Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist. He’s a cosmologist. He’s an author and an educator. He’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium. And, as the heir apparent to Carl Sagan, he’s a cultural juggernaut. Appearances on programs like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, not to mention his presenting of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (a reboot of Sagan’s show) and his StarTalk podcast, have launched him into the mainstream orbit, from which he’s yet to come down. He’s using his cult-like following to rekindle Americans’ love of scientific inquiry and exploration—one pop-culture reference at a time. Before he speaks at Manhattanville College on September 9, as part of the Castle Conversations series, we caught up with Dr. Tyson to talk about science in America.
Q: You take complex subjects and, without dumbing them down, make them digestible and understandable for the average person. Is that a skill that you had to hone over the years, or is it innate?
A: There is hardly anything out there that can be justifiably called innate. My goal as an educator is to communicate. Why not learn what is going on in the mind of the audience? Are they older? Are they younger? Do they lean conservative? Do they lean liberal? Are they religious? Are they fans? Were they dragged there? All of this matters, and it affects how I communicate information. It affects what words I use and what examples I’ll be giving to help people understand one idea or another. What everybody has in common is that we all live in a world with some level of shared pop culture. So I value knowing pop culture on a level that empowers me to reach for it at a time and in a moment when a subject can be enhanced with it. Then I don’t have to till that soil; you came with your pop-culture soil already tilled.
Q: It seems like there’s a dichotomy in America where, on one hand, there’s a huge interest in science, and people like yourself and Bill Nye can amass such popularity, yet, on the other hand, NASA’s funding continues to be depleted, and there’s still debate on how science should be approached in schools. How do you view that?
A: Most of the science enthusiasm is centered around millennials, who are very aware of my existence. They’ve all seen Cosmos. They’ve seen me on The Daily Show and those sorts of things. They are not yet old enough to be senators and members of Congress and president. So, perhaps this is a movement coming up in the ranks. It’s not even a Republican/Democrat thing. It’s just, ‘What should the world be?’ So you get a community of people embracing science without the political baggage that older generations want to give to it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson interviews Bill Nye on his podcast, Star Talk.
Q: Jumping off of that, you’ve been active in the discussion on climate change. When will that ‘debate’ stop being a debate?
A: It’s all part of the same portfolio of attitudes. In that sense, it’s not a dichotomy within the same demographic, which means time ought to resolve this.
Q: Does it surprise you when science becomes politicized, like with climate change?
A: No, not when I look at how science is taught in schools. It’s taught as a body of information, rather than a way of knowing. And maybe you need some of both, but the way of knowing part is clearly not there. Because if you learned what science is, how it works, and why it works, and if that becomes part of science curriculum, then you would never have anyone as an adult—who had that training K through 12—cherry-picking the emergent consensus of scientific research in the interest of their politics, or religion, or culture, or their philosophies. Because that’s not how science works.
Q: Do you think that will be shifting soon?
A: Not yet. People are fighting about what science at all gets put in the classroom, rather than what is the nature of the instruction that goes on in the face of it. So, I don’t see that changing soon.
Q: On a lighter note, you caused a stir when you tweeted about Gravity and Interstellar. Is there any type of sci-fi TV show or movie that is a guilty pleasure of yours that you can watch without letting the science get in the way?
A: Most movies, I don’t criticize their science. Most. It’s only if you really put in a lot of effort to be correct, then I’m going to be looking to see how well you did. But if you made no attempt to get the science right, like in Star Wars, for example, then I’m not chasing after you and commenting on your science, because it’s pointless. I enjoyed the film Armageddon, even though it probably would get the award for violating the most known laws of physics and technology. But it was so entertainingly written, and the characters were so well delineated.
Q: What is Dr. Tyson like when not talking about science or making appearances?
A: I’m only talking about science when people ask me, or if I’m writing a book or writing a tweet. My wife and I go to the theater often: dance, music, and typically orchestral classical music, but especially plays and musicals.