Neil deGrasse Tyson On The Politics Of Saving The World

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in September 2015 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards in September 2015 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Phil McCarten/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

Neil deGrasse Tyson On The Politics Of Saving The World

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From Armageddon to Deep Impact, Hollywood’s solution to an Earth-bound asteroid is often blowing them up, but Neil deGrasse Tyson says you can’t believe everything you see in movies.

“There have been conferences on this,” the astrophysicist said on WBEZ’s Morning Shift. “And you could do it the macho way — like, blow it out of the sky — but I’ve found that here in the United States, we’re much better at blowing stuff up than we are at knowing where the pieces go afterwards. In an asteroid, you care where all of these pieces go.”

Because blowing up an asteroid could send fragments flying at multiple areas and force more evacutations, Tyson said humanity may be better served by trying to deflect it.

“If you’re good at deflecting it, you just have a persistent and consistent means of deflecting asteroids from harm’s way,” Tyson said. “In fact, that’s what they did in Ice Age 5.”

He added: “You could pull this off in 50 years easily.”

Talking with Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia, the famed astrophysicist explained that we know how to solve this hypothetical asteroid problem, but there is not yet an organization in the world equipped to respond, and “that’s the problem.”

Tyson’s new book is called Astrophysics For People In A Hurry. He also discussed why creating an asteroid defense system is politically unlikely, his role in a new album from the rapper Logic, flat-Earthers and the March for Science in April. Below are highlights from the conversation.

The political challenges of creating an asteroid defense system

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, you’re putting in a defense system against an asteroid yet to be discovered — and it’s going to cost $500 million, and whatever asteroid that is, it’s not going to come in any term held by the members of Congress who are voting for it — so why should they vote for something that, in principle, could be voted for later?

We recognize these realities in my community. So what we’re trying to get people to do is at least have an effective monitoring system, so that you can know if and when one is headed our way. If you know early enough, one could be headed our way for a collision in 50 years, then you direct resources.

And you could pull this off in 50 years easily: Fund, design, build an asteroid defense system, test it, then put it into effect. Then you have a real timeline. It’s hard for people to vote to spend money on something that doesn’t have a timeline.

How science serves as an antidote to ‘post-fact’ thinking

Tyson: Science’s only point in life is to establish what is objectively true in this world. And while it’s on its way, it can also establish what is objectively false. If you’re going to debate the truth of what science establishes is either true or false, then you are delaying what should be the conversations that political factions could be having about what to do in the face of the scientific truths that have come forth — these objective truths.

What is an objective truth? It’s you make an experiment and you get a result. I do an experiment and I’m a competitor of yours and I want to show that you’re wrong, but I show, “Hey, you kind of got the right answer. My answer agrees with your answer.” And then 20 other people do it. There’s variation there. There’s even some outliers. But the overwhelming trend of these experiments would be approximately the same result. When you do that, you have established an emergent truth. And that truth will not one day later be shown to be false. This is how science works.

On skeptics of science

Tyson: There are people — loud people, influential people — saying Earth is flat. And in a free society, you ought to be able to say that. Think what you want, say what you want. I don’t have a fundamental problem with it, unless you rise up and become head of NASA. Well, that’s the end of an informed democracy.

You want to think Earth is flat? There are plenty of jobs for you where you can continue to do that. It’ll be completely harmless. And some people who think Earth is flat are professional athletes. So, like I said, you can think the Earth is flat and be a perfectly fine NBA player.

Are we living during a tenuous time for the scientific community?

Tyson: It is tenuous for the scientific community. It is tenuous for civilization. So there are people saying, “Oh why are the scientists marching? What do they need?” It’s not even about us. Yeah, I mean, it could be about us because it’s great to have more research money than less research money and I do research. OK, so hold that aside for a moment.

Whether or not you enjoy science, at the end of the day, it enhances your health, your wealth and your security. Oh, so that’s the special interest that scientists are marching for: your health, your wealth and your security. It is unlike any other special interest group there is. … Science touches everyone, especially society. So if you were neither marching or you were not spiritually part of that march, then you don’t deserve the future.

On how he got involved with Everybody, a new concept album from Logic where Tyson plays the voice of a supreme being

Tyson: So Logic — before I knew how much of a rapper he was, I saw that he could solve a Rubik’s Cube in 20 seconds, so I said, “OK, he’s got geek street cred and he’s a rapper.” And what happens is I have a soft spot for artists who reach for science to serve as their creative muse. Basically, I’m there for them. Because if I or someone else who is a scientist is not there for them, then they’ll just make stuff up. And if we can enhance it, strengthen it, deepen it by adding what is scientifically true — and then you take your creativity with that foundation and step beyond — then you’ve got a real product on your hands. You’ve got something that is anchored in what is real, but lifts you to a new place, a new vista where now your creativity can be boundless.

Note: Video contains explicit language. Tyson chimes in around the 7:40 mark.

So I got an email from Logic just to possibly serve on his album, and then I learned more about him. He has a huge following. Then I interviewed him for my radio show, StarTalk, which we’re still cutting and we might air that in the next couple of weeks.

So yeah, that’s a whole rap album. I’m all calm-voiced there, playing the role of some supreme being. I don’t think he calls it “God,” but the idea is everyone lives the life of every other person who has ever lived, and only then are you that person who I am on that track.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the “play” button above to hear the entire segment.