Neil deGrasse Tyson on DC, his new book, and the next generation

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world’s most prominent, accomplished and approachable scientists, holds the unique position of advocate for science and technological advancement. He’s an award-winning writer of over twenty books, and has worked on popular programs like Cosmos and NOVA ScienceNOW. His newest book, Accessory to War, discusses the centuries-old relationship between astrophysicists and the military.

ABERMAN: Let’s begin with this since you’re joining us today on a show that’s about people who get things done in Washington, D.C. You know, the entrepreneurs, business owners, people in technology, folks that are just not weighed down by bureaucracy or ideology or partisanship. I thought you’d be a great guest because I suspect you relate to all of those things, based on what I’ve seen you do in your career.

DEGRASSE TYSON: I like to think that I do, thanks for noticing that.

ABERMAN: Let me ask you: when you think of D.C., the nation’s capital, what do you tend to think about?

DEGRASSE TYSON: Ambitious, 20- and 30-somethings trying to make a difference in the world. And what that means is that, they bring a lot of energy to the region. I’m not talking about those who have become career politicians, or career civil servants. I’m talking about the flow of people in and out of every election cycle, that bring a certain hope and ambition to their duties. And so, I see that, and I celebrate that fact, any time I go to Washington.

ABERMAN: I’ve been told, and in my life, I work with entrepreneurs, and as a venture investor, and other ways. I’ve been told that one of the biggest differences between this region and other parts of the country is: people come here because they want to change the world.

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DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, exactly. Exactly, and that energy is palpable. Not only that, if you walk the halls of Congress, the corridors, and especially the more public spaces, there are these quotes that appear from people who we’ve all known. You know, founding fathers, and then people who have thought more deeply about democracy than any of us have. You read these quotes, and you say, yeah, yeah, yeah! And you get totally pumped that you want to do something right. And what makes the politics interesting is that, not everyone agrees on what is right. And so, that is the birth of politics.

As a scientist, I have the privilege of doing things in this world, as a scientist, with the methods and tools of science, developed over the centuries, whose entire goal is to find out what is objectively true. And what is objectively true, then, transcends your politics, or your religion, or your culture, or your society. It is something that should be a baseline for you to, then, have your political arguments. But that’s not what you should be politically arguing about. So, this is a difference between the enterprise of science and the enterprise of politics.

ABERMAN: I think that’s really quite apt. You know, I was struck recently: I was talking with a philosopher that I know well, and he said, the reality is that, there is an objective truth, and we are losing track of that. And that does seem to be the case right now, in a lot of places where I’ve run into people and have conversations.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah. Objective truths are established by experiment and observation that is then repeated. So, for example, I can have some scientific result that is interesting, and it says something that no one thought before. Well, no, don’t base your life on it yet. Let’s see if someone else gets the same result, or something very similar to my result. And if they don’t, and no one can duplicate my results, then my result becomes some anomalous thing that’s very likely to just simply be wrong. And maybe I had bias in my design, or interpretation of my data.

So, this is what makes science interesting: it has built-in tools to ferret out false information, either done maliciously, or inadvertently. So, if you’re trying to fund something because you want a particular result, and then you get that result, by the way, it doesn’t mean the result is wrong. It means, oh, you wanted that result, didn’t you? So, I’m going to raise my skeptical meter as I review your work, and I’m going to try to design an experiment to see if you’re right or not.

And if I now have no skin in the game, and I get the same result you do, and someone else does, and someone else does, then you can say, hey, we’ve got a new emergent truth here. No matter who funded it. Because nature cannot be fooled, even if we can fool one another once or twice. Nature is the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner.

ABERMAN: It seems to me that, in some ways, what’s happened now is we’ve lost the ability to appreciate that we just stand on the shoulders of those that come before us. That knowledge is a collective activity that cuts across time, and space, and generation.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah. I think, maybe, the next generation knows this. I hope I’m not delusional in thinking that, because the millennials, the ones that have only known a world with a smartphone, and where that level of computing technology has been at their fingertips. I don’t think any of them takes that for granted, that they know where grandma’s house is by holding this device that weighs a few ounces in their hand, that’s talking to GPS satellites orbiting the Earth.

I mean, they may take it for granted briefly, but if they step back, I think they have come to know, understand, and recognize the value of science and technology in creating the lives that they lead. And so, that’s a good thing, because they don’t happen to be old enough yet to be running the world, but I actually can’t wait for them to do just that. I know grown-ups are not supposed to say that about the next generation. We’re supposed to be worried for the future of the world, but I can’t wait. And I think they were not the ones duped, so heavily duped, by fake news as the older generations were.

ABERMAN: You know, I agree with that. I teach at one of local business schools here, University of Maryland, and I teach a lot of millennials, and you’re exactly right. I think there’s a much higher appreciation for technology, and also a greater awareness that, just because you read it on the Internet, it doesn’t make it true, which gives me hope.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Also, that generation respects those who create that technology, whereas when I grew up, if you were sort of the geeky person with the computer, you were the one who got the wedgie, or you were the one who got slammed into the lockers by the football quarterback. I’m stereotyping here, of course, but you know the scenarios that I’m describing. I haven’t hung out in high schools lately, but the people who are the tech folks, those are the future entrepreneurs and the future billionaires. You really want to treat those people nicely. Plus, they could have been the ones that help you with your math homework.

ABERMAN: Without revealing too much, I was at the bottom of a lot of those wedgie piles in high school, but I turned out okay, here we are. Everything in my life has led to this moment.

DEGRASSE TYSON: By the way, every now and then on my Twitter stream, I try to say something funny or entertaining. It doesn’t always hit. You know, it’s the risk of humor. But in one of them I said, I wonder if the idea for the thong came from the first nerd who got wedgied.

ABERMAN: Well, we have bathing suits named after atomic bomb test sites. To go from Bikini to thong…

DEGRASSE TYSON: That’s not such a stretch, is it?

ABERMAN: It’s no! It’s just another example of how science drives society, and in ways that people can’t even imagine. Let me turn to this, because I will tell you, I’m lucky, and I’m sure you do too, since you also host shows. I get a lot of books in the mail during the course of the week, and I got your book, Accessory to War, a couple of weeks ago, and it just seemed particularly apt to me, with all the discussion about the Space Force.

Here in D.C., at the center of all this, what do you think about the role that astrophysicists play in national security? It seems your book really speaks to the complexity. How do you balance your personal values against working in national security applications? I’m sure a lot of listeners deal with this question every day.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, that’s a great question, and let me add something that you left out of the title of that book. So, the title of the book is Accessory to War, but more important than that is the subtitle. So, it’s Accessory to War: the unspoken alliance between astrophysics and the military. And that really says it all. No, it’s not secret, it’s just unspoken, and not in any diabolical way, it’s just unspoken. My community of astrophysicists are overwhelmingly liberal, antiwar. Overwhelmingly, 90 percent.

Some of that, you get for free just by being an academic. Academics are overwhelmingly liberal, in their voting habits and in their opinions. So, let’s just start there. So now, given that fact, now you look at the history of what we do, and what the military does. Oh, we’re interested in multispectral imaging of stuff in the sky. So is the military! They’re looking for incoming missiles in infrared. They want to see through things with X-ray detectors. There is strong overlap in what we do and care about, and what the military does and cares about.

By the way, some of these, in science, have been obvious. You know, if it’s some rogue nation, they’ll need a biologist if they want to weaponize anthrax. Or you need a chemist when they had the mustard gas in the first World War, or napalm, or Agent Orange. Chemists came up with that. Then, the nuclear bombs themselves were from physicists. The role of those three scientific professions in the waging of war is known and obvious to people, but for astrophysicists, we’re like the most non-intrusive science there is.

We sit there at the telescope, and wait for a light to come to us. We don’t poke it, heat it, freeze it, split it, cut it, there’s no petri dish that we manipulate. No, we sit here passively, and interpret the observations that we obtain with our telescopes and other detectors, and other instruments of our trade. And so, you’re not thinking that we are part and parcel to military conquest. It’s just not your first thought. It’s not our first thought either. We’re just doing our thing. The military’s doing their thing. Oh my gosh, there’s overlap.

Captain Cook, when he went to the South Pacific: we’ve all heard of his voyages, just fewer people know why he went. He went to observe a transit of Venus across the surface of the Sun. And so, Venus and Earth, in our orbit around the sun, occasionally, once every couple of hundred years, we line up so that Venus exactly crosses the Sun. And you see this black dot move across, and it’s kind of cool to watch. And it doesn’t last very long, and only happens every couple hundred years. And so, it turns out, if you make accurate measurements of that, you can determine the precise scale of the solar system. How far away the planets are from one another.

The Brits have always been big investors in science, so this was not a surprise that they would want to do this. So they sent Captain Cook off, and they said, okay here’s your mission. Oh, by the way, flip over your marching orders and look at it. Oh my gosh, here is a new set of navigational tools that we’ve just developed. Map every coastline you come to and bring back that information. Every coastline you discover, every piece of land that you greet.

After he did that, within ten years, Great Britain took control over the north coast of Australia, and New Zealand, and other islands off in Oceania. And so, this was the two sided coin to domination, to hegemony, to empire building. And you need the astronomers. Back then, it was astronomers, you wouldn’t have called them astrophysicists yet. The astronomers knew the sky, and it’s the sky that enabled navigation, and it’s navigation that enables you to know where you are, and where you’re going.

And if you’re going to send troops, the next wave, they’re going to use the maps provided by the navigational tools that the previous ships had invoked. And, by the way, what is GPS? It’s navigation tools, but upgraded to modern times. GPS is an Air Force project that has basically been gifted to the rest of us. So, here is a system that lets you know where you are on Earth, that enabled, in the Gulf War especially, and for conflicts that followed it, the integration of land, sea, and air invasions, where everybody knows where everybody is at all times. That was space assets invoked in the Gulf War. So, this is real. It’s real, and it’s happening, and my community, we are accessories to this. You asked what is this either emotionally, or ethically.

ABERMAN: Before we go there: accessory, that’s a pretty heavy word. When I think about this, this has always been the way. You know, I think about being Leonardo DaVinci; when he wasn’t creating beautiful sculpture, was helping the Medicis create battlements, and protecting Florence. This relationship between the most talented and intelligent people in a society, and the military, it doesn’t seem to be unique to our country.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Oh no, of course not. And we think of it in modern times, because we once were highly space-capable. We don’t have any way to get into space now, but we were associated with the exploration of space. But this goes way back, to when Galileo perfected the telescope. You know, one of the first things he did was invite the Doge of Venice to the clock tower, in the big plaza in Venice, and said, take a look out into the lagoon. Notice, you can identify whether the flag flown on a ship is friend or foe ten times farther away than you can with the unaided eye. And then the Doge buys telescope from him, and then this makes him financially stable, and then he goes and looks up at the universe, and discovers hills, and mountains, and valleys, and craters on the Moon, and sunspots, and the stars that fill the Milky Way.

So, these are methods and tools that have shared use. The difference with Leonardo is that he explicitly, as the engineering side of him, he explicitly created inventive war machines. That’s not what I’m doing, as an astrophysicist. The physicists make the bombs, they’re making a war machine. The astrophysicist does not make the war machine. No, that’s the difference here.

In Los Alamos, one of the 10 or so national labs, you’ve heard of them: there’s Brookhaven, and the Berkeley Labs, and Fermi Labs, and Los Alamos is one of the national labs under the budget of the Department of Energy. They’re tasked with monitoring, and safeguarding, and creating, and maintaining, the new nuclear stockpiles of the nation. And this would feed nuclear power plants, as well as weaponry. Do you realize that, after we outgrew the A-bomb, alright—that’s just a fusion bomb, with uranium and plutonium—there’s a bigger bomb waiting for us.

Oh my gosh, we can fuse hydrogen to get helium, and get way more energy than these measly A-bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh my gosh. Now, we have bombs that are a thousand times more powerful. This is thermonuclear fusion, the conversion of hydrogen into helium. Oh, by the way, that’s exactly what happens in the center of all stars, nearly all stars, in the universe. As an astrophysicist, I care about what’s going on in the centers of stars. Oh, Los Alamos has the fastest computers in the world. They’ll hire me to study my astrophysics.

Oh, by the way, on the other side of the wall of that same computer, and that same code, are people calculating bomb yields from thermonuclear fusion. We both care about the same stuff, and so there’s shared intellectual enlightenment at the coffee lounge when we compare notes, on what it is we do and care about. If you don’t want to build bombs, you can choose to not go to Los Alamos. You can choose to do that.

But if you come up with something really innovative, about how stars work, the military is going to want to read that, and they’re going to wonder how they can weaponize it. You can’t stop that. This is how that works. I’m screaming at you here, sorry.

ABERMAN: This is why I love being exposed to you: you take these things and bring them down into a way for people to understand, and feel your passion, which leads me to ask you, Neil: I think there’s so many different directions a life like yours could have taken, but you became a scientist. How did you become the voice for science, and these issues in our society? Was this a role you looked for? How did it happen?

DEGRASSE TYSON: Oh no, I didn’t look for it. I still don’t want it. I’m so ready to just go back to the lab and close the door. So, I’m on a landscape that was partly, if not mostly cleared by Carl Sagan before me, at a time when scientists never did anything such as this. You might agree to be interviewed in a documentary, but you would never appear on a comedic talk show. Carl Sagan was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson multiple times, for example. And this was viewed as, hey, what are you doing, by his colleagues.

That was not embraced activity by the Academy. But then people realized, oh my gosh, the members of Congress now know what it is I’m trying to research, because they saw Cosmos in 1980 by Carl Sagan, and said, oh, is that what you’re doing? I like what you’re doing, then. Let’s raise the budget for NASA, or the National Science Foundation. And all the tide waters rose, for all the sciences, especially since Cosmos, in its day, and still is, not restricted to the universe of astrophysics. There’s chemistry, biology, geology. There’s ecology, there’s all manner of science explored, because the universe doesn’t silo the scientific disciplines. It’s all happening at the same time, in the same place, this place we call the universe.

So, I’m on that landscape, and mainly because I live in New York City. And what happened was, I would get interviewed about something, and I’d work to give a good soundbite. The media likes good soundbites, and I started giving them good soundbites. Then, they came back for more. Then other people saw it, and they wanted a piece of that. And it was like, wow, okay, I’ll do that. So, my visibility in the public is not so much because that’s what I dream of doing each morning. It’s more because it’s a duty. I would be irresponsible if I did not.

And so, I come when I’m called, rather than wake up and say, how can I bring the universe to the public today? No. It’s like, how can I stay home today? But no, then I get phone calls. Plus, there’s always something happening in the universe. There’s an eclipse, there’s the Moon, there’s a black hole, there’s a new particle, there’s an exoplanet. There’s a space launch, there’s Elon Musk. There’s always something happening. And so, I’m here in New York City, and I’m an easy date for all the newscasters.

ABERMAN: And I’ll tell you what, I have to get your beat. Well, you know, if you ever get tired, let me know. I’ll take you out, give you a cup of coffee. You’re so valuable to our society, and you’re going to be here, at the Warner Theater, sometime this month.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for remembering! I’ve forgotten the date, but Warner Theater, that’s right.

ABERMAN: The 17th of September.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Wait, is it the Warner Theater?

ABERMAN: Yeah, that’s what I’ve been told. You’re selling out bigger places, it’s only matte of time before you do one in the Garden. Just remember me then, and get me on the list!

DEGRASSE TYSON: I’m so not doing the Garden. That’s too many people.

ABERMAN: You say that now, but maybe we can turn science into an eSport, and who knows!

DEGRASSE TYSON: It really is, though. I’ll never grow accustomed to the fact that I’m standing there in front of these theaters. They hold you know 2000, 3000 people. I think, 3000 people on a Thursday night, you know, date night, and they’re coming out to hear an astrophysics lecture. That’s like, oh my gosh, is this real? Is this actually happening? And I’m flattered, and honored, and it’s a huge responsibility, to deliver on the expectations of so many people coming. And they’re buying tickets, and they’re bringing their loved ones, their friends, their families, and oh, by the way, when I give public talks like that, I hardly ever give book talks.

So, these are not book talks that I’m giving, they’re talks about fun topics in the universe that are selected by the local host. So, there’s a whole range of them. One of my favorites that I give is an astrophysicist goes to the movies. I just show movie clips and then I tell you where they got it right, or where they got it wrong. And it’s just fun, because it’s so deeply into pop culture. But now, everyone can become somebody who monitors how good the science is, by the creative artists who are trying to tap it. But the point is, yes, it’s been in the Warner Theater here in D.C.

ABERMAN: It’s been wonderful to have you on the air, and since you won’t talk about the book when you’re at the Warner Theater, I’m going to remind everybody to go out and buy Accessory to War. Neil deGrasse Tyson, I will tell you, I’ve seen you speak many times. Having the chance to talk to you today, if anything, I’m more inspired than I was before. Thanks for taking the time to join us today.

DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, thank you! I’m glad I didn’t let you down.

ABERMAN: No, I think that it’s fair to say that you can stay on the payroll for another week.

DEGRASSE TYSON: That’s excellent. Thanks for having me.