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Shakespeare famously wrote, ‘The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.’
Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson joins me to explore the stars, science, and human conflict this week on ‘Firing Line.’
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Outer space was once seen as the final frontier, where we human beings could transcend our differences.
Science and technology were supposed to get us there.
Today, the picture doesn’t look so rosy.
Think more ‘Star Wars’ than ‘Star Trek.’
In fact, the vastness beyond may soon become just another contested space in which earthly conflict plays out.
Joining us to explore this challenge is everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Popular in every dimension, many of you will recognize Dr. Tyson as the former host of PBS’ own ‘Nova: ScienceNow.’
His new book, ‘Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military,’ explores the intersection between science, politics, and public policy, familiar territory for my guest.
Under President Bush, Dr. Tyson served on the Moon, Mars, and Beyond commission, and today, he sits on the Defense Innovation Board at the Pentagon.
When Dr. Tyson jumps into the middle of issues involving science and politics, he brings an evangelist’s passion for science and for the scientific method to anyone who will listen.
He posted a video making the case called ‘Science in America’ to his Facebook universe.
Here is an excerpt that captures the essence of his point of view.
Welcome to ‘Firing Line,’ Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Thanks for having me.
Please call me Neil.
I will call you Neil.
Why do you think that the most significant advances in astrophysics and science, really, have come from human conflict and military conflict?
Well, it’s actually a two-way street.
We’re walking down the street in one direction, the military’s walking down the street in the other, and there’s, like, a picket fence between us.
And we look over.
‘Hey, I could use that.’
And ‘Oh, we can take that.’
I’ll give an example.
Conquest of antiquity, right on up through the great age of oceanic exploration.
Conquest required that you knew where you came from, where you’re going, where your enemies are, where your targets are.
That required navigation, and navigation in the day required knowledge and familiarity with what the sun, moon, and stars were doing, and the person who was an expert at that was the astronomer.
So the British empire, for example, claiming the sun never sets on the British empire, that was enabled on the intellectual capital presented by the astronomers of the day.
Later on, we would — it’s astrophysics is the more appropriate term.
So, science went first and then the military took advantage of scientific exploration first in that case.
What about a flip case, though?
What about the case of Sputnik?
What about the case where this contest between these great warring powers in the Cold War actually did seem to propel scientific innovation and knowledge of astrophysics?
So, what happens is when you have war as a driver, then money flows on levels not normally seen by pure science conducted in a laboratory.
So the entire voyage to the moon, conducted by NASA, a civilian agency, but all the people — all but one of the people who went to the moon were military pilots, were ex-military pilots from the Navy, the Air Force, or the Marines, and so we say, ‘All right, guys, if you’re going to the moon anyway, can you do these experiments?
Gather some rocks?
Look for these rocks.
Put those in the satchel and plant this experiment.
Make these measurements.’
So science got done, and we now know the origin of the moon from these experiments.
We didn’t know that before the Apollo era.
It was a collision with Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet.
It’s a great story.
But what I’m saying is, this piggybacked a geopolitically motivated act to go to the moon.
And there were financial resources that were focused directly on it that led — because of the war and because of the human conflict.
That accelerated human advancement.
It wouldn’t have happened at all.
We would’ve never gone to the moon.
We’re not this military driver.
So then is there ever a possibility the time with non-military forces driving true and really monumental astrophysic achievement?
Take, for example, the superconducting super collider.
This was approved in the early 1980s, so this was gonna be built in Texas.
They’re building it.
The moneys were allocated.
This is Reagan era, still under the Cold War.
The most powerful particle accelerator in the world, which would advance particle physics.
Then what happens in 1989?
Peace breaks out in Europe.
The Wall comes down.
By 1993, it’s official.
The Soviet Union is gone.
And what happens in 1993?
Congress zeroes the budget for that particle accelerator.
The science no longer has a driver, a military driver, a defense driver, and now that center of mass of particle physics moved to Europe and it moved to Switzerland.
I’d like to show you a clip.
This program, as you know, was hosted by William F. Buckley and aired for 33 years on public television.
And a guest that —
A serious legacy, by the way.
Well, you’ve restarted shows too.
You know what that’s about.
But what this show in particular, and then I’d like to get your reaction to the conversation they’re having.
It’s a conversation of — William F. Buckley has Alan Shepard, Admiral Alan Shepard on the program, the first American in space.
In 1973, he is on this program, and he is having to make the case that it was worth the cost to the American people.
I’d like to get your reaction to what he says.
Do you feel, yourself, as a scientist and as an adventurer, a kind of philosophical commitment to explore that which is there, irrespective of what the consequences of that exploration might be, did you feel that urge to simply do something because it hasn’t been done before, or do you feel — do you feel a prior requirement to justify that on the probability of its usefulness to society?
Well, I think I’ll have to answer that in this vein, that I don’t automatically buy that kind of research, that kind of investment.
The data is still coming back from the moon circling around, sampling the magnetosphere.
These are the kinds of things that we have to assess in the next five or six years.
Now, I can’t honestly say what’s going to be the answer five or six years from now.
Do we, in fact, want to go back to the moon again?
Perhaps the answer will be no.
The question in 1973 was, is it worth the cost of continuing to pay for these missions to the moon?
And scientists in every generation are the ones who are encumbered with making that defense and making the case to the American people that even though we can’t quantify it now, this will be worth the cost.
So I’d like to ask you, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, in a time in this country’s history, even global history, where there are ascendant neo-isolationist voices in the West and in this country who think that we have problems here in this country, we have problems here on Earth, why on Earth would we devote billions of dollars to going to Mars?
What is your best case for why we should invest as a country in space exploration?
So, we’re in a cave right now, right?
You’re a cavewoman and I’m a caveman, and I say, ‘I want explore mountain.’
And you say, ‘No, we have cave problems here.
First solve cave problems, then explore mountain.’
That’s hilarious, okay?
Of course we want to know what’s on the mountain, on the other side of the mountain, across the stream, across the river, across the lake.
Of course you do.
If you realize how small Earth is in the universe and say, ‘First solve the Earth problems, then we’ll take in the rest of the universe,’ that is like saying, ‘I never want to leave the cave because I have cave problems that need solving.’
That is a shortness of vision and foresight that can be the unraveling of civilization itself.
I mean, the argument you make really wrests on the knowledge of science that the public holds.
Is there a war on science?
There is — I don’t want to say there’s a war on science.
I’m gonna say there are people who think that if science disagrees with their personal philosophy, be it religious, cultural, and political philosophy, then they sort of choose to think it’s not real or is not true.
I’ve said before the good thing about science, the objective truths of science, is that they are true whether or not you believe in them.
So a major hurricane has struck the East Coast of the United States.
And this is not the first major hurricane that we’ve seen.
What does the public need to understand about extreme weather conditions and climate change?
Well, as the temperature of the Earth rises, there is more moisture in the air that is evaporated, and so, we will have more events that we would call weather events, all right, and these involve what the water molecule is doing in the air.
So it’s the new normal, and people need to get used to that or do something about it, and scientists have been warning governments for decades by now, and if you don’t heed the warnings of scientists, why have science at all?
By the way, where do we get all these great pictures of the hurricane?
From satellites, from the International Space — from space assets.
That helps us model where the hurricane is going, how fast, when it’s gonna hit, what time of day, and who should evacuate.
Tell me you don’t need space.
It’s keeping you alive.
In terms of what we’re teaching kids, though, and how children are learning about scientific literacy and learning about science, you think it’s possible that the focus on technological literacy has supplanted an important focus on scientific literacy?
That’s a great question.
I don’t have a good answer for you, but I do know, from what I’ve been able to glean, that the next generation, I guess millennials and later, born into a world with a smartphone, they all know the smartphone uses satellites and technology and complicated stuff that’s in there, and they come to the table with a level of respect that I don’t — for the science and technology that I don’t see the older generations have for it.
They’ve taken it for granted.
They think that they can just pick and choose and cherry-pick, and so I actually am quite hopeful.
How many adults say this about the next generation of kids?
I can’t wait till they’re in charge.
When they’re old enough to run things, to be captains of industry and be in Congress, I think they’ll have a different sense of what role technology needs to play in our lives.
So then that statement makes me think there’s a problem, clearly, with the adults now.
Is it that they’re scientifically illiterate?
Yes, we messed up the world, yes.
The Baby Boomers, to be clear?
I guess so, if I do the math on that.
The legions of scientifically illiterate adults have risen to become in charge of laws and legislation of this world, and it could be the unraveling of an informed democracy.
Specifically who are you talking about?
No, I’m talking about culture.
I’m talking about — if you just look at what —
Current elected leader?
No, no, no.
One doesn’t even have to be that specific.
There’s a movement of people who want to think Earth is flat.
So you know what that’s evidence of?
Are they a fringe movement or is that a majority of people?
I recently saw a survey that it might’ve been as many as 15% or 20% and — or doubt.
They either know it’s flat or doubt that it’s round.
And so, for me, that’s evidence of two things.
We live in a country that protects free speech.
So you can just say that.
And that we have an education system that has failed.
You talk about a student who fails, we can fail an education system.
They don’t know what evidence means.
They don’t know what data are.
They don’t know how to think about information and how to turn data into information, information into knowledge, knowledge into wisdom.
We say, ‘I want to be open-minded.
Maybe Earth is flat.’
You don’t want to be so open-minded that your brains spill out.
Your brains have a role in this, to contain that which is real and discard that which is not.
So truth is truth.
Objective truths are true whether or not you choose to believe in them.
In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower, President Eisenhower signed into law a National Defense Education Act.
The idea was that we were not preparing our next generation of workers to meet the national security challenges that we were going to face.
Do we need another National Defense Education Act?
One in the interest of national defense, for sure, but, really, it’s to inoculate us against stupidity.
So, there ought to be some way to put that in that acronym, a National Education Let’s Not Be Stupid Anymore Act.
Make America Smart Again?
[ Laughs ] I hate to sound that harsh.
Let me say it in a more positive way.
Curiosity and learning for many people are viewed as chores.
We all know people who, when they graduated high school, ran down the steps on graduation day and threw their notes in the air and said, ‘No more school’ and celebrated that.
If you celebrated no more school, that school failed at something.
Half of what a school what should do should get you to be enchanted and excited about learning so that you can become a lifelong learner when you leave school.
You do use this #MakeAmericaSmartAgain.
Like I said, with Flat Earthers, people don’t know that we’re warming the planet.
They’re in denial of it.
They don’t know how to read the scientific consensus that has emerged from experiments and observations and models.
There’s people who are rejecting vaccines for reasons that they think — All of this involves some level of rejection of — some or total level of rejection of mainstream science.
It seems like a direct contrast to President Trump’s tagline ‘Make America great again.’
Well, I think you can’t become great unless we remind ourselves what it is to be smart.
You know, we didn’t get to the moon by being dumb.
We didn’t get to the moon by thinking Earth was flat.
We didn’t get to the moon by rejecting what scientists tell us.
I’ve tweeted that our greatest risk of extinction in this world is not a runaway virus or asteroids or anything that we’ve been talking about.
It is people in charge not heeding the warnings of scientists.
That is the greatest risk of extinction we face.
Let me ask you about people in charge heeding the warnings of scientists.
You’re a public intellectual, an esteemed scientist.
I don’t think of myself that way, but I’m called that.
An esteemed scientist that people listen to because of your knowledge and your expertise in astrophysics.
How do you decide, as somebody with a very public facing platform, when to engage in politics and when to engage with those public figures and when to just stick to the science?
I never do.
You never decide?
Largely I don’t engage elected officials.
When do you —
I just don’t.
You don’t directly engage them.
Your idea is to engage the public.
The public votes them into office.
I’m talking to the public.
So, if there’s a member of Congress who thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, it’s because their electorate thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old.
Or thinks it doesn’t matter whether they’re right or wrong about the Earth being 6,000 years old.
There are plenty of jobs you can have in this world if you think Earth is 6,000 years old, but if you think that, you shouldn’t be head of NASA or head of the National Science Foundation or on a science committee.
But you can be a member of Congress.
So, I’m not going to fault someone in Congress for thinking any one way or another if they represent a community of people in this country.
So, as an educator, I turn around and face the people in this country and I say, ‘If you think this is science, but it’s not, then you –‘ it’s an if-then statement — ‘then you are crippling the future economic growth of your region, of your state, and ultimately, if you have more power than that, of the nation itself.’
Because innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economies.
They’ve always been and they will continue to be.
So when do you engage on the public policy?
I can make suggestions to people.
I can say, ‘If you do this, this will happen, and if you don’t do that, that’ll happen.’
Then I go home.
I don’t debate people.
You don’t debate people, but you wade in to the public policy.
You do wade in to the policy a little bit.
Like when you say that the Trump administration must not believe in science because they’ve pulled out the Paris climate accord.
That’s wading into politics.
If you pull out because you think we are not responsible for warming the Earth, you are scientifically ignorant.
That is not a political statement.
That’s a statement about your knowledge of science, and so, if — I am not being political, if I’m making a scientific statement that someone thinks is political.
No, I’m just speaking science here.
It’s entirely possible that President Trump believes in climate change.
I agree with that.
But just chose to pull out of the Paris climate accords…
For other reasons, yes.
…for economic reasons.
Yeah, if he said, ‘We’re pulling out because yeah, I agree the Earth is warming, but I don’t think it’s gonna –‘ he could come up with any other reason.
He came up with an economic reason — 2.7 million jobs we lost by 2025, and that’s why we’re gonna pull out.
Then that’s being — I can’t judge whether we will actually lose or gain jobs because I’m not that expert.
But if you’re gonna deny science — if you’re gonna make a decision that’s opposite what science will tell you to do, at least be honest about it.
If you lean left or right, if that is the normal political process that hasn’t been happening, ’cause people are debating whether the science is accurate.
Or the science has been politicized.
They’ve cherry-picked science for their own political arguments, and that’s tragic.
For a guy who’s written a book about how the great investments — federal investments — in science and space exploration have come when there’s military conflict, I would think that the idea of space force might actually generate more progress in the field of astrophysics.
Yeah, it probably would.
But a space force, we kind of already have a space force.
It’s a branch under the Air Force.
It’s called U.S. Space Command.
So if you make a space force, what it will do is it will shift — it’s like an accounting shift — shifts all of these space activities out from under the Air Force, puts them under a new umbrella, but it would localize and sharpen how people are thinking about command and control in space.
And it is likely that there will be advances that would benefit astrophysics.
I think there are people who are looking to some of our geopolitical adversaries and noticing that they are upping their game in the space race.
The Chinese, they’re spending about $11 billion a year to the U.S.’s $48 billion in space.
So, while they are certainly an ascendant power, it seems to me that, you know, it’s quite possible that this is just a mounting space race that we’re starting with China the American people aren’t aware of.
It could be.
That’s a perceptive point.
It could be.
If you feel threatened by someone else who’s putting up more satellites than you or who might have a moon base and you don’t, then the reaction would be, ‘Well, we want to do that too,’ and then you step up your game.
I know that Russia was a sworn enemy of us, and we had bombs pointing at one another.
That’s not really the case between us and China.
It’s not — you know, we’re friends.
We share, you know, commerce.
Half the stuff we wear is made in China, and there’s — we are economically co-mingled on a level that makes it very hard for me to think of them as an enemy, ever, contrary to how we thought of the Soviet Union throughout the entire Cold War.
So, I can tell you this.
If we knew that China wants to put military bases on Mars, we’ll be on Mars in 10 months.
One month to fund, design, and build a spaceship, and nine months to send it there.
You don’t think there’s anything adversarial or antagonistic about some of China’s geopolitical movements around the world?
There’s been a long history of concern about Chinese interests, and you write about it in your book.
Yeah, I’m not entirely certain.
And so, if you’re worried about them getting the edge up, then we ought to boost our investment as well.
A little bit of competition is kind of good, you know?
It puts a flame under your butt to get you to participate in ways you might not have otherwise done so because you don’t want to lose the edge that you once had.
Although we have already sort of lost that.
We’re hitchhiking to the moon now.
Actually we’re buying the seat.
I wish it was hitchhiking.
It’d be cheaper.
Hitchhiking is a free seat.
We’re spending $50 million — whatever the last number is — just to get back to our own — the space station that we’re kind of the landlords of, right?
This — This — Yeah, we’ve lost our mojo.
We may have lost our mojo, but it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve lost our edge in terms of dominance.
But we could, and I think that’s something that I think —
Where do you get your dominance?
Is it, ‘Let me line up the troops on the border and count my troops and see how dominant I am’? We’re in a different era of conflict where it’s not how many bombs or missiles are in your silo.
It’s how many scientists and engineers are in your silo.
How many cryptographers do you have?
How about cyberspace?
Think of a cyber force.
If someone wants to disrupt us, are they gonna send troops to the border like in the movie ‘Red Dawn,’ or are they gonna go into orbit and disrupt our communication satellites, our banking satellites, our GPS satellites, which will then affect hundreds of billions of dollars worth of commerce.
That’s the new future of warfare.
For many of us, our vision of space was influenced by programs like ‘Star Trek,’ which have this wonderful vision of humankind uniting in space.
Given these looming conflicts we have, do you share that optimistic vision about the future of space?
Yeah, so, I have my own little optimistic angle, which is some fraction of all wars that have ever been fought — I don’t know what that number is — is a third?
Is it a half?
Some fraction arose because of competition for limited resources on Earth.
Space has unlimited resources, unlimited energy, unlimited minerals.
You mine an asteroid, you have all the precious metals you need, you would ever want for industry, for jewelry, for any next frontier of exploration that would require it.
So I’m wondering.
If the full exploration of space, turning space into our backyard, becomes a daily reality, then there’s no longer any competition for resources, no longer any wars over who has access to something one person wants and the other has.
So it may be that the greatest force of peace in this world is the exploration of space itself.
And that gives me hope each time.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’
Thanks for having me.
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