Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Posted by Goodreads on April 24, 2017
Neil deGrasse Tyson Dubbed "the most powerful nerd in the universe," and with more than 7 million followers on Twitter, Neil deGrasse Tyson is perhaps the most beloved American scientist today. One of his life's endeavors is to help people understand science, a mission he fulfills as director of the Hayden Planetarium, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History, and host of the radio and television show Star Talk.

In his latest book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson distills the basics of dark energy, planets, the multiverse, and more. It's written for anyone who doesn't have time to read a textbook or take a course in astrophysics but wants an understanding of what the subject is all about.

Born and raised in New York City, the middle of three children, Tyson showed an affinity for the extraterrestrial at an early age. After attending the Bronx School of Science, he graduated from Harvard, having majored in physics, and went on to earn graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia. He talked to Goodreads contributor Kerry Shaw about his favorite books, baby names for Beyoncé, and his cosmic view of life.


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Goodreads: If people don't like science, or say they don't like science, why try to reach them?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Because we're all members of the same society and culture and civilization. And as we get deeper in the 21st century, literacy in science will become more fundamental to decisions you have to make that involve your future, especially your future health, your future wealth, and your future security. So if you don't want to know anything about science, you become disenfranchised from participating in all that it will take to improve your future.

GR: I was really intrigued by Chapter 12, which explores the cosmic perspective. If I'm summarizing accurately, it's about having the wisdom to know our small place in the universe and allowing that to expand what it means to be human.

NDT: If you had to put it in a sentence, that works. It's about how having a cosmic perspective can completely change your outlook on your place relative to others in the world and just who and what you are. It can reestablish, or differently establish, your priorities in life.

GR: What role does the cosmic perspective play in your life?

NDT: This sounds like a weird boast, but it just is: Every boy I grew up with, at some point between K through 12, got into a fight with another person. One hundred percent of them. I'm not talking about gang fights. I'm just talking about schoolyard fights.

I never got into a fight. I was the anomaly. And I've known that I've been interested in the universe since I was nine. Could it be that my cosmic perspective, embedded in me from very early, prevented me from ever possibly valuing what it was to fight someone?

If you look from high above, which is what the cosmic perspective provides for you, it is so petty. So it helps me make certain decisions about what is important and what is not in this world.


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GR: Here's a question from Goodreads member Spicy T AKA Mr Tea: How has race affected your work in astrophysics and the world of science?

NDT: Growing up, wanting to be an astrophysicist from childhood, this was definitely the path of most resistance. No one shared the views that I had of myself. Teachers would say, "Oh, you should be an athlete." I'd say "astrophysicist" and they wouldn't know what it was, or they would ignore it, or they'd guide me to some other athletic endeavor.

So I ignored them and just kept pushing. It takes energy, though, to always resist forces pushing against you. My love for the universe is so deep that I could always draw from these huge fuel tanks to resist such forces of life and of culture.

If anyone was bigoted or racist, it would only matter if they were between me and my goal. But if, say, a taxi didn't stop for me—which still happens to this day but not as often as decades ago—then they were not between me and my goal. It was just a little bit of extra tax I had to pay each day.

Life is too short to let that get under your skin. It's also too short to try to change all of them one by one. I would rather spend that intellectual energy learning how the universe works.

GR: I'm impressed by a lot of what you just shared, and one quality is kind of a buzzword now: grit.

NDT: I don't think of it as grit. I think of it as enthusiasm. Enthusiasm overrides everything. If you really love something, nothing else matters. You will do it, even at the expense of personal hygiene. You'll miss a meal. That's not grit—that's love. So my love ran deep.

GR: What can a parent do to cultivate this in their kids?

NDT: Not that I'm Father Time or anything, but I have two kids. One aged 20 and one aged 16. What my wife and I did with them is what my parents did with me, which is, exposed us to as many different things as possible, allowed our own natural curiosity to manifest, and have that curiosity select what it wants to do in life.

Rather than say, "I want my kid to be what I never was." Whatever that might have been. Or, "I'm a medical doctor; I want my kid to be a medical doctor."

In a free country, in a free society, with free speech, that should be the last thing you do. Do you own them? But I understand it happens. I don't know if the kid will be as happy as they possibly could have been because you don't have evidence of it being homegrown within them.

GR: I have a hypothetical scenario for you. Suppose you were trapped at the bottom of a potential energy well, with no hope of reaching escape velocity. However, you were orbiting a source of light, rotating such that you were able to read books for roughly half the time. Suppose further that within the potential energy well, you were situated on a small, remote, arid location surrounded by dihydrogen oxide in its liquid phase, thus rendering you trapped. If you could have only three books with you, what would they be?

NDT: If I'm surrounded by water, I'm not trapped if I can swim and I'm inventive. I can make a boat! This is not Gilligan's Island if you have creativity. Ha! I don't always accept all constraints that other people place on me! Let me just start with that.

Secondly, in terms of books, hmmm…I'm not one of these people who reads a book a hundred times. I read a book, I get it, and I move on. I think I would bring Gulliver's Travels and Principia by Isaac Newton. And then…I'd bring my Kindle. How do you like that? Now I have a thousand books! You can't fool me! You can't imprison me!

What I really want is a pen and a lot of paper, and maybe it's time to write a book about being stranded on a desert island surrounded by dihydrogen oxide.

GR: I would read that book.

NDT: I might need the Newton to jump-start civilization if the rest of the world renders itself extinct. I trace the industrial revolution to the discoveries of Isaac Newton's book Principia. In it Newton shows that the universe is knowable. It's not a bunch of mystical forces. Things happen in the universe, and mathematics describes it. So if all civilization is gone, you need to read something to jump-start it, and that would do it.

GR: Why Gulliver's Travels?

NDT: Oh, I just find the stories fanciful. Most people who haven't read the book think only of the one in the movies, where he's a giant among the little people, the Lilliputians. But there are all these other voyages that are so well written. And it's got so much keen insight into human nature.


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GR: You've been in the news recently for your suggestions for Beyoncé's baby names. What prompted that?

NDT: Well, what I tweet are just thoughts I'm having. I don't sit down and say, "What am I going to tweet today?"

Beyoncé's other kid is named Blue Ivy. Well, if you named your kid Blue Ivy, then all bets are off. The next kid is not going to be named Joe or Mary. So, I thought, in the universe there are a lot of terms that come in pairs. My field has fun names for things. I thought I would rattle off a list of them, just in case she wanted to stay exotic with the names of her kids. And many of the names were gender neutral. It's not announced whether it's two boys, two girls, or one of each.

GR: Are you rooting for a pair of names?

NDT: Quinn and Tessence, two parts of the word quintessence.

GR: I'm curious to know if there's one question you just get asked all the time.

NDT: Fortunately there is a lot out there that triggers people's interest. None of them runs away with it, but ones that come up: Are we alone in the universe? What was around before the universe…could it have been God? Religion shows up a lot. Mostly just god, without any reference to which god. Here in the United States, typically it's the Judeo-Christian god that people reference. Generally they want to know where religion fits.

People ask if I believe in the Big Bang as though it's some kind of belief system. Then I explain, it's what the evidence shows. It's not a matter of belief. Lately some people ask me if the world is flat. I'm greatly worried about this.

GR: Wait. Lately? People ask you that?

NDT: Yeah. There's a whole flat-earth movement. Where've you been? You need to get out more. Just type "flat-earth" and watch what comes up. It's all current news…that's a hot question now. And the fact that it's a question means we're regressing as a culture. Because questions are barometers of where ignorance is most manifested. When people start saying, "I choose not to believe scientists who tell me that we're warming the earth," that's an indicator of a failure deep in the educational system.

GR: What do you even say to that?

NDT: I rebutted one of them once. But then I said, I'm not going to do this anymore, and so I don't. They can think what they want. It only becomes an issue if you think Earth is flat and then somehow someone appoints you to be the head of NASA. But there are plenty of jobs for you if you think Earth is flat, where your ignorance does not harm anyone. In a free society, in a free culture, we have freedom of speech and thought, so go right ahead. I'm not going to debate you. Life is too short.

GR: I have one last question from a Goodreads member. Holly asks: If you had to choose only one more great discovery in the field of astrophysics to be made in your lifetime, what would it be?

NDT: That we would find evidence of life someplace other than Earth. That'd be very cool. Let me not even say intelligent life because that's asking too much. Just microbial life. We'd learn that it encodes information differently from life on Earth. For example, maybe it does not have DNA. I'd be really curious about that.

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Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Tiffany (last edited Apr 27, 2017 05:04PM) (new)

Tiffany PSquared Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this interview. NDT is one of my favorite people (he's on my "Last Supper" list). After struggling through science classes throughout my public school education, I find the way he approaches and EXPLAINS all things science to non-brainiacs like me!


message 2: by aarthi (new)

aarthi So cool! Samit is so jealous that you got to interview his hero!


message 3: by Diane (new)

Diane Dickey NDT is awesome with his intelligence and enthusiasm! Hope many will read his latest book. Our world needs to know.


message 4: by Marion (new)

Marion Couvillion NDT has the ability to bring Astroscience closer to being understood even by the average person like me. His ability to use the common language approach helps me understand those things that have been difficult to comprehend, helping us to go beyond what is actually our tiny Laniakea, and taking us beyond the holographic principle. And his ability to bring humor into his statements, makes simplistic, interesting observations of what may have been been difficult to otherwise understand. A good simple example: “Next time you’re stunned by a large Moon on horizon, bend over and view it between your legs. The effect goes away entirely”.

Many years ago my wife and I took several courses in astrology and though the edification was great, it still left us with the question of what is out there, why, and how. Flat earthers are just satisfied with their simplistic answers, but to lie on a blanket, on a clear moonless night, always opens a universe that is difficult to fantom. Neil deGrasse Tyson helps me to better understand, not only the universe but how we fit into the picture and whether in this great expanse there must be other beings having the same question. There is so much more to understand and thanks to our advances in technology and science, I am still open to try to expand my knowledge. Thank you Neil I hope your efforts and methods bring us many more young scientist of your caliber~! Now back to re-reading that interview.


message 5: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Love him and this interview was great!


message 6: by Myrna (new)

Myrna This was a wonderful interview--Dr. Tyson has such a wonderful way of taking the largest "thing" we can imagine and making it understandable and relevant to our daily lives.

Thank you so much, Dr. Tyson!


message 7: by Amandis (new)

Amandis Dasilva me encanta, pero me gustaría tener también la version en español.


message 8: by Tracy (new)

Tracy Taylor I love Dr. Tyson, his enthusiasm and zest for life and for understanding our universe and our place in it. I really want to read this book, and enjoyed reading this interview too.


message 9: by Ragna & Monkey (new)

Ragna & Monkey Schimpanski Preordered the book 😀 Now waiting...


message 10: by Larry (new)

Larry Good This is a disappointing interview. Why ask first if there's life in the rest of the Universe? Why not ask: What exactly is life? What actually is a human being, and how does being human relate to the rest of the Universe? And incidentally, the evidence doesn't support the idea of a big bang. Scientists don't understand light, but the depend on an understanding of light to draw the conclusion that the Universe is expanding. First understand light---and then talk about the nature of the universe. Don't apply the Doppler effect to light if you don't understand light. An error about the entire Universe is a rather large one. Larry Good


message 11: by Alan (new)

Alan Johnson I would deem NDT a worthy successor to Carl Sagan as for bringing astronomy to the masses. They are both dynamos of enthusiasm.


message 12: by Bonnie (new)

Bonnie Larry wrote: "This is a disappointing interview. Why ask first if there's life in the rest of the Universe? Why not ask: What exactly is life? What actually is a human being, and how does being human relate to t..."

So you think you can do better? I doubt it very much.If you think you're so smart, why don't you write to Dr. Tyson and see what he says. He's the astronomer and scientist and you are?


message 13: by Alinn (new)

Alinn Did you guys see, NDT is curating a Maker Box...it's going to include this book AND cool projects handpicked by NDT for the box: https://quarterly.co/products/maker-box

I can't wait for mine! Just thought I'd share...


message 14: by Dennis (new)

Dennis DeRoche One of my favorite people. If I were ever given the opportunity to spend a day with any person in our universe, Neil dG Tyson would be one of my top 5 picks. He has so much to offer as a human being in the Revelant Sphere of Knowledge. His introspection and philosophy remind me of R. Buckminster Fuller and Albert Einstein who as well had more to share with the world than their work alone as architect and physicist.


message 15: by Sara (new)

Sara A candid and thoughtful man whose zest for life and learning is contagious. This interview was fascinating, and inspiring , and makes me want to buy de Grasse's new book.


message 16: by Kathy (new)

Kathy Gonzalez Kind of interesting that his cosmic view allows you to conclude that he sees his position in the universe as small but he still comes across as arrogant. For example, life should never be too short to care enough about other people to be willing to engage with them to discuss their perspectives.


message 17: by Jamal (new)

Jamal Uddin What is life Larry Good asks!I thought it was well established from the biological perspective.Philosophical quandary of course will be with us for our own good.


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