Interview With an Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson and latest book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson and latest book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and the author of the #1 bestselling Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, among other books. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, where he has served since 1996. Dr. Tyson is also the host and co-founder of the Emmy-nominated popular podcast StarTalk and its spinoff StarTalk Sports Edition, which combines science, humor, and pop culture. He is a recipient of 21 honorary doctorates, the Public Welfare Medal from the National Academy of Sciences, and the Distinguished Public Service Medal from NASA. Asteroid 13123 Tyson is named in his honor. He lives in New York City. His latest book is Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Starry Messenger?

A lifetime of observing how differently scientists view the world from everyone else—and an urge to bridge that gap. In short, you don’t have to be a scientist to be science-literate. Science literacy inoculates you against charlatans and bad arguments that sound plausible on the surface but are otherwise objectively false.

In short, science literacy empowers you to know when someone else is full of shit.

How did the book evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any subjects or topics that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The book was birthed whole, having accumulated within me over many years—even decades. And when I was full-term with the book, it came out whole.

One chapter did not have enough content to justify its own space, nor could it be elegantly folded into other chapters. So, I dropped it. The Title “Wealth & Poverty.” Of course, whole fields of study exist on that topic, but what mattered for Starry Messenger was whether I had a chapter’s worth of cosmic perspectives to add to that discussion. And I did not.

I’m guessing you had to do quite a bit of research on the wide-ranging topics you address in Starry Messenger. What is the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?

Since the book came out whole, the foundational research had already been done and was sitting in my head. Once the book was written, however, I needed to update, refine, and sharpen the references already made. That was a huge effort and may be the most important part of the book—becoming 33 pages of end notes. The book itself is only 216 pages long.

Only one surprise. The statue of Teddy Roosevelt, in front of New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (my home institution), was removed amid protests against racist or insensitive statues across the country and even in some places around the world. The statue showed Roosevelt with a sidearm, astride a horse, flanked by a Black African and Native American standing beside him. The original intent of this 1930s-era sculpture was the opposite of what protestors claimed for it. I had known all the usual arguments on both sides of the fence and wrote about them in the chapter “Color & Race.” But I discovered AFTER we went to press that both flanking men were holding rifles—tucked between them and the horse itself. To hold a rifle is to not be subservient to anyone who isn’t holding a rifle, even if they’re on a horse.

In Chapter 3, you describe how moonlight and sunlight are spectrographically the same and, given that, werewolves should transform during the day. Would it follow that vampires should then die when exposed to moonlight? Are there other monsters that science can slay? Are you looking to add “monster slayer” to your list of accomplishments?

I think not. As I understand vampires, it’s all about the intensity of light, not simply the existence of light. The Sun is nearly a half-million times brighter in the sky than the full moon. So we’re good there.

Huge spiders and insects would never work. Their spindly legs do not scale up in strength relative to their increased body weight. That’s why large, heavy animals evolved fat legs.

Most flying dragons have insufficient wingspan to support their own weight in flight. Like cherubs with insufficiently sized wings on their backs, they would just fall to the ground like a brick. In Game of Thrones, however, they did quite well. Their fire-breathing dragons had huge wingspan.

If you could institute one change to world culture that would help prevent your hypothetical alien visitors from concluding “there is no intelligent life on Earth,” what would it be?

Seems to me, taking all actions possible to ensure the survival of your species, should rank high in any evaluation of brilliance. Using that as a metric, the things humans do that compromise our health and longevity would make any alien question our intelligence.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A book each on conservatism, astrology, UFOs, and Christian views on Nature. I prioritize reading points of view that differ from my own. As an educator, it facilitates my communication with the fullest breadth of people’s thoughts and beliefs.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Jonathan Swift
George Gamow
Ayn Rand
Carl Sagan
Richard Dawkins

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

One, Two, Three, Infinity by George Gamow. Highly influential on my joy of learning math and science.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

After my parents realized I was interested in the universe (around age 9), they would buy any and all remaindered books they could find.  Back then, the remainder shelves had books for anywhere from 25 cents to $1.00. By middle school, I surely had the largest library of my peers—perhaps 100 books. So they knew all books that I owned because they bought them.

That being said, my brother (two years older and streetwise) owned Abby Hoffman’s Steal This Book (1971). A primer on how to do all manner of illegal things. My progressive parents knew about the book, but I think in the end they valued our interest in reading above the content.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Tons of books. For school. Being a literal-minded child, I was never much into fiction. Would rather wait for the movie to come out. I specifically remember **not reading** Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), which had been assigned in history class.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Nope. Hasn’t anybody ever told you—“Never judge a book by its cover.”?

Is there a book that changed your life?

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). The most famous of his voyages, the one where Gulliver is a giant and everybody is little, is the least intriguing, the least weird, the least insightful chapter of the book. I think about it all the time. In fact, I reference it in Starry Messenger—I can’t shake it’s influence on me.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I don’t like telling people what to do. I’d rather offer perspectives that compel a person to want to take action on their own. But if I were to recommend a book that everyone in modern society should read, it’s Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981). It highlights all the ways humans in power have measured other humans, with the intent to subjugate, disenfranchise, or exterminate “undesirables” in society.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884). Read it in middle school. It’s an entertaining journey into higher dimensional thinking, in which creatures who live only in two dimensions, get a glimpse of those who live in three dimensions, and how it basically freaks them out.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

A visit to the van Gogh Experience in NYC—an immersive traveling museum exhibit that buries you in van Gogh’s artwork, some of which is animated, bringing his colors and brush strokes to life. I’m a long-time fan of his The Starry Night (1889). So I was especially moved by this treatment.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Home recipe Waffle breakfast. Followed by reading an antiquarian book that captures the history of human understanding of the universe. Followed by a session at the fitness center or a bicycle ride. Followed by a foodie dinner with my wife, accompanied by a vintage Burgundy wine. Followed by a strawberry malted shake for dessert. Then, later that evening, curl up on a cozy couch with the family and watch a blockbuster movie while eating freshly made popcorn with slightly too much butter and salt.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I am a servant of the curiosity of others. As such, it’s not my place to hand them questions to ask of me.

What are you working on now?

A zillion things. But deep within me is a yet-to-be-written book on Education.
A lifetime of perspectives and wisdom itching to emerge. I’m currently reviewing the rich literature on the subject as a backdrop on my thoughts.

Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization
Tyson, Neil deGrasse