Interview: Neil deGrasse Tyson — Cosmos: Possible Worlds San Diego Comic-Con
BestEntertainmentReviews.com had the pleasure of hanging out with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the San Diego Comic-Con Cosmos: Possible Worlds press room. We were in a shared roundtable in our little corner of the press room. This is a complete transcript with just a few minor edits for clarity. Our thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson for the opportunity and to the other members of the press for their questions.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds premiers on Fox in March, 2019.
Interview: Neil deGrasse Tyson
July 21, 2018
NdGT: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Q: When you were making the next season of Cosmos, what intrigued you that you didn’t look at the first time, what did you say, “this is something I really wanted to dive into.”
NdGT: So, I’ll give you an unorthodox answer. You’re looking for what scene, what bit, what animation is of particular import or particular interest. But, for me, my answer’s different. It’s the fact that this entire set of episodes explores what power we have over our own fate, and Possible Worlds is an exploration of how our knowledge of how the universe works can influence what kind of world we will create for ourselves going forward. With evidence. There are worlds that have runaway greenhouse effects, so there’s no life. There are worlds where they’ve collided with other worlds, so if there was life, there’s not life there now. There are places where planets have been consumed by their host star, because the star was dying. This knowledge brought back to our solar system, brought back to our planet, can be simultaneously enlightening and frightening.
And so the solutions here don’t come from hoping. They don’t come from praying. They come from understanding how and why science works, and taking that to task on the problems that come before us. So, for me, what I’m most excited to present is an empowerment of the control we will have of civilization.
Q: Are they [the new episodes] dealing with the science deniers and climate change deniers and all those people out there…
NdGT: I think we said that about each of the Cosmos in 1980 and 2014 and now, and it’s a shame that each one will have the claim that this is more important than ever, right? It means it’s getting worse, if every time you’re saying ‘It’s more important than ever’. I don’t know that the denial that we experience here in America is rampant throughout the world. We can deny science and, as we do, we fade as a nation on the world stage, and we get laughed at. That affects your ego if you have an ego. If you don’t have an ego, we just get ignored…well, whether or not you have an ego, we will get ignored, and you have to ask how will you respond to that. When Europe and Asia and Africa have a conference on the future of the species, and we’re not even at the table because they’re having a conversation about climate change, and our contingent denies it, we’re not at the table. So we will fade to irrelevance as shapers of the future of civilization.
That’s not the posture that I have seen our country take. I was shaped in the 20thcentury, the United States was leader in practically everything, and that’s what I came to perhaps even take for granted. Just yesterday we had the anniversary of the moon landing. What a triumph of our science and technology at a time when people were not denying science and technology, and a time when people were embracing what science and technology could do for us in the future. I was old enough. I’m probably the oldest one here [I shake my head and he says, “you’re an old far too, OK?”] Remember the day when, or a week and at most a month before there was a cover story on Life magazine or Time magazine, of The City of Tomorrow, The Home of Tomorrow, Transportation of Tomorrow, The Food of Tomorrow, Clothing of Tomorrow.
And you know that the tomorrow would come by creative investments in science and technology. It was a fundamental part of how we thought about the world. Now, all you see articles about are the apps of tomorrow, put an app on your phone. Oh, now I can…you know…I don’t know, we have much bigger problems than can be solved by apps. There’s climate, there’s food, there’s housing, there’s the rights of the disenfranchised, there’s energy. These things take a different level of investment than just being content with what shows up on your smartphone. So yeah, it’s more important than ever before and the subject is more important to the Possible Worlds. So, for me, that’s the messages in total, not any specific story, yeah.
Q: Is there anything that frustrates you about the current state of sci-comm right now and what is it?
NdGT: No. As in science communication? [Yeah] Now, I’m just impressed by how many people are out there sci-comming. Is that a verb? We’ll make it a verb. [Make it a verb, ha ha] I think, no, Youtube things and shows and you can channel surf at any time of the day and night and land on a science program. Sometimes you gotta go higher up in the channels but you’ll do it. One of the fortunate things about Cosmos, it’s landing in a low channel. It will be on Fox and then be distributed around the world via National Geographic, 180 countries or so. So, we’ll have access, and I think the more sci-comm people, the better.
What’s perhaps even more important than the sci-comm people are the people that’ve been touched by the sci-comm people, because someone puts on a flat earth thing on Twitter, people jump all over them. And so there are the armies of scientifically literate people, who are not specifically the sci-comm people but who’ve been touched by them, who do the bidding out there on the battlefields of rational thought.
So I think it’s better than ever, it’s deeper and broader than ever, and there are many more women involved in it as well, so that people’s first exposure has a more balanced demographic. If it’s the sci-comm person that triggers interest in someone’s effort to study science in school, so I’ve actually been very impressed with what I’ve seen.
And consider…okay, I had…Twelve and a half million Twitter followers. The Facebook page ‘I fucking love science’, last I checked, it’s 60 million. So whatever followers I have, they’re a subset of the total number of people out there who are enthusiastic about learning science. So…that’s a good thing. I cannot wait for the day where there’s enough people out there, I can just sort of step backward and fade away, just go to the Bahamas. And you won’t miss me because you’ll be enchanted by all the others who are doing this task, and then you won’t miss me. You’ll be fine.
Q: When you look at the sky in the night, what’s the thing that puzzles you the most?
NdGT: Puzzles me? When I look up at night, I’m puzzled by…see, I know about the stars I look at, and I know about the vacuum of space, and I know about the expanding universe, and I know where the edge of the universe is. So I look up at night, and I say, ‘Why aren’t more people interested in this?’ I swear that’s what I think. When I was a kid, I knew at age 9 that the universe was a big attraction for me. I said, ‘I probably shouldn’t be an astrophysicist because everybody’s going to want to be an astrophysicist. That’s how cool this is.’ Then I got older and it’s like, no, people are interested in being artists and lawyers, and just reality sunk in that actually not many people make this their career, so I thought I’d better do so. So I can spread the love.
So I look up at night, and I say, ‘Why aren’t more people interested in this?’ — NdGT
Q: When you are wandering around Yellowstone or wherever your mind turns to (?) in the world, what do you think will be the next extinction event that gets us all?
NdGT: Well, so the mass extinction event that will get us all is the remarkable capacity of an electorate to ignore the advice of scientists. Count that as an act of extinction. I should tweet that. I will tweet that today.
“the mass extinction event that will get us all is the remarkable capacity of an electorate to ignore the advice of scientists.”—NdGT
Q: Piggybacking on that, you have a really active Twitter and you’ve been like very vocally critical, and rightfully so I think, of anti-science politicians…
NdGT: No, I haven’t actually. No. People think that, but no I haven’t. You cannot cite a single tweet.
Q: Well, you’ve indirectly…
NdGT: Very, very indirectly. What happens is people come to my tweet with their own political leanings and interpret it according to that lens. But my tweets are fundamentally politically neutral.
Q: …based on the actual science?
NdGT: Yeah, so for example, a few days ago I tweeted ‘Let’s make America smart again’. And some will say, ‘You need to keep politics out of this.’ I said, ‘Show me what’s political about that sentence.’ Well, of course, it’s a take on let’s make America great again, but do you want to debate that sentence? Do you want to say, ‘No I don’t want to make America…’ What is your beef against that sentence. There isn’t one. It’s simply a sentence. People want to politicize things. Okay? The word Trump has never appeared in any of my tweets, ever. Ever. Okay? So people…and I’ve noticed this, the urge for people to want to think that my tweets are political, because people with my level of Twitter followers, all of them are pundits who have strong opinions and want you to have their opinion, to agree with their opinion, to change your ways, to agree with what they’re doing. Go look at my tweets. None of them are that. None of them. They’re like complete…most of them are just random, just random, okay? But look back, you’ll see. Check it out.
Q: I was wondering, since telling the truth can be controversial, do you actually think that a show like this is political?
NdGT: Political only because you have a political posture that is in denial of truths, so you’ll think it’s political but in fact it’s not. This is the problem we face in society. What we want is a world, you want the political diversity, that’s great. The pluralistic dimension of a society is actually its strength. Otherwise, you have a dictatorship.
So what you want is everyone to agree on what scientific advice tells you, or scientific discoveries tell you, then you go into the back room and debate what policies you would rather have in response to those facts. That’s what should be happening in Congress. But it’s not. People are debating whether something that is scientifically demonstrated to be true is actually true, and that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy.
Q: My question is do you find that pop culture shows that are popping up about science are helping science?
NdGT: No. So I am not very well (?) for artists and creative types. You’ll never see me say,’They’re not getting the science right, so you shouldn’t do it’. No. No. There are enough scientifically literate people in this world today – count every person attending Comic-Con— that if you don’t get science right that you could have, you’re going to be raked over the coals in social media, in the universe. Right? We’re going to take you to task.
So I get a phone call a week from a producer, a writer, an artist who wants to check something with me about their cartoon, their Disney program…there thing…and I think they’re responding, Rick and Morty which is more phantasmagorical, it’s…you don’t have to teach science. What you want to do is inspire science. This is different. Don’t worry about a syllabus. Worry about, at the end of the day, does someone say, ‘Wow, that’s cool. I want to learn more about time travel or this phenomenon or this effect. They mentioned DNA—what is DNA?—because they did something cool with it and I want to find out.’ It’s the stimulation of curiosity that, for me, matters much more than what syllabus you’re expected to deliver in the creative work that you post.
Q: Where does the mass of a proton come from?
NdGT: You come from the quarks that comprise it. The proton has three quarks in it. Heavy particles three quarks, the neutron has three quarks, the proton has three quarks and the…and some have only two quarks. So quarks have fractional charges in them, plus 2/3, plus 1/3, minus 2/3, and the correlation of them together make +1 for protons, and the fractional charges can’t allow for the neutron, the neutron has no charge at all. Where do the charge come from in quarks, no fucking idea. Okay.
Q: If you were doing research right now, what would be studying [our question].
NdGT: When I step back and let the other sci-commers do it. I go back to my…I have a keen interest in the evolution of galaxies, the birth, life and death of stars and how they affect the cities we call galaxies in the universe. It’s an academic research passion of mine. I’ve published papers on that but right now just publishing books, so a book coming out in a couple of months on war, actually. A very different topic. It’s called Accessory to War, The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. So that’s…as far as I’m getting off my chest, and then I’m just going to disappear and you’ll never see me again, and I’ll just be a scientist again.
Q: I was wondering if your show will challenge people’s concept of religion.
NdGT: It’s a great question. It’s not our goal to rid you of your religion. It’s our goal to offer our understanding of how and why the universe works. If that conflicts with your religion, and you see it as a problem. You’re not aligned with your religion. Most religions today, Catholicism included, they’re actually quite enlightened in their scientific postures. The Pope has said explicitly, and he is not the first Pope to do so, but that the thought of evolution, that man shares a common ancestor with apes, he’s fine with that. He says that at some point God breathes spirit into the ape that would become human, and then we’re human, fine.
You know, people have their reconciliations with their belief systems. It’s not a trap to try to rid you of your religion. That’s not the goal. The goal is to offer the universe, as it is, and as science has, the methods of science have revealed it to us. And if you have a problem with that, then your educational path did not prepare you for learning things that conflict with a belief system, which ultimately broaden your understanding of the world rather than narrow it.
You can decide what kind of world you want to live in, one where your scope is narrowed or one where it’s broadened. You can vote to have a narrowed scope. We’re in a democracy. You can vote…education is local in the United States. Local school boards. Not federal, local. They say get science out of the classroom, it’s all bogus. You can do that. That’ll have consequences for the future of the nation, to our economy.
Innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy. If you cut at the kneecaps one’s ability to understand and know what science is, and how and why it works, you are not a player in this world, going forward. And you wonder what happened to the great Roman civilization…what happened to these civilizations that came and went? What happened to them? Some stuff went down and they did not recover, okay? I don’t want the United States to be one of those civilizations. I’m biased because I’m American and born here and I care. But I have enough knowledge of the causes and effects of collapse to have a sense, to be able to warn people of what would happen if, in fact, people stop caring about exploration, discovery and what science tells us about how to be better shepherds of our own lives and our civilization.
Interview: Neil deGrasse Tyson
The press roundtable was followed by the panel. Here is the official Fox recording on the Cosmos: Possible Worlds panel.