Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Conducted by Christopher Thielen for Episode 46.

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C: On this episode we have the privilege of speaking with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, director of the Haden Planetarium, host of PBS’ NOVA ScienceNow. The very first topic I want to bring up with you is, [that] you call yourself an agnostic. I know you didn’t go into this – it seems like, on your Wikipedia page, the public first just called you an atheist, and you had to respond to it. And I know you’ve spoken about this before but why is the distinction important to you? Especially as a public figure?

N: Well, I’m not so much concerned with the definition, the formal definition of the word atheist, and the formal definition of the word agnostic. What concerns me is the behavior of people who call themselves those words, because that becomes the definition of the word. Of course, the dictionary really doesn’t define words, it describes the words as they are used in society, and hence you have the evolution of words in the English language. Of course, we know some other languages that don’t tolerate the movement of words from one meaning to another, but in English, that is not only tolerated, it’s in fact ultimately embraced. So, when I see people who say they’re atheists and the energy that they invest in that fact – that’s just simply not me. There’s got to be some other word for someone who really just simply doesn’t care on that level. And so, agnostic seemed to be something a little more accurate given my actual behavior in the presence of these philosophies.

C: So if what you say comes off as atheistic to someone, that’s just peripheral to something else you’re trying to get across? The label’s not important basically?

N: I don’t like labels because it’s an excuse for not thinking about the thoughts that the other person has. It ignores what might be nuances or information that lingers at the boundary of the parameters that the other person defines for that category. So, the only -ist that I am is a scientist, and the only -ism that I am – I don’t even think I’m an -ism.

The people who see a few things that I say or do, they say “Oh he’s a this, or he’s a that”, then label it – and I’m thinking, what are you doing?

C: Just trying to survive?

N: And not only that – if you look carefully at the arguments I’ve given; most of them now are just scattered all over YouTube, but if you actually listen carefully, I’m at no point expressing an opinion. It may feel that way, because I think I have a lot of energy when I’m in front of an audience, but it’s not about my opinion. It’s about what is going on in life and I think the most viewed among YouTube [videos] that I’ve put out there that I think people associate with atheism or religion or spirituality was my presentation at the Beyond Belief Conference in 2006 – this was in San Diego – and we talked about intelligent design; it was freshly in the news because of the Dover Pennsylvania case, and I simply said that intelligent design, if you think of it as someone reached the limits of their knowledge and then invoking the hand of something intelligent than they, historically that simply would have been God – there’s plenty of precedent for that among the world’s most famous scientists throughout history. It’s not a new thought to think that God has something to do with the Universe beyond the understanding that humans have been able to muster. Part of the talk was to present that fact and not sweep it under the rug, and then [to] say that intelligent design, since it embraces the ignorance beyond your limits of understanding … it cannot possibly, when expressed that way, serve a philosophy of discovery, which is what science is about. Science is about taking the unknown and figuring it out.

C: Right.

N: Intelligent design as presented in the Dover trial, and as is widely discussed, takes what is unknown and then doesn’t try to figure it, says we can’t figure it out, and ascribes it to a higher intelligence. End of story. So all I said was, it’s not science, therefore, it does not belong in the science classroom. If you want to put it somewhere, fine, put it in philosophy class, or history class, or religion class. It’s not science. That entire argument, which summaries the thirty minute talk, does not contain an opinion. There’s not an opinion there. Science is about discovery [and] intelligent design does not lead to discovery. It is not science.

C: It’s an endpoint.

N: It’s not an opinion. Period. So people said, “ Oh he’s an atheist! Let’s make him an atheist!” and they put him in my Wiki page. I was fascinated by that. I said no, I’m not really that, I’m more agnostic, and they changed it back to atheist. What intrigues me is the urge to claim me in the movement, when I don’t even write about this stuff. In fact, the extent to which I have addressed it occupies maybe 1/2% of my total speeches and writings. Maybe 1/2% and is 98 1/2% the Universe? But what happens is these bits get clipped, put on YouTube and that’s what people gravitate to. So if you do the YouTube statistics of my output, it looks like I’m 40% arguing about intelligent design when I really don’t care. Just keep it out of the science classroom, what you do with it after that, I don’t have the time, the interest, the energy to fight it. You’re not going to see me debating religious people. You’re not going to see me marching. You’re not going to see me picketing. I’d rather just get people thinking accurately and honestly from the get-go, and what they do with their mind after that is their business.

C: Does it matter then, if – you’ve talked about how a certain percentage of scientists, if you reduce it down to the beliefs of Deists, you know, have some sort of belief in a higher power – do you think it doesn’t matter? It’s not necessarily important if they believe in a deity or not, you don’t think it somehow poisons the research, or can poison the research, or is that simply up to the individual and how they apply those beliefs?

N: You don’t have to widdle it down to just the Deists. They’re plenty of people who are beyond what we would call deists, who ascribe much more of what is going on in the world to their religious principles, and, yes, many of them can be and have been and are productive scientists. You’ve seen the numbers. It’s 40% of scientists in America claim a personal God to whom they pray to intercede with the affairs of their lives. These are not deists. This is another level. What matters here – here’s what’s interesting and doesn’t get discussed, let’s take Francis Collins for example: he’s a born-again Christian, I’m sure he prays every night and prays before he eats meals and does all of this – he is not running around saying that the Universe is 10,000 years old or that the Universe was created in 6 days, right? Data matters to him. However he has split this in his mind, he has split it in such a way that he can continue to be a productive scientist. Period. I’m okay with that. I’ve nothing to fight there. I can have a conversation with him about it, then it’s just out of curiosity, but I’m not trying to fight him, I’m not trying to stop him. As long as he can be a productive scientist, fine. And there is a threshold beyond which the extent to which you ascribe to religious doctrines can interfere with you being a scientist, and then that’s a problem. Then you’re disenfranchised from the enterprise of science, and I think that’s unfortunate for some home-schooled children who are kept out of mainstream schools because their parents are afraid of the influence evolution might have on them. I think the fastest rising demographic in the home-schooled community is the religious community, and it may be as many as half of all home-schooled children are home-schooled for religious reasons. If that’s the case, this is a population of students who’ll not be a part of the enterprise of science and discovery as we go into the future, and in a pluralistic elective democracy, that’s how this plays out, that’s how those chips fall.

C: Is that then the fault of the individual parent and their expression of their religion, not necessarily religion itself? Not the doctrine causing the home-schooling?

N: When you say fault, fault of what? I was just stating fact, I wasn’t saying fault or anything. There’s a cause and effect there, so if you want to say, “ Is it the fault of parents that there could be a generation of parents who will not be scientists?”, yes, then, if that’s how you set up the sentence, it is the fault of the parents for that fact. However, the parents can only control them through high school, they’ll go onto college. College is another universe there. If they still like religion, they can major in theology, but then, in theology in college, you learn about all religions. That can be eye-opening for some people.

C: Sure, but isn’t their early education very formative?

N: It can be but you spend many more years post-early education than you do pre-early education. Some people are born poor and you have to work that. Some people are born in the middle of nowhere and don’t have resources to museums. There’s a lot of circumstances under which people are born and fortunately you live many more years away from home than you do within your home, or under the influence of the parent. Some people are born in households where the parents don’t get along and they’re fighting all the time and they’re completely useless in terms of upbringing. That’s the free society that we live in here and we’ve all bought into it. You do your best after that fact, if you can, but you don’t have control beforehand.

My great disappointment is that there’s not a national curriculum. There’s sort of one: the National Science Foundation has education standards that they’re put out for every grade throughout all of your K-12 experience, but it’s constitutionally ordained, forgive the word, that the Federal government cannot interfere with state schools. Education is local, not national, and that means regionally you can declare that something is or isn’t what you want your kids to learn. That’s the way it’s happened.

C: That’s good. Let’s talk about science education. So, you think that would be one specific plan – let’s back up. You do think there’s a people with science education in America, right?

N: I think there’s a problem with education in America, and science education is an element of that.

C: So you [said] standards on the Federal level is one way to address that?

N: We have them, they just can’t be enforced. The National Science Foundation has standards, and that’s Federal, right, tax money pays for it, and they have standards. Okay, it’s a matter of your choice if you want to adopt them. Those standards are put together by a very hard-working team of educators and scientists. I’ve seen the standards and I might have done a few differently here and there, but that’s just details, overall they’re quite sound. They stress how to think more than just simply memorizing facts about what science knows. That’s an important distinction between science literacy and just being a science parrot, memorizing facts to spit back on an exam.

C: Right, the testing culture. Just out of fun curiosity, do you have a favorite science experiment you can recall from your elementary school days?

N: I think science experiments are overrated, because you’re just doing what the instructions tell you to do. True experiments are where you don’t know what results you’re going to get, and you even necessarily know what next steps you’re going to take, so it becomes an exercise in exploration, rather than following instructions like you’re in the kitchen baking a cake. I think science kits that you would buy your kids, is an overrated experience for what it is to achieve science literacy in the country. You might as well just take them in the kitchen, and in the end you have cake to eat! Same difference, and there’s a lot of interesting chemistry that goes on in the baking of foods.

C: So what they really need is an environment of curiosity?

N: Exactly.

C: Is there a way to institutionalize that?

N: Yes, there is. I’m thinking through that right now, which might ultimately end up in a book, but there are people who care about that, about the environment the kids are immersed in.

C: Do you think the people with education in America is a larger cultural issue, in that maybe curiosity is not valued as much?

N: Yes, that’s correct, that’s at the heart of it. Curiosity as well as ambition, these are two things not coded for in the exams that are currently being given, and anybody who’s truly successful as an adult had an abundance of curiosity and ambition. The most successful adults who are out there, outside of academia, so let’s talk about actors and poets and journalists and performers – people who really shake the culture in which we live – I invite you to do the experiment, ask them if any of them got straight As throughout school, and the answer is going to be none of them. You know this. That includes CEOs and entrepreneurs and all these folks. There’s something different that goes on in that mind, which is thinking in ways that is not regimented. There’s an old saying, if you only ever learn what your teacher knows, then society would never progress. At some point, you have to think in a way that’s different from how your teacher thinks, otherwise we’d all still be living in the caves. It’s that capacity to think differently, that doesn’t always lead to the highest grades.

The people that I’ve seen, who are the greatest shakers and movers of society, who’s names we can recite in a list of fame and fortune – these are people who are not the ones that their teachers said “You’re my best student” or “You have the highest grade” or “You’re the valedictorian” or “You’re going to give the valedictorian speech” or “You’re going to go to the honors class”. We have all these rewards for these people, and they’re not the ones who actually shape society, interestingly enough.

C: Do you think it’s the format of the classroom itself? Would you go so far as to say just getting thirty kids together to listen for eight hours is not a good format?

N: I’m still working on what the best solutions are here, which will end up in this book, which is still not, for a few years away – so I’m resistant to discuss what are at the moment, partially baked thoughts. You might say “How about this?” [but] I haven’t thought about that yet. Typically, when I’m speaking publicly, it’s because I’ve really thought it through, and in almost all cases I’ve written about it, it’s been peer reviewed, even published, and so, I tell you I’m working on it because you [asked that], but I’m not prepared to give you a list –

C: That’s okay.

N: I’m just not there yet. We can have this again in two years and I’ll be all over it.

C: You’ve talked about how neuroscience might show the awe an astrophysicist feels at the Universe is similar to maybe the reverence awe of the monk –

N: Similar in the sense that it excites the same part of the brain.

C: Right.

N: If that were the case, I wouldn’t be surprised, but nonetheless an interesting result to know.

C: If we assume that’s true, do you think religion is then useful as a vehicle, not to just jump back into it, but use as a vehicle for calming the mind and perhaps as essential to healthy living as nutrition?

N: Well, that’s been demonstrated to be true. That’s not a mystery that people take comfort in religion, that’s been so since the beginning. The real question is, if you remove that comfort, is there some other comfort you can offer in its place, and a big part of the more vocal atheist is to try to convince religious people that you can lead a happy, productive, fulfilling life in the absence of reference to deity, and that’s a big part of that effort. I can say, coming at it as a scientist, that if you want to feel the majesty of the Universe, you can do it – that’s something else that can help without reference to God. There’s a lot of beautiful things in the Universe that transcend our experience here on Earth that can take you to new places emotionally, physically, philosophically. That’s what the original Cosmos series did with Carl Sagan, it offered the Universe. It was not an anti-religion track, it offered the Universe as something for the taking that would inspire you to think more about our place in the cosmos.

C: Out of curiosity, what’s one of the more awe-inspiring pieces of knowledge that you hold onto for those reasons?

N: That we’re part of, the elements that comprise life on Earth and our bodies are traceable to stars that have exploded five billion years ago and scattered their rich contents around the galaxy, which then coalesced to form the Sun, the planets, Earth, and ultimately life. I think that’s profound because it reveals a connectivity between us and the rest of the Universe that – one can even call that a spiritual thought, spiritual in the very broad use of the word, not in the literal reference to spirits floating around, but – I’m using the word spiritual in the sense that it can bring a spiritual feeling upon you, just reflecting upon that fact, when you look up at a darkened night sky.

By the way, the people, which is now the majority of the world, who live near and in cities don’t experience this daily. Farmers do, people who live far away from the city lights continue to, but we may be entering an era where the night sky is out of reach of people, so that in fact, in there search for what fulfills them, they might come up empty.

C: You’re talking about light pollution?

N: Light pollution especially. In the old days I might have referenced air pollution, but in America that’s much less of the case. It is the case in Beijing and other big cities in China, but not in America.

C: Do you think that’s going to cause people to be more inward looking?

N: It already has. If you don’t think about the Universe, I think you might overvalue who you are in this world, and if you overvalue it, I think that’s the primary source of all conflict in the world: one person thinking they’re more important than another. Whereas when you look up into the Universe, your relationship with the Universe is one that can only be humbling. You don’t look up and say, “I am master of the Universe” – you might say it but you would know deep down it’s not true. I think a person should at least have one humbling moment a week, just to keep them honest.

C: Is there any piece of technology, plausible in the next century, you might be looking forward to? Maybe in terms of something transformative to culture, or maybe something that has to do with helping science research?

N: Yea, I want the flying car.

(laughter)

I’ve been disappointed since the sixties that we don’t have the flying car. It’s not a piece of technology but it’s an empowerment: I foresee the day, I don’t see why it can’t happen in the next century, where we can geo-engineer, where we have the power to alter the behavior of the Earth in the service of our needs. Right now, a hurricane comes, we run away from it. I can see the day when, “ Hey, let’s tap it”, so you put the device inside the hurricane, it spins, the device then creates power that feeds the city that would have otherwise been destroyed by the hurricane. That’s kind of cool.

C: That is pretty cool.

N: Volcanoes ready to pop, you tap the volcano, like you tap the keg. Stick in a little spigot, heat comes out, you drive turbines, you run the city that would have otherwise been leveled by the lava from the volcano. If you tap the energy out of a volcano, it can’t explode, period. Volcanoes explode from a build up of energy that’s contained and it can’t escape.

So all of these major human-killing phenomena on Earth, from tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, those are all tremendous releases of energy. I foresee a day where we just go in and tap it. We’d have to look at the long term consequences of that of course – it may be that the gases that come out of a volcano are important for the balance of our –

C: In the atmosphere.

N: In the atmosphere, the ocean, so we’d have to do the homework on that. But once we do and we have confidence and we demonstrate that it’s of no consequence or of manageable consequence, then let’s do it. That would be a completely different world to live in. And if you geo-engineer, you also pull out the carbon dioxide if it’s too much, that becomes a trivial exercise. Earth becomes your laboratory.

C: Speaking of the utilizing of natural resources for energy, those sort of things – and since it’s topical, do you have any opinion, you know – because of the nuclear situation in Japan, Switzerland and Germany have announced they’re decommissioning a lot of their reactions – what’s your position on that particular topic?

N: There’s a news story that wasn’t written, because it didn’t happen. That news story is: magnitude nine earthquake strikes Japan, tsunami follows causing nuclear meltdown, two million people dead.

C: Right, instead of-

N: That story did not happen. Earthquake happens, power-plant okay, one million people dead from tsunami. That did not happen. Japan is an industrialized nation, they know they’re living in the Ring of Fire, they’ve had earthquakes before, so, we can lament and mourn the 15,000 or so deaths that took place, but let us not forget that a magnitude seven earthquake, 1/1,000th the release of energy, though it happened to be under the city, but nonetheless, 1/1,000th the release of energy, hits Haiti, Port-au-Prince Haiti, and a quarter million people die. No one is looking at the Japan incident, as a triumph of architecture and a triumph of design. I am.

So that’s point one. Point two is a general question about the safety of nuclear reaction. I don’t know why, for the last 150 years, there have been major movements about the safety of coal mines, because hundreds of thousands of people have died in coal mines, that number might actually be in the millions, I looked at numbers recently – and if you look at the total number of people who died from failed nuclear reactors, that number is a small fraction of that total. We’re not trained to evaluate risk in a rational, level-headed way. We end up managing to fear, rather than to data. I understand that, because that’s what drives people’s behaviors. But I can’t help but wonder, if we weren’t a little more scientifically literate as a culture, that we would make decisions differently regarding these risks.

Look at how we reacted to September 11, 2001: about three thousand Americans died that day, and, that’s more than who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor. So, one of the most devastating days in American history since the Civil War. Understood, people are pissed off. We want blood. So, we go into Afghanistan, and we would later go into Iraq, and war would be conducted – I remember people kept track of when American servicemen died, and there was the date where more American servicemen died, than who died on September 11, and that was kind of an interesting milestone, to compare, but we just pushed on, and so now many more Americans died in those wars than have died – and countless others died, local citizens. But apart from that, count thirty days from September 11. Thirty days after – by then, in those thirty days, more Americans had died on the highways in car accidents than who died on September 11. Not only that, that number keeps dying every month. So, there’s no outcry for people dying on highways – there is locally, we fixed our drunk driving laws, and there’s enforcement [that’s] very high and taken very seriously in all our public consciousness, but if deaths of Americans is what you care about and protecting the lives of people is what you care about, and you rank all ways Americans die, then terrorist attacks is not high on that list. It’s high on the list because we fear them, because it’s a terror factor, but because of the actual numbers.

So, your question was nuclear power plants: I think we should using solar power, just because it’s free. It’s there. That’s the reason why we shouldn’t use nuclear, because solar is out there, and we’re not putting enough energy to get it. I’m much less concerned about the safety of solar power than others who point to the singular disasters that have taken place, without pointing to the fatherless homes of coal miners and to the deaths that have resulted from the pollutants that have gone into the atmosphere that have gone into the atmosphere from burning coal – you want to add that to the numbers, that’s worse than any secondary or tertiary cancers you might be citing from nuclear power plant leaks. It wins in every context, plus there’s places like, in France, they’ve had nuclear power forever, and it’s not a big deal there. So, alright, you don’t build it on a fault line, and you do some smart things, but the solution to that is not safer nuclear power plants, the solution to that is solar power. And by the way, hydro-electric is solar power. You know, you don’t get water at the top of the dam without the evaporative energy of the Sun. That’s solar power – plants are solar power. Solar power is much broader than people are thinking it to be.

C: Sure. We’re about out of time, but before we go, is there anything that you’re working on that you’d like the listeners to check out?

N: Yes, I have my new radio show, an NSF-funded attempt to bring science to the public in a new and innovative way, it’s called StarTalk Radio, and you can find startalk.net, but it’s broadcast radio, but also podcast, if you don’t own a radio, as many people under thirty don’t. You can download it from iTunes, I think it’s a week delay. It’s normally a journalist interviewing a scientist, in your typical science radio program like Science Friday [but] in StarTalk radio, it’s a scientist interviewing a pop culture figure, and exploring ways in which science as influenced their lives. So just this past weekend, we had Jon Stewart, and we learned that he majored in chemistry in college initially, before he switched to psychology, and he has a favorite element, it’s carbon. You learn these things, and they bring their following to the radio show, and so I invite everyone to check it out, I think it’s just a fun way to think about the intersection of science and culture.

C: That sounds great, thanks for your time.

N: Alright, good, good luck with the podcast. Happy to be on it.


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