An Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist. He is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. Since 2006, he has hosted the educational science television show NOVA scienceNow on PBS. He is also a frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, Dr. Tyson wrote an essay, “The Case for Space,” on why the United States can’t afford to abandon space exploration.

The Politic: At a time when we have $14 trillion in debt and are struggling to fund necessities like Medicare and the military, why should the taxpayer’s dollar go towards space exploration?

Because it is an investment. In the free market, capitalist culture, you want more money tomorrow than you have today. The prior arguments that we should go to space because it’s the frontier, it’s in our DNA, that’s all true, but it never convinced anybody to write a check. The driver of large, expensive projects in the history of the human species have never referenced those ideals. They have referenced things much more close to home, like war or defense, and the promise of economic return. In other eras, they would reference the power of royalty and deity – that’s, for example, how you got the pyramids. These three sets of drivers – the praise of royalty and deity, the promise of economic return, and the urge to not want to die, are the three only drivers of great expenditure of money. The greatest projects our cultures have ever seen derive from those three drivers, including the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project. NASA was founded in the climate of the Cold War. It was geopolitical forces that created NASA. All but two of the astronauts were drawn from the military. As we go forward, we can demonstrate what NASA’s role in advancing a frontier will play in our economy and in so doing, it’s not a matter of having this amount of debt and these problems. The very construct of this question presupposes that NASA is some luxury of scientists and engineers. Space may be the only insurance policy against going broke.

The Politic: How much will it take, to send a man to Mars?

Sojourner takes its X-ray Spectrometer measurement of the Yogi Rock on Mars

I don’t want to isolate one destination from another. It’s a common tactic that many people invoke and I think it is misguided. When we were thinking about the interstate highway system, we didn’t say to ourselves, “we are going to build one to go from New York to Los Angeles and that’s it.” That’s not how you do it. You enable people to go wherever they want. You do this by creating multiple destinations available to you by developing the interstate system. The government does not presuppose where you want to live or how you want to live, but provides you with access to other than one destination. A healthy future in space is not “let’s go to Mars, how much does it cost?” It’s “let’s build a portfolio of launch vehicles that can be strapped with different combinations of boosters that will service whatever the needs of one community or another.” For example, there might be a geopolitical reason to return to the moon. There might be a security reason to stop that asteroid that’s headed our way. You have scientific reasons to explore Mars. You can build a sweep of launch vehicles so that the solar system is rendered as familiar to you as your backyard. You can do that if we double NASA’s budget. Right now, it’s half a penny on your dollar. Double it to one penny on your tax dollar. That will be sufficient to reinvigorate propulsion research and then you can go into space for whatever reason circumstances provide. You might want to go to the moon for tourist reasons. There might be some mining options available on an asteroid or on a far side of the moon. It is the access to space and the act of advancing a frontier that spawns innovation. It’s innovation that will drive the economy. What will it cost? Half a trillion to a trillion to get to Mars. NASA’s current budget over the next 25 years is half a trillion dollars so it’s not like it doesn’t have the money to do some things. I would just like to get to Mars sooner than thirty years from now. Doubling the budget will enable this.

The Politic: Can the Chinese today have the same catalytic effect the Soviets had back in the 1950s?

There are two kinds of forces operating here. One of them is whether or not we fear them militaristically. If China said, “Let’s put a military base on Mars,” we would be on Mars in 10 months.

The Politic: Only 10 months?

I’m just kidding. But I am capturing for you the urgency with which we would act and take such a threat seriously. I joke that Mars is already red, so in China that would be an easy marketing ploy to turn that into a destination. China remains an economic competitor, has been for a while, and will surely continue to be. The fact is, the biggest incentive we would feel is not simply that China is an economic powerhouse, but that America is falling behind as an economic powerhouse. We feel that in the foreclosures of our homes and in the number of people out of work. There are consequences to a failing economy. A bigger driver is not that we have to beat China economically, but that we need to get ourselves out of economic doldrums and straits. We can do that without necessarily beating China, but if we do it well and do it right, there’s no reason that wouldn’t be a consequence. 

The Politic: When a president promises something beyond his years he is unaccountable – how do you expect presidents to have long-term visions?

We live in an era in which a president can promise something outside of his tenure. I am deeply concerned about that because if the urge to do it is brought primarily by the charisma or the energy or the political capital spent by a particular leader, then to accomplish that goal will require a president to be named later on a budget not yet established. It becomes another generation’s problem. It could be that another president is elected who has no interest in space. The goal here is not to have our ambitions in space linked to the ambitions of a president. They need to be a fundamental part of the expectations of our elected leaders. When that’s the case, it doesn’t become a political potato. It doesn’t become a bargaining chip or a point of debate about who is going to do it or not going to do it. It will be embedded in our cultural expectations of our leaders in the same way that veteran benefits are never debated.

The Politic: If the federal government is not going to take charge, is privatizing space feasible?

If the government doesn’t take charge, the country goes bankrupt. That’s my prediction for us. We don’t go bankrupt, but we just become really insignificant culturally, economically, and militaristically. We just fade. Without advancing a space frontier, there is nothing to drive our ambition and our economies. The engines of tomorrow’s economy will not be there. You are not going to inspire the next generation. All the jobs are going to go overseas. All the things that people are complaining about today and think they have Band-Aid solutions to them are all solved by this one concept. Private enterprise cannot lead a space frontier. They have never led a frontier in the history of cultures, if that frontier was expensive, dangerous, with uncertain risks. When that happens, you can’t value that in the capital markets. Private enterprise comes into the fold after governments have explored the frontiers, drawn the maps, assessed the danger points, and understood the risks. The Dutch East India Trading Company did not lead Europeans to the New World. That was Columbus, on a voyage sent by Queen Isabella. Columbus was an explorer, but the people who wrote the checks were not. It was “find a shorter route to the Far East so that we can make our economic trade more efficient, and oh by the way, if you discover new land, here’s an Spanish flag, put it in the soil, and claim the land for Spain.” There were hegemonic reasons. There were geopolitical forces operating that had nothing to do with whether Columbus would take good notes on the botanical species he found in the New World or illustrations of exotic peoples he would come back and share with anthropologists. These were not the interests of the queen. Science has always piggybacked larger geopolitical funded projects. The astronauts did some science on the moon but that’s not what got us to the moon. The first scientist to go to the moon, a black scientist in fact, went on the very last mission. Another indicator that the moon wasn’t about science when we went.

The Politic: Shifting gears just slightly away from investing in NASA and more to advancing in science education in this country.

You mean shifting to higher thrust propulsion…

The Politic: That went over my head.

That’s like you saying I’m out of steam.

The Politic: That is why you are the physicist, and I am not. You are also a big advocate of investing more in science and math in this country. What are some of your thoughts about that and, more specifically, what you would do to change high school science curriculum?

You don’t need it. You just go into space, and then everyone will want to become scientists. The curriculum is important and having a good teacher is important. It is as they say in mathematics “a necessary but insufficient condition” to transform the world. You want to transform things? Have great cosmic discoveries of an advancing space frontier written large across the weekly headlines, and then people will want to become scientists, engineers and technologists. People will demand a better curriculum, and they will demand better teachers because they know that when they come out, there will be a really cool job waiting for them to design the next airfoil that will navigate the rarified atmosphere of Mars. They will need a biologist to help them study the tantalizing data that may tell us that there was once life on Mars. They will need a planetary geologist who will understand structures on various moons of other planets. There are so many things that a kid will then want to do and think about doing once they are written large across the headlines. Ambitions in space are powerful. I don’t know a more powerful driver. People say “why are we going to think about space when we still don’t know about the ocean floor?” Well, space will attract people in ways that the ocean floor does not. Just do the experiment: go into a classroom and say, “you know this is a vast ocean, it is very dangerous to get to bottom, we still don’t know how to do it, it’s a great frontier, and we still don’t know what’s at the bottom of the ocean. We’ll need engineers to develop the vessels that will take us down there, and we will need biologists because maybe we’ll find life lurking there and we’ll need geologists because maybe there’ll be cool things happening at the bottom of the ocean.” Say that to eighth graders. Then I walk in and I say “We are about to go to Mars, and we might find alien life. I need a biologist. Who is with me?” 

The Politic: Maybe you are just a better salesman than I am.

No, no! I am just saying that alien life… that wins every time. I win every time. I win. I just win. Who wants to design a craft to go to the bottom of the ocean? Who wants to design a craft that will visit Mars? I win. Who wants to design an electronic system that will detect murmurs at the ocean depth? Who wants to design a detection system that will locate and find killer asteroids that would render humans extinct? I win. I win every time because space is rich in ambitious projects that really smart people want to undertake. Some of them will go to the oceans; there is no doubt about it. What we’re talking about here is not specifically the career that someone takes but the idea that will entice them to want to become scientists and engineers in the first place. What was that initial spark of inspiration? NASA has got that written large. The fate of the country, in my read, is linked to the fate of NASA. As NASA fails, so too does the country fail.

The Politic: After decades in the profession, what keeps you coming back?

The boundless frontier. I like learning something tomorrow that I didn’t know today. The universe is full of places, concepts, things about which we know very little. It is a very attractive frontier for me to apply my emotional and intellectual energies. Meanwhile, a big part of my energy is bringing this to the public, and I see the excitement that the public expresses upon learning these discoveries in space. I don’t think it’s an artificial reaction. I don’t think it’s because I tell a good sound bite. I think it is because the universe is an inherently interesting place. Every culture we have ever seen or studied has had stories about their existence or about their presence in the world. It has included some thoughts, some imaginings, about their relationship with the rest of the universe. It is not just modern humans; it is all humans that have ever been.

The Politic: Could you talk a little more about public interest? Do you have any cool, more recent anecdotes about the public and that voice still being here?

The public interest in space is always, it has always been there, and it will continue to be there no matter where our funding profile for it will be. Consider for example that angry birds, one of the most successful smartphone apps ever written, is now going into space. It’s not angry birds at the bottom of the ocean; it’s angry birds space.

The Politic: You really hate the ocean, don’t you?

Well, the top grossing films of all time, just look at the top ten, at any given time, will involve space.

The Politic: One of them was Titanic.

Yes, but Avatar has overtaken it, which was completely based in space. If you look at the appetite that we have for space based things, it is boundless. Some of the greatest films that we will remember that have made it into the top ten have involved space. You look at Star Wars and Star Trek. Look at ET; that was just an alien, coming to visit Earth. Look at Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Deep Impact, Armageddon – these are big, blockbuster movies. There is a huge appetite for them; it is huge. I don’t take credit for any of it. I’m really just a conduit to allow that preexisting interest to manifest itself, as I show people different places and ways that they can apply that interest and energy.

The Politic: Building on that note, for the art history student at Yale or for the political science student like myself, what would be the one science book that you would recommend?

Of course I think we live in a healthier society if everyone has some basic level of science literacy. What I think we need to stamp out is the attitude at the cocktail party or the intellectual gathering where a pocket of them who are the liberal arts types and one of them says, “I was never good at math” and the rest of them chuckle “Oh, neither was I.” Then you have another pocket of the science geek set, and just imagine if one of them said, “I was never good with nouns and verbs.” You’d be laughed out of the room. So, we need to change the culture of it somehow being comically okay to be scientifically and mathematically illiterate. That puts a base level out there.

Are there books people can read? Sure. There are tons of books. Typically what is good is if you can find a science book that makes it to the bestsellers list that usually means that people who are not scientists are reading it and have enjoyed it. If you look at Bill Bryson’s book A Short History of Nearly Everything, much more readable than Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time. People bought that, but it is basically the most unread, bestselling book of all time. I have a couple of books that were low-level bestsellers, so that meant that a lot of nonscientists were reading them. One of them was Death by Black Hole. It’s a book that I’m quite proud of because it communicates to the reader how science works rather than using the reader’s time to teach them science. There is an unlimited amount of science that you could teach someone, so I think it is more important to learn how science works, what makes it tick, what it means to pose a question about the world and what are the methods and tools that we invent to answer them. In spite of the morbid title, Death by Black Hole, it is really about how science works. It was my awareness of that need to plug that hole in people’s science illiteracy that led me to put together that book. That is the kind of exposure that I think a person should have if they count themselves among the scientifically literate of the land.

By the way, I’m intrigued that you mentioned art history majors. I’ve seen an increasing number of artists who have been inspired by cosmic themes. Think back to the Renaissance when biblical stories made it to so many illustrations that people made or the stories of the ancient mythologies. Things that drive artists tell you something about what is operating the society and the culture. As we come into modern times, I see more and more artists stimulated, inspired, and triggered to create by modern cosmic discovery. That is another way that this kind of influence spreads across the land. It is not just the scientists. It is everybody becoming a participant in dreaming about tomorrow and making tomorrow become today.  

Josef Goodman is a sophomore in Morse College. Justin Schuster is a freshman in Branford College.

Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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  1. The only scientist on the last moon mission, wasn’t a black scientist. Did someone proofread this interview? I doubt Dr Tyson would make such a factual error.

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