Neil deGrasse Tyson got famous with one of the universe’s great feats: He made science cool. But the 58-year-old Harvard- and Columbia-educated astrophysicist, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and “StarTalk” podcast host is still a big nerd at heart.
After all, how many people do you know who are trying to bring the word “lecture” back into vogue?
“You attend lectures and it’s a part of life in school, but there appears to be some transition that occurs afterwards where the word ‘lecture’ has bad connotations,” Tyson said in a recent phone interview. “So what do you say? You say, ‘Stop lecturing me. I don’t want a lecture.’ ... Well, if someone is lecturing you and you’re learning, that should be a good thing, right? Not a bad thing. So I’m trying to get to the bottom of that. But I don’t hesitate to say, ‘You’re coming to hear a lecture.’ ”
Tyson will present his latest lecture, titled “The Cosmic Perspective,” in Charlotte’s Belk Theater next Monday, a little more than a year after people here gobbled up tickets to his “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies” lecture at Ovens Auditorium.
Here are highlights from our interview – which, FYI, was conducted before President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and therefore, before Tyson posted this viral tweet:
Q. Whereas last year’s “lecture” used your love of movies to launch a freewheeling discussion about life and the universe, this one tackles larger cosmic questions, right?
A. Most certainly; the biggest that there are. In the book I just put out – “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” – the final chapter is titled “Reflections on the Cosmic Perspective,” and it’s an attempt to shift your point of view from thinking that, as a person, you might be better or greater than others and, as a species, we seem to have a human hubris that we as a species are better than other species. This point of view is fed by the urge to be separate, and distinct, and different.
Well, what the cosmic perspective does is it shows you that first, you’re small – in space, and in time, and in almost every metric you could come up with, relative to the universe. But OK, so that can make you feel small, but does it have to make you feel insignificant? That’s the question, and there is knowledge we have gleaned about the universe that is anything but that – the complete opposite of making you feel insignificant.
By the way, it’s not just the universe that can provide a cosmic perspective, but biology can, too. It’s the consequence of noticing that we have DNA in common with all life on earth. Not only are we family in our home, we’re family with all other humans, and we’re family with all other life. So, we are special not because we’re separate and distinct; we’re special because we’re the same. The molecules and atoms of your body are traceable to the universe, (and at the same time) the universe is manifesting within us. We’re made of the same stuff as the universe, and that should be uplifting.
It is to me, at least. So this talk is gonna be an exploration of all the ways the cosmic perspective can be transformative in our lives.
Q. During your talkback Q&A sessions after lectures, what are the most common questions you get?
A. “What was around before the Big Bang?” And another one is, “Do you have any advice for students who want to major in science?” If I’m giving a talk in a town that’s near an important or large college campus, there are always some college kids in the room. So that one shows up a lot. Then there’s, “After the lecture, can you take a selfie with me?” That’s very hard, of course, because there’s 2,000 people in the room.
But on the more academic side of this, I’m commonly asked, “What should people do in the face of others who would discount science in our culture, or who are in denial about what role science is playing or can play in our culture?” Since the (Trump) administration (took office), that comes up essentially every single time.
Q. Have you been feeling more emboldened lately to get political in defense of science?
A. Well, I would distinguish comments I’m making on science as a priority from comments that are exclusively political. I don’t care that people share my politics. It’s a free country. You can vote for who you want. But at the end of the day, I’m an educator. As an educator, it’s my duty to inform you in all the ways that might inform your vote. If you’re going to vote for someone who will reduce or completely cut the budget for an agency you care about, and you don’t know this, then you should know this. And if you still want to vote that way, go ahead. But you should be informed.
(As for Trump) he’s duly elected, so fine. Now, I could comment on what will happen to the country if the proposed budget cuts are put into place. But that’s not politics; that is a statement about the cause and the effects of what happens when money lands in one place versus another. For example, if I talk about global warming, that’s not politics. That’s science. I don’t care how you think about the subject or who you voted for ... it is science I’m talking about, not politics.
If you’re friendly with someone who is sure global warming is some kind of hoax, then you have been misinformed – and the people sharing that information with you do not have your enlightenment as a priority. ... If someone says, “What do you think of Trump?” – it doesn’t matter what I think of Trump. It doesn’t matter to me that you know what I think of Trump. If you have a comment about one of his policies, we’re gonna talk about a policy.
For example, we can talk about the policy to cut the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. ... You can say, “I don’t care about my health, or the environment, or the world that I then bequeath to my kids.” You can say that. And you can even vote that way. But you need to know the consequences before you do so. I share with you those consequences.
Q. What are they?
A. Well, I tweeted them (after Trump rolled out his first budget request to Congress earlier this spring, calling for deep cuts to some federal science agencies). Basically, if you are cutting our science research, then you are undermining the future health, wealth and security of the country.
Here is the tweetstorm Tyson unleashed in March:
Neil deGrasse Tyson
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 12.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Tickets: $49.50-$109.50 ($225 includes VIP meet and greet).
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.