When Americans are asked to name a living scientist, the second-most common response — after Stephen Hawking — is Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Tyson is the longtime director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York and was previously a researcher in astrophysics at Princeton. But he's so much more. Over the past decade, through his appearances on late-night TV and the tweets he's sent to some 3.5 million followers, he's become the country's premier science communicator, culminating in his role as the host of the acclaimed TV series Cosmos last year. Last week, his own late night TV show, StarTalk (an adaptation of his long-running radio show and podcast), debuted on the National Geographic channel.
I recently spoke with Tyson about his wish list for NASA's space exploration program, his thoughts on extraterrestrial life, his predictions for the long-term future of the human race, and his plans for the show. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Joseph Stromberg: When it comes to your career, why have you spent so much time and energy as a public science communicator, rather than on research?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I'm not exactly what I seem. I'd much rather being in the lab doing research, or at home playing with my kids, or out with my wife. I don't start my day thinking about how I can bring the universe to the public.
What happens is I get an email or a phone call, and someone wants me to appear in a documentary or provide a soundbite for a new discovery for the evening news. I think, "Okay, I have an expertise, and they're in search of that expertise to serve their needs," so I come when called.
Given the energy I invest in trying to understand the universe, the least I can do is think about the interview I'm about to have with Jon Stewart. So in that particular case, I study how much time, on average, he gives a guest time to talk before he jumps in with a joke. It's important for the rhythm, because then I parcel my cosmic information in units that allow me to make a full thought before he jumps in.
So I do things like this, and then people say, "You're such a natural." But that's not true at all. I just studied the problem. It's a researchable talent. And it makes people come back for more, over and over.
Joseph Stromberg: We're in an era where lots of well-established scientific conclusions — on vaccines and climate change, for instance — are being attacked by people who reject the consensus without real evidence. What do you think is going on?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I think of it as a failure of the educational system. The solution isn't beating people over the head. It's changing the educational system so that people understand what science is and how it works — the methods and tools of science, the way we humans decode the operations of nature.
Once you understand this, you're incapable, later on, of cherry-picking science for your own political or cultural or social or religious purposes. Because you see the world differently. You recognize that there are things the laws of physics dictate, that establish a physical reality we all live with.
Joseph Stromberg: What do you think we should be doing, as a country, in space?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I have an unorthodox answer to that. We're used to picking and choosing what to do in space. But it shouldn't be about a particular destination, or a specific project getting priority. We should be turning the entire solar system into our backyard.
When it's your backyard, you're not thinking whether to go to one corner or another. The entire backyard is your space to work in.
This will require a whole suite of launch vehicles. If you want to go to the moon to study its geology, that's one vehicle. If you want to go to the far side for a tourist jaunt, that's another set of vehicles. If you want to search for life on Mars, that's a different set. Maybe you want to mine an asteroid — the first trillionaire in the world will be that person for sure — and that's a different set of technologies.
Think about when you build roads. The purpose isn't just connecting two destinations. Ideally, you have a whole network of roads that connect everywhere to everywhere. Imagine if the architects of the interstate system said, "We're going to build a road from New York to Los Angeles, and that's it." No — you build roads everywhere, and that way people can be creative in what they elect to do.
That's how I think of space. I'm not voting for one project over another. I think we should do it all.
Joseph Stromberg: Obviously that'll cost a lot of money. What do you say to people who question the idea of spending it in space when we have so many problems here on Earth?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Ask yourself this: how big is Earth? It is a tiny speck in this vast universe. It has limited resources and limited energy. So you're going to say, "I'm going to solve my problems here on Earth before I go into space"?
You have to realize how intellectually shallow that looks when you have a cosmic perspective. While you're looking down, an asteroid might render you extinct. You're fighting a war over limited resources. Where are there unlimited resources? Space. Think about rare earth elements, which are only found in a few areas and are needed for electronics. They're called that because they're rare on Earth — but there are asteroids in which they're not rare at all.
Look at how much of our foreign policy and the way we structure civilization is based on functioning within the limited resources of this speck we call Earth. To say that we need to solve all our problems here first before going to space — that's like saying, "Before I go on an oceanic voyage and discover new lands, I want to make sure we solve all our problems at home first."
What we don't realize is that there are solutions to problems that await us in places we've yet to discover. The history of exploration and discovery reveals this over and over.
We're not properly trained to think of science this way. In school, we think of science as one class we take. We don't think of it as an enterprise that leads to discoveries that transform all of civilization. Most of the greatest discoveries in the world are derived from work by a person who was simply exploring a new frontier. Practically every machine in a hospital used to make diagnoses without cutting you open is based off principals of physics discovered by people who had no interest in medicine. Wilhelm Röntgen, who discovered X-rays, wasn't looking to help doctors at all.
You can't say, "Solve this problem before we explore." If you do that, you're stunting the moving frontier of human inquiry.
Joseph Stromberg: Earlier this month, NASA's chief scientist, Ellen Stofan, predicted we'd find evidence of extraterrestrial life within the next few decades. What do you think?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I totally agree. Well, let me be more precise: the missions that are currently planned are targeting places where we have evidence of past or liquid water. Everywhere we find water on Earth, we find life.
Given the pace of probes that will be sent out and the destinations in line for them, in the next several decades, we will know with certainty whether there was ever life elsewhere in the solar system — a second genesis of life — or not. We'll be able to answer that question with confidence.
Joseph Stromberg: What locations do you think are most promising?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I agree with NASA: wherever the water is. So maybe in the soils of Mars, where there might be an aquifer. Yes, Mars is cold, but there might be undiscovered heat sources. Of course, there's Jupiter's moon Europa.
Then there's Saturn's moon Titan, which has liquid methane instead of water. Maybe life doesn't need water — maybe it just needs liquid. We have a certain temperature-range bias based on the life we've come to know and love, but maybe you can sustain life at 200 degrees below zero, where water is as solid as bedrock but other molecules have liquefied. We just don't know, but that would significantly widen the search net.
Joseph Stromberg: Years before the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet, you elected not to include it in the Hayden Planetarium's display of planets — and you've been on that side of the Pluto debate for a while. How did you arrive at that position so much earlier?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: We were forced to make a decision, because we were about to spend money on exhibits, and start cutting metal. We wanted to future-proof the exhibit, because it was expensive.
With Pluto, we looked at the trend line. We noticed that starting in the early '90s, other objects were being discovered in the outer solar system that resembled Pluto: they were small and icy. We thought to ourselves, "Maybe Pluto was just the first example of this new swath of real estate, rather than the ninth planet." Seeing that we could expect many more discoveries of objects like Pluto, we decided to remove it from the discussion of the rest of the eight planets, and put it in a whole new discussion of the Kuiper belt.
We were just investing in what we saw as the trend line of the outer solar system, not thinking that it would create the outcry that it did.
Joseph Stromberg: What do you think about the long-term future of our species?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I think our extinction is assured, unless we have a more enlightened approach to our relationship with Earth. In the end, it will require some combination of science and technology to save us from ourselves.
Joseph Stromberg: Do you mean climate change in particular? Or just environmental problems as a whole?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It could be any of those. Anything that we're influencing that down the line could end up killing us. That's where we need enlightened governance, and that's where we're coming up short right now.
Joseph Stromberg: Why'd you decide to make a late-night TV show?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It wasn't actually my idea. As Cosmos came to a close, National Geographic — which did the international distribution — said to me, "Let's do more TV!"
I was kind of fatigued at that point, so I didn't want to do it just yet. But I was already doing the radio show, so I asked if they'd consider filming it. They wanted to do a little more than that, so I offered the Hall of the Universe at the American Museum of Natural History, a beautiful space.
It's the radio show I'm making anyway, but now adapted to television. We've done a lot of experimenting on what works, what attracts an audience. Nat Geo ordered 10 of these to test the waters, and we've filmed those, and they said they wanted another 10 before it even aired.
Joseph Stromberg: Are you doing anything differently to gear it for TV?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No, not really. We went to a lot of effort to get the recipe for radio, so we're not compelled to experiment further just yet. We want to see how the format will work. I think it'll work quite well. The fundamental difference is that I'll have to be better groomed.