Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview: Why Aliens Would Ignore Us
Written by Marc Parker and Melissa Benefield Parker, Posted in Interviews Authors
Image attributed to David Yellen
Born and raised in New York City, astrophysicist, planetary scientist, author and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard, his MA at the University of Texas at Austin and a MPhil, PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia University.
In 1994, he joined the Hayden Planetarium as a staff scientist and the Princeton faculty as a visiting research scientist and lecturer. Two years later, he became the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, which is a part of the American Museum of Natural History where Tyson founded the Department of Astrophysics.
"The Blob was an alien. It was just a blob. It didn’t have eyes, hands or teeth. It was just a blob. I thought that was brilliant. It’s simple yet imaginative."
From 2006-2011, Tyson hosted the television show NOVA ScienceNow on PBS, and since 2009, he has hosted the weekly podcast StarTalk. He is the author of many books including Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour (co-authored with Michael A. Strauss and J. Richard Gott), Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and Cosmic Queries: StarTalk’s Guide to Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going.
Tyson’s newest offering, Welcome to the Universe in 3D: A Visual Tour, published by Princeton University Press, is the first time he has been able to visually show the grandeur of space in book form. Written and created with coauthors and renowned astrophysicists Michael A. Strauss, J. Richard Gott and Robert J. Vanderbel, the book features dozens of stereoscopic 3D images of an array of galactic attractions. A special 3D stereo viewer is connected to the book’s back cover, allowing the far-flung features of the universe to be seen up close, seeming to float within reach above the page.
Welcome to the Universe in 3D takes readers from the Moon through the solar system and then to exoplanets, distant nebulas and galaxy clusters until reaching the cosmic microwave background radiation (or CMB), the most distant observable light. Throughout the book, the authors explain what’s known and what’s not known about the subjects of the spine-tingling images.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Neil, what a cool idea for a book! How did Welcome to the Universe in 3D come about?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s part of a series actually. The origin story is, while I was on the teaching faculty at Princeton University, I and two of my colleagues invented a brand new class, which was Introduction to Astrophysics. But it was much more friendly than you might think (laughs). We told a lot of stories with a lot of anecdotes. You’d still learn the science, but the tone of the course was more like, “We’re all just hanging out in the living room and learning about the universe together.” Afterwards, when we were reading the transcripts, we realized we could make a book out of this. So we wrote a book which is ostensibly a textbook, but it doesn’t read like a textbook because of all this sort of friendly banter that’s in it. It was a nice sized book, and it was published by Princeton Press.
Princeton Press said, “But what if someone does want to use it as a textbook?” We said, “Fine.” So there was another book called Welcome to the Universe: The Problem Book, which has all the problems in it. Then people said, “This book is too big to carry around. Is there an easy way you can get the juiciest of this information?” We said, “Yes.” So we created Welcome to the Universe: A Pocket-Sized Tour, and that came out just a year and a half ago. It’s tiny. It fits right in a jacket pocket.
Then since all those are words, and the universe is a very visual place, we said that we’ve got to have some visual accompaniment to this. So all those images in the Welcome to the Universe in 3D emanate from discussions in the other books. So on the website, welcometotheuniverse.net, you see all the books there and even bonus material where I have personally voice-narrated the captions to the images in the 3D book. So you can just click on it, click on the right caption, then watch it, and you can hear me. I put on my best planetarium voice (laughs). That way, you feel like you have your own private tour of the objects that were previously just flat images, and now they pop! A picture of a planet instead becomes the planet. This gives you a different relationship to the content that you’re learning about.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is this book for everyone or just for amateur astronomers?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: We all look up. So it’s not a matter of who’s the amateur astronomer with the backyard telescope and who isn’t. We all look up. We all wonder. In fact, there’s six images in there out of the 65 that cover the entire night sky. What’s useful is you get to see constellations, which we know and love. You get to see them stretched out in space as they actually are. Then you realize that these aren’t images.
A constellation is not a thing. It’s just what the stars look like from here on earth. From somewhere else, it’s a completely different shape because you get to see an embraceable 3D dimensionality in all of it. So in some ways, it could dismantle anybody’s sense that the sky is some sort of firm place where stars are embedded. That is not the case. I want people to feel they live in a full three-dimensional space. This book will convey that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: My first visit to a planetarium was in the late 1960s.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Did they have the laser shows yet?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: It was around 1968, and I don’t remember the laser shows at that time.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Alright. So the laser shows came in the 70s with Pink Floyd and The Dark Side of the Moon. It was a way to get people back into the planetarium, but it was a little bit of a flop.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was 12 or 13, and all I can remember thinking was, “I feel small!”
Neil deGrasse Tyson: As you should! (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely! (laughs) As the director of the Hayden Planetarium, how would you define planetarium?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s most people’s first virtual reality experience. You usually go when you’re very young. You enter this room, and the lights dim, the stars come out, and you’re transported. Today, we can move among the stars. Back then, you couldn’t change the stars. But now, there are projector devices that can enable you to go anywhere in the universe because we have the data to empower that. So it’s a place to experience the universe one-on-one. That’s how I think about it. My first encounter at age nine is what set me in the direction to become an astrophysicist in the first place.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did your parents encourage your scientific interests?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I would say that differently. It’s basically correct, but I can put a nuance on it that I think is very important. It’s not that they encouraged it. Yes, that’s true. But I want to be clear. They were not wishful parents buying me the chemistry set or the telescope hoping I’d one day do science. My interest was manifested before they engaged in the support structures to enable. So once they saw I was interested in the universe from the planetarium, two years later, they bought me my first telescope for my 12th birthday.
When I needed to go somewhere to observe some star alignment and needed a good location, they would take me there. So that’s the support effort that they put in so that my interest would continue to be stoked. I wanted to distinguish that from parents that are always trying to force their kids to do or be interested in something they are because they think it’s in your best interest for them to do that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What are the odds that another universe exists with our roles reversed?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Where I’m the journalist, and you’re the person being interviewed?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Exactly.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It is predicted that we could be just one of an infinite number of universes, and we call that the multiverse, which is a cool name for it. In fact, that word is in pop culture so that the Doctor Strange Marvel movie is called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (laughs). So the word is with us. It’s in our vocabulary, and I’m very happy that society uses words from my field because it’s a mainstreaming force in what we do that I embrace.
But if you have a multiverse, and if there’s an unlimited number of them, an infinite number, then all combinations of all atoms and all outcomes are being realized. So there could be a universe where just one word I’m speaking now is different but everything else is identical or your and my roles are swapped. There could be a universe where Hitler develops the bomb or a universe where none of us are in it, and there’s a whole other set of people that know nothing of us and don’t look anything like us. There are so many possibilities that it’s not even interesting to contemplate because, if anything is possible, then just make anything up, and there it is. It’s almost more fun if you have some limits like there could be a universe that can’t make DNA, so they have to make a different kind of life. Well, what kind of life would that be? Things like that, I think, make for interesting storytelling, not a story where anything could possibly happen.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Elon Musk said that if you’re prepared to die, you’re a candidate for going to Mars.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes. Let’s all sign up! (laughs)
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That was really encouraging (laughs).
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. My favorite planet is still Earth. But I think what he said has a little more punch to it, which is: “I don’t want to die on earth. I want to die on Mars.” That’s what he said.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you don’t agree?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’ll go on a vacation there. Sure.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: But you wouldn’t want to live there (laughs).
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No. Antarctica is balmier than Mars is. Mars is very cold. But no one’s lining up to build condominiums on Antarctica. So it’s a little bit of an escapism to think this way without a dose of reality.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I liked one of your recent tweets.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Why are you reading my tweets? What are you doing reading my tweets? (laughs) Okay. Which one?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The tweet was, “Last I checked, the rest of the universe was in good shape. It’s Earth that’s got all the problems.” Are you primarily speaking about climate change?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes. Everything. Conflict, and the fact that people would wage war just because someone lives on a different side of a line that’s drawn on a piece of land. That’s weird. It’s weird that we all speak different languages. That’s just weird. It’s weird that we all worship different gods or no god at all. That’s just weird. We’re all human. So imagine aliens coming to visit who say, “Oh, there’s an interesting planet with water, land and clouds. Let’s give it a visit.” Then they visit it and see Earth up close. They see the protest, the conflict, the hatred and the reasons people hate one another.
Like I said, one of the reasons is that you live across the fence. Other reasons are skin color, who you worship and who you sleep with. They’re killing each other over this. It has convinced me that those aliens will just turn right back around and go home and say, “There’s no sign of intelligent life on Earth anywhere.”
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I definitely get what you’re saying about conflict and hatred and totally agree. Would the physical appearance of aliens look similar to humans?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No other life on Earth other than other apes look similar to humans. Lobsters don’t look similar. Trees don’t. Worms don’t. Most life on Earth does not look similar to humans. So why should an entire other planet that has its own forces driving the formation and evolution of life, look like us at all?
This is the narrow imagination of Hollywood and people who claim that they’ve been visited by aliens. All aliens look like an actor in a costume. If you’re old enough to remember the planetariums in the 60s, you might remember the movie The Blob. Actually, that movie was 1958, and it’s one of Steve McQueen’s earliest movies. The Blob was an alien. It was just a blob. It didn’t have eyes, hands or teeth. It was just a blob. I thought that was brilliant. It’s simple yet imaginative. For me, it’s way more believable than an alien that’s walking towards you bipedally with arms outstretched that wants to suck your brains out.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I understand you like to set Hollywood straight about their science errors in films (laughs).
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, they’re asking for it (laughs). I’m minding my own business. Then they’ve got to put out a movie, get something wrong, and I’ve got to then jump out and say something. But, yeah, me and movies go way back. I don’t mind the things that are wrong, if they’ve got a lot of other stuff right. There’s an old saying by Mark Twain, “First get your facts straight, then you can distort them at your leisure.” But if you don’t even get your basic facts straight, then there is no hope. Then there’s no hope for what you are trying to accomplish, if that includes science.
So I like movies that have good foundations. Then to criticize any science at all is really complimenting it by giving it any attention at all. Take Mars Attacks! I’m not even commenting on that movie (laughs). There’s no attempt to be real. So why comment on something for which there is no attempt to be real? So I don’t. But otherwise, yeah. I’ll call it out if that’s the case. By the way, when I do, I think I’m misunderstood a lot. I mean, my motives are misunderstood. They say, “You’re ruining the movie. It’s just a movie. Why don’t you stay home?” I’m saying, “Suppose you had a friend who was a car expert, and you’re watching a period piece from back in 1958, and parked in the street is a 1962 Chevy Bel Air?” They didn’t make that car yet. So the prop master did not do the homework. You would pay that person for their insights and how much they know. Now, I make similar insights, and you say I’m annoying. That’s my problem.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Understood. Is it true that you approached the producers of The Big Bang Theory with a request to appear on the sitcom?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No. No. They approached me! I was very honored. No. I didn’t approach them. Oh, no.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Can’t believe the internet is wrong (laughs).
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Really? The internet’s wrong? (laughs) I did not approach them at all. I got two invitations, one for season three and then one in their last season, and that was it. I’m not an actor, and if you watched the ones I’m in, it’s very clear I’m not an actor (laughs). I’m delighted when artists like writers, producers, designers, sculptors want to add some science. You call me, and I’m there for you. Artists hold the pulse of culture, and if science folds in to what an artist does, then science becomes part of culture in which it wouldn’t otherwise achieve. So I’m good with that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Will it ever be possible for us to travel back in time?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: We think not because if there is, why don’t we already see the time traveler? (laughs) Are we so uninteresting to time travelers that no one is going to come back to today or any of the 6,000 years that has preceded us? In fact, there’s an annual convention, a time traveler’s convention, where they all gather at a specific time of day when a time traveler is supposed to land in that circle at that time in that place, and it hasn’t happened yet. Plus, you wouldn’t want to go back in time and accidentally prevent your parents from meeting each other, which would then prevent you from being born, which would then prevent you from going back in time to prevent them from meeting each other.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: That makes so much sense (laughs). But if you could go back and speak to someone in the past, who would it be?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, Isaac Newton. But every time I go through that exercise, I realize it wouldn’t be very productive. It’s like, “Where are you from?” I’d say, “I’m from the 21st century.” He’d say, “What do you have there?” I’d say, “We have cars.” He’d say, “What’s a car?” I’d say, “Oh, it’s a horse-drawn carriage without the horse.” He’d say, “Then how does it move?” I’d say, “Oh, well, there’s fossil fuels.” He’d say, “What are fossil fuels?” (laughs) The conversation would get nowhere. Nothing I could talk about would he know. I know he’s a fast study and everything, but I just don’t know how productive that would be, as much as I dream about it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Neil, how do you relax?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I like reading old science books, like really old, hundreds of years old, to see how people used to think about how the world worked, and it keeps us humble in modern times as we come up with ideas and how to weigh what confidence we have in one thing being correct versus another thing. So I like reading. I like going to the theater with family, Broadway musicals, plays and occasionally symphonies and orchestras. I like curling up on the couch with family and making popcorn with slightly too much butter on it and watching a movie that we’ve been all reserving for that occasion. So I like family time, and I like learning about the history of human thought. I’m very relaxed when I do that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What makes a 30+ year marriage work?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh (laughs). So it’s interesting. We’ve all seen fairytales, right? Not the ones where children get eaten by witches and creatures, but the ones that involve romance?
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Right.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The romance is very clearly outlined in those fairytales. It’s beautiful. It’s wishful, and then they finally connect, and then it ends. It’s just, and they lived happily every after. There is no fairytale to take you into that place. Fairytales are not sources of insight, wisdom and advice for life. So if there are no fairytales that extend beyond the happily ever after, then they’re offering no advice for being married, and half of all marriages end in divorce.
So in fairytales, 100% of romances end up in marriage. Half of all marriages end up in divorce. So the fairytales are working for the romance and are failing for the marriage. So people need to realize that first, it’s easy to take someone for granted because they’re just always there. But never take them for granted. Not that I’m some world expert at this, but it’s just what I’ve seen. I think about it a lot, and my wife and I discuss it. You don’t take a partner for granted. You try and do fresh and new things with each other, so you can build new memories and not let old memories go stale. That way, you can grow together and, hopefully, die together.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What is the biggest misconception people have of you?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Misconception of me? Um (laughs). I think I’m pretty open out there, so I don’t have a hidden side. Here’s a misconception. Before I appear on any talk show, I heavily research the host. I look at what kinds of questions they ask and after how many minutes or seconds they interrupt with a question while you’re speaking. I learn what their interest points are, what the likelihood is that they would do their homework and when they’d just go in there cold, and then I conduct the interview. In many cases, people will say, “Oh, you have such good chemistry with that person.” (laughs) I’m thinking, “You have no idea what I did before that interview for you to think it’s all happening naturally.” So the biggest misconception is the ease which people think I conduct interviews and the actual effort I put in to make it look that way.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you do research on people who are interviewing you like late-night talk show hosts?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: And the audience because it’s their show, and I want to serve their audience. I’m not going to just give the same stump speech with the same vocabulary. I’ll choose a vocabulary that fits an audience. That’s when people say, “Oh, you’re so natural,” or “You have such good chemistry.” I’m like, “Okay. That’s a total misconception.” And I’m specifically referring to live because when you’re live, it’s in the moment, and everything you say matters. There’s no do-overs. So the rhythm of that matters.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Very interesting and cool. Did you and your wife raise smart children and give them advice about specific scientific careers?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: So I don’t think of smarts the way most people do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Now, how did I know that, Neil? (laughs)
Neil deGrasse Tyson: (laughs) I think we have to ask the question, “Are your kids capable?” First of all, my wife, who’s also a trained scientist, wanted to ensure they were scientifically literate above all else. They were certified scientifically literate by age 13, and I’ll give an example. At the table, if there’s a full-grown adult who says, “Oh, next week, Mercury is going to retrograde.” They would be in middle school at this point, and to the adult, they’d say things like, “What does that mean for you?” Then of course, someone would explain. Then they’d say, “Why do you think Mercury has anything at all to do with that?”
They’d start asking questions to unpack the belief system that the person is putting forth on the table. They’d be polite. They wouldn’t say, “Oh, you think the universe influences you. This has been debunked centuries ago.” No. They’ll hold a conversation with you in an attempt to get you to see why what your thinking is flawed. That is science literacy. Knowing how the world works is science literacy. So I didn’t care what they majored in. I didn’t care what their grades were. I knew no one would ever exploit them for not knowing how the world works by the person assuming that they don’t.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you know how the universe will end?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: There are several possibilities, but we don’t know for sure. One idea is that we’ve expanded so rapidly through the universe, we go into a period called the Big Rip, which is terrifying to me. It’s where the very fabric of the universe cannot stretch at the rate in which the expansion of the universe requires it. Then the very fabric of the universe rips. I don’t even know what that would look like. I don’t want to know what that would look like. I don’t want to be around if that happens. But there’s a line of research that suggests it just might.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: On that note, a final question. Neil, do you sometimes still feel like that little boy of nine who looked up and was fascinated with the universe for the first time in a planetarium?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, maybe I’m 10 by now (laughs). But, yes. I’m a little older. I’m 10 or 11, but I have no less cosmic curiosity today than back then. Anytime at night, when I leave a building, I’ll look up. Something might peek through a hole in the clouds. I think an adult scientist is a kid who never grew up.
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Astrophysicist Author Interview Scientist Welcome To The Universe In 3D: A Visual Tour