Entertainment

06.08.14

The Curious Passions of Mr. Cosmos: Neil deGrasse Tyson On Space, Climate, and Why Curiosity Wins Every Time

They’re complex ideas—the origins of the Universe, the evolution of the human eye, and the potential for life on other worlds—but one scientist makes them engagingly accessible to all.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has never suffered from a case of the Mondays.

“Days of the week are completely socially constructed,” he says, instantly employing what can best be described as his Lecture Voice. “None of this ‘I just need to get through Wednesday,’ or ‘I can’t wait ‘til Friday.’ To me, they’re just days, and I just live every day.”

Welcome to a conversation with one of the smartest men in the world: Even the most mundane pleasantry (“How’s your Monday?”) is returned with an answer that makes you question the entire idea behind the question. But before you beat yourself up for asking Neil deGrasse Tyson—the world’s most famous astrophysicist, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, the host of the most important science documentary series in three decades, the man who demoted Pluto and coined “Manhattanhenge” and holds 17 honorary doctorates plus the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal—an incredibly dumb question, he stops you with one of his trademark sayings: “No one is dumb who is curious.” 
 
If Cosmos, Dr. Tyson’s milestone science documentary series airing its finale tonight on Fox, shares one guiding principle with its host, it is the fervent belief that curiosity about the world around us is the key to solving humanity’s greatest challenges. By explaining concepts as complex as origins of the Universe, the evolution of the human eye, and the potential for life on other worlds accessibly enough to enthrall even the most disinterested liberal-arts student, Cosmos and Tyson are the most powerful force for curiosity about the mysteries of the Universe in American culture.

And it couldn’t come at a more important time. 42 percent of Americans believe that God created humanity in their present form 10,000 years ago, a figure largely unchanged over the past three decades. Climate-change denying politicians metronomically brandish their incuriosity with cries of “I’m not a scientist,” then decry the work of the 97-plus percent consensus on the issue by people who actually are scientists. The National Research Council reports that NASA has functionally thrown in the towel on a manned mission to Mars.

“Science literacy is not so much what you know, but about what is your depth of curiosity about what goes on around you. That’s how I measure the intellectual fertility of a culture, of a nation.”

But, as Dr. Tyson reveals in a conversation that covers topics from alien invasions to the privatization of space exploration, it’s not a lack of knowledge about science that concerns him—it’s a lack of curiosity.

Your involvement in this new iteration of Cosmos is tied pretty closely with Carl Sagan, astrophysicist and creator of the original 1980 miniseries, which Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times described it as “a watershed moment for science-themed television programming.” How intense is the pressure to live up to Sagan’s work?

I don’t think about it at all. I’m not trying to imitate Carl Sagan—I can only be myself. I can be an awesome version of myself! But I’m sure I would fail if I just tried to be Carl Sagan, so I try to be myself. We have genetic connections to the original—[Sagan’s widow] Ann Druyan and Steve Soter, the two writers of this series, were two of the three original creative principals of the original Cosmos, so we knew that we would keep the soul of the original, but I can just be myself.

Is that why you kept on the “Spaceship of Imagination” from the original iteration? (Note: The “Spaceship of Imagination” was a narrative device/actual starship. Fueled by “curiosity,” Sagan’s flagship traversed the galaxies as a way to explore the Universe.)

We of course kept certain potent educational tools. The Spaceship of Imagination had very mixed reviews in the original, and I had very little idea of what it was doing. Only in its re-envisioned form did we all embrace what it could be for the show: Sort of an impossibly minimalist ship that does what we need it to do just by the action of my thoughts. Its role and utility and value has been greatly magnified from the original.

What would Carl Sagan learn from watching your Cosmos?

[laughs] You mean tactically or scientifically?

Either! What do you think would surprise him most?

The fact that we have catalogues of a thousand planets orbiting other stars, he would have expected by now, but he would be delighted to know that the planets are sitting there in the catalogue, waiting to be studied and to be explored further. I don’t know if he could learn anything from me, pedagogically, because he carved so much brush, going where no one had gone before in this “pop scientist” realm. And the rest of us are just moving in that cleared brush.

Previous episodes of Cosmos have tackled “controversial” topics like evolution and the funding of anti-science organizations by corporate interests. Last week, you confronted climate change-deniers head-on with what was probably the best illustration of the climate-versus-weather distinction ever: a leashed dog wandering a beach.

The fun part with the dog is, we were burying treats to my left and to my right! Actually, as a kid I walked dogs for a living to buy my first camera and my second telescope, so I’d like to think that I was pretty smooth holding this dog, but while I’m talking to you I’m unwrapping him from around my hip and around my knees. I think I carried it off pretty well!

With an issue like climate change, which has a pretty entrenched opposition, how do you navigate educating the public about science without turning Cosmos into an hour-long fact-checking session?

Cosmos is not only about exploring what science is and why it matters, it’s also an exploration of how we came to know what we know. There are people who somehow think that scientists speak for what they want to be true, rather than what is true, and that we have a way to decide what is true and what is not. Many people who are in denial cherry-pick the results of science such that it is resonant with their philosophies, be it political philosophy, social philosophy, religious philosophy, philosophic philosophy—it doesn’t matter! If you cherry-pick science so that it resonates with your belief system, you are not understanding how science works.

You never see me debate anyone—I don’t debate people. As an educator, I just try to educate people, so that they know how they need to see the world as science has come to reveal it. Science has transformed our lives, and the reason for that is because it’s objectively true! When a scientific truth arises, it is so because of observational and experimental consensus. When that emerges, that is the new emerging truth, and you get over it! Scientists move on to the next problem. Nobody cherry-picked E=mc2—we built bombs off of that! You don’t cherry-pick the laws of gravity because you happened to gain weight last week. “Repeal gravity!” [laughs]

Speaking of climate change, President Obama just released new guidelines for carbon emissions that aim to reverse the effects of greenhouse gases, or at least slow them down. In “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth,” you detail the Permian-Triassic Extinction, where it’s hypothesized that a runaway greenhouse effect killed 90% of life on Earth. Do you think we’ve passed the point of no return with anthropogenic climate change, or is there something we can do to stop it?

That’s not the specific expertise I carry. I do know that no one wants to go extinct. We will do all we can to not go extinct. I don’t know what would happen if our carbon footprint, as of tomorrow, went to zero. I don’t know. But what I do know is that if it doesn’t go to zero, things will get worse. For sure. So I don’t think there’s any rational argument to the idea that, “Oh, it’s already too late, let’s keep doing it. See you on the other side!”

How do you feel President Obama has been on science? At the beginning of his administration, he increased funding for NASA and called for a manned trip to an asteroid, but then he cancelled rocket programs that could have made it possible due to budgetary concerns.

I’m not here to tell people to like space if they otherwise don’t like space. I happen to like space because it’s fun and it’s a frontier and I think somebody has always, in the history of our species, liked frontiers. That’s how we learn things, that’s how we grow—that’s how you cross the valleys and climb the mountains and reach for the stars. But I can’t require everyone to want to do that.

What I can say is that a healthy future in space, based on my analysis of the causes and effects of innovation, is an extraordinary driver of innovation in science and technology. As a capitalist democracy, if we don’t want to die poor, you’re not going to solve that by creating programs to get someone interested in science. That’s not how its works. Someone says, “Okay, let’s make better science teachers and they’ll get all the kids excited!” So now they become scientists—now what? Is the government doing anything with them? No! No! No! So they become investment bankers! That’s what happens when you have smart people who don’t have any interesting science to do when they get out of school. They take on other fields.

Do you think that the privatization of space exploration is going to fill the gap? Or are we going to end up with corporate monoliths like Weyland-Yutani from Alien, plundering the cosmos for booty and leaving science by the wayside?

No. It can’t lead a space frontier. As long as space is expensive, has unquantified risks to your investment, and is dangerous, private enterprise cannot establish a capital market valuation of advancing a frontier. You could do a one-off, but it’s not a business model. Historically, those kinds of frontiers are breached by governments, who have long-term interests in their survival, longer-term interests than do corporations,. The first Europeans to the New World was not the Dutch East India company—it was Columbus, funded by Spain.

Then Columbus reports on the edge of the Earth: Where are the trade winds? Where are the hostiles? Where are the friendlies? He came back, and within years, Dutch East India was doing business, because they could then quantify the risk. They knew how long the voyage would take, they knew what they would find on the other side. That’s the role that private enterprise has historically taken in this kind of activity. That’s the kind of role I would expect them to play going forward. But without the government leading it? Forget it.

They’re not exactly discovering new worlds.

It’s great, and they’ll do it cheaper than NASA ever will, but [space transport services company] SpaceX is not going to create a business model by being the first on Mars. NASA could be the first on Mars, using government money, and they could pay for SpaceX spaceship, sure! But it’s not SpaceX leading it—it’s still NASA, it’s still government money, and it’s not a business model for going to Mars.

And as far as actual exploration and discovery, that gets thrown by the wayside.

It would not be done by private interests, unless it’s cheap. You could do it if it’s cheap! But space travel has not borne out that it’s cheap. Here I am, saying, “I want to explore the backside of Mars, who’s with me?” And I have a room full of venture capitalists, and they say, “Sure thing, how much does it cost?” And I say, “I don’t know, but probably a lot.” And they ask, “Is it dangerous?” And I say, “Yeah, people will probably die.” What’s your return on investment? “I don’t know, probably nothing.” The meeting would last twenty seconds.

Nearly 400 years after the trial of Galileo, a National Science Foundation study showed that one in four Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth. For an astrophysicist, that’s got to be pretty irritating to hear. How do we reach that last 25%?

I’m less worried about that than most people are. I’m less worried because 400 years ago, everyone presumed that the Sun revolved around the Earth, because that’s what it looks like. To know that the Earth has to go around the Sun means that you have to learn that somewhere, you’re not going to get that from observations that you conduct on your own.

When I hold people accountable, it’s for things that happen in front of their face, and they don’t notice, or they don’t pay attention to it. Then that means that they’re not curious about their environment. Science literacy is not so much what you know, but about what is your depth of curiosity about what goes on around you. That’s how I measure the intellectual fertility of a culture, of a nation. I’d be more concerned if someone said that heavy things fall faster than light things. I’d ask them, well, have you tested that? Go drop your shoe and a Bic pen: Which hits the ground first?

“What’s the brightest star in the night sky?” Well, nine out of ten people will say the North Star—that means they’ve never looked up! The North Star is not even in in the top forty. That concerns me. If you had a curiosity, and if you noticed these things, you would wonder: “Well, it looks like the Sun is going around the Earth, but I wonder if that’s really true. Let me investigate it further!” And you would immediately get rid of that one-fourth of the population. They would answer those questions for themselves. I’m for the stimulation of curiosity, not the ladling of information into other peoples’ heads. Curiosity brings you knowledge.

What role does science fiction play in educating the public about science at large? After all, science fiction is a precursor to science fact.

I don’t think it educates the public, but it creates a curiosity. Curiosity matters. People say, “Oh this textbook says some wrong things, it’s bad.” Okay, fine, the update it, use it as a teaching tool. “Five years after this textbook was published, this result became a different result!” Oh, that’s cool! Just use it. People overvalue information relative to curiosity, because curiosity brings you the information.

Your Cosmos is coming up on its final episode. In “Who Speaks for Earth?”, the final episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, the question of human engagement with extraterrestrial life is framed by referencing the destruction of the Aztec civilization by Spanish conquistadors. You’ve addressed the possibility of life in the Universe in “The Immortals”—there’s a hundred billion galaxies in the Universe, we may very well not be alone—but given the context of the interactions between less advanced cultures and more advanced cultures throughout human history, do you think we should we try to stay alone? Are projects like SETI Institute (a not-for-profit organization that searches for signals from extraterrestrial intelligence) not such a good idea?

I’m ambivalent on that. Any encounter between a more advanced civilization and a less technologically advanced civilization and a more technologically advanced civilization did not bode well for the less technologically advanced civilization. So that is enough to make one apprehensive about sending out our return address to aliens, because if they have a way to get here, they are more advanced than us. Period. Probably way smarter than us, as well.

But the other side of me says, our greatest fears for aliens are entirely derived from how we know we treat each other here on Earth. So I would ask: Are we a good model for how others would treat others? This alien fear factor is more a fear driven by how we know we treat each other than it is of a fear of how we think they would treat us. Our fear derives from our own fear of ourselves. Really, that fear factor is an indictment of who we are—not an indictment of some hypothetical alien species.

If people walk away with one thing from watching Cosmos, what would you want that to be?

That science is all around us, and it is the best method ever devised to establish an objective reality in which we live, and it’s that objective reality on which we should be basing decisions related to the future of our species. That’s the practical side of this. The glorious side is, I’d like to think, that people feel uplifted: Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually by getting this level of exposure not only to the methods and tools of science, but to the discoveries of science that have gone so far to convey what our place is in the Universe. Our past, our present, and our future.