Venturing into the world of the scientist was not what I expected. Almost from the start of my interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, I was reminded that his arena is exact, not close, and will expose assumptions. Needless to say, I stumbled onto this; yet, in the process, I delighted in the surprisingly unexpected responses from one so capable of seeing our world and beyond uniquely. At least, this is my take away from a warp-speed chat with one of the world’s most famous and highly regarded astrophysicists. Not once did he answer a question the way I expected—and that opened my eyes to my assumptions, for the better.
If I missed a great question, you’ll have a chance to find the answer for yourself. Dr. Tyson is relaunching Cosmos on PBS, made popular by Dr. Carl Sagan in the 1980s; just published Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier; and will take the anchor position in this season’s Open VISIONS lecture series at Fairfield University, when he will discuss the big discoveries on the horizon (inside tip: watch your metaphor use with an astrophysicist—some terms are literal).
What is the biggest lost opportunity in the history of the U.S. space program?
That would be the opportunity to deflect an asteroid that might render life on Earth extinct. So it’s an opportunity that I know will be lost because we have nothing in place to mitigate such a disaster.
Is there a possibility of that?
Yes, very high possibility. We do not have any known asteroids that are going to hit us that will render us extinct, but of the cataloged asteroids, there are some that will hit us eventually, but not in the very near future. In any case, if we find one that hits us in the very near future, we’re not poised to do anything about it.
‘Near future’ being…?
The next 100 years. Decades.
What is the biggest unsung achievement?
There’s a space mission familiar to space enthusiasts, yet all but forgotten by everyone else. That’s Apollo 8. Apollo 8 in 1968 was the first mission ever to leave Earth for another destination. That gets overshadowed by Apollo 11 in 1969, the first time we walked on the moon. But Apollo 8 was the first time we left Earth, went to the moon, and orbited the moon; in that mission they snapped that photo of Earthrise over the lunar landscape—the most recognizable photo ever.
Why didn’t it get the recognition?
People wanted to walk on the moon. They valued the footsteps and flag planting more than the idea that you could go to another place and look back to Earth. By my reckoning, that was the birth of the modern-day conservation movement…I think that one mission had impact on our culture that was greater than anyone could have predicted or has remembered.
What about U.S. students not keeping up in the sciences with other students?
I have an unorthodox solution to that. The typical answer is, ‘Oh, they need more funding or better science teachers or programs to stimulate interest in science.’ And this goes on…Those are Band-Aid solutions. It doesn’t get to the root of the problem. I think you need them, but don’t do that alone and expect it to solve the problem. From my view of history, and the conduct of people and legislators in America, if NASA were fully funded—double or triple its budget, for example—and we had a suite of launch vehicles to take us anywhere we wanted in the solar system—dependent on the need, could be scientific, geopolitical, military, asteroid mining, touristic, whatever, that if we were that kind of country, discoveries and innovations would be writ large in the daily paper because each one of those branches of space will be innovating and discovering a consequence of boldly going where no one else has gone before.
When you do that, the press writes about it, and when the press writes about it, people talk about it in editorials and op-eds, letters to the editor, and blogs in modern times, and children in the pipeline see that we have become an innovation nation. They see that these discoveries define what tomorrow will look like. As a result, students become self-driven to want to enter the STEM fields, and then it’s no longer dependent on whether they have a good science teacher because their sights are set far beyond it—and they emerge on the other end of the educational pipeline…When you stimulate innovation in science and technology, you birth the economies of the twenty-first century. Investment in space is a force of nature unto itself that will pump the educational pipeline in ways that no program that you can implement can equal.
I mean new discoveries to engage the public?
All discoveries engage the public. Even discoveries the pubic doesn’t understand. If they’re big, the press will write about it. The Higgs boson, discovered in the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator in Switzerland was a banner headline in the New York Times, and most people didn’t even know what the particle was, but they knew it was a really important particle and the physicists were excited about it and the Nobel Prize would be awarded for it. And where was it discovered? Not in America. Nope. It was discovered in the country that embraced particle physics. In America, that was lost when Congress cut the budget on the super-conducting supercollider, which was already being built in Texas, and then got cut. In the judgment of the Congress, it was no longer in the national interest. And so that captured the imagination of an entire generation of people. What is the boson? What is particle physics? What is a particle accelerator? Things like that stimulate curiosity.
Imagine we go to Mars and figure out how to extract water from the soil of Mars. ‘Wow, that’s interesting. I can apply that to the Sahara Desert and extract the water that’s in the sand that we can’t otherwise get to’—and that’s because someone brilliant enough figured out how to do it for Mars. You might ask, ‘Why don’t we just get them to do it for the Sahara in the first place?’ Why? Because Mars is a much more interesting place to think about than the Sahara Desert. And in a free country, you want your smart people doing what interests them the most. The history of the advance of science and the tandem advance of culture pivots on the discovery that smart people make without reference to whether it had a direct application to whether you had food on your plate the next day.
In the 1920s, quantum physics was discovered. You can’t get more obscure than that. This is what a particle does when you shine a light on it. It disappears and reappears and there’s a wave function. And there are all these things that no one understood except the few physicists who were working on it. Fifty years later, the work in that decade would become the foundation of the entire IT revolution. You could argue that 40 percent of the entire world economy is based on the discoveries of that decade. Yet, they’re not thinking lasers or barcodes or GPS while they’re doing it. They have the freedom to explore the unknown.
When the government stops caring about the distant future, then you’ve basically mortgaged that future and you fade to insignificance on the world stage.
Do you have a mentor?
A mentor to assist in what I have become as an adult? No. What I’ve done, in my opinion sensibly, is not to look at all the people I know, and all the talents that they carry, and assemble a mentor a la carte. When you do that, you take the best of the whole combination of people who respect and honor and emulate, and, typically, that’s not all contained in the same person.…If I needed someone with my skin color born in the city to have done astrophysics before I did it in order for me to become an astrophysicist, I would never have become an astrophysicist. So in that way, role models can be detrimental to your ambitions—if your ambitions transcend the availability or even the existence of role models to serve that purpose. So there’s no single mentor; there’s a dozen mentors.