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Arts & Culture

Neil deGrasse Tyson: This Serious Scientist Thinks Life's A Laugh

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Daniel Deitch
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Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has booked a San Antonio talk in June at the Tobin Center. The wildly popular talk show guest is considered one of the scientific community’s most articulate spokespersons. I caught up with him by phone at his New York office.

While Tyson is a serious scientist,  that’s easy to forget when he breaks into laughter, which he does with regularity. Here he’s talking about where society is at this point.

“It can be quite eye-opening anytime civilizations have gone through these pivot points of cosmic perspective that gives you a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, and our future in this universe, if we have one." That struck him as funny, and he laughed.

I asked "Got your fingers crossed, do you?

He laughed again. “No, I’ve stopped crossing my fingers because that implies you’re relying on others to solve the problem.”

And that’s a recurring theme about Tyson. He’s a strong believer in mankind’s ability—its obligation—to do everything it can to affect where it’s heading.

"We all should. We’re all invested in this."

I asked facetiously "So when you first thought about becoming an astrophysicist was it because all the adulation that you knew would follow because of that decision? He laughed. 

"I was just 9 years old. I just wanted to do it because it felt good intellectually to contemplate the universe. At age 9 you’re not thinking career you’re just thinking ‘'well, that’s interesting, the night sky.'”

Having been born and raised in New York City Tyson hadn’t even seen the night sky ‘til he went to his local Planetarium, the Hayden.

“It would take me 2 years to figure out that it could be a career.”

But he did, and forty some-odd years later he Directs the Hayden Planetarium, where his passion for the Cosmos began. Telling me about it, he got philosophical.

“What it means though is that as Director, when I look at other 9 year-olds coming through, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m doing justice to their curiosity the way other educators and scientists had done justice to mine many moons ago. So I feel this awesome sense of duty and responsibility.”

Tyson is a well-known Agnostic, who nonetheless has an almost religious zeal for life.

"To realize that atoms in your body were forged in stars, billions of years ago, that have exploded—that’s special. To have as your definition of being special be constricted to you being composed of rare ingredients or having earth being unique…I think that’s hubristic. That’s like saying ‘I will look around and see what I can do to draw a box around me’ and then I’ll feel special.' No—open the box and see what you’re connected to. And then realize how special you really are.

He doesn’t subscribe to the view that mankind was uniquely created.   

“The universe does not revolve around us. We revolve around a sun, a rather ordinary star at that. And we’re one of 8 planets—get over it, 8 planets!" he laughed.

Tyson was one of the driving forces in removing Pluto's status as a planet. He continued.

"And so yeah, we’re one of many. But as I said, this gives me a great sense of participation, which I value."

I asked "So Pluto’s the Rodney Dangerfield?" Of course, he laughed again.

"No, I still give it deep respect, whether or not it dons a necktie."

Science is Tyson’s world. He likes to find scientific references that make the laws of physics fascinating to everyday people. Here’s one he developed concerning January’s Super Bowl.

“A 50-yard field goal in that stadium deflects a third of an inch to the right because of the rotation of the earth.”

I had to make the obvious oke. "Now, you’re assuming a fully inflated ball?"

Yes, he laughed. Interestingly he doesn’t just get joy from what he knows. What he doesn't know has quite an allure. 

“Part of the attraction is not only what you can put together that makes sense, but what you can’t put together that doesn’t make sense.”

Unanswered questions are some of his biggest motivators.

We’ve more on Neil deGrasse Tyson here. For more on his sold out talk at the Tobin, go here