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Why Revive 'Cosmos?' Neil DeGrasse Tyson Says Just About Everything We Know Has Changed

03/04/2014 08:14 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014
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Things are looking up for Neil deGrasse Tyson--way up. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium and the author of several popular books on space, Tyson is already one of the nation's best-known scientists. And now his already-high profile is set for a big boost with the March 9 launch of "Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey," a new documentary television series that he hosts.

Tyson calls the 13-part series a continuation of "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," a 1980 PBS series narrated by Carl Sagan that is acclaimed as one of the most significant science-themed programs in television history.

In anticipation of the new series' debut, Tyson, 55, sat down with HuffPost Science for a wide-ranging and surprisingly frank interview. What follows is a condensed and edited version of the discussion, which took place in the astrophysicist's New York City office.

David Freeman: Cosmologically speaking, what's changed in the 34 years since the original "Cosmos?"

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Just about everything.

DF: Exoplanets hadn't yet been observed back then. Now we've seen hundreds. Does that mean we're closer to discovering extraterrestrial life?

NT: That is a big question we all have: are we alone in the universe? And exoplanets confirm the suspicion that planets are not rare. Life as we know it lives on a planet. So if we are going to look for life as we know it, you want a good inventory of planets. There is a whole cottage industry of people trying to study the properties of the planets. It's very hard because they're orbiting next to hugely bright stars. The analogy is given--and if you calculate it out, it turns out to be about right--it would be like trying to detect a firefly around one of those Hollywood searchlights pointing straight at you.

DF: And our conception of the cosmos may also have changed. Do you think we live in a universe--or a multiverse?

NT: We have excellent theoretical and philosophical reasons to think we live in a multiverse.

DF: Why is that?

NT: Quantum physics, which is the physics of the small, behaves in odd ways. Everything that the tenets of quantum physics predict about the universe--we go out and test it and it's there. General relativity, which was put forth by Einstein, is the theory of the large--gravity and the large-scale structure of the universe. That also works. Yet they don't work with one another. If you take the universe all the way back to the Big Bang, well, the entire universe was really small. So now you take the shotgun wedding--quantum physics and general relativity. In that shotgun wedding, if you follow through with all the predictions quantum physics gives you, it allows multiple bubbles to form--one of which is our universe. These are sorts of fluctuations in the quantum foam. Quantum physics fluctuates all the time. But now the fluctuations are not just particles coming into and out of existence, which happens all the time. It's whole universes coming into and out of existence.

DF: And philosophically?

NT: Philosophically, the universe has really never made things in ones. The Earth is special and everything else is different? No, we've got seven other planets. The sun? No, the sun is one of those dots in the night sky. The Milky Way? No, it's one of a hundred billion galaxies. And the universe--maybe it's countless other universes.

DF: And our multiverse could be just one of many?

NT: Exactly. It might be that the multiverse is not alone.

DF: If particles blink into and out of existence, could the whole universe blink out of existence?

NT: It is statistically so unlikely that you should just think of it as zero. Don't worry about it.

DF: You must get a lot of strange questions from your lecture audiences. Do you find yourself having to correct people's misconceptions?

NT: That's not my goal. As an educator, I try to get people to be fundamentally curious and to question ideas that they might have or that are shared by others. In that state of mind, they have earned a kind of inoculation against the fuzzy thinking of these weird ideas floating around out there. So rather than correct the weird ideas, I would rather them to know how to think in the first place. Then they can correct the weird idea themselves. I don't just tell them no. That's pontifical.

DF: What role do you play in what some have called a culture war between science and science deniers?

NT: People reach for me to have those fights, but I don't engage in them. You've never seen me debate anybody. On anything. Ever. My investment of time, as an educator, in my judgment, is best served teaching people how to think about the world around them. Teach them how to pose a question. How to judge whether one thing is true versus another. What the laws of physics say. That's an educational process. It's not a debate and whoever argues best wins. I don't do that. I'm not saying other people shouldn't. I'm not saying it isn't a great thing that they're doing it.

DF: What do you think our approach should be to exploring the moon and Mars and to space exploration in general?

NT: I don't create agendas that people should follow. But if you care about the economic health of this nation, then you ought to know that innovation in science and technology in the 21st Century will be the engine of tomorrow's economy. Nations that embrace this fact will lead the world economically.

DF: How do you convince people of the importance of science and technology?

NT: You can make programs that improve science teachers, but what do you do when you get out? Is it embraced by your culture? No, it's not. It's a band-aid. But when the culture wants to do it, you don't need programs to make it happen. There were no programs in the 1960s to get people interested in science. There were programs to manage the rising science interest that became manifest when Sputnik was launched, but the interest was built into the culture. People were thinking about tomorrow in ways only science and technology could deliver. My read of human history and 20th Century tells me that there is no force as powerful, as ambition-stimulating, as exploring the great frontier. And right now that frontier is space. I'm not here to tell you to like space. I'm here to tell you the cost of not liking space.

DF: Some scientists argue that in order to ensure our long-term survival, humans must colonize other planets. What do you say?

NT: It would be great if we were on multiple planets, but I think that's unrealistic. Hawking says we have to be on multiple planets so an asteroid could come and you'd still have some humans left. It's a nice idea. It satisfies the multiple-eggs-in-multiple-baskets concept. However, I claim that whatever power you have amassed to terraform Mars to make it look like Earth and then ship a billion people there...whatever effort that requires is more than figuring out how to deflect the asteroid. It's more effort than fixing runaway global warming.

DF: If someone offered you a one-way trip to Mars, would you take it?

NT: I don't see any point of a one-way trip. In the era of the great explorers, colonies were established in places where explorers had already put the place on the map--and were able to tell you, "Yeah, there's air to breathe and fruit on the trees and bring this winter coat and here is a shovel and some hammers and nails, go at it. Oh, by the way, if it doesn't work out, come back." That's different from saying here's a spaceship that is only designed to go one way and, by the way, when you get there there's no air or water. So make it a round trip. You stay as long as you want.

DF: In a recent article in Parade magazine, you were quoted as saying that as a young man, despite being an aspiring astrophysicist, you were sometimes viewed as a mugger or shoplifter. That was surprising to see, given your reputation as someone who is disinclined to talk about racism.

NT: I didn't talk to them at all. They went into my memoir written in 1999 and extracted from a single chapter in the book. People feel some major urge to say oh, he's a black scientist so let's have part of the conversation about being a black scientist. I never initiate such conversations. Ever. In fact, I decline invitations to speak during Black History Month. If you only think of me during Black History Month, I must be failing as an educator and as an astrophysicist. By the way, if my professional identity involved strong racial issues, then it would be unfair and unrealistic to decline such invitations. But I never talk about it. I never volunteer to talk about god or religion, but people feel compelled to talk about it.

DF: Do you want to talk about religion now?

NT: I'm here for you.

DF: Do you believe in god?

NT: I presume you've pre-specified which god you're asking about?

DF: Define god as you would.

NT: You're the one who's asking the question. So pick a god and ask me if I believe in that god.

DF: The Judeo-Christian god.

NT: OK, if that god is described as being all-powerful and all-knowing and all-good, I don't see evidence for it anywhere in the world. So I remain unconvinced. If that god is all-powerful and all-good, I don't see that when a tsunami kills a quarter-million or an earthquake kills a quarter-million people. I'd like to think of good as something in the interest of your health or longevity. That's a pretty simple definition of something that is good for you. That's not a controversial understanding of the word "good." So if Earth in two separate events separated by just a couple of years can kill a half-million people, then if the god as you describe exists, that god is either not all-powerful or not all-good. And so therefore I am not convinced.

DF: Can science and religion be reconciled?

NT: As religion is now practiced and science is now practiced, there is no intersection between the two. That is for certain. And it's not for want of trying. Over the centuries, many people--theologians as well scientists--have tried to explore points of intersection. And anytime anyone has declared that harmony has risen up, it is the consequence of religion acquiescing to scientific discovery. In every single case.

DF: Is religion dying?

NT: It depends on what you mean by dying. Most of Europe is atheistic. Even in Italy, the seat of the Vatican, most people never go to church. The Netherlands is essentially 100 percent atheist. The churches are relics. So the trend line in the Western world is that the influence of religion is diminishing. That's just a fact. I don't care whether it rises or falls. It really doesn't matter to me.

DF: And yet for some people, religion provides a source of wonder and awe.

NT: I would say it's not the only way. It's not the best way. You can have awe of the universe, and it has the advantage of being objectively verifiable. And this is an awe that will continue even after new discoveries are made. You're not being awed at the same thing your ancestors were. You've moved on.

DF: What things do you find most awesome?

NT: There are two. One relates to the formation of the heavy elements in the stars landing inside the human body and all life on Earth. In terms of the most astonishing fact about which we know nothing, there is dark matter and dark energy. We don't know what either of them is. Everything we know and love about the universe and all the laws of physics as they apply, apply to four percent of the universe. That's stunning. That's as humbling a fact as there is.

DF: But you have faith that someday we will know what dark matter and dark energy are.

NT: If you want to use faith in that way, sure. But when faith is used in modern society it has a strong association with religion. The history of science shows that great mysteries get solved. It may be that there's an answer that humans are too stupid to understand. I'm intrigued by that possibility.

DF: Might we be able to create brains that are smarter than we are?

NT: That's an interesting question. Possibly. If we know what's making us smart, go tweak the DNA. Tweak the genome in some way.

DF: How about the idea of uploading your brain into some sort of computer as a way to achieve immortality?

NT: I don't see that as an important day, any more than the day a machine replaced you on the assembly line, the day a machine replaced your oxen, the day a machine beat us at chess, the day a machine beat us at Jeopardy. It's fine and intriguing, but to assert that all of life is going to be different or that it's immortality... don't tell me it's you with immortality.

DF: What's something that people would be surprised to learn about you?

NT: If I had another life, I would be a librettist for Broadway musicals. I love musicals.

DF: Do you have a favorite?

NT: My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Jesus Christ Superstar, All That Jazz.

DF: So you go to Broadway a lot?

NT: Yeah. I go to plays with my wife and Broadway musicals with the whole family. We just saw The Glass Menagerie.

DF: What else do you do in your spare time?

NT: We both cook and enjoy good wine with good food. The great frustration is that the better we are in the kitchen, the fewer restaurants become available to us to eat in.

DF: Do you have a killer lasagna?

NT: My wife has a killer lasagna. Oh my god.

DF: What's your best dish?

NT: I make a pistachio-mint-encrusted shank of lamb. With that one you reach for your better bottle of wine. I can't order rack of lamb in a restaurant anymore. It's just not as good.

DF: Sounds like you have a sense of awe and wonder at your rack of lamb.

NT (laughing): No, I have a sense of awe and wonder at the food still made by master chefs that I am sure I will never figure out.

DF: What's one interesting thing viewers will learn from "Cosmos?"

NT: We tell the stories of scientists in different cultures and different eras whose life work was fought against by the culture or the governments that controlled their lives or by social mores that interfered with their exploration of the truth. Some gave their lives for having found truth and in that world you learn that there are science martyrs. They're people who cared more about the truth than their own relationship to their homeland.

"Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey" will premiere on Fox and the National Geographic Channel on March 9.

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