Neil deGrasse Tyson

Photography Richard Burbridge

Published November 1, 2016


In popular fiction, films, and television, the professor character plays avuncular instructor to the hero and to the audience. He’s the irreverent spirit guide, the sage Jedi master. And as our culture has itself begun to resemble a weird Spielbergian spectacle, the astro­physicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson has emerged as America’s beloved science teacher, our space-tie-wearing Obi-Wan. As the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (and heir, there, to his friend and hero Carl Sagan), on his geektastic podcast and TV talk show StarTalk, which returned for its third season on National Geographic last month, during his truth-bomb-dropping appearances on late-night shows, or in his hilarious fact-checks of pop culture on Twitter, Tyson is an encouraging, inspirational voice, at once demystifying science and making fun the mysteries of the universe. And this has made him into something of a pop-cultural hero himself—even if he did demote Pluto from planet status.

But Dr. Tyson, 58, has a purpose much greater than fame. He is deeply committed to his role as ambassador of Why Science Matters—in other words, promoting the vital importance of science literacy. As he tells Larry Wilmore, beloved former host of The Nightly Show, on which he faced off against Wil­more in Blerd-Off 2015 (“Black-Nerd-Off” for the uninitiated), Tyson’s favorite day is when he gets someone to learn something.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Larry, man, how the hell are you? Are you on a Caribbean island now or something?

LARRY WILMORE: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Just kicking back. I got my nice drink with the umbrella in it, you know … How are you doing, man?

TYSON: Yeah, good. Just trying to keep the universe real. Trying to spread a love of science literacy to whoever will listen.

WILMORE: I think people like listening to the spread of science literacy with you as the spokesperson for it.

TYSON: Well, it wasn’t until later that I realized that what people were liking was not so much the science—because not everyone is going to like science as a subject—what they liked was all the ways that we figured out how to connect science to people’s everyday life, so they then realized it’s not just a topic they can step around or ignore; it’s a fundamental part of their existence. And then linking it to pop culture, like when I had you on the show … Thanks for doing that, by the way.

WILMORE: Are you kidding me? I loved that. I could’ve sat there for hours talking about that stuff.

TYSON: As you know, my guests are hewn from pop culture. And such people have their own fan bases who will follow them, and that means they had to hear you have a conversation about ways that science mattered. I remember we talked about magic and sleight of hand—

WILMORE: And there’s a lot of magic in science, so to speak. A lot of science started off as magic, where people were burned at the stake for doing science basically.

TYSON: Right, and the difference is that modern scientists will tell you how it works.

WILMORE: Right! To a witch getting burned at the stake: “Just tell them how it’s done, for chrissakes, witch! Tell them how it’s done!” [laughs] Now, when I was a kid, as I told you in that interview, I was very much interested in magic and science. They fueled interest in one another. What got you interested in science or physics as a kid? Because I assume you had this interest at a very young age, right?

TYSON: I was 9. I grew up in New York City. So it was the first visit to my local planetarium, which was Hayden Planetarium. And you grew up in L.A., right? So you must’ve had trips to Griffith Observatory.

WILMORE: Yep. I loved all those trips. They were fantastic. I was fascinated by all that stuff.

TYSON: Research in education has shown that we remember field trips long into adulthood. I remember visiting the post office in second grade and looking at the sorting machine. I have vivid memories of that, when I don’t even remember the name of the teacher who took me.

WILMORE: I remember we had a visit by a helicopter at our school when I was in grade school, and I was punished that day and didn’t get to see it. To this day, I am so mad I never got to see that helicopter land! [laughs] I took my first ride in a helicopter recently, and that’s what I thought, “Yes, finally the circle is complete!” Do you think those types of events inspire us to have interest in these things?

TYSON: I think they’re indelible no matter what. For me, after coming back from the planetarium and being basically starstruck by the universe, my biggest lesson was that I wanted to learn more about the universe. I didn’t know at the time that you need to know some math, you need to know some physics …

WILMORE: You need a foundation. So it was your interest in the mysteries of this that made you realize, “Well, I need a foundation to understand these mysteries, so now there’s work that actually has to go into—”

TYSON: That’s a better way to put it. It’s not that I liked the knowledge so much as that I liked the mystery. And, of course, I liked the knowledge and learning about black holes, but, “Oh my gosh, there’s this other stuff we don’t know… Maybe one day I can participate in this.” And the urge to want to do so then was a force in my life to gain awareness and literacy in other tandem subjects.

WILMORE: I think it’s such a good lesson. I try to impart this when people say they want to be a writer and they want to go into show biz. I say, “Well, have you taken any courses? You can’t just have a passion for it; you have to prepare yourself for a life of it.”

TYSON: Right. And you can’t be a writer and have nothing to write about. You have to have life experiences.

WILMORE: Yes! I think it was Fran Lebowitz who said that there are no writing prodigies. You have to have something to write about. You could be a music prodigy at age 4, like Mozart, but you can’t be a writing prodigy.

TYSON: Same with math. You could do math early, but there are no brilliant 16-year-old novelists. They don’t know the human condition yet. So wanting to do one thing can require that you take on other interests.

WILMORE: Do you remember one specific thing that sparked you—as we say in the writing world, the inciting incident? What was your big bang, in other words? Or maybe it was a small bang. I’m not sure of the size of your bang.

TYSON: I thought only riots get incited.

WILMORE: [laughs] You know, not necessarily. Incidents are incited also.

TYSON: [laughs] It was just that day, that 40-minute encounter. Now, here’s what I hypothesized: I grew up in New York City where there is no night sky. Nobody has a relationship with the sky, because, particularly in the day, there was air pollution and light pollution, and you look up, and your sight line terminates on buildings. You know the sun and maybe the moon, and that’s about it. So what happens is that I am exposed to the night sky as you would see it from a mountaintop, and I’m just struck by it. Suppose I grew up on a farm where I had that sky every night of my life—then you’re not going to be struck by it. It’s just the wallpaper of your nighttime dome. So it leaves me wondering whether I had to have grown up in the city so that I could be struck by that.

WILMORE: That’s very interesting because that can work both ways. I mean, certainly that night sky was that way until the invention of the electric light. I mean, Shakespeare writes a lot about the stars, and look at the whole zodiac created out of the sky.

TYSON: Yeah, exactly. You go back far enough and people would have their crops, and the Nile would flood and irrigate the fields when the sun, moon, and stars were in a particular configuration. So, therefore, this universe knows about me and my crops.

WILMORE: Yes, and navigation. I mean, how important was the North Star in things like circumnavigation.

TYSON: It looks like it’s put there for our benefit. It’s not hard to recognize the urge for people to continue to want it to matter.

WILMORE: There’s always been, let’s say, an Earth-centric view of the universe.

TYSON: And that fact is retained even in our language today. We still refer to sunrise, sunset. That only has meaning if you think that Earth is in the center of things, and everything is moving around us. So even though we know intellectually Earth goes around the sun, the language is still pre-Copernican, as we would call it. By the way, plenty of people get excited about the universe. I’m just wondering, in my case, whether access to the night sky could’ve had any effect on me at all if it had been there from birth. And I doubt it. But part of me also thinks that I’ve been called by the universe, to get all sort of spiritual about it. Like, I’ve had no actual say in the matter. The universe found me.

WILMORE: The force was with you from the beginning.

TYSON: The force!

WILMORE: I will argue that even if you had seen the stars, something else would’ve called you to the stars. Like, I grew up in California. I was outside of the city, not directly in it. So I did have an experience of the sky, but for me, it was the idea of space exploration that fueled my interest. I grew up in that age of the astronauts, and I was fascinated that we could leave the Earth.

TYSON: Just as a concept?

WILMORE: Yeah, it fueled my interest in science because I was like, “What? We leave the Earth?”

TYSON: So we had similar sort of forces operating on us. I liked galaxies and the big bang and the whole universe, so when NASA said they were going into space, I said, “Oh, they’re going into orbit. Well, how far is that?” You know, going into orbit around Earth—where the space station is today, and where the space shuttles and John Glenn and all those folks go-that’s three-eighths of an inch above a schoolroom globe, just FYI. That’s not very far from Earth. Yes, you are off Earth, but you’re not really going anywhere yet. The moon was the only real destination. The universe for me was other planets and other star systems and other galaxies. I enjoyed tracking it, but it had no specific influence on my ambitions for that reason. It wasn’t really far enough away from Earth to matter to me.

WILMORE: So you had a much bigger picture of it? You’re like, “NASA, you guys are too small for where I’m going.”

TYSON: Right, well, even today we still think that they’re in space. Do you remember that jump made by the guy Felix Baumgartner [skydiver who jumped from 24 miles above the surface of Earth in 2012]?

WILMORE: Yes, ugh!

TYSON: That was marketed as the Edge of Space jump. He goes to, like, the top of the atmosphere, where in daylight you can look up and see the night sky—that’s been everybody’s functional definition of space—and then he jumps to Earth. That’s crazy no matter what, but to call it an interspace jump, you ask, “How high up is he?” On this same schoolroom globe, he’s about a 16th of an inch above Earth’s surface. So I can’t get excited about that. I’m thinking big here.

WILMORE: [laughs] So because you think big and you look at the universe in that way, do you think any questions that are answered about the universe at large answers questions we may have about ourselves here on Earth? Do you believe in that correlation?

TYSON: Yeah, that’s a great angle there. And it’s a little bit of both. Some of it is just that learning about this is fun but has no frickin’ relevance to anything going on, and my colleagues and I will be the first to confess that. Some of us wake up in the morning and just wonder how it is any of us actually sustain a paid job. [Wilmore laughs] But also it turns out that the history of astrophysics is where we perfected time keeping. Astrophysicists perfected navigation. We perfected all these things that matter to the power of nations manifest on the world stage. So we want to go into space. That’s the new high ground, right? We care about multispectral imaging of things. Well, that’s what reconnaissance wants to do. So our expertise has been in bed with national security needs forever. So maybe, secretly, that’s why they keep us employed.

WILMORE: It seems that there’s a constant humbling—I don’t know if that’s the right word—because things are disproved all the time with new discoveries, at least that’s the way it feels sometimes in the layman’s world. Like, people will make proclamations of something to be true, and then 50 years later that’s proven wrong because there’s something else.

TYSON: I see where that perception comes from, but it’s actually false. What happens is you get someone who’s got some research result that’s really odd or unusual or fun or interesting, and the press just runs to it. They report on it, and everyone accepts that as the next truth because scientists came up with it. But scientific truth is not what any one scientist puts forth. It can be that, but it is generally not. It is the sum of multiple studies that all lean in the same direction in their results conducted by different people at different times of different nationalities with different competitive urges who all end up getting the same result. Then you have an emerging scientific truth, and then you put that in the textbooks, and that will never be shown to be wrong later on.

WILMORE: Are there exceptions to that? Like, would Newton and Einstein be exceptions to that? Where there was someone who had a breakthrough, and then people go, “Oh, okay. This guy is smarter than the rest of us. I think we need to listen to this.”

TYSON: So the Newton-Einstein one is the best example of what I’m trying to say. Newton came up with Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. They worked. They were working. We went to the moon using just Newton’s laws of motion and gravity. Newtonian dynamics we call it. So then we find out, “Well, this works because there’s certain regimes we’ve never tested it in.” Had we done so, we would show that it didn’t work: For example, at very high speeds, very high gravity, Newton’s laws fail. They just fail. You need Einstein’s laws of motion and gravity. Those would be his special theory of relativity and general theory of relativity. Now you invoke those and it works. So now here’s the amazing part. If you look at Einstein’s equations and put in low speeds and low gravity, they become Newton’s equations. [laughs]

WILMORE: So they’re in harmony with each other, but one kind of goes forward where the other one leaves off?

TYSON: Correct. One is an approximation, a subset of the other. So you don’t discard Newton. Newton becomes the limiting case of how you would apply Einstein’s theories. And we already know the limits of Einstein’s theories. From the centers of black holes at the very beginning of the universe—we call these singularities—Einstein’s equations fail. In fact, people have joked that’s where God is dividing by zero.

WILMORE: [laughs] Nice nerd joke there. I like that.

TYSON: It’s a total nerd joke. So Einstein’s theory, we know that it fails. In advance, we know it fails. So that a deeper understanding of nature is awaiting us.

WILMORE: You mentioned God dividing by zeroes, so let me ask you this: Where is God in science these days? Because there always seemed to be a place for God and, to me, it seemed like God was a place in the unknown side of the ledger. Science was the known and then people would place God in the unknown, like God explained the unknown. Is that where God fits in science to you? Or is there no room for God these days?

TYSON: So the idea that God resides in the unknown is what philosophers call the God of the gaps. And we have this thing called science, which marches on and makes discoveries in those gaps, ultimately closing gaps. If God to you is where science has yet to tread, then God is an ever-receding pocket. And right now people think God is dark energy and dark matter, the spirit. Go ahead and think that, but the day we can tell you exactly what it is—that it’s gremlins in the vacuum of space or whatever—then what’s your recourse at that point? I had a conversation two days ago with a Catholic priest. He was hip. He used to be a blues DJ.

WILMORE: That seems to make sense for some reason. [laughs] That whole sentence seems to make sense.

TYSON: [laughs] So he likes having the conversations, and he asked, “But who was responsible for the initial spark?” And he’s wanting me to say, “Well, we got nothing for that, so go ahead and put God there.” The prime mover. And if you want to put God there, okay, but the day we figure out the prime mover, are you going to now abandon God? Probably not if you’re deeply religious. I’m just recommending you find other things to base your spirituality on, rather than where science is yet to tread.

WILMORE: It almost seems like God is transforming into just a strictly spiritual advisor, a personal-transformation type of figure more than an explainer of the world, you know?

TYSON: That’s a very perceptive point. The only accounting we had of the origins and the structure of nature was Biblical Genesis. Okay, the universe was created in six days and it’s 6,000 years old and—

WILMORE: It was taken as a scientific explanation of the world by people for a long time.

TYSON: Correct. How could it not be because it’s the work of God, who created it all?

WILMORE: So let it be written, so let it be done.

TYSON: Exactly. I have a multivolume history of the world from the 19th century that begins with Noah’s flood as though it’s as historical a fact as the rise and fall of Rome  … Oh, hang on a sec … [Talks to someone else briefly]

WILMORE: Are you, like, at a McDonald’s right now or something? Are you ordering food? [laughs] I think you could still get an Egg McMuffin right now. If you could get me a sausage McMuffin, that’d be great.

TYSON: Yeah, four minutes left for that.

WILMORE: Oh, no, they changed it! You can get it any time now. Thank you, McDonald’s.

TYSON: You can get an Egg McMuffin all day; you just can’t get the hamburger all day. So, right, [in this book] in the beginning, civilization just takes it as a given that the whole world was flooding. Then science came and you had geology and modern astrophysics, and time became well understood going back billions of years. So enlightened religious people, as a necessity, had to shed the magical elements of the Bible. A little known fact is that Thomas Jefferson did just that. There’s something called the Jefferson Bible. It’s not widely publicized because it sort of conflicts with certain people’s ideas of what the founding fathers were.

WILMORE: Yeah, I think he used to read it to his slave children. I think I have a correct view of Jefferson.

TYSON: [laughs] So in the New Testament, he cut out everything that was mystical, magical, miracle—physically with scissors—and then pasted in all that remained, such as Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

WILMORE: No magic tricks like changing water into wine.

TYSON: Exactly, took it all out. And left in the wisdom of Jesus. So he basically secularized Jesus.

WILMORE: Is there a scientific explanation of Jesus and maybe miracles and resurrections? Can there be scientific explanation for the life of Christ as told in the Bible?

TYSON: People have done that. All I can say is it’s an interesting state to be in, because if you want to come behind the Bible and explain everything scientifically, then you’re denying God’s power over miracles.

WILMORE: Yes, so people don’t want to do that.

TYSON: And if you’re denying God’s power, that means you don’t really believe they were miracles, and so then why believe they happened at all. What you’re saying is you’re taking the Bible’s account as literally true in need of a scientific explanation rather than just people coming up with stuff to fulfill their religious missions. So it’s a weird state to be in to go to the Bible and try to invoke science, right? But fine. If you look at the definition of being dead—you go back only 100 years, 150 years—it was, does the person fog a mirror? [laughs]

WILMORE: That was a very low bar, by the way, the whole fog-the-mirror thing. First of all, you had to wait for the invention of the mirror to even get to that point. Then you had to have a little one on you or get them over to a nice big mirror.

TYSON: Right, a portable mirror and you needed moist breath. If you did not fog a mirror, you’re judged dead.

WILMORE: What if you’re in a dry desert, an arid area? You can’t get as much fog going.

TYSON: By the way, you’re pulling some geek knowledge on this whole point. You’re exactly right; it was a very arid place. So who knows how dead Lazarus was? Was Lazarus decomposing in a six-foot grave when Jesus resurrected him? No, he wasn’t.

WILMORE: Right. It’s an amazing story.

TYSON: He was declared dead for a couple of days or something. You know, was there putrefaction in his flesh?

WILMORE: Rigor mortis, even.

TYSON: Or rigor mortis, things like that. He rose up from the tomb. Well, he’s the son of God, and now he’s like God’s spirit at this point. Why would a spirit need to move a rock? Why not just pass through the rock? But also, why wait for the guards to go to sleep?

WILMORE: Now, let me reverse the question for you. And this will be the last question on religion. So I understand when science disproves that, but what if the opposite happened? What if something that appeared to be miraculous actually did happen? Would science have to acknowledge that there are some things that maybe can’t be explained with science that are possibly spiritual? Or would they say they don’t know the answer yet?

TYSON: It would be amazing if something completely spiritual sounding happened. Oh, my gosh! We’d be all over it. Because it’s something new about the physical universe. And so, for example, let’s say you go to Rio and the Jesus who’s on top of the mountain—

WILMORE: Yeah, and he just started flying down. “Hey everybody, I’m back!” [laughs]

TYSON: He just jumped off and came down and started talking. Oh my gosh!

WILMORE: I love how big your scenario is. It’s the Jesus in Rio who’s just been hanging out there for a while.

TYSON: Right, because he’s ready for action.

WILMORE: And then he says something like, “Um, okay, first thing, the Mormons actually are right. I just want to get that out there right now.” And we’re like, “Wait, what?” [laughs]

TYSON: So here’s the thing: If you look at the history of unexplained phenomena that was first explained by spiritual, mystical forces, the track record is not very good for the mystical, magical explanations to survive against more quote “mundane” physical explanations. The best example of this is epilepsy. For centuries, it was the exact expectation of someone being possessed by the Devil. There was no better explanation, and it allows you to admit the existence of the Devil. If there’s a Devil, that mean’s there’s a God.

WILMORE: Although, how clever is the Devil if he possesses people who already have epilepsy? That’s pretty clever. You got to give the Devil at least that kind of credit. You see, that’s how the Devil gets you is all I’m saying.

TYSON: [laughs] So we later on realized that it’s the random firing of synapses in the brain that we can actually suppress. We can’t fully cure it yet, but we know how to control it. And no one is saying you’re possessed by the devil anymore except the most ignorant of people in modern culture. So if something comes up that is completely freaky, it’s spiritual-looking to the scientist, the first explanation is not going to be that it’s God, because the history of that has failed. It would have to be, like, the hundredth explanation.


TYSON: Or, it would be some new law of physics we have yet to experience. In fact, I think it was the philosopher Hume who argued that it’s far more likely that a miracle is a new physical phenomenon that we have yet to discover and have now discovered in that moment than it is a spiritual force coming down from God making something happen in front of you.

WILMORE: Are we currently on the verge of a new discovery? Is there anything that you’re particularly geeked about right now that we don’t know about yet?

TYSON: Oh yeah. Okay, so 95, 96 percent of all that drives the universe has no known origin. Dark matter and dark energy are two things we measure in the universe that are making things happen, and we have no idea what the cause is.

WILMORE: By the way, just brother to brother, I have to say, “You go, dark energy! Go on, dark matter. They don’t understand you, dark matter. They don’t get you.” Would you say dark energy matters?

TYSON: [laughs] Dark matter matters. Right, and everything we do understand about the universe—the periodic table of elements, Einstein’s laws, Newton’s laws, all of chemistry, all of biology—that’s 4 percent of the universe. We got to the moon on the 4 percent we do understand. We landed on Mars on the 4 percent we do understand. So the day we crack the nut of the rest of that 95 percent … Oh my gosh. What would that mean? What else would an understanding of that apply to what we thought was separate and disjointed from it?

WILMORE: Do you think there is intelligent alien life in the universe?

TYSON: I don’t see why not.

WILMORE: Personally, do you think there is?

TYSON: Yeah, here’s the scary part. Our planet has been around only for four and a half billion years. Let’s imagine a planet that has life on it such as life is on Earth and it’s seven billion years old. Let’s say that planet evolved intelligence. Well, that intelligence would be way more advanced than what we call intelligence here on Earth. How long has intelligence been around on Earth as we’ve come to define it?

WILMORE: Does intelligence always have to advance though? Are you making an assumption that it has to advance?

TYSON: Correct. It does not have to advance. They could stay bacteria if they wanted.

WILMORE: [laughs] Right, I mean, they might think, “Hey, we got it made as bacteria right now. We just kind of duplicate on our own. We don’t have to date anybody. We don’t have to get involved in complicated relationships. We just separate ourselves.”

TYSON: Well, that’s the interesting point. It could be that these other civilizations, if they are far more advanced intellectually than we are, would not even measure our existence as a blip on the intelligence radar. They could be so advanced that we are to them what worms are to us. Perhaps we have been visited by aliens, but they swiftly moved on, declaring there is no sign of intelligent life on Earth.

WILMORE: Yes, I think it was H.G. Wells in a description of The War of the Worlds that had that observation. Let me ask you one last thing: If you could be known for one thing what would it be?

TYSON: I don’t live life to be remembered for anything. I don’t need my name anywhere. I think everyone should have a personal mission to leave the Earth a better place for them having lived in it and let Earth then take it from there. To have to reference back, I don’t value that. I just don’t care. Obviously, both you and I are engaged in professional activities that are the opposite of anonymity. So I get that, but a successful day for me is when I teach people something. They become enlightened by an idea and learn how to think about it, so that later on when someone says, “Tell me about x, y, z,” they don’t have to say, “I know this because Tyson told me.” No, they’ll say, “Here’s why it’s true because I know and understand it.”

WILMORE: Great. Enlightenment.

TYSON: Enlightenment. And then when you’re enlightened, you don’t have to reference other people, because you yourself are enlightened. And that’s a better Earth. People can make more informed decisions politically, culturally, personally. And so I already know what I want on my tombstone, which slightly addresses your point. It’s a quote from Horace Mann, a great educator: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

WILMORE: Wow, that’s fantastic. That is a great way to end, but I will ask one last question. Is there any physics equation to help us understand this crazy election? And you could go as far back as Copernicus if you need to.

TYSON: [laughs] This election defies all known laws of physics.

WILMORE: Not even God can explain it, right?

TYSON: The closest would be equations of chaos.

WILMORE: Yeah. It’s definitely not the unified field theory.

TYSON: It’s the opposite.

WILMORE: Yes, I think maybe, at the end of the day, we can only explain it as a black hole. Well, thank you so much, Doctor. It’s always such a pleasure talking to you.