Look Up

Or look down — Neil deGrasse Tyson wants you to be scientifically literate

illustration by craig winzer

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson inspires millions, not with hype and bravado, but with intergalactic levels of cool.

Through Tyson’s work as an astrophysicist, author, museum director, television and radio host, even the most novice among us can imagine the birth of stars; we can envision dwarf planets and ponder the very structures that define our home, the Milky Way.

Simply put, he makes science accessible and fun.

And local audiences will have a chance to see Tyson in person, when “Neil deGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Goes To The Movies” lights up the Hult Center 7:30 pm Thursday, June 16.

When I reached Dr. Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, we chatted about when I was a really little kid at The Field Museum in Chicago, where my mom was the education director, and how when we came to Eugene in ’78, it was so she could become the director of the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History here. (“Wow, your mother gets around!”)

I told him about Eugene’s own bike path solar system, and Tyson had questions: “How big’s the Earth? What’d they use for the Sun?”

We talked about the Willamette Meteorite, and I asked him if he could finally explain the Missoula floods, because I’ve been looking at that darn replica for 30-plus years, and I never really understood how the original got here.

So, Tyson patiently explained deglacialization to me, prefacing it by saying, “Now, this is not my area of expertise, but from what I understand …”

And at the end of our conversation, when I was thanking him, he said, “And thank your mom from me, for her lifetime of dedication to museums.”

What can I say? The man really is that awesome.

illustration by craig winzer

How do we encourage the next generation to connect with science and inquiry? 

Oh, I’ve been focusing on adults, because they outnumber kids five to one, they’re in charge and they vote. They allocate resources, and they sit on school boards. So, this concern for the next generation would be solved overnight if we had a scientifically literate adulthood. We don’t. So to say, “Let’s make all the kids scientifically literate,” which is an important goal  — I’m too impatient to wait 30 or 40 years until they’re old enough to be leaders. And kids are always curious about the world. They’re born scientists, whereas adults have had it beaten out of them over the years. The problems in society are really from scientifically illiterate adults.

We have compulsory public education in this country, but still, according to a January 2014  Gallup poll, “More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago.” As a scientist, how do you explain this phenomenon? 

So, in a free country, people can believe what they want. The problem comes about if what you believe is not founded in objective reality, and you have the power to make legislation based on it. These are the seeds of the undoing of an informed democracy. If 40 percent of people want to believe that God created humans in our present form, and again, we have a free country, they should believe what they want. But no one should confuse that for science. Because it’s not science; it’s religion. And so your science classroom, that’s the place where you teach people science, and then the person can choose what they want to do with their lives. They could lead a life of a religious person — that would be a fundamentalist religious person. The Catholic Church has no problem with evolution, by the way. There are branches of modern religion that don’t have issues with any of this, of science to proceed as it is. But if you create a society where people do not know what science is, or how and why it works, then you are basically bankrupting the future of the country in the 21st century, where literacy in science in STEM [science, technology, engineering math] fields will be the foundation of tomorrow’s economy.

If only for a day, what wavelength would you like to add to the human visual spectrum, and why?

Oh, maybe I’m greedy, but I want to add more than one wavelength [laughs]. But if I had to say what band, I would add microwaves. That would be just really cool, because you would see every cell phone light up, you’d see cell phone towers light up on the horizon, and you would just see the world as microwaves would see it. And we have exploited microwaves for our own gains, primarily for communication, but also microwave ovens. You’d see microwaves passing through walls, because that’s why you can have a cell phone conversation indoors. It would just be a cool thing to notice.

Tell me about the intersection between science fiction and science. 

There’s good science fiction, and there’s bad science fiction. And the good science fiction knows where science is, at any given moment, takes you there, and then goes beyond it. And if you’re good, you can do that, and then the story is stronger for it. If you don’t know much science, you really shouldn’t be writing science fiction. You should write some other kinds of stories. And the role that science fiction has played has been quite stimulating. It’s a force on our imagination.

The worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars require artificial gravity. Where are we with that? 

Well, Star Wars has no science in it, so just forget that [laughs]. But on Star Trek, they have a way to recreate gravity on the ship. And in other science fiction films that are less phantasmagorical, they create gravity by rotating a spaceship. They did that in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they did that in Interstellar. So you rotate this wheel, and you live on the perimeter of that wheel, where there’s artificial gravity, and that way, you can travel long distances through space, without the downside of having to live in zero G.

Did your parents and family encourage your interests? 

No, none of them encouraged anything. They supported interest after they saw it. It’s a subtle distinction, but an important one. There are many parents who have in mind what they want their kids to be interested in. They’ll buy them the chemistry set, or the microscope, buy them the telescope, or get them the medical equipment to get them to think about becoming doctors. My parents had no such force on me, my brother or my sister. They would take us around to various cultural institutions: the zoo, the natural history museum, the science museum or even other places where adults express highly-honed talents, like on Broadway, or the opera, or the symphony, or even hockey or a baseball game. So we were exposed to what talented adults could do. And then later on, we would reveal in ourselves where our interests would fall. And for me, it was the universe, traceable precisely to a visit to the Hayden Planetarium, my local planetarium here in New York. So, once they saw that, then it was supported. So maybe that’s the same term as “nurtured,” but they did not try to get me to do anything. It happened completely from natural causes.

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, how did you spend your summers?

In the summers growing up, we went away to camp. In the city, you know, you don’t have rolling hills or any thing that country folks might take for granted. So we went away to a sleepaway camp. There was a lake, and we lived in a cabin, so it exposed us to things that are not particularly urban, just to broaden our life experience.

Do you have a hero? 

So, I have people whose talents I admire, and maybe that would count as “hero” by many definitions. However, there is no one person that has all the talents that I seek. I get a leettle bit of one person and a leettle bit of another, and I cobble them together, and then I make one hybrid role model, if you will. And that way, I’m not beholden to weirdnesses that might exist in one person and not another. “Oh, this athlete is my role model! Oh, they got busted for drugs!” [laughs]. I don’t care about the rest of their lives. I don’t care about anything else — just their athletics — or their ability to solve equations, or just their capacity to explore. And these aspects of a person’s profile and personality are what I’ve put together. So my role models are … à la carte.

Looking back over your career, has your motivation changed? 

Motivation. If you don’t have it, it might seem hard to figure out how to get it. But if there’s something that compels you to want to learn, then the motivation comes for free. For example, let’s say you’re demotivated regarding mathematics in school. You can’t get up the interest. But then someone says, “Here’s something that’s going on in the universe. The universe began with a big bang, and it was 10 to the 30th degrees temperature and it expanded rapidly, and out of this came space, time, matter and energy,” and you say, “Wow, I wanna know about that.” Learn the math. Now you’re compelled to learn the math, so that you can achieve this other end.

Do you have a hobby? 

I have many hobbies, I would say, and not in the traditional sense. But there are things I like to do when I’m not doing other things: I like going to see Broadway plays and musicals; I like going to see the symphonies and the opera. I like reading very old books, to see how people used to think about things many centuries ago. I like playing with — I have a small collection of fountain pens, I don’t know, I just like playing with my fountain pens [laughs].

My husband has a collection of fountain pens. I get it. 

It’s a little fascination, my own private thing [laughs]. And I don’t force it on anybody else [laughs again]. Most of the time, I pull out writing paper, it’s usually from an art book, that’s the kind of paper that works well for this, and then I write. And if I’m invited to give any speech, I always write it with a fountain pen first.

What is the most unexpected thing you have found in your years of research?

Well, there’s not only stuff that I researched but also what others have researched. And I didn’t expect anybody to find dark energy. I thought that was going to be a ghost. But we found it in the late 1990s. I didn’t find it, but colleagues of mine found it. And dark energy is something that was imagined could be there, but we figured it probably wasn’t. It was predicted by Einstein, and then … there it was. And now we still don’t understand what it is, but we’ve found it. It’s a frontier.

Tell me about the Hubble Space Telescope — 26 years is a long time for any machine, although my stove is from 1953 and still fires up great.  

Except of course machines get repaired, and Hubble was repaired five times. And had it not been repaired five times, it would have been dead in the water after three years — literally, dead in the water. It would have been de-orbited and fallen into the Pacific.

How do you feel about this scientific instrument? Do you ever get to decide where to point it?  

There are people who have come of age with the images from the Hubble telescope. They’ve only ever known the Hubble. And we can understand, then, why people in their 20s and 30s feel so emotionally strong for it: They’ve been seeing pictures from it since they were children. When they learned that we were not going to repair it for the last time, the largest cry to have it preserved was by the public, not even by the scientists.

Did it work? 

Yeah, finally there was a last repair mission, and Hubble’s still going strong. I have been part of a Hubble mission to point the telescope, and the data was obtained, and we’re still analyzing the data. This was many years ago. It was a very fertile observation, a huge collaboration.

What might be a step to a brighter future for the human race?

If we elect scientifically enlightened leaders. Without it, we’re doomed. I want them to know what we do when the asteroid comes. I want them to know what we do when we run out of energy. In fact, I want them to know what to do so that we don’t run out of energy, so that the asteroid doesn’t come. If we elect people just because we think we like their personality, then the civilization is doomed — doomed to return to the cave. That’s not where I want to go.

Earlier peoples looked to the stars for signs and signals, but now we can just ask Siri where’s a good place to get tacos. So, tell me about the relationship between celestial phenomena and values and beliefs. 

We’ve gained the knowledge that thinking the universe affects our daily lives is false. We’ve gained the wisdom, from applying the methods and tools of science, to know what the correct answer is to something, rather than having a belief system tell us how to run our lives. So to think that the cosmos influenced your life, and somehow controlled it, is a psychologically immature state. It’s the same state as a child has, when the child thinks that the person in the television knows them personally. When the child thinks that the whole world is sort of created just for them. I remember thinking this, at my fifth birthday party: There was a candle that was in the shape of the number five, and I asked my mother where she got it. And she got it at the local store. And I remember thinking, “How did they know it was my birthday?” You’re not thinking about anybody else, you’re thinking that it’s all for you. And you outgrow this. As a civilization, we outgrew that.

Are there any natural places, or slices of the sky, that you have a particular affinity for? 

I feel strongly when I’m on the top of a mountain, and I’m above the cloud layer, and I’m looking up at the night sky, and then I have access to a telescope that’s snatching photons of light from their appointed waves, and they land on my detector, and from there I decode the nature of the universe. This is a deep feeling.

Why should we “keep looking up”? 

I will never tell people what to do. Keep looking down, go ahead. It’s a free country [laughs]. If it comes and strikes you in the ass, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Catch “Neil deGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Goes To The Movies” 7:30 pm Thursday, June 16, at the Hult Center $65-$93.50, with VIP packages available; hultcenter.org.