Neil deGrasse Tyson needs no introduction, but what the hell.The 56-year-old astrophysicist and cosmologist is this generation’s preeminent scientific voice—a man who’s championed the sciences across a variety of modes, including publishing numerous books, serving as Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s Rose Center for Earth and Space, sitting on two government commissions dealing with the aerospace industry and space travel, and being awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal.To a generation of youths, he’s best known as the host of various science-promoting programs, including PBS’s NOVA ScienceNow, the immensely popular TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and the weekly podcast StarTalk. And StarTalk is now being converted into a late-night talk show for the National Geographic Channel, with its 10-episode season unspooling on April 20.
“When this was first announced, I think the press overreacted, saying, ‘Tyson’s going to take over late night!’” he exclaims. “No. There’s no band. I have a radio show that’s been successful, and it’s jumping species to television.”
The Daily Beast caught up with Neil deGrasse Tyson for a wide-ranging discussion on everything from the tenets of Scientology to the ongoing policy battle between science and religion.
What’s really grinding your gears these days in the world of science?
That’s a very open question! I’m thinking of the future of our space program and what role private enterprise will play in it, I think about the Higgs boson, I think about searching for life on Jupiter’s moon Europa, I think about how quickly all the people who were the first pioneers on Mars will die after they arrive. Things like that.
You said “searching for life on Jupiter’s moon,” so it would stand to reason, then, that you believe in the existence of aliens.
Well, it’s not a matter of “belief.” “Belief” implies that you feel something is true without evidence. I have a strong suspicion that something is true given the evidence, and that’s how I feel about life in the universe. You can look at how long the universe has existed. You can look at the ingredients for life as we know it. You can look at how common those very ingredients are throughout the galaxy and throughout the universe. You can look at how quickly life took hold on Earth—basically within a couple of hundred million years after it possibly could have formed, it formed—and that’s small compared with the age of the Earth, which is 4.5 billion years. And if you look at how many stars there are, and how many planets there are that are likely to be around them based on new data, you add all this up and say, “It would be inexcusably egocentric to suggest that we were the only life in the universe.” That is the posture that informed people take who study this. The prospect of there being life is not an exotic thought.
Do you feel there’s ever been an “event”?
Well, with UFOs, we have to remind ourselves what the “U” stands for: Unidentified. For some reason over the decades, people have made the UFO synonymous with intelligent aliens visiting us from another planet in a flying saucer, but if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you should just stop talking. The thought should end there. You can’t say, “I don’t know what I’m looking at, therefore it must be intelligent aliens from another galaxy visiting Earth.” You have no place to stand to make that claim.
Speaking of aliens, did you see HBO’s Scientology documentary Going Clear?
No. I heard about it, though. I’m familiar with it.
I’m curious what your take on Scientology is, because the intergalactic story of Xenu does encroach on your territory a bit.
So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy? Let’s realize this: What matters is not who says who’s crazy, what matters is we live in a free country. You can believe whatever you want, otherwise it’s not a free country—it’s something else. If we start controlling what people think and why they think it, we have case studies where that became the norm. I don’t care what the tenets are of Scientology. They don’t distract me. I don’t judge them, and I don’t criticize them.
Now, where the rubber hits the road is, since we are a free country where belief systems are constitutionally protected—provided they don’t infringe on the rights of others—then how do you have governance over “all” when you have belief systems for the “some”? It seems to me that the way you govern people is you base governance on things that are objectively true; that are true regardless of your belief system, or no matter what the tenets are of your holy documents. And then they should base it on objective truths that apply to everyone. So the issue comes about not that there are religious people in the world that have one view over another, it’s if you have one view or another based on faith and you want to legislate that in a way that affects everyone. That’s no longer a free democracy. That’s a country where the few who have a belief system that’s not based in objective reality want to control the behavior of everyone else.
The documentary essentially argues that Scientology shouldn’t be granted tax-exempt status as a religion.
But why aren’t they a religion? What is it that makes them a religion and others are religions? If you attend a Seder, there’s an empty chair sitting right there and the door is unlocked because Elijah might walk in. OK. These are educated people who do this. Now, some will say it’s ritual, some will say it could literally happen. But religions, if you analyze them, who is to say that one religion is rational and another isn’t? It looks like the older those thoughts have been around, the likelier it is to be declared a religion. If you’ve been around 1,000 years you’re a religion, and if you’ve been around 100 years, you’re a cult. That’s how people want to divide the kingdom. Religions have edited themselves over the years to fit the times, so I’m not going to sit here and say Scientology is an illegitimate religion and other religions are legitimate religions. They’re all based on belief systems. Look at Mormonism! There are ideas that are as space-exotic within Mormonism as there are within Scientology, and it’s more accepted because it’s a little older than Scientology is, so are we just more accepting of something that’s older?The line I’m drawing is that there are religions and belief systems, and objective truths. And if we’re going to govern a country, we need to base that governance on objective truths—not your personal belief system.
The separation of church and state—which we’re not too great at practicing in this country.
Yeah. The Constitution makes no mention of Jesus, God, or anything. The Constitution is religion-free on purpose, which I’ve read was controversial. They were smart. They said, “Well, if we mention god, then it establishes a religion, and that would give the government power to influence your belief system, and you would no longer have a free country.”
We’re seeing it right now with this “religious freedom law” in Indiana.
I just think it’s a little weird that there’s a law that allows you to earn less money. I think that’s weird within a capitalist democracy. If you’re a company and you don’t agree with it, you don’t put your factories there, and I don’t think that’s good for your economy. Usually the economy wins in the end in terms of decision-making, so we’ll see what comes of this.
As a scientist, does homophobia strike you as particularly odd? There are many species within the animal kingdom that are attracted to the same sex, and perhaps if people were more educated in the sciences instead of religious dogma, then there would be less homophobia.
Well, it almost always entirely stems from religion. But the point here is that if you’re religious, and your religion tells you that being gay is bad, then don’t be gay. But you have to remind yourself that that’s your belief system, and there are other belief systems that don’t agree with that, so you should not be in the position to make legislation that affects other people.
I enjoyed your Daily Show riff on The Walking Dead disproving the likelihood of zombies.
Everything I know about The Walking Dead is because my son watched every episode, so he clues me in. They brought me in on it, so I have some fluency in The Walking Dead. I’m intrigued by how they do it. I like watching the odd characters rise up in the face of this apocalyptic Earth, and you know that these people would be there—the people you think you know but you don’t, and there’s something weird about them. That’s what makes the show intriguing—not just learning how people would react in the face of aliens, but how people would react with each other in the face of aliens. That’s what makes it a rich tapestry.
See any movies recently?
I just saw Whiplash. It was interesting. Here’s why I take issue with it. It’s one jazz musician and one overbearing coach, so I get that, but I come from a world where true success is completely driven from within the individual and not from someone outside of them. While the case portrayed there is some fraction of cases that are out there, at the end of the day, Einstein became Einstein not because someone said, “Keep studying, keep studying!” and someone didn’t say, “Isaac Newton, go invent calculus!” He invented it on his own. So in my world, there is no success without people being self-driven, and to believe that you only achieve greatness because someone pushed you there? I don’t see that. The story was nonetheless intriguing, but I feel it may be the minority of cases who have succeeded in a singular way in life. If someone treats you that way, you may become really good at something but you won’t become the greatest at it, and you’ll resent them and you might even turn away from the subject entirely.
President George W. Bush named you to a pair of aerospace commissions, but how do you feel about Bush’s relationship with science? He was also someone who believed in “intelligent design” and is widely known to have suppressed scientific discussion of global warming during his administration.
People can say and think what they want, but what matters is whether or not it becomes policy or legislation, and I don’t remember any legislation that restricted science. In fact, the budget for the National Science Foundation went up. What matters is money in Congress. What does Congress do? Allocate money. That’s really what they do. So the science budget of the country went up during the Bush administration, and the budget for NASA went up 3 percent—and it had actually dropped 25 percent in real spending dollars under the eight years of President Clinton. I don’t care what you say or think. I care about legislation, and policy.
Also, he appointed me! There may have been some science that he hadn’t learned yet or didn’t know fully, but he’s not creating legislation based on it. Speeches are politics, so you can’t fault a politician for saying something political.
I think it’s been proven, though, that the Bush administration was systematically suppressing and altering reports on global warming from the scientific community. This has been proven multiple times.
Right. But did he succeed? He was caught. There were some documents where someone was caught rubbing out the term “big bang” and it was found, and the guy lost his job. What I’m saying is I’ve become much more pragmatic about all of this. Washington is about politics, and Bush has an electoral base that want him to behave certain ways, but what matters is policy. People were saying there was a “Republican War on Science,” and I say, “What war are you talking about?” And they say, “Well, they’re suppressing stem cell research. Oh, and there’s the environment. And the Republicans are in bed with oil companies.” So I check those boxes and say, “Is there anything else?” Well, no, not really. The budget for the NSF went up. The budget for NASA went up. The budget for the National Institutes of Health that gives grants for health research went up. So it’s not really a war on science. It’s a resistance to things that interfere with their two political agendas: one religion-based, the other oil-based. There it is. It’s called politics.
I really enjoyed Cosmos, and it was such a huge hit. Is it coming back?
We’re in conversations now, we’re just trying to figure out if we do it again how we would do it, could we do it more efficiently—since the first one was stretched out over such a long period of time, and we were figuring stuff out as we went along. We’re in conversations now, but nothing’s been announced yet. There’s more than 13 hours of universe. If you have 13 hours of Game of Thrones, I can at least do that with the entire universe!