A few years back, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson got into a Twitter war with hip-hop artist B.o.B over the rapper’s insistence that the Earth is flat.
Eventually, it escalated to the point where Tyson went on Larry Wilmore’s Comedy Central show in January 2016 and savaged B.o.B’s theory in a nearly-two-minute rant that ended with this: “When you stand on shoulders of those who came before, you might just see far enough to realize the earth isn’t f---ing flat.” As the studio audience whooped, he shouted: “And by the way, this is called gravity!” Then he dropped the mic with a thud.
That’s about the most significant interaction the 60-year-old director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium has ever had with a so-called “flat-Earther” — he says he’s never had an actual conversation with one.
“But I’ve had interactions with others who have equally untenable postures,” says Tyson, 60, who will return to Charlotte this week for his first lecture here since 2017.
“Like the ones that say we’ve never been to the moon. And I said to one of them, ‘What would it take to convince you that we’ve been to the moon?’ He said, ‘A picture of the surface where you can see the landing site of the Apollo astronauts.’
“Now, it is true that we don’t have a picture, because the ground-based telescopes don’t have enough resolution to make that out. But then I reminded myself, Oh! There’s a Japanese spacecraft that went in orbit around the moon and took pictures of the entire surface. So I gave him the website ... and he comes back the next day and says, ‘Well, even though those pictures were taken by a Japanese satellite, they were posted on NASA’s website. That’s the only place they posted it. And NASA’s the U.S. government, and they could be covering this up.’
“So I said, ‘We’re done here in this conversation. ... I asked you, What would convince you? And then I deliver that, and you still are not convinced. So that means you already know the answer. And nothing I say will affect that.’”
Tyson will speak to a much more captive audience at Belk Theater on Wednesday night, when he’ll talk about black holes (including the recent black hole picture), wormholes, the multiverse, the simulated universe theory and other fascinating topics during a talk he’s titled “Astronomy Bizarre.”
As a prelude to that public chat, we spoke to the planet’s most pop-culturally relevant astrophysicist about what’s blown his mind lately, got more of his thoughts on dealing with science deniers, and asked how he’d care to re-imagine the ways we teach young people about science.
Q. OK, sum up “Astronomy Bizarre” for us.
It’s all the most mind-blowing things in the universe, all rolled together in one talk. ... The goal is to make it so that, when you leave afterwards, you can’t even get to sleep that night because you are distracted by how mind-blowing and bizarre the universe actually is.
Q. I actually was just listening to a radio interview that you did recently in which you said it’s a good goal to try to have your mind blown at least once a day.
At least once a day, exactly. I think the softer version of that is: Try to learn something new every day. And occasionally it could be a mind-blowing thing.
Q. Has that happened to you today yet?
(Laughs.) Not today. But last week I learned something new. And there are two ways of learning something new: One of them is you thought something was true, but it’s not. Or you thought something was not true, that is. So that’s learning something that corrects (a belief you had). Another way is you just learned something new. So any combination of those works, I think, to give the day value in the timeline of one’s life.
Q. Well, what was it last week that you learned?
It’s a little bit embarrassing, because I’d been public with the wrong information. So if I ask you, how is the day of Easter determined, can you answer that? Because it’s never the same day every year.
Q. No, I can’t.
I can. Well, now I can. Here’s the answer I gave for 20 years: “Easter, by decree of Pope Gregory in 1582, is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” Turns out that’s not true. It is the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21st. ... But this year, the equinox was on March 20th. And there was a full moon on March 21st. So Easter would have been the very next Sunday of that week (based on my old calculations). This is how I stumbled on it. I said, “How come this isn’t Easter?” I called up all my best people ... and it took me like a few hours to dig this up. They said the problem is I was using astronomical equinox rather than religious equinox. (Laughs.) Most of the time they coincide, so one doesn’t have the need to distinguish them. The religious equinox is just, by decree, March 21st. And the first full moon after March 21st was yesterday (Thursday, April 18). ... Whereas the first full moon after the equinox of March 20th was March 21st, so it completely bypassed an entire full moon sitting there, that could have had Easter come really soon after the equinox. But it didn’t. It came almost as late as it possibly can. So I learned that, like, last week.
Q. I know you’re planning on discussing the black hole photo while you’re here. I don’t want to spoil your spiel, but can you just briefly give me a sense of just how significant or important that image is?
The fact that it’s a photograph — it’s an image — of an actual black hole. Not an artist rendering. Almost every other science news regarding black holes that you’ve ever read, if it was accompanied by an image, the image was an artist’s rendering. This was the first time that was not the case. ... We’ve always known that supermassive galaxies would have supermassive black holes in them. This is not a photo of something that we didn’t know was there, or that we didn’t expect to be there; this is fully fulfilling all of our knowledge and expectation of what goes on in the centers of galaxies. So it’s a technological algorithmic achievement, more than it is a scientific achievement — the technology of multiple telescopes coming together, simulating a telescope that has the width of the earth as the opening. It will open an entire branch of imaging distant, small things in the middles of galaxies.
Q. You posted a tweet last week that touched on the black hole image but also poked fun at people who selectively believe in scientific findings.
Yeah, I didn’t know that would take off the way it did ... as is true for most things that go viral. But I didn’t want to just tweet the news, because so many others were doing that. I wanted to do something that I felt would be a unique addition to all that everyone was saying about the black hole, and I took the occasion to juxtapose it against what people say when scientists tell them that humans are warming the earth. It seemed to resonate deeply with people. No one was questioning the black hole. Everyone said, “Oh wow, the scientists discovered a black hole — that’s cool!” (But if you say), “Scientists discovered that humans are warming Earth,” (some of the same people will say), “No, I don’t think that’s correct. That just conflicts with what I want to be true. Therefore it’s false.”
Q. I get the sense that people like that drive you crazy.
No, they don’t actually. No. I’ll tell you why they don’t. Because they’re people who are just under-informed. And as an educator, they become the object of my interest, given how uninformed they are. I ask myself, “Was there a gap in their educational trajectory? Is there something they should have read as an adult that they haven’t? Do they not understand what science is, and how and why it works?” So I go through this exercise. But I don’t get frustrated. There’s an old saying: If an argument lasts more than five minutes, then both sides are wrong.
Q. Along the same lines, I was going to ask you about the little tear you recently directed at flat-Earthers on Twitter. They’ve been on your mind a lot lately?
No, I mean, I figured, this is all I’m gonna do. I don’t think about them after that. ... I don’t know any other way to explain it.
Q. But can you believe that it’s something you even have to spend your time on?
I’m disappointed it’s something I have to spend my time on. But in another era — 10 years ago, 20 years ago — there were people who were into crystal healing. People who were into speaking to dead spirits. There are people who are into all manner of things. And in a free country, I don’t have a problem. Go do what you want. But if you care about objective reality, then we’ve gotta make different choices.
Q. I know you said you’ve never had an actual conversation with a flat-Earther, but if you did — and you had only a minute or two to try to convince them that the earth is in fact round, what would you do or say in that time to make your best argument?
Oh, I would show them the picture of the lunar eclipse that we’ve never seen. That was another one of my tweets, where there’s just a thin shadow coming into the moon.
I’d say, “This is a shadow of Earth on the moon, and it’s never looked like this. What do you have to say about that?” (Laughs.) And then if they’re not convinced within 4-1/2 minutes, I walk away. Because there’s an old saying: You can’t use reason to rationalize someone out of a position that they didn’t get into using reason to begin with.
Q. Do people like that make you sad? Or frustrated, or angry?
No, I think that’s the knee-jerk, but that’s not how I settle. My settling mental state is, How much more inventive can I be to convey this content?
Q. How could we be doing a better job of teaching science to young people?
Science needs to be taught not as a satchel of facts, but as a way of quarrying nature. Once you do that, then it’s not a matter of “here’s the exam, memorize these facts.” It’s “here is a problem that we don’t know how to solve, how might you go about solving it?” And that’s how you further learn that science is a process. It’s more about “what you do to get to the answer?” than it is about the answer. It’s about methods and tools. It’s about inquiry. I think no one knows this after their science class. They think of science as what’s contained in a book, and not as some tools that they can apply to everything that they do in life. So I think there’s room for improvement there. Also, they teach math, and you have people saying, “Why do I have to learn this? I’ll never need it again.” And they’re missing the point. What your brain needs to go through to solve a math problem, that wiring that results from it, can have huge applications in other things that you do in life. People keep thinking of school as a trade — “I need to learn this so I can do that.” No, you need to learn how to learn, so that no matter what is thrown at you afterwards, you can thrive; you can excel.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Tickets: $25 and up.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.