Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Writing, Mars, Curiosity, and the Higgs Boson
Neil deGrasse Tyson Interviewed by Sandra Kitt
Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2013
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Dr. Tyson is the first African American to head the Planetarium, or any major scientific department at the Museum. Neil Tyson grew up in Riverdale and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He received his PhD from Columbia, and did a three year post doc at Princeton where he is still on the faculty. He is a teacher in astronomy and astrophysics at Princeton, the author of ten books, and a frequent guest on late night TV. It was announced on August 5, 2011, that Tyson will be hosting a new sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage television series.
Dr. Tyson is also very vocal about science education and the need for students to seriously consider STEM field professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) so that America can move into the future prepared for the challenges and possibilities. In 2001, US President George W. Bush appointed Tyson to serve on the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry and in 2004 to serve on the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy, the latter better known as the "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" commission. Soon afterward he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by NASA.
Here author Sandra Kitt talks to Dr. Tyson during an exclusive interview for AALBC.com
Sandra Kitt: Any thoughts on what you might have become if you hadn’t been so fascinated with astronomy at nine?
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: Just before I said I wanted to be an astronomer I said I wanted to be a baseball player. I was quite athletic at the time, probably because I was bigger than other kids, and if you’re bigger than other kids and you’re 11 you win everything (laugh). I can tell you that in my modern life I enjoy language. I enjoy words, their meaning, what they sound like to the ear, what they sound like to the listener. I strive to write the perfect sentence in all that I do, and when I write [the] perfect sentence I know it. if I had a second life I’d be a librettist for Broadway musicals (laugh).
SK: When did you first begin to realize that you also enjoyed writing?
Dr. Tyson with author Sandra Kitt
NT: I wrote a column for Star Date magazine. Which was published out of the University of Texas. It started out as a newsletter. It was a question and answer column for them. This is where I decided, sure, I can answer any question you have about the universe, but that’s no fun. I could send you to page 12 of the encyclopedia. Today I’d just send you to Wikipedia if it’s just an answer. So, I just wanted to have more fun with it. So someone might ask, how hot is the sun? Rather than just give a temperature I might say something like, well if you visited the sun in flameproof underwear (laughing) and pulled out your thermometer, you’d get this reading. In a book or an essay that I might write for a magazine if you lose someone along the way they put it down. And you don’t know if they’ll ever pick it up again. So I try to write in a way where you care deeply what the next paragraph will be. I hear the rhythm of prose and that, to me, distinguishes great writing from ordinary writing. By the way, I don’t even claim that I’m good. I claim that I value it. So I’m not writing for myself. I’m writing as an educator, I’m writing to stimulate others.
SK: Have teachers contacted you to say they use your book(s), or some of your articles to work with students?NT: All the time. It’s primary my videos. I hosted NOVA Science Now, a spinoff from PBS NOVA. PBS NOVA is like 60 minutes of a single topic. NOVA Science Now, it’s a different format where there is a ten minute segment, and then another 10 minute segment. There’s nothing a teacher likes better than (laughing) ten minute videos. It’s not the whole class, but it’s not too short, it’s enough to wrap a lesson plan around. It’s all science, or science investigation, so most of the comments I get from teachers relate to videos they’ve seen or video clips that they’ve used to stimulate further conversation in class. Here’s what they don’t know, there’s hardly anything I’ve ever said publically, in a video, hardly anything that I did not first write down and think about what words I was using, think about who the audience is and who I position the flow of information.
SK: For almost fifteen years you’ve hosted and moderated the Asimov Lecture Series at the American Museum of Natural History. I’ve attended most of the lectures, and I’ve seen you work the stage and the audience. There is usually 5 or 6 scientists on stage with you. I’ve always been amazed at your ability to keep focused on 5 or 6 points of view and then coming back at any given moment and asking a question…keeping all the balls in the air. How do you do that?NT: (Laughing) Thanks for noticing that. There are two kinds of comments that I get. One is, oh, you’re such a natural up there, and the other one is, you’re working hard up there. And the ones who say I’m working hard are teachers, they’re the educators; they’re the people who are the performers. It’s a huge investment of my psycho-emotional energy to pull that off and to make it look smooth.
SK: I read something in which you say it’s amazing that “…in the first year of a child’s life we teach them to walk and talk. And then for the rest of their lives we want them to sit down and be quiet.” We [seem to] get to the point where we’re not really encouraging children, and I don’t mean academically but, why do you think this happens?
NT: Curiosity is missing. Curiosity in particular is something that the system, not only the educational system but, the parental…what you do as a parent at home. Curiosity is unknown. All adults were once kids and once curious, but as adults you don’t remember that and you see curiosity when it’s expressed in children as a pathway to household disaster. They’re simply exploring their environment, manifesting their curiosity. So what you need to do is create an environment where curiosity is rewarded rather than punished, or thwarted. And I think that’s really, at the risk of over-simplifying, the problem. Curiosity is a self-driven motivation to explore and to learn. Learning is like…you know, you have to take your medicine. And that is what it has become. And that’s unfortunate.
SK: As a science educator do you have any thoughts on ways to get back to instilling not just learning but teaching children to be curious and to explore, and to think, and to question?NT: Yeah, questioning is another thing we don’t promote. If you don’t question you’re stuck within a pre-existing parameters of knowledge. Questions are what take you outside of those parameters. So only when you question does society move or advance at all. I am researching right now on childhood science literacy. I don’t have enough confidence yet to make assertions as to what people should or shouldn’t do. Everything I know about drivers of these ambitions (curiosity and questioning) tells me that if NASA were fully funded and advancing a space frontier then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Because, if NASA were advancing a space frontier there would be challenges you’ve never seen before. You have to be creative and you have to patent some new idea. You get to Mars…well, how do we get the water from the soil? I gotta invent a new device that will do that. And the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, how can we use that? Can we breathe the oxygen from the carbon dioxide? When you’re advancing a frontier it stimulates creativity to find solutions, particularly when the mission statement, and in NASA’s case it’s a literal mission, is something that is tantalizing, something that can capture your imagination and your ambitions. The aerospace engineer…all the traditional sci-tech fields…what we need to promote of interest, they’re all naturally part of the NASA portfolio.
SK: So why aren’t they (NASA) making the connection between their goals and education, and the future?NT: Because NASA was invented as a response to Cold War steps. There are those who presumed that we went to the moon because we’re explorers. We went to the moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union. And so when it became clear that they (Soviet Union) were not going to the moon, we’re done with the moon. People say, oh we just need charismatic leaders to continue on to Mars. Now we’ve gone to the moon, of course Mars is next. No. Mars was never, of course, next. It is next if you think we went to the moon because we’re explorers, but if you know we went to the moon because we were at war then we’re never going to Mars. There’s no military reason to do it, to justify the expenditure. But when NASA makes discoveries they are profound and they make headlines, everyone takes notice. It drives dialogue and, today, it would drive the blogosphere. It would drive the projects the kids do in school. So you wouldn’t even need programs to try and stimulate curiosity. You wouldn’t need programs to try to convince people that science literacy is good. Because they’re going to want to participate on this epic adventure that we call space exploration. It will stimulate people to either want to become STEM professionals or, if not, you’ll enter some other field but you’ll be STEM influenced. You could be a novelist, but maybe your next novel will be a space novel.
SK: It sounds like it would be natural. One thing follows the other?NT: Exactly. And you innovate in ways that stoke your economy. Because innovations in science and technology are the engines of 21st century economies. All the great advances in cinema came about from technology. The 3-D camera was not invented by a movie director. The new industries are driven by the innovations in science and technology. When NASA dreams big the country dreams big. People…kids say, ‘I want to do that when I grow up’. Because you want to do what’s visible to you.
SK: At the Rose Center and the Hayden Planetarium are you still bringing the universe down to Earth? Or, are you getting the audience to think about us going out there?NT: When we rebuilt it [The Hayden Planetarium] and it became the Rose Center we focused primarily on the advance of science, not specifically on the advance of space exploration. It was an editorial decision to not bring space hardware into the facility and try to duplicate the Air and Space Museum in Washington, which you could never do. What we knew that we could do, and sustain and curate over the years, was a facility that would track the moving frontier of scientific discovery. It doesn’t mean we can’t talk to the topic but as far as our exhibits go it’s not about going into space.
SK: You do a radio talk show called Star Talk. Tell me about it.NT: “Star Talk” is a broadcast radio program. It’s got about a dozen, fifteen stations across the country. After each broadcast it’s posted on a download site where you can download the radio show, but in that state it’s called a podcast. Right now it’s downloaded for free. We’re still running on monies from the National Science Foundation, which was a starter grant to try and make this work. It’s a radio show on science. I said, let’s invert the model (NPR where a journalist is the host interviewing a scientist), and have the host be the scientist, and the guest is not a scientist. The guest is honed from pop culture and the conversation is about any and all ways science may have influenced that person’s career. The value of this is the guest has a fan base that typically follows them wherever they are. Their fan base then follows them to a science talk show. I had Josh Groban, a singer. I said what percent of your audience are women and he said it fluctuates but it’s typically around 103% (laughing). We talked about science in his life. [Did] you know he won his elementary school science fair? This came out in the…that’s the whole point [of the program].
I interviewed Morgan Freeman. He’s hosting a science program now on the science channel [Through the Wormhole]….he grew up in Mississippi and could look out at the stars from his porch, always wondered what was going on out there, so we got to have that conversation. I Interviewed Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek. Did you know she wanted to be a singer, hoofer on Broadway? Her first year on Star Trek she said, this is just so I can pay my rent this year. I’m going back to Broadway. Until she met Martin Luther King at a fund raising party for the NAACP in Los Angeles, and he heard she was leaving the show. He said, you can’t do that. You can’t leave the show. You have a presence. You’re fourth in command on the ship. You’re female and you’re Black, this is without precedence in the history of television.
SK: Is Star Talk successful?
NT: It’s growing steadily, not exponentially but it’s growing monthly. Because of the budget limitation in the original grant proposal we said we’re going to market it through my social networks, my Facebook, Twitter. I’m about to hit 800,000 Twitter followers [928,092 as of Jan1st 2013].
SK: You’ve developed another career. You’ve been on Jimmy Fallon, Colbert…NT: Yeah, all those guys. I did Colbert nine times… Well it’s tough. There’s a whole preparation for that…that I’m mentally ready. Hyperkinetic, actually.
SK: But it’s good. You’re reaching another audience.NT: At StarTalkRadio.net (laughs). And my Twitter handle is just Neil Tyson, @neiltyson.
SK: Back to science. The Higgs Boson particle. Tell me what the discovery was, why it was important, and how do scientists feel about the fact that it’s portrayed as The God Particle?NT: The particle wields more power in the particle kingdom than other particles do. It came to be know as the God particle just because of the power that it had. What it does is sets up a field where, if you’re a particle moving through that field, it decides how much mass you have. It does that by creating resistance to your motion through the field. One of the ways you can say if something has high mass is if you try to push it and it’s hard to push. It’s harder to push a van than it is to try and push a tricycle. So you say to yourself, this [van] is heavier. The physics way to say it is that it has more mass. Now you have particles and you’re blindfolded and I push this particle and it’s very hard, and I push that particle and it’s very easy. I make a measurement and I say this has the higher mass and this has a lower mass. This Higgs field interacts with these particles in such a way that it give it a mass for its behavior as it moves through [the field]. That’s what it does. It gives particles mass. This is a perfect analogy…I’ve yet to find a flaw in this analog. If you’re at a party in Hollywood and you’re some third string actor and you walk in no one is going to stop you for your autograph, so you can just move through the party unhindered, you come and go…no one even notices. You’re Tom Cruise and you enter the party then people collect around you and it’s much harder for you to move through the party. A-listers have high party mass (laughing), there’s a party field that grants party mass based on your celebrity level. It’s the exact same thing.
SK: You have a new book out?NT: Yes, Space Chronicles; Facing the Ultimate Frontier. That’s not the title I submitted it with. It was originally titled Failure to Launch: The dreams and delusions of space enthusiasts.
SK: Have you thought about writing a children’s or young adult book?NT: That’s a excellent question, thank you for asking. There’s a book called, On The Day You Were Born…it’s a children’s book, illustrated…written in the 1990s (written by Debra Fraiser). It’s a narrative of all the things going on in the world and in the universe on the day you wee born. So, the Arctic Tern fly three hundred miles that day…the polar bear migrated…and Earth went this many miles around the sun. And I said, that’s the book I would have written…so I’m not compelled to write another children’s book. Because [this one] combines simple story telling, with real science and nature.
SK: You also did a book with Donald Goldsmith called Origins. It reminds me of a project that Asimov did in 1989 called Beginnings. It was exactly the same premise, from the Big Bang to the present day.
NT: Actually, any title you come up with Asimov has a book about it (laughing).
Sandra Kitt, the author of nearly 40 published novels worked for many years with Dr. Tyson as the Managing Director of the research library in astronomy and astrophysics at the Hayden.
Sandra was able to get the notoriously busy Dr. Tyson to agree to a sit-down conversation where he weighed in, with humor, on the Mars Mission, baseball, curiosity, Isaac Asimov, Tom Cruise, Higgs Boson, and writing.
You may learn more about Ms. Kitt at www.sandrakitt.com