Neil deGrasse Tyson – Death by Black Hole

January 25, 2007

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of America’s leading spokespersons for science. The research areas he focuses on are star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to many scholarly publications, Dr Tyson is one of America’s most respected science writers, and he writes a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled the “Universe.” Among his eight 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. He is the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s program ScienceNow, which explore the frontiers of all the science that shapes our understanding of our place in the universe. He is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan, where he also teaches.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Dr. Tyson explores the “popularization” of science, the ups and downs of science education, why scientists should be personally motivated to increase public science interest, whether his studies in astrophysics make him more or less religious, the “spirituality” of the scientific outlook, and other topics that he treats in his new book Death By Black Hole. He also talks about his experiences hosting PBS-NOVA’s ScienceNow.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, January 26, 2007. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe growthy 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 Toronto, Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, California and Washington, D.C.. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, every week on this show, we look at some of the most fundamental assumptions of our culture through the lens of science and critical thinking, focusing mostly on three research areas. First, pseudoscience and the paranormal. Second, alternative medicine. And third, on secularism and religion. The intersection of religion and science in our society. We look at these research areas by drawing on SIFIs relationship with the leading minds of the day, including Nobel Prize winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers and renowned entertainers. Before we get to the return appearance of Neil deGrasse Tyson from the Hayden Planetarium, he’s one of the most popular guests we’ve ever had on point of inquiry. Well, we have a word here from our sponsor. 

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I am really pleased to have our next guest returning to point of inquiry, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is one of America’s leading public figures advocating for science and reason. He’s a spokesperson for the scientific outlook. His research areas focus on star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way. In addition to many scholarly publications, Dr. Tyson is one of America’s most respected science writers. He has a monthly column for Natural History magazine simply titled The Universe and eight books, including his memoir. The Sky Is Not the Limit. Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist. 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 one three one, two, three. Tyson, on a lighter note, a couple 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 today to talk about, among other things, his new book, Death by Black Hole. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Welcome to Point of Inquiry again. 

It is great to be back. Thanks for having me. 

Dr. Tyson, I want to start off talking about science and getting the public to appreciate it. You’re the person to be talking to about the subject. We recently had Andrian back on the show, and one of the things she got in too briefly was talking about how Carl Sagan kind of suffered this bad rap in the scientific community for being a popularizer, as if that’s a bad thing. And here you are hosting this very popular series on PBS Science now, which is about nothing if not popularizing science. Here’s a question. Do you get any of the kind of flack that Sagan got for popularizing? 

It was a little bit of it earlier when I began sort of writing for the public and I published my first book while I was still in graduate school, my first popular level book, which were these playful questions and answers about the universe that is still in print. It’s called Merlins Tour of the Universe. And it was a playful romp through the universe with questions and answers, real questions asked by real people. And it had some cartoon illustrations. I received a little friction for having done that, in particular for having done it sort of early in my trajectory as a professional scientist. But in the more recent years, it has not been the case that I’ve not seen any sign of resistance from my colleagues to the activities that I engage in. And I can only credit that to the efforts of Carl Sagan. And yes, there’s there’s sort of blood on the tracks for him, having sort of carved the way first. But it was in the era after Carl Sagan that the astrophysics community recognized that, of course, we do tax based research. The moneys that feed the National Science Foundation and NASA all come from the general public. So in the end, if you want the public to like what you do or appreciate what you do and by their permission, continue to do what you do, then they want to know what you’re doing. And so part of that is some of us need to reach out to them and tell them exactly how their money is being spent. 

So, Dr. Tyson, here’s the real question I guess I’m getting at. If you’re popularizing science not just to get public support and funding, why popularize it? I mean, we can’t all become scientists. Why isn’t it enough to just let the scientists do what they need to do and let the rest of us go on our merry way? You don’t really have other kinds of professionals on TV popularizing their work, encouraging everyone to take up and appreciate those fields, those disciplines. 

That’s an excellent point. And I have two ways to reply to that. The first one, like I said, is a more pragmatic answer, that if the public appreciate what you do, it is likely that they will continue to vote in ways that will promote what you do. But that’s the sort of a crass way. 

I’d rather not think about it in that context. 

You’re saying it’s not just that? 

Yeah, it’s not just that in this 21st century, the role of science and technology will be greater than ever before and the factors that influence how you live. 

That influence your health, the influence, your understanding of your place not only on Earth, but in the universe. And if you go through life without that kind of exposure, you’re missing something very important about what it is to be alive in the 21st century. Not only that, you’re not going to be in a position to vote intelligently or in an informed way about issues that affect your life or your future or the life of your children or your unborn grandchildren. 

And so. Science education, science literacy. A public appreciation for science goes more than just serving, you know, the selfish needs of scientists. It serves the needs of the public, even if the public doesn’t know yet. That, in fact, they have that need. 

So you actually have the audacity to say that everyone could benefit from being more aware of, more steeped in the methods, the outlook, whatever the world view of science, that it helps them be better citizens, voters. Tell me how that really cashes out. Can give me one example. 

Just look at what had been going on with global warming and how long it took people to appreciate it and understand it. 

And you had the media not knowing how to make a judgment in this and say, well, we have to cover both sides. Well, there aren’t really two sides. There’s one side. And then this other side that they think is another side is this sort of vanishingly small, politically motivated minority with a seat on the other side. So the media accounts, you’d think it was a 50/50 toss up. And if you were informed, if you knew how to think about information, about data, about the reporting of information, then you wouldn’t be duped by the efforts of others to control how you think about the world. 

So in a way, becoming scientifically literate is one of the greatest ways to empower a person that has ever been devised, because it puts you in a position to know whether someone else is just full of crap. 

OK, I’m sorry. No other way to say that as someone is speaking to you, say no, that’s not possible. 

No, you’ve got that wrong. And that’s a powerful position to be in. 

And something you said just a minute ago implies that this applies to children as well, not just citizens, voters, adults. But you’re talking about childhood science education. Your work seems to make science appear fun. But I want to ask you about that. Isn’t that kind of overselling it to say that science is always fun? I remember my science classes in high school and it wasn’t always, you know, the best time. 

Well, as a minimum, what you’d want your class to be, no matter the subject, is challenging, challenging. And it’s sort of interesting way. And not all challenging classes will be fun. But you don’t want the class to be either boring or to turn you off. If the class does that so often, we want to blame the subject. When, in fact, the entire blame goes to the instructor. As far as I’m concerned, it is the burden. It is the obligation. It is the it is the requirement of a teacher. If you want to wear that badge. Teacher, instructor, professor, educator. If that is your badge, it is your responsibility to understand the conduits of communication that are necessary to enlighten your audience. And not everyone has the same conduit. Some require different kinds of ways. The information flows to them. Now, this would be very hard in an enormous lecture hall. But most of the where the rubber hits the road is in sort of elementary schools, junior high schools and high school where teachers know their students by name. And therein is the opportunity to reach every student that they touch. And we all have teachers in our lives. Unfortunately, this number is very few. Is it four for you? Is it six? For me, it’s like three teachers in our lives that rose above all the rest in their capacity to inspire us. And the fascinating thing about it is they inspired us. I’m speaking for you now without even having asked you this question. But I know it’s true that they inspired you in subjects that you had no idea would be interesting. 

I know that’s true. 

And so you’d since, you know, these kinds of teachers are out there, we’ve got to find out who they are and promote the kind of people that they are. 

And if not, just go out and clone them, find some way that they become every teacher you have. 

And it’s a tragedy that you go through school for 20 years, however many years are in school. You can only come up with a handful of teachers. That made a significant difference in your perspective of the world around you. 

Dr. Tyson, I want to switch gears a little and talk to you about something we occasionally treat here on the show and something you seem to treat in your book and your TV series. Call it science as a world view. I just mentioned Andrian earlier, but it’s not just her. A lot of scientists and science advocates these days are arguing that the scientific outlook is actually competitive with other ways of seeing the world like religion or the paranormal. Other world views that it gives these other world views a real run for their money. What’s your take on that? 

What you said is indeed correct, but I would make the statement even more strongly. The methods and tools of science are simply the most effective way we have ever come up with as a species to decode and understand how the world works and its power is not only in that knowledge, its power is in the fact that I can do an experiment and someone whom I never met from another country, another culture, another language, even another time, can do that same experiment and get the same result, which gives you confidence that the scientific approach to understanding. He the actual world available to us to understand, whereas other views are rife with conflicts that come about simply because you’re born at a different time. We’re born to different parents, were born to different cultural values. Of course, every religion identifies its own religion as the one and only religion one should be. Nearly every religion postures themselves this way. And so that’s a non convergent approach to understanding. And in fact, most people who are a religion or that religion, because that was a religion of the parents. And that should force a person to take pause and reflect on what role that belief system will play in coming up with an unambiguous understanding of reality. When someone else in another land, in another time born to different parents, well, a completely different view of that same reality. And there’ll be no less convinced of its truth. There’s something wrong there. Maybe they’re not looking for some common truth. Maybe it’s just a perspective on how to live. Of which there are many different perspectives. And that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. But don’t come knocking on my door telling me that you’ve got a belief system that will get me closer to the operations of nature. Because unless you’re a scientist, you’re not telling me the truth. 

Dr. Tyson, that leads me right into your book, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries. What a fun read. It’s basically a compilation of your essays that you’ve done for Natural History magazine over the years, right? 

Yes, over the past 10 years. That’s right. And I figured I finally had enough to sort of put them together and organize them in a sensible way to create a book out of it. These are sort of handpicked essays. They include those that are my personal favorites, as well as those that have been highly requested by the public over the years. So this is actually a culling of the essays. And they were fun to write, and I hope they’re as fun to read. 

Well, we’ve gotten a lot of fun out of the book here at the Center for Inquiry and at home. My family enjoyed it. One of my favorite sections, probably not too surprisingly, is the section you entitle Science and God in one of your essays in this section. I think it won the Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. You talk about how certain types of religious people say that the universe had to have begun somewhere and if so, by someone, it had to have started by a creator. Then you ask. But what is the universe always existed? Is it a common view in cosmology and in astrophysics that the universe always existed? 

It depends on how we think of the concept of universe. If you broaden that concept to the multiverse, then our universe is one sort of bubble within some yet to be counted, yet to even know if it is countable number of other universes. So that before the Big Bang, there would just be the continuing existence of this multiverse. So the notion that the universe always was we can date the beginning of this sort of bubble of universe in which we live. And that goes back about thirteen point seven billion years. So, no, our universe says we’ve come to know and love. It has not always existed. It had a beginning. But then you could say, well, what was around before the beginning? I right now. All I can say is, I don’t know. We got top people working on that problem. For some, however, that is a wholly unsatisfying answer yet to the scientists. Well, yes, that’s an unsatisfying answer, the scientists responses. I’m going to try to figure out the answer to others who are more sort of prone to sort of supernatural force. They’re equally as unsatisfied with the answer, but the reply is, God must have created it. And then they like their hands clean and say, we’re done with that explanation. Onto the next problem. And so I’m not content invoking God. And every point of my ignorance as a scientist, as someone who is with effort, maintained the level of curiosity I had as a child into adulthood. If there’s something I don’t know, that’s just sort of fires me up with the energy to go further, explore how the thing works. 

So you’re saying that invoking God is the explanation for these puzzles. These questions kind of stifles your curiosity and you’re not satisfied with doing that. 

Yeah, as long as I’m curious, I’m gonna keep looking for the answers and I’m glad they’re being curious people before me who didn’t just stop with the answer. God did it because, you know, where would we be if that were the answer? For every point of unknown in the history of human thought, you know, we’d still be in the caves, for goodness sake. So what you don’t want to have happen is an emergent philosophy and culture. 

Stifle the level of curiosity that’s actually responsible for advancing our understanding of the natural world around us. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Death by Black Hole through our website point of inquiry dot org. Dr. Tyson, elsewhere in the book, you talk about how at the end of a lot of your public lectures, people ask you things like do your studies in astrophysics make you more or less religious? How do you answer that? I’m curious myself. 

Yeah. I’m glad it comes a blast rather than in the middle, because when I give talk, it’s never about God. 

It’s about, you know, cool things we learned recently about the universe. So we shouldn’t derail and those conversations in the middle of leap, but they come up at the end and that’s the right time to pose those questions, I think. And throughout my life, as I learn more and more about the universe, if you compare it with what religious people say about the natural world, that that is orderly and it’s therefore our purpose and and for our benefit. And it’s just right for us. The more we learn about the universe, the more you find out that it’s not just right for us. It’s, you know, this little section of land on Earth in certain temperate zones after we build structures around us and control the temperature and then build close, then it’s OK for us. OK. Why up you butt naked in most random places on earth. You’ll be dead very shortly thereafter. Of course, most of earth is covered with water and the rest of what is mostly earth is not quite friendly for human life, particularly if you’re butt naked. 

So my point is, if you just spend a little bit of extra effort looking at what’s actually happening in the universe with asteroids coming in, rendering life extinct, let’s take a look at the fossil record. It is not a record of one that shows that anyone out there loves life on Earth. In fact, the record is the opposite, that the forces of nature are all coming together and they’re trying to kill us. In fact, there’s a whole section in the book subtitled All the Ways that the Universe Wants to Kill US. And it’s titled When the Cosmos Turns Bad. We need to be candid with ourselves about these facts about the universe. Because to say that it’s all just right for us, you were sweeping under the rug. Some fundamental truths that otherwise conflict with your philosophy that the universe somehow shows the hand of God. If that hand of God in your mind is a benevolent force on life, on Earth or on human life. So the more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there’s any sort of benevolent force that have anything to do with it at all. 

Of course, another way to look at this problem is as you discover the laws of physics and their operations in the universe. These are very beautiful things. The fact that they apply throughout time, across space, it’s a fascinating, spooky mystery that there is even such a thing as the laws of physics. So one might even be prone to say maybe the laws of physics are the expression of God. Well, that’s a very different kind of God from the one that’s answering daily prayers on Earth that God comes closer to Spinoza’s God, one that doesn’t care much about your personal life, but operates as the universe almost holistically as the whole universe. So whatever you discover about the universe, that’s Spinoza’s God. And, you know, OK, I’m OK with that. You know, it doesn’t stop me from discovering more. It doesn’t. Force me to pretend that the armed forces of nature out there that are trying to kill me, not only, by the way, macroscopic forces of nature like asteroids, but also microscopic forces such as deadly viruses and bacteria and the like. 

So on the one hand, you appear to be a skeptic of traditional religion. But on the other hand, you have this all this appreciation for existence, for science, not science as religion. Don’t let me ever be misquoted on that point. But science and appreciation of the universe through the means and methods of science, giving you this kind of all that some people might consider spiritual. 

I’m happy to use that word spiritual for the feelings that come over me when I study the universe. I will use that word unhesitatingly when I’m on a mountaintop, at a telescope, on a clear night, looking up to the universe and the photons travel across the vast distances of space, reach my detector and I analyze those data and come up with some new understanding of how the universe works. 

There is no substitute for that feeling as a scientist. There’s no substitute. That is what you’re after. That is what you’re trying to do. And if you’re not an observer or experimentalists is the theorist who’s cranks through the equations or the models or the computer programs that probe the operations of nature, and you come up with a new way of understanding the world. That’s a spiritual feeling. As I can imagine, and in some ways I had vocabulary that issues forth from my mouth that is indistinguishable from the words spoken by someone who’s had a religious experience. I use words like Majesty in my depth of feeling and love and and appreciation and respect and grander of the cosmos. These are words that are common in religious circles. I got them to. They’re in me. I feel it. 

Well, there is so much more I’d love to talk to you about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and its implications for our understanding of our place in the universe. I want to talk to about the origins of life, what astrobiology is telling us these days about the origins of life. You have a whole section in your book entitled The Meaning of Life. But, Dr. Tyson, I know you’re short on time, so I will finish up with this with this book and with a PBS series. You host your in a very public way, exploring the frontiers of all the science that shapes our scientific worldview, our understanding of our place in the universe. What would you tell someone who feels anxious about that or who feels put off when that understanding of our place in the universe juts up against their own views, views that seem to be the opposite of the scientific view? 

You know what I want to do? I want to change the way we think about the world around us. In fact, I don’t even want to use the word science because people when you use the word think of their science class and maybe it left a bad taste in their mouth. Let me just say. There are methods and tools to understand the world that you live in. Let’s talk about some of them. Let’s observe how those methods and tools empower you to see things you’d never seen before and understand how things work as never before. And with no science now and with the very sections and chapters and death by Black Hole, you will see that all the frontiers of science are brought together. And what I’d like to think is a coherent package so that we freely move from the frontier of chemistry to biology to physics to astrophysics, to robotics, engineering, and these frontiers all come together as just a way of trying to understand the things that are going on around you. So don’t think of it as a science. Think of it as life. Think of it as the intersection of your life with the universe. We happen to have a word for that, it’s called science, but it’s just ways of knowing. 

And by the way, we are in a new era of scientific investigation where we have a cross pollination of disciplines that we haven’t seen for 500 years. 500 years ago, chemists and physicists and even biologists, you’d find them walking the same corridors of of the academic institutions of the land because their tools hadn’t split yet. Their vocabulary hadn’t become distinguished from each other yet. And then it became distinguished. And then they went their separate ways. What we find now is that there are certain questions like, for example, what is the origin of life? What is the origin of the universe? Is there life on Mars? We have to bring together the chemists, the biologists, the geologists, the astrophysicists, and we’re all now speaking to each other with common goals. So there’s an emergent resonance that is now driving the investigation of the world around us. And that’s why I don’t want people to think, oh, I didn’t do well in physics. So let me not go there. Oh, I like biology. Let me only think about biology. There are no branches of science. It’s all just a way of knowing about your world. And if you stand in denial of that, if you stand in resistance of that, you’re going to be left high and dry as we go into this century, into this millennium where the illiteracy there will be as bad, if not worse, than simply not knowing how to read. That’s a talent we all take for granted because you learn how to read and third grader first grade. But imagine having that level of illiteracy in the world where your survival depends on it. 

Dr. Tyson, I appreciate you joining me on the show again. Thank you very much. 

Not too happy to come back anytime I’m all yours. 

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Thanks for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. To get involved with an online conversation about today’s episode with Neil deGrasse Tyson, go to our online discussion forums where you can meet other people just like yourself, interested in science and reason and critical rationality from all over the country, all over the world. That Web site is CFI Dasch 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. 

Point of inquiry is 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 composed forest by Emmy Award winning Michael Reilly. 

Contributors to today’s show included Thomas Donnelly and Debbie Goddard. 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.