which approximately one out of four stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth; the results were widely reported in the media, including time.com. This was not the first poll to make a statement like this. Tyson explains why, although the state of science education in the US could definitely stand some improvement, you shouldn’t believe this particular result, because the question was being asked in totally the wrong way. The moral being, don’t believe everything you read, because there’s journalism, and then there’s science.]

Q: A well-known Gallup poll in July of 1999, that I’m sure you know of, stated that 18 percent of Americans thought the Sun revolves around the Earth. (Sixteen percent of Germans believed the same thing, and 19 percent of the British.)  Do you think the general public’s knowledge of space has increased or decreased in the past 15 years, with the religious right and creationism and so forth?

 Neil deGrasse Tyson:  I’m not convinced that the people who said the Earth goes around the sun, that they fully understood the question as posed. I’ll give you an example— I was told this, I didn’t re-verify it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless—that in one of the U.S. Census forms, it might have been 1990, it asked, in terms of where you’re from, it said, what is your ancestry: is it from Europe, is it from Africa, Asia, Central America, South America? And there was a huge number of people who checked Central America who lived in Kansas, because that’s the center of America, right? [Laughs] So the way you word something can influence whether someone understands what your intent is in asking that question, or not. And just because you get an answer that’s one way, doesn’t mean you asked the right question to probe what it is you need to know about your audience.

So if you sit here, we still say “The sun rises, the sun sets.” It’s in our vocabulary. And so, to say “Does the sun go around the earth,” yeah—it rises, and it sets. But if you said “In space, what would you see?”, I don’t think any of them would say that the sun went around the earth. It depends on how you ask the question.

And so, I don’t believe those statistics. I saw them; I just don’t believe them. I think there’s a flaw in the connection between the intent of the question and the wiring of the mind of the person who answered it.

That’s a very scientific way to look at it.

 No! If you say “‘Draw the solar system,” I don’t think they’re going to draw the sun going around the earth. They’re going to put the sun in the middle. You know they’re going to do this, right? And so, I don’t believe that. But your greater question is still an important one. The science illiteracy that is rampant is real; I just wouldn’t cite “the sun going around the earth” as the best example of it. It’s real, and it’s a problem. But I think there’s more access to science than ever before.

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Here, then, is the article as published in the Insight section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.

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Although Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s official title is director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, his place in our popular culture sits closer to that of Ambassador of the Known Universe to the United States. An articulate, unpretentious educator who understands how to translate arcane scientific concepts into explanations the public can and does lap up, Tyson is the best-known living astrophysicist in America — which is to say, the only one the average person would have a chance of naming at all.

To run down why: There’s Tyson’s established status as the go-to guy for explaining cosmic phenomena on TV news broadcasts, his stack of best-selling books, his own radio talk show-podcast StarTalk (startalkradio.net), his key role in demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status in 2006 (Tyson’s advice to Plutophiles: “Get over it”), his assorted witty asides to his 1.5 million Twitter followers, and/or his frequent talk-show appearances schooling the likes of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on everything from the nature of black holes to the importance of funding NASA, not to mention a cameo a few years ago on “The Big Bang Theory.” Lately, Tyson’s visibility to the naked eye seems to be, pun intended, nearly universal.

+Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT) photo
PHOTO: DAVID GAMBLE

Tyson, who earned a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Texas in 1983, returns to Austin this week, speaking on Tuesday in a sold-out event at the Paramount Theatre. The night before, he’ll be the featured guest at a fundraising dinner for the venue (tickets for that event at http://www.austintheatre.org). “I care about community. I care about the arts,” he says about his participation in the fund-raising event. “And I care about continued enlightenment beyond one’s formal time in school. Not only that, half of my joy of being in graduate school was that UT Austin is in Austin. So I have no trouble passing some of this forward.”

Tyson’s prominence should get an even greater boost this spring when he hosts “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a 13-episode reboot on the Fox Network of the late Carl Sagan’s milestone 1980 PBS documentary series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Though flattered by the inevitable comparisons, Tyson says he’s not trying to imitate Sagan, whom he met a few times, initially as a high school student considering college options when Sagan invited him up to Cornell University to tour his lab. (Tyson ended up going elsewhere, but never forgot Sagan’s generosity to a teenager.)

“The spirit of the (original) series is there,” Tyson says. “It is unmistakably ‘Cosmos,’ and given that, I am now blended into that frame. I knew that if I tried to be Carl then I would just fail, but I knew I could be a really good version of myself. Or a really full-up version,” he says, with one of his frequent bursts of laughter at reaching a punch line. “So if I fail at that, then I fail, sort of a legitimate failure.”

In conversation by phone from his office, Tyson sounds much the same as his TV or radio self: eloquent yet unaffected, with a friendly, conversational tone that makes astrophysics seem as accessible as Rachael Ray discussing 30-minute recipes. One good way to gauge his extreme enthusiasm for all things space-related is to ask him a question like this:

“If you could travel to witness up close any astronomical phenomenon in the universe, where would you choose to go?”

“Can I go back in time? I would go back and see the formation of the moon, which would just be awesome!” he says, practically singing that last word. “All ideas regarding the formation of the moon tell us that a Mars-sized proto-planet sideswiped Earth, rendering most of Earth molten in this process, scraping off huge chunks of our crust that coalesced in a ring around Earth and then became the moon. That would be quite a spectacle.”

“Fascinating,” you might respond, practically channeling Mr. Spock in spite of yourself.

“Yeah, it takes a couple of months to coalesce and shape up, so you could even watch that happen. Sell tickets to it.”

During his UT years Tyson, a New Yorker born and bred, was a teaching assistant for several semesters in Professor Frank N. Bash’s Intro to Astronomy course. He also busied himself in UT athletics, including wrestling, basketball, crew and competitive dance, and met his wife, Alice, a fellow grad student; she earned her doctorate in physics from UT in 1985. Both of them, he says, retain good friends in Austin.

Despite this, his time at UT was less than ideal. A cover story last year in UT’s alumni magazine, the Alcalde, reported instances of what Tyson considered business-as-usual racial profiling by some faculty and staff (being stopped seven times by campus police on his way into the physics building, for example, but never on his way into the gym), and an ultimately abandoned pursuit of a doctoral dissertation. Tyson described it as “a failed experiment” from which he’s long since moved on, and he did praise some of his UT professors in his 2004 memoir “The Sky Is Not The Limit.”

“Every student who comes to UT as a graduate student (in the sciences) aspires to go on to a Ph.D. A hundred percent of them do that,” says Frank Bash, now a professor emeritus. “I know he left, I know he was unhappy. I notice that at the end of the Alcalde article Neil admits that a lot of what happened was his own fault. But I don’t know the details.” (Bash was not Tyson’s research supervisor and was not on his dissertation committee.)

For his part, Tyson downplays it all, saying, “The article created a rift where there isn’t one. I left UT after my department dissolved my thesis committee. Shortly thereafter I was admitted to Columbia University and earned my Ph.D. in astrophysics there. I’ve been on cordial terms with the UT Department (of Astronomy) the whole time, and they’ve been collegial with me ever since I landed on my feet.”

Tyson always has had kind words for Bash, who chaired the Astronomy Department during his time. “I learned a lot of teaching skills from him,” Tyson says. “He had a way of interacting with the class that helped to inform how I interact with a big group of people in front of me. It’s a respect for the intelligence of who’s in the room and (being) fearless, once you do that, as to where you’re going to take them next. And that way, the audience lands in a place that is beyond where they thought they could have reached.”

Bash remembers Tyson with equal fondness, using words like “extraordinary” and “amazing” to describe his classroom manner. “I’ve had students, or former students, come up to me years later remembering him,” he says, “and asking me about him and how he’s doing. He just was particularly good at relating to the students and understanding their questions, and not making fun of their ignorance, but taking them seriously. (He was) just a very happy, cheerful guy, not the usual kind of scientific nerd. Unfortunately from the UT perspective, he really came into his own afterward. Not that I can claim much responsibility, but I’m really proud of him.”

(During his visit, Tyson will be meeting with UT President Bill Powers and possibly several faculty members and students “I carry high respect for the office of all university presidents,” Tyson says. “I was not going to turn this down. It’s surely the Alcalde cover story that prompted his overture, but as far as I know, there’s no specific agenda for the meeting.”)

Conversing with Tyson, you soon become aware that he not only applies the scientific method to all things in life, taking nothing at face value, but holds a rare, genuine enthusiasm for just about everything, from the planned launch of the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 to the best barbecue found in Austin these days.

Whether watching Tyson on TV or talking one-to-one, it’s infectious to observe how the connections click into place in his brain, then inevitably wedge their way into yours. You also start to appreciate that he can’t help being a human aphorism machine (how ideal for Twitter), with his fans constantly circulating Tysonisms like “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” and “If the world is something you accept rather than interpret, then you’re susceptible to the influence of charismatic idiots.”

Although Tyson’s forte is the ability to reawaken a childlike sense of wonder in his audience, his professional focus has always been adults. “But the way I bring science to the public, it tends to also attract kids, high school down to maybe middle school. If you’re a curious middle-schooler you can follow almost anything I do,” he says. “We have problems in the world because of science illiteracy in the adult population, not because of science illiteracy in the children’s population. What I do know about kids is that they are born curious about their environment. Every kid I’ve ever met is turning over rocks, plucking petals off of flowers, or reaching for things just out of their reach. So the real issue here is not how do you get kids interested in science, it’s how to get out of their way as they express this curiosity that perhaps is inherent in our DNA.”

He does have optimism about the state of science literacy. “I think we are experiencing a shift in the public’s appetite and interest in the frontier of science, and I measure that by a few things,” he says. “First, how else could I possibly have one and a half million Twitter followers? How else could ‘The Big Bang Theory’ be the No. 1 sitcom on television? How else could ‘CSI’ be one of the most fertile franchises on television there ever was, in three incarnations in different cities, when it features scientists solving problems using their expertise in biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, geology and forensics? And how is it that the movie ‘Gravity’ could be a No. 1 film, and people could be blogging about the physics errors a month later, long after Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did the couch circuit with the talk shows?” (Tyson’s own tweets about the film’s errors received wide media coverage, to his astonishment.)

As for his presentation at the Paramount, Tyson says attendees might reasonably expect an animated discourse on the importance of science literacy, the value of having what he calls “a cosmic perspective on who and what we are on earth and in the universe,” plus some news briefs on what he calls “cosmic current events.” Expect a call to action or two.

“I like leaving people with some sort of philosophical outlook that they can debate when they’re at home, or at a bar,” he says. “I love it when people have bar fights over the meaning of the universe!”

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Afterword: I attended Tyson’s talk at the Paramount the evening of December 17, which had been sold out for weeks; it was as delightful as I’d expected, if not more so. After the end of his “official” lecture, with slides and a bit of video, he stayed and did an audience Q&A for nearly another hour (at the beginning of this, about a third of the audience departed; their loss). Tyson answered questions ranging through everything from the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century (he chose the 1957 discovery of the origins of the heavy elements of the universe, known among physicists as the  B2FH paper) to his favorite dance when he participated in competitive dancing at UT (the paso doble).  He then proceeded directly to the Paramount’s lobby and signed books for the better part of an hour. It was a remarkable evening.

When my moment with the man finally came, I introduced myself and told him I’d interviewed him for the Statesman; “Oh, you’re the one!” he said, cordially enough, and we shook hands. My wife, who unfortunately couldn’t attend, had given me her copy of the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, by the astronomer Jay Pasachoff, for him to autograph; despite my misgivings at probably being the only person giving him a book to autograph that someone else had written, he didn’t miss a beat and inscribed this:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, channeling Jay Pasachoff

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One response to “Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT)

  1. Pingback: The Odd Interview 1: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson | The Odd Interview

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