Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most celebrated science communicators and popularizers alive today. He is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and hosts NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS. He has also written several popular texts about astronomy, including his most recent book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Neil in his office in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. From intelligent alien life to our stellar origins, how to think outside of the three-dimensional box to what baffles one of the great thinkers of our time, this was a conversation I won't soon forget. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I also hope you'll take the time to join the conversation by leaving a comment below. Talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: I'm here today at the American Museum of Natural History, and I'm about to go speak with astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. I'm really interested to hear about some of the mysteries of the universe that baffle even him.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I'm baffled all the time. We don't know what's driving 96% of the universe. Everybody you know and love and heard of and think about and see in the night sky through a telescope: four percent of the universe.
CSM: Yeah, even the things that we can't really see, through, you know, a visible telescope.
NDGT: That's even in the four percent. All of the invisible stuff that you can see with a different kind of telescope--
CSM: That's still in the four percent.
NDGT: Yeah. So that's one thing. Here's another one, a little more philosophical.
NDGT: We define ourselves as intelligent. That's odd, because we're doing the definition-- We're creating our own definition and saying "we are intelligent!"
NDGT: Would another species say that about us, that calls themselves intelligent? Look at the genetic difference between us and chimps. It's very small--
CSM: Very small.
NDGT: But we say "well, what a difference that is!" we say to ourselves. We compose poetry and have philosophy and music, and all they can do is put a stick in a termite mound. If you could find another species, that same one percent difference in DNA beyond us that we are beyond chimps, how would we look to them? Our smartest humans would do what their toddlers can do.
NDGT: And it's not clear that they would view us as intelligent at all.
CSM: You're pretty confident that there is life in the universe besides ourselves.
NDGT: Anyone who study the problem will conclude that given how old the universe is--
CSM: Just based on probability?
NDGT: --how prevalent the chemistry of life is. You know, look at biochemistry. It's got carbon and nitrogen and oxygen. These are all over the universe.
NDGT: Water is all over the universe.
CSM: And it's very difficult for some people to come to grips with the fact, and say, "well we must be so special. We're the only ones." You know, when really perhaps we're not that special at all.
NDGT: Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
CSM: [laughs] I have a really hard time--and I feel like I'm not alone about this--grasping the concept of there being more than three dimensions.
NDGT: You're alone in that. Everyone else understands that one completely.
CSM: [laughs] And I sometimes wonder when I talk to physicists like yourself, do you have some sort of special skill in your brain that I do not possess? Can you see these things?
NDGT: It's called the Four Dimensional Club, and you're not invited.
CSM: Sure! [laughs]
NDGT: [laughs] Who isn't interested in thinking about higher dimensions? I mean, it's-- The way you get insight is to look at dimensions lower than what you occupy.
NDGT: Okay, so imagine an insect that's trapped in a sheet of paper. That's two dimensions, right? And, I want to put that insect in jail. What do you do? Just draw a square around it. Can't get out. You say, "yes you can! Just climb up over this--" Nope. Not allowed. That requires a third dimension. If you only exist in two dimensions, you have no concept of that third dimension. It's not even accessible to you. All it takes to put a bug in prison is a square. What does it take to put a human in prison? A cube! But a higher dimensional character would say, "just step out of the cube, and then back into-- You're there!" That requires a fourth dimension to access.
CSM: If you had to pick one thing--the most awe-inspiring thing--about the cosmos that you wish everybody knew, what would it be?
NDGT: That's easy. That was the discovery that the stars in the galaxy that explode (only a rare subset of them do this), those are the stars that had manufactured elements from the periodic table deep within their core and scattered them across the galaxy. And it's these very elements that are the building blocks for life itself. So that it is not just a figuratively true statement that in fact, we are star dust. It is literally true.
CSM: Thank you so much for taking this time to chat with me.
NDGT: Happy to be here.
CSM: I feel smarter already and I definitely feel like I might hopefully gain entry to the Fourth Dimension Club! [laughs]
NDGT: [laughs] The Fourth Dimension Club. I'll show you the secret handshake off camera.
CSM: Okay great!