Neil deGrasse Tyson is making a habit out of visiting Tampa.
Last fall he was here talking film in An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies. On Thursday, he’ll be at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts to perform An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, a multimedia lecture touching on current events.
"I use pop culture, or what’s in the news in this instance — things that people are already familiar with — as a scaffolding to build on," Tyson says. "From there I can take you wherever I want to take you."
Where he wants to take you, is to the cosmos. The renowned speaker, in-demand talk show guest, and host of Star Talk, once named People magazine’s Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive, has a gift for helping the public feel connected to the wider universe, often echoing a version of his mentor Carl Sagan’s "we are star stuff" credo.
We spoke to Tyson by phone to ask him big questions about the search for alien life, Florida’s place in the cosmos and feeling small in our massive universe.
Then we convinced him to rank "space things," such as Moon Pies versus Milky Way bars.
Considering the title of your talk, what is your actual media diet?
I rarely ever read anything on paper. It’s all Internet, and it’s mostly whatever comes to me. I constantly have people sending me links, "Have you seen this?" or tagging me on Twitter saying, "What do you think of this?" It’s a highly useful tool to find out what everyone cares about. I have a duty and obligation to be fluent in all the science that is triggering public interest.
There’s a debate among those searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence. One side says we shouldn’t call attention to ourselves in the universe, because if advanced aliens find us, they’ll probably kill us in an interstellar, Columbus-discovering-America situation. The other side says, send a signal out there, maybe aliens can help us solve global warming or cure cancer. Where do you side?
Our planet’s return address was given out on a plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft, in glyphs, in case it was intercepted by extraterrestrial life. So I’m intrigued there are people who would celebrate giving out our planetary address, and they’re the same people who would never give their email address to another human. As for those who fear aliens sucking our brains out, I’m equally intrigued that they would assume advanced aliens would treat us the way we treat one another. What an indictment that is of humans, that you think aliens would do that to us. On a side note, aliens could be so advanced that we offer nothing of interest to them. When you walk down the road, do you say, "What is that worm thinking about?" No, you just keep walking. Maybe we haven’t heard from them because we’re not as important as we think we are.
What do you think of when you think of Florida?
The persistence of humidity and the Space Coast. I think of the space program. More so than Jacksonville or Miami, I think of Cape Canaveral. I think, wow, we went to the moon on a spaceship launched from Florida. I was at a conference, and these people from Denmark said they were going to Florida and planned to visit the old mission in St. Augustine. I said, okay, that’s fine, but there’s no shortage of old churches in the world, especially in Europe. Visit Kennedy Space Center, because that is uniquely American. Visit what we did that nobody else did. We went to the moon from Cape Canaveral, that’s a cultural statement we take for granted as Americans. Holy cow, what country can say that? You go to Egypt and see the pyramids, why? Because they’re not anywhere else. You go to Florida, you should go to the Space Center.
The Hubble telescope has shown us so much over the past 30 years. What’s a favorite image of yours from space that you recommend everyone revisit?
Well it’s not from Hubble, but I would say the photo taken by Cassini of Earth in the shadow of Saturn. That photo, which was conducted by Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team of Cassini, that’s the probe which we recently plunged into Saturn, that photo is a modern version of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, where you see tiny Earth sitting there in a sea of darkness. It forces you to reflect on our place in the universe, as any good cosmic photo should.
When I look at the Hubble Deep Field image, this small piece of sky with 10,000 galaxies in it, and about 100 billion stars in each of those galaxies, it overwhelms me. I actually find it unsettling. Ever felt that way?
I’ve not felt that. I wonder what it derives from? When I look at the night sky, I see stars manufacturing elements that make life, and that we are not just figuratively, but literally, stardust. I see connectivity to the cosmos, and that’s a profound spiritual awareness of our place in the universe. I think maybe it’s because you’re coming to it with the wrong attitude. You might need an attitude adjustment. If you think, ‘my world is big,’ you’re going to realize it’s actually small, and that could give you existential angst. But if you have no prior assumption, in fact, start by thinking, ‘we’re really small, let’s see how small,’ I think you’ll say wow, this universe is beautiful and diverse.
I’d like to do a speed round where I give you two space things and you tell me which is better. You up for that?
Candy: Milky Way versus Moon Pie?
Milky Way. I remember Moon Pies being good as a kid, but as an adult you realize they’re kinda dry.
Video games: Space Invaders versus Asteroids?
Oh, that’s tough. I’d say Asteroids, because it uses the actual laws of physics, but Space Invaders is a close second for me.
Music: Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun versus David Bowie’s Space Oddity?
I have got to go with Space Oddity. It has a certain sort of slow rhythm that gives you time to contemplate it. So many songs don’t give you room to think like that.
Sports: L.A. Galaxy versus the Phoenix Suns?
Phoenix Suns, because the sun never goes away in Phoenix, ever. That team is more accurately named, probably more than any other sports team. Phoenix sits closer to the sun than any other city ever.
Cars: Mitsubishi Eclipse versus Chevrolet Nova?
Eclipse is a way nicer looking car. Sexier curves.
Star Wars versus Star Trek?
Trek cares more about science and physics than Star Wars ever will. So Trek.