Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

July 6, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Horizon Special

  |   Video
  • Ted Simons interviews a shining star in the universe of astrophysics, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The author and host of PBS’ NOVA ScienceNOW talks about what sparked his interest in the cosmos. Ted also asks what Tyson has against Pluto, the celestial body that was discovered at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory.
Guests:
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson - Author and host of PBS’ NOVA scienceNOW
Category: Science

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. If you haven't seen him on the PBS program Nova Science Now, you might catch him on Late Night With David letterman or the Colbert report. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and author who is trying to bring the wonder and science of space to a larger audience. I recently spoke with Tyson about his love of the cosmos and his role in demoting Pluto, discovered right here in Arizona at Flagstaff's Lowell observatory. Niel, thanks for joining us on "Horizon."
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Thanks for having me.
Ted Simons: Let's get started with how you got started with you and how you got started with physics. Astrophysics. Were you one of those kids who got into it early or did you get into it late?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: It's not uncommon to get into the universe early. All it takes is a backyard telescope -- not that I had a backyard. Because I grew up in New York City. But a telescope that work in a backyard. that's enough to connect you to the universe. And I was nine years old when I first took interest in the cosmos and it was from a visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.
Ted Simons: In New York, sometimes you can't see many stars and not just sometimes.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: All the time. You're competing with tall buildings and streetlights, but at the time, there was a lot of air pollution and thankfully much less today than back then. And so New Yorkers and city people in general, don't have a relationship to the universe. They just don't. And it's something that -- other things compete with your nighttime attention.
Ted Simons: Was it -- looking back, was it like an escape a little bit? You could look up and see a limitless something?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: It was an escape. And I worry to this day. Suppose I'd grown up on a farm and any night, I stepped out on a porch and seen the night sky as it was intended to be seen. Maybe I wouldn't have been struck by it at age nine. Because if something eases in on your life, then it doesn't slap you and say, check it out. And I wonder if I would have been the astrophysicist I am today if I had -- I would have taken the sky for granted if it had always been there.
Ted Simons: And you had to go to a planetarium. Were other people saying, there goes that crazy kid staring at the sky again?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: They wouldn't have said that to me in the planetarium, but later on as I got telescopes and drag it to the rooftops, yeah, there's the weird kid going to the rooftop. What's he doing up there? One cop thought I had a bazooka or something. And I would be lowering a cable into a neighbor's apartment to plug in a power cable so it could track and compensate for the rotation of the earth.
Ted Simons: Very cool.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: So if you see that, you wonder, some spy plot is going on on the rooftop, when it's just me as a kid.
Ted Simons: Lots of kids are enamored by the stars and science fiction or whatever, and yet you've hit this area where, all of a sudden, it's not just how big is Neptune. There's a lot of math involved. Was that something that you actually embraced as a kid?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: That's an excellent question. At age nine, the first visit to the planetarium, I said the universe is for me, but I don't know how to make it for me. By the time I was 11, when I had access to telescopes and things, I realized the universe was something to study, not something just to receive upon gazing up. And if you study it -- I said I want to understand this universe. What do I need to do? You ask people and buy books and you realize that mathematics is the language of the universe. If you want a conversation with the universe, you need to be fluent in math and that's not any different from saying I want to speak to Chinese people in China. Learn Chinese before you go and then you can have that conversation. So it didn't matter whether I liked math or not, I wanted to commune with the cosmos and that required the math and so I welcomed that challenge in ways that others might not have felt the need, and then resisted it their whole lives.
Ted Simons: And so, it sounds like what you did for yourself, you have been trying to do in your career and that is, making things more accessible and embracing them as opposed to, oh, no, here we go, it's more math.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I think too many people see challenges as barriers rather than challenges as the next cool problem to solve. Because I think in life, the problems most worth solving are the hardest. Those are the ones you feel best for having solved when you're done with them. There's people who get puzzles -- let's look up the answer in the back of the book. Why? What's the point of that? Figure it out. Therein is the celebration of the power of the mind and I think all too many just take the lazy way out, the quick way, the easy way, and the mind stagnates and as adults they wonder why they've lost a deep sense of curiosity. Things that kids are born with.
Ted Simons: And what you took in furthered development with astrophysics. I know that Carl Sagan was an influence.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Not that I was drinking buddies with him. We were generations separate. But I already knew I wanted to study the universe at age 17 because I knew at age nine, so my applications are dripping with the universe and accepted at Cornell and it's time to decide what school to go to and the admissions office, unknown to me, sent my application to Carl Sagan -- he was already famous -- on Johnny Carson -- to get him to comment on it. He then sent me a letter, hand-signed, saying I understand you're considering Cornell. If you come and visit, I'd be happy to show you the lab. And I said, is this Carl Sagan? I showed it to mom and dad. Could this be? I wrote back and said I'll be up in two weekends. He met me on a Saturday evening in the snow. I get a tour of his lab. Pulls out a book and signs it for me. Time to leave, he drives me to the bus station. Wrote his home phone on a piece of paper -- if the bus doesn't get through, call me. Spend the night at my place. Who am I? To this day, I have this duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path, to respond to them in the way that Carl Sagan had responded to me.
Ted Simons: And I was going to ask you about that. Even today?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I have my own books. Pull out one of my books. I don't even have to look. It was so cool. Now I get to do that.
Ted Simons: I wanted to ask you about that. You had the benefit, you had the aptitude and interest, obviously. But to get that push, to get even more -- maybe some kids right now maybe need more of a push than you got or needed. Are there people out there that can do that for a kid who is looking at the stars going, I'm interested, but I need a push?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I think push is the wrong word. Push -- any time you're pushing something, it implies you're sending something where it doesn't want to go.
Ted Simons: All right.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: So I think what matters is sustaining the curiosity, I think is bred into what it is to be human. As a kid, what do you do? You break stuff. Try to put it back together. Lift up rocks and generally disrupting your environment. In your house, if you're an adult, what do you say? Stop doing that. Don't pull the pots pans out of the cabinet. We teach a child to walk and talk and then -- it's the exploration that's the seeds of scientific curiosity. It's not a matter of pushing. It's sustaining what it is that's attractive to be curious throughout those critical years after a child's life. You don't have to push them. They'll want to find the places of discovery. If you push kids, they'll rebel and maybe that's the source of rebellion in teenage years. Because the parents want the kids to do something they don't want. So it's a shift in attitudes how you enable and sustain interest in one subject or another.
Ted Simons: And some of those kids grow up to be adults who look back and say, I wish I had paid attention and learned more about science. Which is where you come in with nova and these things. The biggest challenge of getting this information to adults who had been turned off earlier in life.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I'm asked, how do you get kids interested? My challenge is getting adults interested. They're the ones who vote and wield power in society. And so it's not good enough to simply have scientifically literate kids when adults are running the show. So a big part cares about the science literacy of adults. It's hard. I think there are a lot of people who have settled into some routines of their lives and they may be more ripe in that time of their life for new ideas and new thoughts and challenges. So what I accept as a compliment when someone reads something I write, when they say, that was so interesting. I have to tell my friends at the bar. That meant in between the football talk and whatever is routine, new information comes in. I'm saying, it's working.
Ted Simons: When do you know it's -- I can ramp it up a little bit as far as information in some of the more arcane stuff and when do you know I've got to pull it back because this is a mass audience?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Another excellent question. That's the job of the educator to know where you are in the transition. When to pull back and when to -- you're driving a car with a stick shift. When do you shift the gears? The more you know your car, the better you can shift on the hill or passing another car and the like. So I see it as a duty as an educator and as a scientist to monitor the attention span of my audience and I pay attention to things like are the eyebrows raised, are their pupils dilated, are they smiling, do they look puzzled? If you don't read the body language, you're mute in your capacity to influence. And so I have to monitor this. That's right. And I'm always accelerating and pulling back and finding another angle to come in to always drive the person forward.
Ted Simons: Conversely, can you do that? How accessible can you make quantum mechanics? String theory? I ask because I barely understand one and I can't even get started on string theory.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I think the big misconception is to appreciate the frontier of science, you have to know all of the contents of the sausage that is that science. That's not true. There's some branches that, no, no one should know about. Because they're just too -- there's some branches I gave up a long time ago but for the more interesting -- the tenets of the big bang, what happens in a black hole. What are stars doing in their core? You can describe them using real words we understand and get the ideas across. Ideas are simple. It's the calculations that generate the ideas that are hard. And a person's first introduction to the frontier of science, you hand them the ideas and that way they think about it. If their curiosity is peaked, they might ask, how did you find that out? It's this theory and here's the equation. Oh, I don't know math but I want to learn it. When you stimulate that curiosity, if you light the flame, they go off on their own.
Ted Simons: Interesting. We mentioned quantum and string. You're not a big fan of string theory, right?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: That's in my Wikipedia entry. It's not that I'm not a fan. I've almost given up on it. They've been at it since 1982 or something. 1985 -- how's it coming along? Almost there, just a couple more years. 1989 -- how's it coming? Just a couple more years. They've been saying just a couple more years for the last 27 years and I'm losing my confidence. The reply is it's a hard problem to merge quantum mechanics and general relativity and come up with a theory of everything. So is what Einstein did, a hard problem. It didn't take him 27 years. He did it by himself, came up with the general theory of relativity. Now we have these smart people working on the problem. And there's some advances, but they're not there yet. And even when they do land, who knows what experiment would support it. So I've stopped being the cheerleader for them. But they're really cheap to sustain. Give them a pencil and throw in a laptop and they're done. And it's the only game in town. I'm not saying we shouldn't have string theorists in our midst. Just less of a cheerleader. I don't call that being an enemy off String Theory.
Ted Simons: Lets talk about life on othe planets. Life as we know it, what do you think?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: You would be egocentrist to suggest that life as we know it on earth is the only life in the universe. Once you look at the size of the universe, the age, the scale of the -- and the presence of the chemistry that defines life as we know it -- it's everywhere in the cosmos. Carbon-based life with others comprising our body chemistry. Look around the universe. Those same ingredients are there. So chemically we're not rare. We haven't found life yet, but looking and anyone who studied the problem has high confidence that life is going to be out there somewhere so we're directing resource to look for it.
Ted Simons: Is it where science and philosophy mix? Because we could be looking for a life that fits our alphabet but it's an entirely different alphabet in a different form that we're not close to being able to recognize.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: That's an excellent point. One of the greatest challenges of all science is do you only find what you are looking for. How do you spot something out of your paradigm of expectations? And that's a problem. That's a challenge. So I can tell you this: That if some creature crawled up to the rover on Mars and licked the lens, even if it was not based on carbon, I think we would all agree it was life. [Laughter] So there's fundamental things. It's crawling and walking and reproducing, even if it's chemically slightly different. But we have to be careful as we design our experiments. They're tuned to detect what we are. We have proof that life like us exists in the universe. We're starting with what we know and only when we don't find what we know will we increase the size of our net that we cast in the search for life.
Ted Simons: Another favorite of science fiction is time travel. And correct me if I'm wrong -- I'm going to play amateur physicist here. There can be no time travel because so far, no one from the future has shown up and said, "Hi."
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: That requires there's no time travel to the past, because the future person would then be coming to the past. We can travel into the future, however, and we've been able to do that -- our understanding of that has been around since 1905, and that’s Einstein’s special theory of relativity. And if I send you on a spaceship and watch you, we'll see that your clock ticks more slowly than our own. You send out the twin, you age 20 years and your twin 10, depending on the exact speed. In that way, your twin went into the future. You're right about the past. We don't know yet how to go into the past. There's some peculiar solutions of Einstein's equations that allow past travel but then you can't interact with your life. You're in another place. Imagine if you could interact with your own life.
Ted Simons: Right.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Prevent your parents from meeting and then you would never have been conceived and then -- do-do-do-do.
Ted Simons: We're very into Star trek here. With those ideas and some things you talked about before, do you ever wish that you had been born at a later time when more information that we simply do not know and maybe can't imagine right now would be available? And I ask this because I wonder about the people in the 16th century and look back and think, look at all of the things they didn't know.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I think about that all the time. But not context of I wish I was born a hundred years from now. I think about it, I wish I could live several hundred more years and the microscope had been invented and telescope had just been invented and the laws of physics were being first understood by Galileo. So there was a lot to celebrate at the time. No one at any time they're alive, except perhaps the dark ages, is wallowing in the squalor of their ignorance. There might have been a new plow design or a new yoke for the oxen. So at any time that you are alive you will be celebrating anything that is interesting. So I'm not going to declare that 100 years is going to be that much more special compared to today than 200 years would be compared to 100 years from now.
Ted Simons: Uh-huh.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: So by that scale, take me a thousand years from now. Sure, I'll do it. But I'd rather just live that long and watch it all happen.
Ted Simons: Yeah, yeah. I got to ask you this: What have you got against Pluto? You're in Arizona, the Lowell observatory is up in Flagstaff. This is home of Pluto. Whats wrong with Pluto being a planet?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: I was checking to see if the cops had my picture on it. I don't know if people know that I was active in the public's awareness of the challenges to Pluto's identity. In New York, we opened with a new museum of the universe and we thought the origin of the solar system and grouped Pluto. And they and these other icy bodies looked more like each other than the rest looked like the rest of the traditional planets and that's what we did and then we got raked over the coals. Not even by Arizona. The "The New York Times" raked us over the coals. Pluto not a planet? Only in New York, and I started getting hate mail from third graders and angry mail from the Lowell observatory where Pluto was discovered in 1930. So there was a lot of emotions flailing around this issue. And I think we took the educational and scientific high road recognizing the universe needed a -- and we should think of Pluto not as the ninth planet. Which would be the puniest. We should think of it as the first object discovered in a new swath of real estate. A new class of objects. I think Pluto is happier there. It's one of the largest of the icy bodies. That's what science is. Discovering larger understanding of what it is you had previously understood.
Ted Simons: It's still there, just not what I thought it was.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Yeah, Pluto doesn't care. Pluto is like -- it doesn't care, but I think some people had some investment in Pluto being planet No. Many of them didn't know, for example, that six or seven moons of our solar system bigger than Pluto. Most Pluto lovers that I've spoken to had no clue that was the case. Pluto had it coming.
Ted Simons: Asking for it. Last question here. Got about a minute left.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: All right.
Ted Simons: Easy question. What's the biggest challenge right now for science?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Science in general or astrophysics?
Ted Simons: Science in general.
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Pure science hardly ever has a direct relationship, or correspondence, to how you conduct tomorrow's life. In other words, people -- if you go up to a pure scientist and say, how will what you are doing in the lab today help me tomorrow, the honest answer is, it's not going to help you at all tomorrow. No. Curiosity-driven research done by scientists who work hard to carve their way to the edge between what is known and unknown. A generation later, those discoveries get picked up by technologists and engineers and transform society and culture. So we need the foresight of lawmakers and our society to recognize that, yes, engineering is important. It makes tomorrow happen. But the science that is the foundation of tomorrow has to also be funded all across the board. The chemistry, the geology, the weather systems. People have the urge to only fund science that solves a problem that they see today when most of the problems being solved today are done by science that did not have that as the objective. The M.R.I. in the hospital, that was not invented by someone who wanted to look inside the body. It was invented by physicists trying to understand the nucleus of the atom. I don't have to cut you open. They could not have invented that on their own. Needed the physicist to discover that. And the biggest challenge is having the distance of vision to say the science I fund today will pay dividends 30 years from now.
Ted Simons: Great stuff. Thanks for being here on "Horizon."
Niel DeGrasse Tyson: Thanks for having me.

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