Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

The astrophysicist joins us to talk about the recent season of his National Geographic series, StarTalk.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, author and current host of StarTalk which airs on National Geographic. Born and raised in New York City, Tyson was educated in public schools through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science. He went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia. In 2001, Tyson was appointed by President Bush to serve on a 12-member commission that studied the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. Tyson was once again appointed by President Bush in 2004, to serve on a 9-member commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, dubbed the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” commission. During the summer of 2009 Tyson identified a stable of professional standup comedians to assist his effort in bringing science to commercial radio with the NSF-funded pilot program "StarTalk." Now also a popular podcast, and a limited-run television series on the National Geographic Channel, StarTalk combines celebrity guests with informative yet playful banter. In its first year on television it was nominated for a "Best Informational Programming" Emmy. Tyson is the recipient of nineteen honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid “13123 Tyson”. Beyond several successful books and publications, Tyson was also voted one of the “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine.


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, a conversation with noted astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Next week marks the return of his talk show series, “StarTalk”, on the National Geographic channel. We’re glad you’ve joined us. Neil deGrasse Tyson coming up right now.

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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Neil deGrasse Tyson back to this program. He joins us now to talk about the new season of his talk show, “StarTalk”, which premiers next Monday, and the newly published text of the same name. Before our conversation, though, a look at a clip from the premier episode with Academy Award-winning actress, Whoopi Goldberg.


Tavis: Whoopi’s crazy, man [laugh]. Whoopi is crazy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Whoopi’s Whoopi. That’s right [laugh].

Tavis: Whoopi’s Whoopi. You’re obviously having fun doing this.

Tyson: Yeah, yeah. It’s just reaching out to pop culture and exploring all the ways that science matters to people who you otherwise cared about for some other reason.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me ask you to set your humility aside just for a second and tell me what is it about–what does it say about us as a society that a late-night show about science on Nat Geo is actually working?

Tyson: Well, it brings me such hope [laugh] for the future of civilization. We didn’t know this at the time until we looked back after the first season and we said this is the first ever science talk show on television.

And I realized, well, maybe it could only be that because of the strong pop culture dimension. So the main guests that I bring in, you’ve heard of them. You know who they are. Even if you don’t follow them, you know who they are.

In my conversation, what we did was we inverted the model so it would be like normally a journalist interviewing a scientist. But if you tune in to that, you pretty much already know you like science. And we asked ourselves, how about the people who don’t know they like science? Or better yet, the people who are pretty sure they don’t like science?

How would we ever get them to tune in? And we figured that the debate is we have an important pop culture person that you’ve heard of, that you care about, and then you follow them to the show and then you hear a conversation about science and all the ways that science technology has impacted that person’s livelihood.

That’s where that comes from. I have a co-host who’s a professional comedian. Not the one-liner comedian, but “Have you heard the one about the…”

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tyson: There’s a whole other category of comedians who are perceptive observers of culture and social-cultural morays, so they can interpret and contribute in ways that add a level of levity to the content. So we just have fun the whole hour, but at the end of the hour, you learn something.

Tavis: Not that you’re not a bit of a standup comedian yourself, you’re a pretty funny guy.

Tyson: Well, I think the universe is a hilarious place, that’s all [laugh]. And I’m just revealing that fact to whoever will listen.

Tavis: I raise that seriously because there is something–again, set your modesty aside. You don’t have to. I’ll just heap this praise on you. I’ll heap it on you. I think anybody who’s ever seen you on television, heard you on radio, seen you do a TED Talk, I mean, all these things that you have done so remarkably well, it’s impossible to listen to you and not get pulled in?

Because you have figured out over the years of doing this how to make science sexy. How to make it sexy, how to make it funny, how to make it interesting, how not to make it boring. Seriously, how did you perfect that craft?

Tyson: Well, thanks for noticing that. I don’t know that I did any of that on purpose or with a plan. What I would do is I’d be in the street or on an airplane typically and people would see–this is the early days before I would get recognized–and people would notice I’d be studying some cosmic thing, and then they’d start asking questions. Oh, do you study the universe? I say yes.

Well, tell me about the search for aliens or the big bang or the future of the universe or the past of the universe. Are there multiple universes and black holes and worm holes and time travel? And I would monitor the portfolio of questions that people harbored within them and it was clear that they never had any other occasion to ask anybody these questions.

Tavis: Well, you don’t see Negro astrophysicists–I can’t even say it [laugh]–walking around every day. That’s why you can’t ask. Who you gonna ask? Hey, Tebow! Hey, Bubba! I mean, who you gonna ask the question about Pluto?

Tyson: So they’re contained within us all, so I kept very good mental records of the kinds of questions people cared most about. And I realized that I don’t have to tell you what to be curious about. You already were. And even if you’ve forgot how to be curious, all we do is sort of fan the embers that may have gone dim over the years, get a flame going again, and all of a sudden we can become kids again.

Is that how that works? There was a gravity wave moving across the universe? Oh, my gosh! And an asteroid took out the dinosaurs? Oh, my gosh! And we were just–our mammal ancestors were scurrying underfoot? And the solar system is a shooting gallery?

So there’s a lot of things about the universe that just feed our quest to understand who we are and what our place is in this universe. So over the years, I tuned my delivery of content to match what I already knew was burning inside of everyone. So to the extent that you observe that, that’s the extent to which I have attempted it. And thanks for noticing because it means that it’s a real thing.

Tavis: But you and your team have done a brilliant job, though, also of figuring out interesting subject matter to apply science too. So like a year or two ago–and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about because I’ve forgotten the exact occasion–but there was a big football game where the kicker missed the field goal. You know what I’m talking about?

Tyson: Okay, I know what you’re talking about.

Tavis: And you talked about–okay, take it away, take it away.

Tyson: You want me to–you want to go there [laugh]?

Tavis: I went online. I was reading this online. I was fascinated by the way you explained this.

Tyson: Okay, so here’s what happened. Okay, I’ll give you the whole story because we got time. You’re gonna hear the story.

Tavis: It’s PBS. Take it away. We got nothing but time here.

Tyson: You got time.

Tavis: Yeah, go ahead.

Tyson: So, you know, I turn on the TV and there’s some movie I want to watch in 15 minutes. I said, all right, I don’t feel like doing anything else. Let me just sit here and channel surf. That’s the thing. You channel surf.

Then I came upon a playoff football game that ended in a tie. They were going into a 15-minute overtime. So I said, all right, let me slip this in, all right? So I’m there and I forgot who it was, the two teams. And there they go and, you know, they exchange possession the first couple of times and then it becomes sudden death.

Tavis: Sudden death.

Tyson: All right. So then it’s basically whoever makes the first field goal.

Tavis: That’s right.

Tyson: So I’m watching and they’re making it like at 50 yards. You don’t get close enough to do that, right? So one of the teams is attempting like a 50-yard field goal and I’m watching it. And there it goes. And everybody’s all tense and there it goes. As the ball tumbles, it hits the left upright and then goes through for the win.

And I said, wait a minute. Let me check the orientation of that stadium. So I went online and I looked at the orientation, looked at the latitude on earth and I said, um-um [laugh]. I said this kick was aided by the rotation of the earth because if you are airborne going north-south on the earth, your trajectory is altered.

That football shifted a third of an inch to the right because of the Coriolis forces of earth, the same forces that send cyclones, hurricanes, into rotation. It’s a counterclockwise rotation. It’s the same phenomenon that would alter the path of a kicked ball.

So I tweeted that. I just thought maybe people might want to know and I’m just buying time for my movie, right? But the fun part about it is I don’t have to explain football to you. I don’t have to explain the uprights or a field goal.

Tavis: Exactly.

Tyson: That’s the pop culture scaffold that you unwittingly bring to that tweet. And now I clad that scaffold with actual science…

Tavis: And caused a furor [laugh]. That’s what you did. You caused a furor.

Tyson: No, not on purpose! I’m just saying this is the reality of life in this universe. We are touched by science in so many ways that it’s otherwise under-appreciated. And with “StarTalk”, it’s a conduit, I think, for people to gain access to the science that touches their lives.

And by the way, while I have particular expertise, astrophysics, “StarTalk” is–we got this biology, chemistry, and I bring in experts when that’s needed and necessary to assist with this connectivity.

Tavis: I love you for what you do so well. I’m still mad at you about Pluto, but that’s another conversation.

Tyson: But I’m very impressed. You’re wearing one of my ties. You got–oh, my gosh. Look at you.

Tavis: Yeah, you see this? I’m wearing my…

Tyson: Got the company tie on.

Tavis: Because I love you and I love your work.

Tyson: Just to be clear, we designed that so that Pluto is up inside the knot [laugh].

Tavis: See that?

Tyson: You count the planets, you’re not gonna get nine.

Tavis: I’m trying to help out Neil. He’s still bashing my favorite Pluto, man, I’ll tell you.

Tyson: Now it’s like one of the big, big guys in the outer solar system.

Tavis: Okay.

Tyson: Okay?

Tavis: That was a nice spin [laugh].

Tyson: Now it’s like a really big fish in another kind of pond.

Tavis: So the stuff you just talked about is the kind of stuff that fascinates us about the way science impacts our lives. At this point in your life and your career, what kind of stuff is fascinating you?

Tyson: Well, so there’s the intersection of a science and public interest. So there’s a list of things that will always titillate the public and then there’s stuff that just personally I’m interested in. But the public likes to know if we discover a planet that looks like earth. Just recently, a planet was discovered. An earth-like planet was discovered around a star. That alone today is not new news, all right?

But this one is orbiting the closest star to the sun, Proxima Centauri. And the Alpha Centauri system is a multiple star system. You can see it from the southern hemisphere easily. It’s a bright star system. You look at it with a telescope, it splits out into multiple stars. One of them, the nearest one, Proxima Centauri, has an earth-like planet around it.

So now if you can make an inventory of planets you want to visit, that’s probably gonna be the highest one on the list. Problem is, spacecraft we have today, the fastest we’ve ever launched, if you put people onboard that and aim it toward Proxima Centauri, it would take, you know, 50,000 years to get there [laugh].

Tavis: To get there. Wow [laugh].

Tyson: So here I’m saying it’s the closest one, but it would take basically, you know, a thousand generations. If you sent a generational ship, you’d have to load it with very fertile people so they would have one generation after the next.

A thousand generations later, they would arrive. Who knows whether they would have evolved into some other kind of form of humans by then because they’re an isolated gene pool at that point. So that’s an example of something that people totally care about.

And also, there’s the–we don’t know what dark matter is and dark energy is. People like mysteries. Even if they don’t fully comprehend it, they like knowing that scientists are staring dumbfounded into an abyss of ignorance, and that’s what we are now.

Dark matter, it’s–85% of the gravity of the universe has no known origin, so we just call it like dark matter. All we know is matter. We can call it Fred, for all that matters here. And dark energy is a pressure and the vacuum of the space of the universe that is forcing the universe to accelerate in its expansion against the wishes of gravity.

We can measure that, but we don’t know what’s causing it or what it’s made of. And if you add dark matter, dark energy together, it’s 95%, 96% of everything that’s driving the universe. So we have profound ignorance surrounding what has been very successfully accumulated knowledge over the centuries.

Tavis: You mentioned space travel, Neil. I want to ask this question broad because I want to give you as big a palette as you want to paint on. I’m not asking any particular thing, but we all saw the news some days ago. Elon Musk, SpaceX, the thing blew up on the platform?

Tyson: Yeah, on the launch pad, yes.

Tavis: On the launch pad, yeah. When you see stuff like that, just talk to me about whether or not private is the way to go versus public, which is NASA. Does it scare you? Are we ready for that? Are we even anywhere comfortable with putting people on the–I mean, just talk to me about that whole…

Tyson: Okay, it’s a lot there. There’s a lot there.

Tavis: Yeah, I’m going to give you…

Tyson: Okay. So let’s get to the exploded rocket on the launch pad. One thing we’ve failed to do in the educational system is alert people that, if you’re doing what no one has done before, stuff goes wrong. And in fact, if nothing ever goes wrong in what you’re doing, if you make no mistakes in your job, in whatever task you’ve brought upon yourself, then you are not on the frontier. Simple.

It’s true in science and I heard it applied to car racing. There’s a quote that I’m told spoken by Mario Andretti. He said, “If you are in complete control of your car, you’re not in the race.” [laugh]

Tavis: Oh, wow.

Tyson: There’s something that you’re just not completely in control of. And that’s the same thing I’m describing for when you are on the frontier. And SpaceX is on the frontier, not as space frontier where they’re going farther than NASA has gone. They’re on another kind of a frontier, a frontier where they want to make access to space maximally affordable.

So that means they have to design the rockets differently from how anybody else had done it before, and there are gonna be mistakes. So I see the explosion on the launch pad. I say that is an occurrence that is rich with learning opportunity. It’s not just a spin. It’s real and, yes, it’s a spectacular explosion because the whole rocket is filled with fuel.

But it’s typically one little thing that went wrong that they had not anticipated and they have to design it differently. Go back to the early days of NASA. There’s footage on YouTube. Rockets blowing up all the time because no one had put rockets in space before. So now they’re trying to do it in a whole new way. I’m going to expect that and more of it.

Tavis: Okay.

Tyson: So now, who’s going to lead the frontier? Well, I take my cue from the history of civilization, all right? And if something is expensive, dangerous, with uncertain return on your investment, then government to do it first, period. The first Europeans to the New World was not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was Spain sending Columbus, and Columbus takes notes.

Okay, here’s where the trade winds are and here’s the friendlies and the hostiles and the food or the no-food or the weather conditions. Comes back, now you can get investors and say, okay, took that long? You found these things to trade with? Here’s where you mitigate the risks, your health risks or hostile or other folks’ risks, whatever your risks. Now you can create a business model.

So I would assert that the first people on Mars are not going to be private enterprise because there’s no real return. There’s no business model for it. You could do it, but it would be like a vanity project. If Bill Gates got together with Elon Musk and shared their billions and said let’s put somebody on Mars, they could do it.

But it’s not a business model. The investors, the board members, if it’s a publicly traded company, will ask why are you doing this and how does that increase the return? Business does not do that until they know there’s a return on that investment. So you’ll always need NASA. But the moment NASA does something routinely, they should just…

Tavis: Pass it down.

Tyson: Pass it off. So NASA’s been going in a low earth orbit, boldly going where hundreds have gone before [laugh], doing that for like 40 years. I’m saying, okay, NASA. All right, NASA, I want you to take me to a new place, please. One of those is they built a huge space station in orbit. That was kind of an engineering frontier.

But I’m a space guy. Take me to the next destination that’s farther away than you’ve ever been before. So for my money, I would have had NASA cede access to low earth orbit to corporate enterprises while they put their money on the ever-extended frontier.

Tavis: Let me do a 180, complete 180 on this.

Tyson: Sure.

Tavis: So the flip side to everything you’ve just said now is the area where I live or have come to live, I think. I’m a new resident here, but I think I’ve come to live in this new space as I get older where I have accepted the fact that part of being human means being willing to live with unanswered questions.

Tyson: Oh, of course. Oh, my gosh.

Tavis: I wonder if I share that–but as a scientist, I don’t get that you feel that way.

Tyson: Oh, no, no. So that is a deep thought and let me add some flesh to it. When you’re a kid, your parents have all the answers, whether or not they do [laugh].

Tavis: And they’re right all the time too [laugh].

Tyson: And they’re right all the time. That too. And you’re full of questions.

Tavis: Exactly.

Tyson: Then there comes a time when you realize your parents don’t have all the answers to the questions that you’ve posed. Not only that, you reach a point where you’ve posed questions where nobody has the answer. And this is a point of intellectual maturity that is terrifying. How could we not know the answer? How is that possible? What? How?

And if you look through the history of unknowns in our culture, that is a fundamental role religion has played, religion of all stripes. You go back to ancient Greece. We call it mythology, but it’s really their religion, all right? You know, Zeus and Neptune–not Neptune, Poseidon.

So there’s a storm. I don’t know anything about storms. I don’t know anything about the Coriolis force or the ocean atmosphere connection or moisture and relative humidity. I don’t know anything about any of that yet. Poseidon is angry. A lightning bolt hit. Zeus is angry. Those are my explanations and I’m done.

Now I don’t have to live in some kind of profound state of ignorance about the world around me and its effect on my life. After death, I have no idea. Am I actually rotting in the ground? No, you are in some other place. You’re in Valhalla or heaven or whatever the religion provides for that belief system.

You cannot become a scientist if you require that every question has an answer because it’s the very questions that have no answers that attract you to the laboratory every single day. So there’s got to be some kind of a shift.

Part of it is you never really grew up from childhood because you’re always asking questions, but you’ve successfully made the transition to say here’s a question not only did my parents not know, nobody doesn’t know. And I will then set up an entire lab just to find that answer. And when you do find that answer, that is one of the greatest moments that can happen in a scientist’s life.

Tavis: What do you hope that viewers of “StarTalk” learn about themselves, which is to say, humanity?

Tyson: Yeah. That’s a great perceptive question. I think–let me answer it slightly differently, but that’s the question that’s inspiring this response. I think most of us are trained in school to think of science as a subject over here.

Oh, but I really care about history, so let me sidestep the science. I’ll just learn history. But I care about languages. I’m gonna learn–that’s science over there. Let me step around it, above it, beneath it, across it. Let me take as few science classes as I can because I don’t really care about science.

We’re somehow allowed to think that way about science as a subject. That, of course, has a textbook, so you either buy the textbook or you don’t. Or you take the class and sell it back. As long as you keep thinking of science as just a subject, you somehow are given carte blanche to say I don’t care about that subject. I care about these subjects.

But science is everywhere. It is in your human physiology. It is in your health. It is in the very technology that drives what we today call civilization. So no one should ever be given the freedom to just step away from science.

They need to recognize that science is infused in every single thing we do. And “StarTalk” is our attempt to display that fact without it sounding like, well, here’s your science lesson for today. Now take your medicine and now you’ll suffer, but you’ll like me for it at the end.

No, no. We are finding all the ways that you can celebrate the role of science in our lives. And it was working on the radio. We were birthed by a grant from the National Science Foundation. They said, yes, we’d like that experiment. Then it jumped species to television and it got two Emmy nominations in its first two years.

And then we’re jumping species again seeing the book medium. This book is every page you turn to, it’s like, yeah, that’s a cool question. How did the show deal with that? Well, that’s a funny way to think about it. Well, that’s–so we just want to plaster the universe with science.

Tavis: And you’re doing it well. “StarTalk” has its new season premiering next Monday night on Nat Geo, the National Geographic channel, hosted by one Neil deGrasse Tyson. And there’s a companion book out just in time for the season premier. It has the same name, “StarTalk”. Neil, I’m always fascinated to talk to you, man. I’m always glad to have you on this program.

Tyson: Me too. I want to come on more often. You don’t call, you don’t write [laugh]. You wear the universe beautifully, though, let me just say.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, there you go. As often as you like, you’re welcome here. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: December 15, 2016 at 6:19 pm