When you pick up the phone to talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, it’s hard not to feel a little nervous. The director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium is not only the author of multiple books that address the vast terrain of astrophysics (Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour, Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries, Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, among others), he’s also taken up the mantle of none other than Carl Sagan, helming the revamped version of Cosmos, the television program used to bring the sense of the grandeur of science and the marvels of the universe to ordinary viewers.
It’s a mission that Tyson has taken up with enthusiasm and authority, and in his latest book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, he’s assigned himself what may be his most subtly challenging task yet: a condensation of the essential insights of 21st-century astrophysics — and the astonishing history of science that led to them — into a book just over 200 pages long.
Given, all that, perhaps I can be forgiven a few butterflies when I dialed up the scientist, author and educator to talk about dark matter, the strange and stunning discovery of microwave radiation, and how a writer approaches what the first chapter of his new book calls “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” Fortunately, the genial and friendly Tyson managed to dispel any sense that I was being going to be graded on my performance in Astrophysics 101. Nevertheless, I did take a few notes. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. — Bill Tipper
The Barnes & Noble Review: This is not your first attempt to distill some of the biggest thinking in science for ordinary readers. When you put together Astrophysics for People In A Hurry, what was different about this as a book and as a project?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: There are many people who carry with them fragments of cosmic knowledge brought to them by snippets of a documentary they may have channel-surfed past, or a headline that they saw, because the face of the universe, when there’s an interesting discovery, it typically makes headlines. Like a new exo-planet, a black hole, something new about the Big Bang—this sort of thing.
NTD: Sorry. I left that out. Pluto rears its head, its cute little head every couple of years. So it occurred to me that people might not have time to read fuller, fleshier books. The readers will — readers want the big book. But how about the people who like to read, but simply don’t have time to read?
So I distilled what, in my judgment, is the most interesting, important astrophysics into a small volume that does not pull punches. Right?
BNR: No, not at all.
NTD: So no one will accuse it of being dumbed down. The next question people ask me is, “Oh, was Astrophysics For Dummies taken?” No. I just come right at you. But it’s framed in such a way that I’d like to believe that by the end of the book, you are conversant with anything important that comes down the pike, in terms of headlines and what people are talking about at the water cooler. I think of it kind of as a consummation of your relationship with the cosmos.
BNR: You begin in the book from an idea that is challenging for a lot of us to get our heads around. You say: “In the beginning, nearly 14 billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.” That’s a scale that’s mind-bending: Even given that very concrete image, it’s very challenging for the imagination to accommodate. Is that something that you have grown used to over the course of a career in astrophysics? Is it something they teach?
NTD: Well, first, I don’t think it’s mind-bending. I think it’s mind-blowing. Mind-bending would be, “Oh, how can that happen? That’s kind of interesting.” But what you quote is a completely mind-blowing statement. And it is for that reason that my opening comment of the book is “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” I am just prepping you that it is no longer valid for you to invoke common sense to judge what is and is not true.
Apart from that — It’s mind-blowing to me, too. It’s completely mind-blowing. You can gain a familiarity with such statements and such calculations. But I don’t know if it ever just sits comfortably within us. Familiarity and comfort are two different things. So the familiarity is from daily exposure, but it still kind of rubs you weirdly. So no, I don’t think you embrace it in the way you might be asking.
It is not there for you to understand. It is there for you to recognize as true. So if you think you understand it, you’re fooling yourself. There is no way to understand a particle popping in and out of existence, becoming matter, transmuting back to energy, tunneling from one place to another. It’s just completely weird stuff. But it is. So what you can do is, if you work at it long enough, you can then develop a calculational insight that could guide discoveries, rather than a common sense insight to what would be discovered from the new ideas.
BNR: You’ve created narrative and metaphor out of decades of scientific work, not only your own, but that of many people. I am struck, for example, how much of the book is kind of a little history of a big part of science.
NTD: Two things about that. One,it’s possible to go off the deep end with metaphors, and then you’re left with just metaphors and you have no idea what was going on. You have to think of the right dose of metaphor, and what word will sit better within you if I use that word instead of another. This is all purposeful: my pedagogical soul is expressed through those tools, those literary tools.
But you made another related point…
BNR: As I read through, I thought, this isn’t only a distillation of these concepts in astrophysics; it’s also telling me about the history of how these concepts were discovered.
NTD: Of course, history is a bottomless pit. So the whole book could have been just history. But I hand-picked the history that I just thought was really cool: You’ve got to know this about what happened! I’m sitting there, writing. I say, “I can’t write this unless I tell you how Herschel found the infrared.”
BNR: That’s the one that leapt out at me as such an amazing story.
NTD: And you get to see how clever he was, how thorough he was, how that story of discovery is shocking today!
BNR: There’s another another moment that you might call a lucky accident, which is the discovery of…that you described the process by which the background microwave radiation in the Universe was first kind of tracked.
NTD: That might be my longest historical side-ramp, now that I think about it. Because there are the characters, and you have to set it up that it’s even in a microwave thing, and then who were they, and it’s all about radiowaves. But my hope is that it was a pleasant excursion, and not weighed down by what is so often the historical protocol of saying, “Well, he was this title at this institution before he was here, and his mother did this, and he was trained here at Cal Tech.” There’s a limit to where the act of being historically complete renders the passage uninteresting.
BNR: What I took away was, again, another kind of paradox, which is that these are scientists who were working with extraordinary rigor — I’m thinking of Herschel back in the 18th century, or these engineers trying to perfect microwave transmission, and discovering this critical piece of data about the evidence of the Big Bang –these are both the results of painstaking and precise science, and yet, at the same time, lucky accidents.
NTD: Yes. Now, of course, as Branch Rickey says, luck is the residue of design. You’ve got to kind of be ready for the luck. When the luck bites you in the ass, you’ve got to know what bit you in the ass. Otherwise, you’re saying, “Oh, that’s uncomfortable; let me stand somewhere else.” It reminds me of a comic who sort of parodied Newton and the Apple, and Newton is sitting under the tree and an apple falls off the tree and hits him in the head. He looks up at the tree, frustrated, and just goes and sits under a different tree! [LAUGHS]
BNR: Do you think that we’re educating people in the ways that we should to develop the capacity for these kinds of lucky accidents, to be in the place where these serendipities can emerge?
NTD: Let me answer a bigger question than that. Just yesterday, I did a Reddit AMA. I’ve done one every couple of years or so. That community is interested in what I do. They’re sort of educated rabid fans instead of just regular rabid fans, so I like intermittently serving that community.
One of the questions was from a student in college who loves science and loves physics, but he’s struggling mightily, and is in fear that maybe science is not for him. In my reply, I took some blame for what’s happening to him. And here is the blame. My public display of science is one of fun, and it’s interesting, and it’s insightful, and you should do it.
But I don’t spend enough time communicating how much discipline it takes to become a scientist and to be a scientist. I don’t really spend much time doing that. Because I grab your hands, and we are waltzing through the fun of cosmic discovery and the results of cosmic discovery. So I am reminded that at some time I should take pause with my audience and say: There are times when you’re in the lab and things don’t work, and times you’re in the lab where you kind of neglect personal hygiene because you’re so focused on trying to get something life, and your social life is suffering, because everyone else is in South Padre Island or at the bar where they’ve ended their work. So science, if you are struggling, that IS the thing, that IS what it is. That is not some barrier en route to some place. That IS the place. And you may have one, two perhaps, discoveries in your life that make headlines. In your life. So at some point, you need to learn to embrace the discipline and focus and devotion that becoming a scientist and being a good scientist requires. And the fact that he’s feeling this in college, I said, “He’s right on track.” That’s what I told him!
And built in there with that discipline, of course, is curiosity. The formal manifestation of childhood curiosity is what we call science. I’ve tweeted fragments of that sentence, but that one was sort of better than previous ones. I might tweet that one today.
So then you’re prepared for luck and serendipity.
BNR: As you put this book together, what did you think, “This is what I want people to walk away from this book with?”
NTD: That they can have a coherent understanding of the major challenges and discoveries that undergird modern astrophysics.
BNR: That seems both simple and, from another perspective, that seems incredibly ambitious.
NTD: Yes. I couldn’t have written this book ten years ago or twenty years ago. I wouldn’t have known how to write the book 10 or 20 years ago. I would have been fumbling — this has a certain maturity of vision that I currently have.
BNR: Does that come from years of the writing, or from talking to people and doing things like Cosmos and work like that? Or is it everything?
NTD: Yes, it’s everything, but it’s mostly how many times I’ve been in front of people, attempting to communicate an idea, and monitoring their reaction to me. Are your eyebrows up? Or are you distracted by something else, so I’m not capturing your attention? What is it that I was saying in that moment? What words do I use that excite you? This is the summation of what I have come to learn about what excites people and what keeps them coming back for more.
By the way, in this spirit, as you may know, Alan Alda has a book coming out in a month or so, two months, called If I Understood You, Would I Have this Look On My Face? That’s like the title of the book! That title is a statement of someone being lectured to from someone who is not really paying attention to what might be the tangled mental pathways of thought in their audience.
I am thinking about how you are thinking at all times. And I ask myself: Could they misinterpret this? What baggage are they bringing that I should address that maybe they don’t even know that they’re carrying the baggage, that could interfere with them absorbing this information? Is there some reference that we all are familiar with and comfortable with that I can tap, that can help me communicate this complex idea? Is there some topic that you don’t even know is amazing, but I think is amazing because these other things that you found to be amazing? So surely you’ll think this is amazing—let me present that.
So it is not a syllabus from a formal soup-to-nuts course in astrophysics. No. I have hand-picked topics that have a record of exciting people when they learn about them.
BNR: I want to talk a little bit about the last section of the book, which you call “The Cosmic Perspective.” In it, you gather up so many threads, many of them familiar, but I think in a very specific and interesting way which knits together a kind of humility before the face of the complexity of the Universe, and a deep sense of responsibility and optimism all at the same time. I’m curious to know the process by which you came to some of the thinking that’s in this last stage of the book.
NTD: After the book was in galley, I re-read the chapter and said, “this is a little rambly,” but then I thought, “it’s rambly because that’s how I came to it. Bacteria in our gut—that’s a biological cosmic perspective.” So you get to see all the bits and pieces that I then stapled together to make this larger statement in this chapter.
We’re coming on the 50th anniversary of Apollo-8, launched in 1968, in December. When they published the mission’s photo of “Earth Rise: Lunar Landscape,” we changed on Earth. It was almost like a firmware upgrade in our sense of that which we need to tend on earth. Before then, yes, you cared if your stream was polluted, your river was polluted, or your lake, but nobody thought globally about things. The hippies were not even thinking globally. They just wanted to end the war and make love. There was not an environmental concern by anybody until after that photo was published. In it, you saw Earth not with color-coded countries, as was familiar in a classroom; you saw it as only Nature could show it to you, with ocean and land and clouds.
Of course, in 1969, we would walk on the Moon. In 1970, was the first Earth Day. But why didn’t we have Earth Day in 1960, or 1950, or 1940, or 1980? It happened while we were going to the Moon. Of course, we had plenty of other stuff to worry about. We were still in a hot war, still in a cold war, there was still campus unrest, the civil rights movement was only just barely finishing out the hard work of the ’60s.
No one thought about garbage thrown out of a window, in any kind of “take care of the Earth” sense until after that photo was published. We would go on to ban leaded gas. We would ban DDT. We would introduce the catalytic converter. The Environmental Protection Agency would be founded, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be founded, all while we were going to the Moon. Period. So THAT is a cosmic perspective, uploaded into every citizen of Planet Earth. And you cannot put a price tag on that. You cannot say, “Oh, what was the cost of Apollo and show me the spinoffs of it.” That is not even the way to have that conversation. The cosmic perspective changes you in fundamental ways that, in my judgment, is only for the better, for the greater good of the individual, the state, the community of nations, and the species.
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