Since being named director of the Hayden Planetarium in 1996, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson has transformed himself from a relatively obscure astrophysicist into one of the leading promoters in the public eye for science and scientific exploration. His advocacy work through his books and TV appearances has earned him accolades of all varieties—honorary degrees, medals of excellence, even an asteroid bearing his name—and popularity enough to get him a spot on People Magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive" list in 2000.
All of this attention has a good reason, and that's Tyson himself. Passionate and highly outgoing, the New York City native brings an enthusiasm to his work that his colleagues call infectious. It's why NOVA selected him to host its scienceNOW series, a program that explores developing stories in fields of science and technology, and it was certainly obvious to us as we talked with Tyson about his life, his views, and his work. You can see more of Neil deGrasse Tyson tonight at 9 p.m., when NOVA scienceNOW airs its series premiere on PBS.
You grew up in the Bronx in the 1960s. Tell me more about that and your experience there as a child. My earliest memories were the East Bronx in the Castle Hill housing projects on Castle Hill Avenue. I was in kindergarten at the time, but that's about when my father's income level went above the income level for those housing projects, and after that we moved to Riverdale. My formative years were spent at Riverdale at P.S. 81 and J.H.S. 141 and I ultimately went to the Bronx High School of Science.
What did you do at that high school? What were your studies like? At that high school, though there is a normal curriculum like you'd find at any high school, but there are additional courses and activities and after-school excursions that you might not find elsewhere. So, a lot of time that—if you went to a normal high school—might be spent hanging out, at the Bronx High School of Science, the enrichment continues not only during your lunch break, but before school, after school, between classes, and the like. So I had friends and we would talk about black holes and curved space-time and relativity after school. And I had some math friends and we'd talk about weird math theorems. It's Nerd Central.
At the time, it was not so much of a badge of honor to be labeled a nerd or a geek. You'd be at risk of being slammed into the lockers—the stereotype of what becomes of such a person. But I'd say now that in the era of IT, now that the richest person in the world is the patron saint of geeks, Bill Gates, the concept of "geek" and "nerd" has taken on a whole new meaning in modern society. So they're actually kind of lovable and you always want one at arm's reach because you never know when you might need one.
So has science become cool, then? Yeah, I think it is cool. At worst, it's just neutral. Whereas there was a day when it would count against you as a demerit, at worst, now it's just neutral. At best, you get access in times and places that would not have been available to you 10, 20, 30 years ago.
Does that mean as a society we're moving toward being more scientifically minded? More curious? That's my hope. I can only hope that, and I can see some good signs of it, such as how much science gets written about in the popular press. It used to be that science was the news story that was an exception. Now you don't have to go more than a couple of days and you don't even require the science section of a newspaper to find a science article. And it could be the tacit recognition of the press that science is a fundamental part of culture and society and our health and well-being, as well as our economic and military security. That recognition brings science to the front in ways no one had previously thought to do.
What about the role of the country's strong religious ideological base in this? What tension do you sense there now? Those folks believed what they did throughout the time the rest of this science was unfolding, so I don't see why they couldn't continue to coexist, except that a very vocal minority of the religious community is trying to change the curriculum in the science classroom and that's the beginning of the end. If that happens, you will lose the scientific foundations of what has enabled America to grow to the economic strength that it has enjoyed and lately, I think, has been taking for granted. It is innovations in science and technology that are foundation of economic growth. They're the growth centers of tomorrow. If you're going to teach something that is not science in the science classroom, you will undermine the next generation's ability to enable that growth. If that's the country you want to have, then okay, but understand the consequences of it as the rest of the world passes us by.
Speaking of the economy, I can think of many fields of science that would have direct economic impact—things like geology to look for oil opportunities or environmental research for global warming prevention. But how do you "sell" a field like your field, astronomy and astrophysics, that many people don't necessarily see as having an every-day application? Almost all science, when done at its pure, leading edge, has no obvious application at all. Science in its purest form is not driven by the search for a solution to a problem; it's driven by the curiosity of those engaged who want to understand nature at is most deep levels. The history of this exercise persistently demonstrates that those discoveries show up back in society 10 years later, 20, sometimes it takes a generation—but they show up in ways that are revolutionary in how we actually live our lives. It's just that when the research is being done on the frontier itself, it's not quite obvious how you plug into that.
No one is thinking when the laser was conceived that they would have barcodes. No one is thinking that when you go into space to explore or just to go in orbit at all with John Glenn, one day you'd have a GPS system that is a hundred-billion-dollar industry. No one is thinking that when the discovery unfolds, yet it is a frontier of what it's trying to accomplish. So, the public needs to understand that to try to hold a scientist beholden to a problem that is sitting in front of him is to remove the frontier and to mortgage your future of revolutionary change that could take place in society.
As far as our next step into the future, should we go back to Moon or should we go straight to Mars? I think we should view all space as our frontier and it should not be destination-driven. Nobody who's ever explored did so in a destination-driven way. They just explored wherever no one had been before, so you should not think of space exploration as, "Go to a planet." You should view it as, "There are things out there about which we can still learn; let's explore them." That includes the Moon, Mars, asteroids, the moons of other planets, Venus (although humans could probably not survive there, we'd probably send some robots).
There are places to explore that are not even surfaces. There are what are called Lagrangian points in orbits around three bodies where all the forces of gravity cancel out and you can suspend yourself there. You can build huge telescopes and you can build space stations and you can build habitats. And, it doesn't have to be structurally sound because it doesn't exist under the force of gravity, the way something of that size might have to if it were built on a planetary surface.
So, I think the argument of, "Would you go to the Moon first or Mars first?" is a false argument. We should explore the unknown, and space is a huge unknown. For those that say, let's just focus on Earth, as though all our solutions to our Earth problems are going to come from Earth—that's completely naive. And uninformed. And misinformed, I would even say.
Tell me about your role informing people, then. You've got a show, NOVA scienceNOW, on PBS. Do you pick the topics? I used to be in there picking topics with everybody, and then I realized they do such a good job at it up there at NOVA headquarters in Boston that I don't need to look over their shoulders. I can focus on other things, like what are the details of the topics that are found and who we can interview that would make a good interview, so now I handle other aspects of it, and they call me in every now and then if they need some advice drawn from my connectivity to the science world. They're very talented people working up there in the science unit at WGBH in Boston.
What else will you cover on the show this season? This season has all manner of subjects. First, there's a spacecraft that was just launched that's going to smash into the south pole of the Moon to look for water. It's called LCROSS; it's a NASA mission. We've got a whole segment on that. We've got a segment on the Hubble repair mission. We've got a segment on software that performers now use to fix the pitch that they sing in case they sang it wrong. It's called "Auto-Tune." There's another one on artificial diamonds and how they're fooling experts into thinking they're real diamonds. There's good stuff—and it's all the sciences. It's not just astrophysics. To just celebrate the role that science plays in our everyday lives—that's really what this show is about.
How can New Yorkers best experience the wonders of space and astronomy when it can be hard to look up and just see the sky? That happened to me as a kid, so I just went to the planetarium. That solved everything. [Laughs] You come to the planetarium, you take a journey through the cosmos, and that becomes the substitute sky for the New Yorker. That's what you do until the next time you leave town, and you look up and see it looks just like what we did in the dome of the planetarium.
Are there other ways to experience astronomy just living in the actual city environment? I had a photo essay in Natural History magazine that appeared several years ago called "City of Stars." In it, there were photos I took (and I wrote captions to go with them) of objects, phenomena, buildings, and monuments throughout the city that are themed to cosmic subjects. So there are ways.
For example, the big triangle that sits at the McGraw-Hill building on Sixth Avenue. You look at it and you say, "Oh, that's just a triangle." No, it's a sun triangle, and on the first days of summer, winter, fall, and spring, at high noon, the sun exactly aligns with each of those three legs of the triangle for each of the different seasons. Most people just think it's a big, ol' sculpture, but in fact, it's a portal to the cosmos.
The yoke that sits across the back of Atlas at Rockefeller Center. If you look on the yoke, it contains these symbols—they look cryptic if you don't recognize them otherwise—they're the symbols of the planets. You start from the right, and going left, it's Mercury, Venus, Earth, a little symbol for the moon sitting next to it, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It stops at Neptune. [Laughs] Because that sculpture was designed before Pluto was discovered, Pluto's not on the yoke of Atlas. And now Pluto's been recently demoted, so the sculpture's now right back in step with prevailing scientific thinking. And there's the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal—it's a night sky—and the ceiling of St. John's Church, just south of Fordham University, has a sky in it—that's the sky at midnight on the day the church was dedicated—so there are ways people have thought about the night sky even as New Yorkers. It exists throughout the city if you look hard.