Neil De Grasse Tyson, 55, doesn’t look like the late Carl Sagan, but in many ways he is. Like Sagan, he possesses the rare gift of making complex science accessible to the average Joe.
Since Tyson helped bring back “Cosmos, A Space Time Odyssey,” Sagan’s popular 1980s TV show, ratings have been huge – not to mention the show was just nominated for 12 Emmys.
Tyson, sometimes controversial, is also colorful. He lobbied to have Pluto stripped of its planet status. He also says he doesn’t doubt existence of life other than ours, possibly intelligent, but doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to support it having visited Earth as a UFO. “The next time you’re abducted, steal something off the ship or get the alien in a headlock and bring it into the street,” he jokes.
And, for all his interest in the stars, the director of American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium has none in taking a tourist flight with an upstart private space company like Virgin Galactic. “I like the idea of being weightless,” he says, “but the notion that they’re taking you to space needs refinement. To me space is the moon, Mars or beyond.”
Following are more excerpts from our fascinating chat. You can see why the man and his show are so popular.
JC: You have a way of making science easy.
NDT: Maybe it isn’t that complex to begin with. The first time I explained something in any important way was in eighth grade math learning matrices. It seemed so simple how to use and manipulate them. But I also remembered not understanding them initially. So when I saw others struggling, I thought, “maybe they are not thinking in the same pathways I am.” I realized there are pathways of thought that might not be obvious to some, and when you learn of them you can make acquiring knowledge much easier. I realized the more ways I thought about how I knew things, the more useful it could be to others still struggling. In other words, there is a difference between those who learn instantly, and those who struggle. I don’t know that the first group would be as useful in teaching others.
JC: What’s the dumbest question you’ve been asked?
NDT: I once showed an image of the asteroid striking Earth that took out the dinosaurs. You see Pterodactyl in the atmosphere, a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the ground. Someone in the front row asked, “Is that an actual photograph?” But that particular question stands alone. Others, even if at first sound don’t seem good, I turn into good answers. There is always a place I can take someone’s curiosity and land where they end up enlightened. No one is dumb who is curious. The people who don’t ask questions remain clueless throughout their lives.
JC: American kids are behind in science and math. What’s to be done?
NDT: The problem is not scientifically illiterate kids – it is scientifically illiterate adults. Kids are born curious. They are always turning over rocks, jumping with two feet into mud puddles and playing with the tablecloth and fine china. What do we say as adults? “Don’t touch the tablecloth; don’t jump in the puddle or you’ll get your clothing dirty.” These activities by children are explorations of the natural world around them. Adults, who outnumber kids four or five to one, are in charge. We wield the resources, run the world – and completely thwart kids’ creativity. So the problem is not the scientifically illiterate kid. The public – the electorate – needs to understand causes and effects of actions and inactions, [and have] a better knowledge of how science works. Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.
JC: Should we go back to the moon first, then on to Mars – or directly to Mars?
NDT: Destinations distract. “Where should we go first?” implies that space is a sequence of priorities rather than access being the priority itself. NASA is underfunded, but I will not prioritize spending in an underfunded budget. And as long as NASA is underfunded, it implies that space is a luxury item in the spending on national priorities. I don’t think it’s luxury – it’s fundamental to things at the top of the list of our economic health. My goal would be to have the country build a fleet of launch vehicles that can take us anywhere – the moon, Mars, asteroids – for whatever the need is at the time – mining, touristic, militaristic, scientific or security. We didn’t build the interstate system to connect New York to Los Angeles because the west coast was a priority. We webbed highways so people can go multiple places and invent ways of doing things not thought of by persons building the roads. Highways build capacity into your country; the creativity of citizenry exploits it. So we should be able go to all places in space at the same time by whatever means the needs and urges of the sectors choose.