For Neil deGrasse Tyson, ‘science is an activity of discovery’

April 22, 2013

Nick Beadleston

Prior to speaking at Gallogly Events Center April 17, Neil deGrasse Tyson sat down for a Q-and-A session in Gallogly’s skybox. The Scribe had an opportunity to ask deGrasse Tyson a range of questions:

It was our understanding that along with the stool you were beginning this with a poetry reading.

I can. Would you like me to?

More than almost anything.

On canvas we paint in the artist’s school. It is red that is hot and blue that is cool. But in science we show that as heat rises higher, a star will glow red, like the coals of a fire. Raise the heat some more and what is in sight? Behold a star has turned bright white. But the hottest of all, I say unto you, is neither red nor white – if a star has turned blue.

If there is one thing [connecting] astrophysics and economics, it’s the nearly incomprehensible numbers involved –

– incomprehensibly large. There are incomprehensible numbers, but they can be either large or small.

Sorry to interrupt.

No, I’d like to be as accurate as possible. It’s 40 trillion miles to Alpha Centauri, and people can visualize that almost as well as the $16 trillion debt. How can understanding –

I think it’s closer than that actually…more like 22 trillion miles. Where did you get 40 trillion?

From the Internets, not having a background in astrophysics myself.

How can understanding the macro working of the universe benefit people in the more micro concepts of their day to day life?

A number when it’s applied to something, a metric, is reference to some other thing … In my experience as one who is in love with the universe, and is often asked to communicate some of this love, you don’t give numbers; you give comparisons … so it’s four light years to Alpha Centari, it’s a hundred thousand light years across the galaxy.

So if you wanted to cross the galaxy in our fastest-ever space ship, give it up. Go back to your science fiction stories and enjoy them.

It’s kind of hopelessly in the future right now, particularly given particularly given any direction that our engineering or space funding is going.

In fact, my whole talk tonight is about stakes, and the delusional thinking, the discussions that people have about space…

Colorado Springs in particular has very close space ties, with the Air Force, and NORAD, and the Space Foundation and the National Space Symposium.

This town is many things, but one of the jewels in its crown is what role it plays in our present and future of space. So I felt duteous tonight to speak on that topic.

I don’t want to step on what you’ll be covering tonight, but I do want to ask about “Space Chronicles” in the face of decreased funding to NASA. Do you feel that that’s tantamount to a step forward for the democratization of interstellar exploration; making it available to more people?

That would be the capitalization, there’s nothing democratic about capitalism. Private enterprise does it … No, it’s business, I don’t think of democracy when I think of capitalism. It should have happened decades ago. It’s long overdue.

[Samantha Morley] So then you’re a supporter of that proposition for that colony of people to go to Mars?

I don’t support anything. It’s a personal deep outlook I have. I don’t tell people what to think, I don’t tell people who to vote for, I don’t tell people how to spend their taxes.

All I do is highlight for you the consequences of your actions and the consequences of your inactions on one topic or another.

[SM]Do you think it’s a good thing to do to send people up there, I mean it’s a one way adventure. What are your thoughts about that?

I think it’s the kind of forward-thinking dream state that I grew up with coming out of the 1960s and 70s, and everyone was thinking about the future. It was pervasive, it was in the culture in spite of the challenges we had in that decade…it’s always good to get people to think about tomorrow, otherwise we wallow in the present …

I applaud the dream state; I’m not convinced it will work as successfully as what the planners have imagined for it. Consider the environment, considers that the environment in which you would have to imbed people, that environment would have to be so earthlike, oxygen, air pressure. By the time you have done this, are you still on Mars.

So what I foresee, which I think would be much more fun, would be a Mars vacation. I don’t mind slightly unrealistic dreams, because out of that come some nugget of reality that we can then embrace.

Would you consider endorsing Denis Rodman’s 2023 plan to be an emissary to Mars?

It would be interesting if he got there and everyone looked like him.

In “The Perimeter of Ignorance” you caution against the logical fallacy of the thinking [such as] “I can’t explain it, it must be the result of a superior being -“

OK, so I never used those two words ever together in the same sentence. So that is invoking sort of logic and philosophical armament to assert that someone else is wrong, and I’ve never used those words.

It’s a heavy hammer, and it does, in my experience, nothing to convince anybody of anything to say you’re making false statements.

So the actual argument I made was: If your concept of God is such that if you, when you reach the limits of your understanding … and then you assert for yourself that no one ever born after you who might be smarter than you will ever figure this out … and no one horizontal to you, among your colleagues, will figure it out, therefore God did it. If that’s your understanding of God, then you are not participating in an activity of discovery, and science is an activity of discovery.

That as expressed is an activity of ignorance; you reach the point that you don’t understand something so you assign a reason to it.

That’s not discovery, that’s not explanation and therefore not science. Therefore this activity has no place in a science classroom … People say are you this-kind-of-an-ist or that-kind-of-an-ist, and I say, no, I’m a scientist.

Well this one is so short, I feel like there is no room for errors. Even though you don’t give endorsements, Kirk or Picard?

Definitely Kirk. There’s no contest there of who knows how to act better. Patrick Steward is a better actor. There’s no debate there. The question is if I had to pick what kind of captain I would be of a ship, I thought about it, and I think it would be Kirk.

Kirk – I like the way he makes decisions from the seat of his pants, ’cause he has a gut that it is the right thing to do, and I like that.

I like thinking as well, but there’s split seconds and the Klingons are ready to fire, I would pick him and put him as head of the ship.

You applied yourself in college, yet you found time to wrestle, row and hit the dance floor. Do you have any advice for any students who are trying to balance academics and extracurricular?

Every extracurricular activity I ever engaged in, it was against the expectations of the system, the academic system in which I was imbedded. The professors wanted me to spend more time on the homework, in the lab. And the dean wanted more and, and so there was tension; it was never in balance, ever.

And not to over simplify things, but at the end of the day I did what made me happy, and as a happy student the learning became that much more fun, and the discoveries became that much tastier… all the rest of what I did contributes to the construct of who and what I am as a human being.