Neil deGrasse Tyson interview: Bonus content edition

As I noted from the outset in my piece in Tuesday’s (Nov. 10) New Orleans Advocate feature, Neil deGrasse Tyson basically speaks (and thinks) at warp speed. In an interview that went double over our allotted time of 15 minutes, Tyson touched on a number of topics, and even fielded some crowd-sourced questions I’d solicited on Facebook. (More on that later.) But when not typing furiously (yes, this one needed to be recorded), it was fun to mentally to just sit back and listen to Tyson go.

We discussed his seamless blending of science and popular culture, in particular how it’s applied on his National Geographic show, StarTalk,” which recently kicked off its second season:

“This is a way science reaches people that would not otherwise have come near it in the course of a day,” Tyson said. “We use the celebrity as an excuse to talk about the science that had mattered in their life,” he continued. “We use the celebrity as a pivot point on all the science that came up in the conversation.”

We also discussed his views on the way science is being taught in the classroom and how that might play out in the political arena (something he’s never shied away from discussing. But we also covered so much more. Here are some block comments that didn’t make the Advocate piece:

On the importance of liquid water as such a key piece to the puzzle of life on Mars: “There are two reasons. One is all life that we know on Earth requires liquid water for its survival. If we search the universe with that understandable bias, then we would be looking for liquid water as a key ingredient in life as we know it. L-A-W-K- … “LAWKI” it’s sometimes called. LAWKI, life as we know it. That’s one. Two, it may be required because for your body, for a vessel such as your body to communicate information from one place to another, nutrients, nourishments, energy, it needs some kind of fluid in order to do that, to accomplish it, and water is a very common fluid in the universe and it has interesting properties that enable it to do what it does very well. First it’s a bias, but second there are two other reasons that we think are cogent for why we might expect life elsewhere to have liquid water as one of its most important ingredients.”

On how crazy it is for an astrophysicist to be so popular: “It’s crazy. It’s completely crazy. Completely. I wake up every morning saying, “What the … ?” Every morning. No, I’m serious. I go to my Twitter stream … My Twitter’s at how many? Four and a half million? What? Don’t they know I’m an astrophysicist? There’s still time to back out if I can warn them of this. Did they do it by accident?” For me, it’s not just the Twitter stream or the TV show. I think what’s most stunning to me is the fact that I can go two nights in a major performance space. That I think is the biggest statement of the public’s appetite for the universe. Because to come to the theater, you’ve got to get off your ass and you have to travel to it and you have to pay money. Then you have to sit there, and you might be in the middle of a row and then you can’t go pee. There’s an overhead to coming to a theater that you don’t have if you’re sitting at home with your remote control or if you are reading a book or watching a documentary. On the occasions where I fill the house of thousands of people, because I forgot the capacity of this theater, but it’s a performance theater … I remember the transition. There was a transition from lecture halls, possibly be invited to a college campus, to city performance theaters. There’s a jump in attendance level, in audience level, between those two venues. Then, you don’t really find two thousand-seat lecture halls on university campuses. You can have several hundred, maybe a thousand, at most fifteen hundred, but it tops out there, really. The fact that there could be this many people that are that interested, times two, two nights in a row, I’m deeply enchanted by this fact. It redoubles my sense of duty in the service of the public’s curiosity and appetite for learning about our place in the universe.”

On why it’s important not to dumb down science while making it so accessible: “First, thanks for you noticing that, because I don’t make a big deal of saying that about it. It just is. I think it’s part of the empowerment of a listener that they see and hear the science as nature intended you to see and hear it, and so therefore you’re not left with some lesser version or lesser explanation than what is necessary to really understand what’s going on. That’s good, but also I personally happen to find the universe to be a hilarious place, so to the extent that I can share that enjoyment with the audience, that’s a plus. I’m also picky about what I’m sharing with you. There’s stuff that’s really, really boring. Why waste both of our times talking about it? I’m not curriculum-driven when I do the talk. There are some topics way more interesting than other topics. I’m going to pick the way more interesting topics that in my judgment are more interesting. Then I share it with you, the audience member. Yeah, it’s a remarkable fact, and I think it’s a sign that science is trending, an unmistakable sign that science is trending in the country and possibly the world.”

On whether he follows science-related issues as they might pertain to Louisiana, especially coastal erosion: “Not specifically Louisiana, but there’s … By the way, you can have erosion even if nothing else is changing in the world. The shape of coastlines, of beaches, is an ongoing sculpted phenomenon on Earth. The real challenge is, as you start losing ice sheets and then the water level rises, then it’s not so much erosion. Yes, it will erode, but you just simply lose your … Your coastline changes. The coastline moves inland. Is that erosion? No. You just lost your damn coastline. Erosion is, “Let me rub away at it so that it’s not there anymore.” That’s different from “Let me raise the sea level so that now everything that used to be your coastline is now under water.” Yeah, coastline is a major issue as the sea levels rise, because what used to be your coastline is no longer your coastline, will no longer be your coastline, and major cities that are on the water’s edge, be they a river’s edge or a lake edge or a gulf or the ocean, major cities in the history of our civilization that were forged, that were created on waterways for the purpose of commerce … In fact, it’s the opposite. There was commerce, and then they said, ‘Oh, this is a good place to put a city because all the commerce is happening here on the water’s edge.’ That is what will completely possibly take us by surprise as we are taken by storm.”

On the greatest value he gets out of interviewing such a diverse range of guests on “StarTalk”: “I like interviewing people where I don’t know anything about their expertise. Then I learn. I love learning stuff I don’t know every day. I think I’ve tweeted if a day goes by we don’t learn something, it’s a wasted day, in my humble opinion. You don’t have that many days alive, so why not make every day count, intellectually at least? Because then you get to keep it. You can go to the gym and have a sculpted body, but when you’re seventy or eighty are you still doing it? No. You hoped you would still have your mind by then, and you can still be a productive member of society.

“There are these science programs that we know work and we know have a following, but for ‘StarTalk,’ I and my fellow producers kept thinking there’s got to be a community of people who don’t know that they like science. They’re not going to tune into Science Friday because you tune in there knowing you like science. On top of this, there are people who know that they don’t like science. How do we reach them? Then it occurred to us, the way we do it is I become the host and my guest is just someone hewn from pop culture. That’s the only prerequisite, visibly and knowingly hewn from pop culture. My conversation with that person orbits all the ways science has mattered in that person’s life.”

Hopefully I’ll have one last little treat from the interview. Stay tuned.

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