Neil deGrasse Tyson – The Sky Is Not the Limit

August 17, 2006

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of America’s superstars of science, focuses his research on star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

In addition to dozens of scholarly publications, Dr. Tyson is one of America’s most eloquent and popular science writers. He has a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled the “Universe.” Among his seven books is his memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist; and also Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with Donald Goldsmith. Origins is the companion book to the PBS-NOVA series of the same title, in which Dr. Tyson serves as the on-camera host. Beginning Fall 2006, he will appear as the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s program ScienceNow, which will explore the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the universe.

Dr. Tyson is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid “13123 Tyson”. On a lighter note, a few years ago he was voted “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine.

In this wide-ranging interview with DJ Grothe, Dr. Tyson discusses new developments this week in astronomy which may increase the count of planets in our solar system, reveals why he believes it is likely that there is life elsewhere in the universe, examines Intelligent Design and what he calls “stupid design,” eloquently explains how parents may foster an appreciation for science in children, and also discusses science education’s real-world economic impact for America.

Also in this episode, DJ and Lauren Becker discuss the new collaborative effort between the Center for Inquiry and the State University of New York called Science and the Public.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, August 18th, 2006. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe ing point of Inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood and now Washington, DC. In addition to 11 other cities around the world. Let me tell you about Center for Inquiry before we get into the meat of today’s episode. Center for Inquiry is headquarters to a number of organizations of public education and advocacy, all working together to advance science and reason in our society. Yet each has its own distinct mission. Some of these organizations include PSI Cop, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The Council for Secular Humanism, North America’s leading organization for Ethical, Non Religious People. The Commission for Scientific Medicine. And on and on. I’m pleased that on today’s point of inquiry, we’ll be joined by one of America’s scientific superstars, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. We’ll be talking about why science is so important to society, about science education for young people, about intelligent design, about some breaking news this week in astronomy and a whole host of other subjects. We’re planning on going a little long. Just so we can pack it all in. But first, I’m joined here in the studio with our favorite, Lauren Becker. We’re going to talk about the new science and the public master’s degree. Incidentally, she’s scowling at me. She told me not to say our favorite, Lauren Becker, but she is indeed our favorite. If someday I had the gumption to post all the gushing letters we get about her pieces. I think I’d be vindicated in my claim. Now, Lauren, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Hi, Lauren. We’re talking about science in the public. The new collaborative effort with the State University of New York. And you’re one of the first students this fall. 

That’s right. Yes. It’s a program geared for those of us who are interested about increasing scientific literacy in the country. And hopefully we’re all going to get better at it. 

Well, a lot of universities seem set up to teach science. What’s different about this program versus just taking science courses at your local community college or the state school in in your neck of the woods? Why is science in the public different? 

Did you ever have a professor in school who was brilliant at their subject? But they were a terrible lecturer. They just could not convey it to the class whatsoever. That’s the difference. You have great scientists. They know a lot about science. We take science classes, but that’s a completely different thing from then trying to take that information and conveying it to the public people who are interested about science. 

So this is science and the public, not just science education. You’re not learning science as much as you are learning about science or the intersection of science with other things. 

Right. Is actually a program through the School of Education. So there’s information and then there’s the teaching of information. So we all have a background in science. We have a good foundation in that we’ll be learning more science. But really we’re going to learn how to teach it, how to talk about it, how to make it useful to the public. Why are you excited about. Well, I feel very deeply that science is important, but there’s also great evidence that science is important. We’ve developed a society, a culture that is so dependent on science and technology. Yet the majority of the population doesn’t understand it. And it’s, as Sagan would say, a recipe for disaster. So I’m excited to be in a place where I can learn how to do this and somehow contribute to that understanding. Basically to make the world a better place, really. 

You say that any pageant piece that’s your beauty pageant answer? No, you say it nonchalantly. 

But we have all these conversations off the air where I see your passion and your zeal for really making world a better place. And science is the tool. At least that’s the argument that you make that I make. Well, that we make over drinks, although you don’t drink. I won’t tell anyone that. I once heard that if someone doesn’t drink. That’s one reason to suspect them. Do you know the science of what happens to your brain when you drink? Yeah. I prefer to be self deceptive about that. OK. Switching gears, Lauren, who is this program science in the public for? 

It’s really for anybody who wants to talk about science. So it could be for actual science teachers. They get better at their craft for informal science teachers, people in science museums or people that teach in a planetarium, for example. It’s also for journalists, science writers and magazines and newspapers. They really work hard to try to explain science to the public. And also, I’m hoping that people involved, the organizations that deal with scientific issues, they need to know about that. They need to be able to convey that to the people in their organizations. It’ll be perfect for them as well. 

Well, we will be talking a lot more about science and the public and the program at the State University of New York with the Center for Inquiry. Called Science in the Public in future episodes of Point of Inquiry. Thanks for being on point of inquiry again, Laura. Good to be here. Thank you. 

Hi, I’m Barry Carr, executive director of Psych up here at the Center for Inquiry. We’re celebrating our 30th anniversary this year, making the world safe for science and skepticism and dealing with fringe science and paranormal claims. We published what I think is an essential magazine, The Skeptical Inquire. This is the magazine for Science and Reason. The July August issue is now on shelves at better bookstores and can be ordered online at W w w Saikat dot org or by calling our toll free number one 800 six three four one six one zero. We are open Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 5:00 Eastern Time. Subscribing to the Skeptical Inquirer helps us continue to advance science and reason in our society. And so sure that you love this magazine that I want you to have a complementary issue to see what we’re all about, to get your sample copy. Just call one 800 six three four one six one zero. I mentioned the point of inquiry podcast and ask us for your free copy. We’ll get it right out to you and you can begin and joined the skeptical inquire. Thank you. 

I’m really happy to have our next guest on Point of Inquiry. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America’s superstars of science. As I said earlier, his research areas that he focuses on are star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to dozens of scholarly articles, Dr. Tyson is one of America’s most eloquent and popular science writers. He has a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled The Universe. Among his seven books is his memoir. The Sky is Not the Limit. Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist and also Origins 14 Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with Donald Goldsmith. Origins is the companion book to the PBS series of the same name in which Dr. Tyson serves as the on camera host. Beginning later this fall, he’s going to appear as the on camera host of PBS Novas program Science Now, which will explore the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the cosmos. Dr. Tyson is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of Asteroid 13 123 Tyson. On a lighter note, a few years ago he was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People magazine. He’s the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, where he also teaches. He joins us on point of inquiry this afternoon from his home in Manhattan. Neil deGrasse Tyson, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Jake, it is a pleasure to be on point of inquiry. One of my favorite podcasts. 

Wow. Well, thanks again for being on the show. Dr. Tyson, let’s begin by talking about the big news this week. The International Astronomical Union is proposing a redefining of what a planet is, which would let Pluto sized worlds be included in the definition. Is this because a new planet was discovered? Or is this just a new way of looking at what a planet is? And it’s beginning to catch on. 

There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding that announcement, and the public deserves to sort of understand how that all came about. It’s not even a long story. It’s a very simple story. For the longest while, we just knew there were these objects in the solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars. You go on out to Neptune. And then in 1930, this other object was discovered beyond Neptune. Everyone was excited, by the way an American discovered that object that was named Pluto. And back then, they just assumed it was at least as big as Earth, possibly as big as Neptune. And then over time, they realized, well, actually, actually not that big as better data became available. They found that Pluto was actually quite small. And not only was it small, it had a whole other kind of composition compared with the rest of the known planets. It was mostly ice by volume and no other planet had that composition. And so what do you do with an object like that? Do you sort of bring it in and say, all right. We don’t know what to do with you, but we’ll keep you in the back. Just stay quiet so that we became the ninth planet. When you want to think about the solar system, no educator with integrity is going to value the simple memorization of planets in order from the sun. What you want to do is find out what properties object have in common and what properties are different. And then you can compare and contrast. And in that way, you can glean insight into what makes the solar system work. And when you do that exercise, Pluto doesn’t fit in with any way you would gather and group and organize the rest of the planets to the solar system. 

So Pluto is not actually a planet, buddy. It was considered one. 

It was considered a planet because we had no other way to think about it. You couldn’t create a new category for it because you can’t have a category of one. It was not until the 1990s where in Hawaii, using some of the best telescopes in the world, they view it. And Jane Lu discovered another icy small object orbiting beyond Neptune, orbiting in the region of the solar system where you find Pluto. You say one. I wonder what’s going on. Looked some more. They found more objects and more and more and more. And so now the tally is in the high hundreds. It will easily pass the thousands as the data get better and better. 

So these are more objects, pretty much exactly like Pluto. 

Exactly. Exactly. And in fact, this is a swath of real estate that had been predicted to be there and populated by just such objects. It was predicted in the mid 20th century by Gerard Kiper, who is a well-known planetary theorist. And so there they are. And so all of a sudden you get to say, hey, Pluto, have family. Pluto is part of another kind of species of object in the solar system. That’s why it was such an oddball. And so beginning in the 1990s. There was this movement to possibly reclassify objects in the solar system, grouping them perhaps among like properties as you would create any classification scheme. Now, here’s the problem. The word planet has not been defined. 

You’re telling me there’s not a consensus definition of the word planet in astronomy? 

There hasn’t been. The last time the word planet was defined was 2500 years ago when the Greeks, the ancient Greeks looked up and they saw some objects that moved against the background stars. And if you were a wanderer. That’s what they call the wandering Greek of planet, this planet. So that’s where we get the word from. And there were seven wanderers, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the moon. And we traced the names of our days of the week through Norse and Roman legends, gods that trace back to the names of those planets. So that’s what it was. And then Copernicus says, wait a minute, the sun is in, the middle moon goes around us and we go around the sun. And at that point, that very clean definition of planet, which was a simply wanderer, no longer apply because we were commensurate at rank to Mercury, Venus and Mars. So you couldn’t call them a planet and we not. So we hold as a planet in a moon way around us. So that’s not a planet. And so people just sort of by gentlemen’s agreement said if it’s big and it goes around their. It’s a planet was not ever formally defined. And in recent times, you have Pluto lovers out there who would massage the definition of planet in such a way that would include Pluto. And then you have the people who were trying to reorganize the teaching of the solar system. And by the way, we were among those here at the American Museum of Natural History to step away from the simple enumeration of planets and group like objects together. And so when we opened our new facility, there were enough of these new icy bodies orbiting beyond Neptune for us to gather them together and create a family of objects. And so we took Pluto, separated it from the rest of the known planets and grouped it together. What is now known as the capability of comets. And by the way, I think Pluto was happier there because it was one of the largest of the Kuiper Belt comets, whereas among the rest of the objects, it was surely the puny planet. And this was our posture back in 2000, by the way, we put the rest of the planets as well. We took the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune Group them together just simply as the gas giants. And then we took the small, rocky ones. Earth included Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars and group them together. Then we had the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt in the sun. And we present the family photo of the solar system. And it’s not the enumeration of counted objects. It is the gathering of properties the objects have in common. 

It sounds like you think that the International Astronomical Union’s notion to redefine the word planet to include Pluto sized objects in our solar system. Well, it sounds like you think that it is a bad idea. 

Well, I applaud the EU’s efforts to come up with an unambiguous definition for planet. The only reason why fights broke out over Pluto is not because some people thought Pluto looked one way and others thought it looked like something else. No, it’s because the word planet was not uniquely defined. And that opened up the corridors of argument from not only in professional conferences, but even indeed to the public, because we all went to school learning that there were nine planets. 

And what do you mean there’s not nine planets anymore? And so, like, fights broke out. And now so the IAU said, we’ve got to solve this. And it’s by the way, in all fairness to them, it’s one of their jobs. They set up a committee and they resolve what might be conflicts in Noman Claytor throughout the world. That’s what they’re set up to do. That’s one aspect of the many things that they do to enable the international community of astrophysicists to function efficiently, smoothly and make sure that the things we really devote our mental energy to are the important scientific problems and not stupid things like lexicon. 

Right. But if this redefinition of the word planet takes hold, becomes consensus, the number of planets would dramatically increase. So I’m just curious, do you think it’s a good idea or it’s just good that it’s being talked about and people are trying to arrive at some consensus? 

I have mixed feelings there. My overriding view is simple. If we finally have an unambiguous definition for what a planet is and what is it is the simple question, is the object round? And is it round through the action of its own gravitational forces? If so, you’ve got a planet that’s unambiguous. Things that are not round are really not round out there. They like look like Idaho potato dog bones. And when they’re round, they’re round. If that’s your definition for planet, then there are nine planets in the solar system anymore. There’s more. One of the asteroid. The first one ever discovered, the largest asteroid is called series. It has enough gravity in it to make it round. But it’s in the categories in the club series as it is a planet. And it’s sitting between Mars and Jupiter. And two other planets come in overnight. One of them is Pluto’s moon, Sharon. So now we don’t say Pluto has a moon. You’ll say Pluto has a planet. What does that mean? It means Pluto. Under this new definition is a double planet. Sharon is so large compared with Pluto that the point in space that they revolve around is not contained in either of those two objects. It is sitting in space between them. And if that condition holds, this is kind of a loophole for Sharon. If that condition holds according to the definitions that have just been handed down, then Pluto and Sharon become a double planet system. 

But our moon stays. 

Our moon is not a sister planet, even though our moon is bigger than Pluto is Sharon combined. Ramon would stay a moon because the center of our mass. The center of motion between the two of us is within Earth’s surface. 

Jim Underdown the moon is going around the Earth because of Earth’s gravity. 

The way to think about it, if it’s not that the moon goes around Earth, is that the moon and earth go around a common center of gravity. And it just so happens that center of gravity is inside the solid surface of the earth. So we kind of we’re the pants. So we think of it as the moon going around us in the Pluto Sharen system. The two objects are pretty much the same. They’re very close to each other in mass. And so their center of mass is outside of the physical body of Pluto, sitting in the middle of space between them. And so by the rules of this committee, Sharon is not a moon. Sharon is a planet. So now we wait from nine to 12 overnight. The third one is 2003, U.B. 313. It’s Discover Mike Brown at Caltech proposed a placeholder name, Xena, which if you have cable TV, you surely know she’s a medieval warrior princess. But that name won’t survive the official nomenclature rules, which require that if you name a planet, it has to be named after Roman God. So this is where the solar system stands right now. According to the definitions of the IAU Planet Naming Committee. And so that’s where it is now. How do I feel about it? I’m okay with it. But you know what I worry about? I worry that if you go into the school systems, teachers will say, okay, class. We now have three planets to add to the nine that we’ve already memorized. So let’s put these three names up on the wall and memorize those. Now, isn’t that fun learning about the solar system? And it’s like, no, no, this is not learning about the solar system. This is being a parrot. No, no. What you want to do is just forget this definition is not meaningful to understand what is going on in the solar system. Don’t you want to know that Jupiter is big and gaseous and has a magnetic field and radiation field and there’s moons that have volcanoes and and oceans. And that comets slam into Earth. This is the stuff we should be teaching about the solar system. 

And this is the kind of learning experience someone gets when they go to the Hayden Planetarium. It’s not just a listing of facts for people to memorize by rote. But you talked about that family picture of the solar system. 

Precisely. And that’s why even though they redefined planet, our exhibit displays need not change because we have chosen which way we want to organize the objects in the solar system. To best highlight the interesting science. Now, one of the things we could highlight after you learned about the clouds and the weather and the storms and the moons and the rings after you went about all that, we’ll say, OK, here’s something interesting. If an object is massive enough and has enough gravity, its gravity will shape itself into a sphere. The IU has a name for these objects called planets. OK. Now what can we learn? It becomes this reduced factoid about the solar system that has lost all of its majesty that it once enjoyed. 

It kind of seems like what you said would be controversial, that this definition reduces the grandeur of what a planet is. 

I don’t think people are yet thinking about it that way because there’s still accountable number of objects to track. 

But when there’s a thousand. Exactly. 

Right now, Mike Brown, hey, he’s got a satchel full of objects in the Kuiper Belt that are planet candidates. And you have to join the Planet of the Month Club and all these school teachers that are rejoicing in the fact that they had three more planets to learn about. 

Will they still be rejoicing when there’s 30? When it’s 40, when there’s 50? And so I look forward to that day when the teachers give up. 

They say we have to find another way to recognize and appreciate what’s going on in the solar system. And counting and memorizing planets means, is not it? 

Switching gears here a little, Dr. Tyson, you have two books out that every one of our listeners should get their hands on. I want to talk about them. One is your memoir. The Sky is not the limit. The other is origins. It’s about cosmic evolution. The companion book to that PBS series you were the host of. Let’s talk about origins first. Everyone these days seems into the subject of origins. Let me ask you what makes the study of origins not just human origins, but what the origins of the universe itself? What makes it such an important, interesting subject to people? 

That’s an excellent question. And I’ve got to tell you this. I credit the value of studying origins to the NASA program that kicked in in the 1990s that created a funding umbrella called Origins. And when it did that for the first time, scientific discipline. That previously had no occasion to talk to one another. All of a sudden became cross pollinated because, for example, cosmologists have known this a little longer than others. But the general story still accurate. I’m an astrophysicist and I want to know about the origin of the universe. And I turn the clock back. The universe was hot in the past. Hotter than than today will matter. Starts behaving differently under high temperatures and high pressures. You know something? I don’t have the expertize to understand. What matter will do. So I have to knock on the door of a particle physicist who have smashed atoms under high pressures and temperatures in particle accelerators. So now we go hand in hand and study this. And then what gets born from this union is a whole new branch of science called astral particle physics. We could not have deduced the goings on in the early universe simply as astrophysicist. We needed to hold the hand of the physicists. 

You need that interdisciplinary talking. And you’re saying this NASA Origins Project in the 90s, it really spawned all that. 

Exactly. And not only that, it included the search for life. Well, the search for life isn’t just the astrophysicist looking through a telescope. Now we can land probes on planets like on Mars and. All right. So now we’ve got a probe on a planet. Well, you know, I don’t know one rock from another because I’m an astrophysicist. Let me get the planetary geologist. So now we’re both sort of looking around on the planet surface. Wait a minute. We now found a dried riverbed on Mars. Mars has plenty of evidence for their having once been running water on Earth. Wherever we find water, what do we find life? So let’s try to look for signs of life. Well, geologists, they’re good at looking Iraq’s astrophysicists. We looked through telescopes. We got a knock on the door, the biologist and maybe the chemistry, the soils need some analysis, too. So all of a sudden, you have the biologist, the chemist of geologists, the astrophysicist in the same room talking to one another. And you know something? Before the day is out, we are publishing papers together. And so the origins of life, the origins of planets, galaxies, the universe itself is inherently cross disciplinary. And for that reason, from for me, it is one of the most exciting ways we can explore the world around us. 

You just talked about life elsewhere in the universe that belongs in a discussion of origins, not just human origins, but origins of life in general. I want to ask you about that. But before that. What are some of the big new discoveries when it comes to our origins and the origins of the universe? 

I’d say the snazziest one, which really only recently reach consensus, was the account of the origin of Earth’s moon. Earth Moon is an enigma because an object that size, we have a relatively large moon. It’s one of the largest in the entire solar system. An object that size and round ought to have an iron core, because when you make objects in the solar system from the birthday ingredients of this part of the universe, you’d have a certain amount of hydrogen and helium and carbon and a certain amount of iron. And when you’re in a gash state, figuring out that you have gravity, the heavy stuff falls to the middle and the light stuff rises to the top. And so that the geologists are called as differentiation. So an object like the moon would be nicely differentiated with a big iron core and lighter things as you move to the surface. Well, you look to the moon, and we didn’t notice until we sent astronauts there and they hold back rocks for laboratory study. What we learned is that the moon has hardly any iron for an object of its size and that force people to scratch their heads. You see, how do you make something that size with no iron? Well, it would have been made in the early solar system. And now we learn that the early solar system was a shooting gallery. It wasn’t just nine planets forming in tranquility. There was debris slamming into objects that were trying to become planet, shattering them into pieces again. Plus, there were comets that carried water and organic materials from one planetary surface to another. It was an interesting and active and enriched environment. You go back to the early earth with the power of computers. We have come to learn that an object the size of Mars, if it slammed into Earth, kind of sideswiping it could cast countless tons of Earth’s crust into orbit around the Earth, which would then coalesce to form the moon. That Earth was already segmented into heavy materials in the middle and light ones on the surface. So if you carve a new planet from Earth’s surface material and mantle material, you’re not going to get a lot of iron. And so once. This idea took hold, by the way. It required an understanding that the early solar system was a shooting gallery. It required moonrocks brought back by a funded Apollo program. It required the power of High-Performance Computing. All that had to come together. And once it did, we saw that, hey, this is actually pretty easy to do. And in fact, recently we opened a space show here at the Hayden Planetarium called Cosmic Collisions. And the money shot in that space show is we recreate using the latest data available. The collision between this Mars sized Proteau planet and Earth in the early history of the solar system. And you watch these fragments coalesce into what would then become the moon. That’s the origin of the moon. In fact, we’re onto the next problems now. So that’s a triumph of multiple branches of inquiry coming together and arriving at a new understanding of our place in the cosmos. 

You spoke a few moments ago about life elsewhere in the universe. The great Carl Sagan seemed to think there could be life elsewhere, even if he was a skeptic about things like alien abductions and UFO sightings. Where do you stand on that question? 

When I look around at her and see that it’s teeming with life and then I look out to the universe and just see how large the universe is. You know, our son is one of 100 billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is one of 50 or 100 billion galaxies in the universe. You multiply those two numbers, you get upwards of 10 to the twenty ten to the 21 stars in the known universe. 

Such staggering numbers that you’re working with every day. I don’t know how you wrap your head around them. 

Well, you know, one of my favorite ways to do that is to find other things that have similarly large quantities. 

So, for example, that number 10 of the 21 is larger than the grains of sand in a thousand beaches. It could be larger than all the sounds and words ever uttered by all human beings who have ever lived. And so you can get other numbers that you might have some sense of or some deep respect for her because of their size. And then you slap on another three orders of magnitude and then you realize how truly staggeringly large the universe is. Now, here’s my biggest personally my biggest supporting argument for the likelihood of life in the universe. Look around at the ingredients of life. Rank them in order. What’s the number one atom in the human body? It’s hydrogen. Of course, bound with oxygen in the water molecule. What’s the number two atom? Oxygen bound with hydrogen in our bodies. What’s the number three atom carbon. What’s the number for nitrogen in that order? You say, OK, they want to think life is special. Let’s look around the universe and prove to ourselves that we’re made of special ingredients and we look out in the universe. Number one ingredient is hydrogen, just as it was on Earth. The number two ingredient is helium. Well, that’s not in life on Earth, but that’s a good reason for that, if chemically inert. You can do anything with it even if you wanted to. You can inhale it in parties. You know, it sounds like Mickey Mouse. That’s about it. It’s pretty safe to inhale because it doesn’t interact with your biochemistry, except if you only inhale it. Then you just suffocate. So let’s put a pin in that pillow to side. So the next ingredient to the universe is oxygen, just as it was on in life on Earth. Next is carbon, just as it was on Earth. Next is nitrogen, just as it was in life on Earth. We are not made of exotic ingredients. We are made of the most common ingredients in the cosmos, one for one. And not only that, you can make more kinds of molecules with the carbon atom than all other kinds of molecules combined. So if you take a step back and look at the periodic table and say, what is my most fertile element to experiment with, you’re going to reach in and grab the carbon atom life. Life as we know it is the most complex chemistry we’ve ever seen. In order to get complex chemistry, you need the capacity to make complex molecules and the atom to enable that. At the center of it all is carbon. So when you have these people trying to speculate about silicon life, that’s OK, let them do it. But you don’t need to do it because carbon is so fertile and carbon outnumbers silicon in abundance of atoms in the universe. And if there’s any chance you’re gonna get life, carbon will be there for it. And another thing on Earth, you know, fast life took hold back when we were in school and you learned about how long it took to make life. You first had to know when to start the clock. And so they still Earth was formed about four and a half billion years ago. Okay, start the clock. What is the first sign of life? The earliest fossil record. It’s about three point six three point seven billion years ago. Subtract those two numbers. You get about 700 million years. That’s not too bad. It’s not billions. And so many people said life took hold relatively quickly. My dad had some fits and starts originally, but it was inevitable just given a fertile enough pot of soup. You know, life took hold. Faster than that. Because with our computer analysis of the formation of the solar system know we now know the early solar system was a shooting gallery. It’s not fair to start the stopwatch. The moment Earth formed because Earth was continually slammed by asteroids and comets, making it darelle for the formation of complex molecules. Because it was hot. So it’s not fair to start your stopwatch back then. Wait till things cooled down a bit. You know how long that took? Six hundred million years. Earth wasn’t cool enough to form complex molecules until about three point nine billion years ago. Now you start your stopwatch. When does life take hold? A mere 200 million years later. Now you’re talking fast. And so you combine the fact that we’re made of common ingredients with the fact that life on earth took hold almost as fast as it possibly could have. You can’t help but declare that the universe must be brimming with life because Earth had no trouble making it here on our surface and possibly even deep beneath the surface, even if at the moment we have challenges coming up with life in the laboratory. 

Dr. Tyson, in your work in public science education, you deal with the kinds of things we’re talking about today. You deal with an everyday day in, day out. Some of the things that you teach run right up against central beliefs of our culture. I’m talking about beliefs like creationism and intelligent design, which something like 60 percent of Americans believe in. Today, you touched on this in one of your essays in Natural History magazine. We’ll link to that essay on Point of Inquiry. Dawg, I want to let our listeners know you said in that essay, science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance. Now, I think those are pretty strong words. 

Well, they are, but I didn’t use them just for a fact. I use them because it’s the simple fact of what’s going on in those two enterprises. If you’re a scientist and you’re still in grad school, let’s say, you know, you’re learning what there is to know. But all the while, you were getting closer and closer to that boundary between what is known and what is not known. And that’s where you plant yourself. And that’s what excites you as the research scientist, because you want to discover the things that no one has ever thought of before. No one has ever seen before. No one has ever understood before. And that might even get your name associated with it. Einstein’s equations, Maxwell’s equations that the list goes on are people who have been there and done that. Now let’s look at the philosophy of the intelligent design person. They go to the edge of what is known. You know something? Maybe they’re not smart enough to figure out what’s on the other side of that edge. That happens to all of us. You know, the other way for a smart person to come along. But the intelligent design person is driven by a bit of hubris. That person will say, I can’t understand this phenomenon. It is so complex. No one can understand this phenomena. In fact, it is so complex that no one who will ever be born will ever understand this phenomenon. It must be the product of a higher intelligence, a supernatural intelligence or a supernatural intelligence. End of story. The person no longer looks into that chasm of unknowns to try to understand it. They turn away from it and go somewhere else. Well, you know, some of the things that are in those chasms of unknown, a cure for cancer, a cure for Alzheimer’s. The last person I want on that frontier is an intelligent design theorist because they will be completely useless in that exercise because they will see all the people who have failed before them will give up and say it is beyond our capacity to know. If we create a society that is driven by that philosophy of inquiry, that’s the end of everything we have known and loved about the economic stability of this nation. And these are themes that you have many times in many of your interviews. But I’m just another one reaffirming that fact. It’s not just a simple matter of intellectual enlightenment. It has direct consequences to national security, to the economic health of this nation. 

You’re saying that people’s beliefs about origins, whether they believe intelligent design and creationism or Darwin’s theory of evolution. You’re saying it hits people where they. Live and breathe, hits their wallets, has direct real world effect. 

It has a direct real world effect because it comes out of a philosophy that if there’s something you don’t know and can’t figure out, there remains the chance that you may never figure it out. If that’s how you approach what is unknown, I don’t need to be in the same room with you. I’m sorry. You’re not going to make any discoveries. I want to be in a room with the people who are excited by that unknown and they want to be the one to make that discovery. And you know something? If they’re not smart enough to do it, they’ll say to themselves, I can’t wait till the person is born who is smart enough to make this discovery. And how does it affect the pocketbook? It affects the pocketbook because the frontier of scientific discovery is the greatest engine of economic growth. Culture has ever seen. And there was no century where that is more true than the 21st century. And so if you’re going to live in a country where people shy away from advancing that frontier into the unknown, that is not the country that’s going to innovate. The innovations will all take place overseas and we will watch that happen. If we don’t take swift action on our own shores. 

Dr. Tyson, in your essay, you also mentioned something about stupid design. What do you mean by stupid design? 

Well, if you’re gonna want to run around and find things that you don’t understand and claim that it’s the product of a higher intelligence because of how beautifully it works or how marvelously it operates, then you ought to grant me the right to look around the same space as you are and find things that are just plain stupid leaders. I like the fact that we as human beings breathe and drink through the same hole in our body, guaranteeing that some fraction of us every year will choke to death. 

That’s just stupid design. Imagine if we had different holes in our body for that. Then you would never choke. You could drink and talk and breathe at the same time simultaneously. You could strike from the list of causes of death choking OK. And your appendix that serves no purpose other than to possibly kill you. And my favorite, which has been running around quite a bit, is just the ask the question, what’s going on between our legs? If they say there’s like this, there’s a sewage system mixed in with the entertainment complex. 

No engineer would ever designed it like that. 

That’s just stupid design. And that’s just for humans. Look at the solar system. People say, oh, earth is is a miracle. Excuse me. Ninety nine point nine percent of all species that ever lived are now extinct. If you look at the fossil record, it looks like Earth is trying to kill us. Look at the tsunami that happened a few years ago in Indonesia. What’s the death toll? There was pushing 200000 people every night in the earth. Burps Thousands of people die. Floods, tornadoes. Hurricanes, volcanoes, salamis. Asteroid impacts. 

And they’re all called acts of God. 

That’s the amazing part about it. Everything that is going to kill us in an insurance form that we don’t yet know how to control is called an act of God. You know, the same God that is responsible for doing things that are intelligent. So I don’t I can’t reconcile any of that. So all I’m saying is it’s not about what’s intelligent and what’s stupid. That’s not even the point. The point is there’s enough out there that’s stupid. You just have to pay attention to it to find it. And it’s not hard at all to find it. And you make that list when you’re confronted with a list of stupid things and intelligent things. So if there is a designer, the designers calling card is just as stupid as it is intelligent. 

So if there is intelligent design, there is also some pretty on intelligent design. I want to switch gears here. You’re right. We touch on intelligent design all the time on this show. This is not a show about intelligent design, but I love asking the leading lights of the day about the question. I want to talk to you about your memoir. The Sky is not the Limit. I loved it. I’d like to remind our listeners it’s available through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Well, in Sky is not the limit. You recount how you used to go to the Hayden Planetarium as a young boy, you felt inspired by going to it. And now. Well, you’re the director of the Hayden Planetarium. 

Yes. It’s kind of cool. You know, New York City is a large place and normally you don’t have these hometown kid does good kind of story. You don’t normally get that because the place is too large. But I can tell you that when I was a kid, nine, 10, 11 years old, right on up through high school, they were scientists and educators on the staff at the Hayden Planetarium, which is a part of the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, who invested their time and energy. In my enlightenment, in my understanding and awareness of our place in the universe. And I’ve never forgotten that. And to end up back there. As its director, I feel this deep sense of duty that I serve in the same capacity for people who come through the facility today, that others serve for me at a time when I was most impressionable. And so I see kids of all ages come through. When I walked to my office each day, I walked through the halls of the museum. I see infants in strollers. I see toddlers. I see preschoolers just learning how to ask questions about the world around them. It’s exciting to look at this trajectory of questioning. It seems like such a natural human thing to do. And like I said, I see it every day at all ages. There’s a point where it shuts off in adulthood when I don’t know. I think you you. Life gets hard and you forget what it’s like to wonder about our place in the cosmos. You know, psychologists talk about the day that you stop catching snowflakes in your mouth as you walk down the street. It just stops when they you don’t even remember not doing it. But all kids do it. And no adults do it. So there’s some transition. And I don’t know, maybe it’s when life gets hard. But I see as another one of my duties to keep a flame lit or to reignite a previously extinguished flame within everybody who comes through kids as well as adults. So they’ll come out of or say, wow, I didn’t know that and want to buy books. We see programs come back to trigger a sense of wonder again. Was there for us all when we were coming up through school. 

And it’s that passion that makes you one the leading science advocates in America. One of the students we recently hosted at our leadership conference this last summer at the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference. This is a conference where we bring in college students from around North America for a weekend of training on what we call science advocacy. Well, one of these students is a budding astrophysicist, surname’s Adrià Updyke. She’s studying at Clemson University. Question what advice would you give to budding astrophysicists? I mean, why should people be studying astrophysics? 

Well, I don’t care so much whether people study astrophysics. I just care that they’re scientifically literate and what they do with it after that. I think no matter what it is, society will be healthier. Now, if in particular, among all of the things that you question about the world. You’re especially intrigued by what’s above your head. Then, by the way, when I was a kid and I first took interest in the universe, it was so amazing to me. I thought to myself, you know, everybody’s gonna want to do this. Maybe there’ll be no room for me, because, of course, this is it’s so obvious that this is what everyone will want to study. And then they found out. No. You know, some people want to be artists or they want to write novels. But if you want to sort of grow up and be an astrophysicist, of course, the most fundamental thing you need to familiarize yourself with are the laws of physics of the cosmos. 

And many professional astrophysicist majored in physics in college, as did I, for example, knowing all along I would choose a graduate school that would tune and focus my energies and interest into questions that relate to the cosmos. So when in college, take as much math and physics as you can, because this stokes your capacity to acquire, you know, what kinds of questions to ask. And you know where to draw upon to answer them. The better equipped you are to think about a problem we’ve never seen before, the better able you will be to answer it. And you do want to be stuck not having some branch of mathematics available to you. If the answer to this next probably we just found required that branch of math. So you want to be ready for it. And then you got to really love it because grad school is not a picnic. 

You need a good adviser. And a lot of years you spend more years in graduate school studying one subject than you did in college, you know, taking classes in all manner of subjects. So it’s a it’s a time of focus. And so you got to grow accustomed to focusing where not much else in your life can have priority. Now, if that’s going to be a problem for you, then the plenty other things you can do. In fact, even if you don’t become an astrophysicist, you can become one vicariously because there are tons of books that people write on what’s going on in the universe. You know, the astronomy aisle of Barnes and Noble or Borders books is one of the biggest aisles there is. Just take a look at. No other science subject compares to it. There’s not an aisle that large in geology, popular level books on the subject that come out every month or every few weeks or in biology unless of health related. Of course, that’s a big area or in chemistry, it’s just not done. So the appetite for the cosmos is real. Whether or not you do it professionally or vicariously. 

And you’re saying there are a lot of ways to satisfy that appetite. You have a DVD series out with a company called the Teaching Company. They go out there and find the best teachers, best professors in America, record them, make them available. You have one on the cosmos. So if someone’s interested in this subject, that would be another great way to begin their exploration. 

I can say, you know, by all my stuff, I could say that. But I am one of many people who have invested significant parts of time that they might have otherwise been on vacation, where they might have otherwise spent with family, but they themselves feel committed to write a book or do a video series or write op ed to the papers. They want to bring the fruits of their research to the public. And astronomers know this better than anyone. Carl Sagan really carved the path that enabled the rest of us to do this without being judged by our colleagues, because in astrophysics we know that most of what we do is paid for by tax money through grants from NASA, where the National Science Foundation. And so without that, we don’t have a job without the public’s appetite for what we do. We’d be pumping gas. So that weirdness, which started in a very big public way with Carl Sagan, now permeates the entire astrophysics community. And I’m proud to say that about my fellow scientists. 

So it’s no longer bad to be an, in quotes popularizer of science. 

You do want to be a popularizer at the expense of your integrity and your accuracy and the normal care that you would place in in communicating information. 

Jim Underdown popularizing doesn’t mean dumbing down, right. 

It means respecting the intelligence of who you’re speaking to and giving them the thoughts that will elevate them for that day. 

You just spoke eloquently about the public’s appetite for science, their wonder at their place in the universe. You’re in charge of a planetarium that is in that market. It’s world renowned for its outreach to the public, its educational initiatives. What would you say to students, even young children, as they’re coming through the planetarium? They’re just getting interested in the sciences in the first place. Or what about what would you say to parents? How can educators, parents foster this kind of love, the same kind of zeal that so evident when someone talks to you? 

Well, I have two small children are my own and I’ve watched them develop. One is 10 and one is five. And I keep thinking, I know what I need to do. My next book has to be how to raise a scientifically literate child. I haven’t done it yet, but that’s good. That’s on my list that I’m going to do that. Part of the way to succeed, I believe, is to get out of their way. I get so often asked by adult, what do I need to do for my kids to get them interested in science get out of their way. 

When the kid goes into the cabinet where the pots and pans are, it starts slamming on the top with a wooden spoon. Don’t say cut out that noise and close the cabinet. These are experiments in acoustics, in sound operations. Patterns of metal, in the structural integrity of wooden spoons. These are science experiments. When my kids used to play with their PS, my son, you know, you have to overcook the piece so they don’t choke. Well, you take a pin, drop it on the ground and just watch it kind of stick to the ground. Most parents would say, don’t do that. You’re playing with your food. He was watching what’s called the physics and inelastic collision, where the piece smashes into a flat shape on the graph. The P does not bounce. Why doesn’t it bounce? Well, because it’s mushy. This is useful information. When my daughter spilled milk and watched it puddle up and trickle through the eaves of the table in Gibble down to the floor, I think most parents would have immediately cleaned it up and said, Be careful next time. But I let it go because she was watching the milk dribble and wondered where it went. And she figured it went through the crack. It had to go somewhere and then put her head under the table and saw it dripped down to the floor. These are experiments in hydrodynamics. 

So you’re saying that all children, because of a natural childhood curiosity, we were all budding scientists as as little kids. 

You said it right. All kids are scientists. They just don’t have the tools yet to deduce the formal nature of things. But they are exploring the world around them. And another one, they say it’s cold outside and it’s icy and there’s a and there’s a there’s a frozen puddle in front of them. The kid might run onto the puddle. What are the parents say? Don’t do that. 

I fall well, you know, kids hardly ever get hurt when they fall. Remember how close they are to the ground. This is an important fact. So let him slide down on the ice. 

And, you know, something will fall and you’ll realize that ISIS slippery and wet, ISIS slipperier than ISIS, not wet. And this is all experimentation. So I try to surround my kids with things that they can do without instruction that bring them closer to the laws of physics. And when you do that, you breed within them a kind of scientific literacy where the world is not just a place where magical things happen. The world is a place of causes and effects. And if that’s what you can instill in your kids, you’re done, you’re done because the rest takes care of itself. Now, you want to take them to a museum and be taken to a place where they can light a flame under them. And upon doing that, then they do. I want to be a geologist or a chemist or a biologist. And then then that curiosity can take shape. That’s the next phase of developing the the scientific literacy. But it takes a lot less effort than you think, especially if those seeds were planted already. 

Exactly. Dr. Tyson, one last question. Even given your success at bringing science, the appreciation of science, its beauty, its wonder to the public. Do you think that science, the public understanding and appreciation, science, you think it’s winning ground or is it losing ground? I guess what I’m asking is with all the anti science trends in the culture we touched on earlier in our conversation. Why is it that you seem so gosh darn hopeful deejay? 

Once again, you ask the perfect question. I’ll tell you why I’m hopeful. You know, I did three tours of duty in the Bush administration, serving twice as commissioner on two commissions, once as a member of a committee that affects advise the president on who should win the Presidential Medal of Science. And these three tours of duty got me closer to Washington than ever before and exposed me to things that I had no idea were a normal process of the body politic. For example, you look at Washington and expect people to make rational decisions. No, they make political decisions. That’s why it’s called politics. OK. And then you like judges for being a political decision? Well, it’s a political decision. Get over it. OK. So now I see political pathways because politics is always stronger than everything else, because we that’s the kind of society we live in. I know that if science goes out of the classroom, the nation gets financially poorer. And when you have people in charge who don’t want to die poor, you reach a tipping point where they say this has got to stop. And I submit to you that that’s what happened in Dover, Pennsylvania, where everybody comes up to that if he’s also a Republican appointed judge. Oh, it’ll never go the way we want it to go. And sure enough, the academic community couldn’t have written it better than how it turned out. How was that? So you have an intelligent Republican judge who doesn’t want to die poor. 

This is my analysis of the situation. 

So it’s onward and upward because you see the real cash value of science. 

Yes. And I wish I could have people study science because of its beauty and its majesty. And were it all that, that would be great. But some people will only do it because it’ll make them wealthier. They know something. I’ll take that reason as well. If it gets you reading a science book, I’ll take it. And so this country doesn’t want to die poor. And so there is the source of my long term confidence in the ability of this nation to make decisions. 

Thank you very much for being on point of inquiry, Dr. Tyson. 

It’s been a pleasure. Thanks. There’s my first my first time. And I hope you invite me back. 

It will be our pleasure. Thanks again for joining us. 

You’ve seen the headlines, Bill seeks to protect students from liberal bias. The right time for an Islamic reformation. Kansas School Board redefined science. These stories sum up the immense challenge facing those of us who defend rational thinking, science and secular values. One adviser to the Bush administration dismissed as the reality based community who could have imagined that reality would need defenders. The educational and advocacy work of the Center for Inquiry is more essential than ever. And your support is more essential than ever. Show your commitment to science, reason and secular values. By becoming a friend of the center today, whether you are interested in the work of psychology and skeptical Inquirer magazine, the Council for Secular Humanism and Free Inquiry magazine, the Commission for Scientific Medicine, or a Center for Inquiry on campus. By becoming a friend of the center, you’ll help strengthen our impact. If you’re just learning about CFI, take a look at our Web site. W w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We hosted regional and international conferences, college courses and nationwide campus outreach. You’ll also find out about our new representation at the United Nations, an important national media appearances. We cannot pursue these projects without your help. Please become a friend of the center today by calling one 800 eight one eight seven zero seven one or visiting w w w dot center for inquiry dot net. We look forward to working with you to enlarge the reality based community. 

Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. Join us next week for another discussion with one of the world’s leading figures in science, philosophy, ethics, public policy, something like that, to get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode. The conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, go to W w w dot CFI dash forums dot org. Views expressed on point of inquiry don’t necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. Or by visiting our Web site. Point of inquiry. Dot org. 

One of inquiries produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiries. Music is written and composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show include Thomas Donnally, Sarah Jordan and Lauren Becker. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.