Neil deGrasse Tyson On Exploring Cosmic Frontiers

In Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson writes of how space exploration—especially human voyages—can profoundly inspire scientists and technologists of the future, and charts the path for missions to Mars and beyond.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Joining us now is Flora Lichtman, a multimedia editor who visited your office. Did she not? And she was welcomed very well. I can tell from the video that she brought back.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Yes, very graciously. Hi, Dr. Tyson.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Hello.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yes. So Dr. Tyson let us in, let us rummage through his desk drawers, almost.

TYSON: Well, I have to say you were not the first people I let tour my office.

LICHTMAN: I noticed that. I felt a little hurt today.

TYSON: No, no. It's...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TYSON: No, you're like the third camera crew to say what - you got some good stuff for me? So - but I just want disclosure.

FLATOW: But no one does it better than Flora.

TYSON: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Thank you, Ira. We did uncover some things that I think not everyone got. For example - if this isn't a reason to go our website right now, I don't know, - we saw a picture of you in a unitard from your wrestling days.

TYSON: But I thought you didn't photograph that though, did you?

LICHTMAN: Oh, yes.

TYSON: Oh, wow. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

TYSON: And, by the way, in the wrestling circles, they're not called unitards. They're called singlets, OK?

LICHTMAN: Oh, well. Good to know. Singlets.

TYSON: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Singlet it is.

TYSON: It is a singlet, yes. But that was back when I was buff. Now, I'm chubby and 54 and, you know, just waiting to sit in the couch and watch TV.

FLATOW: So Flora has exclusive footage to view it.

LICHTMAN: Apparently...

TYSON: Definitely.

LICHTMAN: ...unwillingly, I'm sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TYSON: No, no. It's exclusive footage now, that you actually picked that up. Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: OK. So what else did we see? We saw a few kind of amazing things like you made this desk lamp when you were just 12...

TYSON: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...that was space-themed. What - will you tell us that story?

TYSON: Yeah, I was in shop class as people are, you know? In fact, by the way, I'm so old that back then, only the boys took shop class. The girls were in the cooking...

FLATOW: Remember that Bill Cosby routine talking about shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TYSON: So me and the boys, right, are just making stuff, right? And one of the plans was to make a lamp. And they already had these pre-existing plans that were pretty easy and straightforward and tested some key principles that you learn. I said, no. No, I'm not doing some pre-existing plan. I like Saturn, and I want to design a lamp after Saturn.

And so after some hemming and hawing, they allowed me to do it. I glued together blocks, lathed a sphere out of this cube of blocks, cut a wooden ring. And the wooden ring now - and you drill a hole to the sphere, put the cord up through. And now I have a Saturn lamp with a base. And so the way it works is you press down the ring, the ring pivots. You press it down and the light turns on and off. And I've had it - it's been my official desk lamp since middle school. And I still have it in my office at the Hayden Planetarium.

LICHTMAN: Oh, it's really adorable. I mean...

TYSON: Well, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. You're welcome. I like it.

TYSON: No one has ever called anything I've done adorable. That's so cute.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: So one thing I wanted to ask you, this came up in our interview when we did this video. But even though you knew from such a young age that you are interested in space and you were so passionate about it, even giving lectures in your teens, you - it sounds like you got some pushback that not everyone encouraged you to go in this direction.

TYSON: Oh, yeah. Well, first of all, my story is not unique among those who want to achieve in ways that people don't expect and then everyone says, oh, you'll never make it or why bother? This is easier. Do that. So my story about people telling me what I should or shouldn't do is not unique. But since you've asked, I can tell you that at no time was there an adult other than my parents who sort of invested in my interests. that They took me around to buy the lens for the telescope or the tripod. Or if there are some exotic conjunction of planets and moons that existed and can be visible from only one location, they would drive me there. So they were supportive of my interest.

But outside of that, it was clear that society was not ready for me to become an astrophysicist because, first, in the street, it's important that you're athletic, right? Otherwise, you can't hang out. So I was pretty athletic, but I knew that was not my primary interest. But anybody who saw my athletics but then heard me say, I want to be an astrophysicist, they said, oh, no, no, no, you should just play basketball. That's where you really should be. And they're saying this as though this is in my own best interest and thinking that they're doing me a favor by suggesting this.

So it was clear that there were pre-existing stereotypes that people - not in any overt, sort of racist way, but just to how they saw life. They could not see life with me as an astrophysicist, only doing things where others of my skin color had done before. And that was throughout my life up to probably my late 20s, early 30s.

LICHTMAN: So how did you not get discouraged? I mean, how did you muster the ego to keep pushing on?

TYSON: Yeah, it's not ego. It's more mettle than ego. I was - we're going to have a vocabulary lesson here that will do.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Uh oh.

TYSON: So I had really deep fuel reserves. I had fuel reserves down in places they couldn't have imagined. So every time there was a naysayer that consume some of my energy capital, as it were, I would reach into the reserves and pull out more. And the reserves got low, really low a few times. And up into college, there were a couple of times where it's like, whoa, I don't know if I can keep this up. And, you know, the last few drops and I'd get over that hump and then continue. But I stuck with it, and I'm glad that I had because now, you know, I'm the happiest person in the world. And as Carl Sagan said, when you're in love, you want to tell the world. And so I love sharing the cosmic love.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman, talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier." Neil, if you were put in charge of all of our space efforts, would you take the job?

TYSON: No, because the person in charge of the space efforts reports to the president. And right now, the president's plan is not the plan that I think is in our best interest. It requires vastly more money than anyone is allocating, and the argument they're giving is we can't afford right now, when the real answer is we can afford to not do it. So the only way to actually affect this change is to convince the public of why it's good for them and good for their economy. By the way, when you innovate, you create innovative things in your marketplace and the jobs can't go overseas because they haven't figured out how to do it yet.

One of the symptoms of an absence of innovation is the fact that you lose your jobs. Everyone else catches up with you. They can do what you do better than you or cheaper than you. And in a multinational corporate - free market enterprise, it is the company's obligation to take the factory to a place where they can make it more cheaply. But in the '60s and '70s, was anyone complaining that jobs were going overseas? I don't remember that - because we were innovating in ways that the rest of the world was playing catch up. And so I - so, for me, the motivation is to compel the nation to want to do this so that we - as a stoking force on our economy, and that - and once the nation wants to do it, the pressure then gets put on our lawmakers. And then what they end up putting into place is the expression of our wishes, not some political whim that happens to be - make a good campaign slogan.

FLATOW: So you don't think talking to President Obama, for example, would help any?

TYSON: Well, OK, it turns out because of all the attention this book has garnered this week, in the media, you're like Friday, right? But it's been going on since Monday and - but I was looking forward to you the most, Ira, as you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Good recovery.

TYSON: All right, shoo. I was like, where was I going on that one?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TYSON: OK. So - but it turns out that I got a phone call from the Senate, and they want me to testify in front of the Senate House Committee on - I mean, the Senate Committee on Commerce - next Wednesday. And I'll be testifying after the head of NASA to comment on where I think the future of NASA should be in its relationship to the nation. So that's bittersweet for me, because, personally, I don't like trying to influence politicians, who are themselves representative of huge numbers of people.

As an educator, I'd rather enlighten the people and educate the people and let they be the ones who put the pressure on their elected officials. I feel like I'm circumventing the electoral process by speaking directly to senators. But if it's just a matter of clueing them in to what my thoughts are, I'm happy to do that and I've been invited to do so.

FLATOW: Good luck to you and...

TYSON: Thank you. Thank you.

FLATOW: ...good luck with the book as always. Neil deDrasse Tyson, author of " Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier." He's also astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York. Speaking of which, before we go, we want to invite you to a special broadcast of SCIENCE FRIDAY from the American Museum of Natural History. We're going to be talking to biologist E.O. Wilson, among other guests, at the Museum of Natural History on March 28, special night, Wednesday night, special broadcast. You can go to our website and find out about more tickets to the show, right there. Thank you, Flora Lichtman, for the desktop diaries. They're up there on our SCIENCE FRIDAY website.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira, and thanks to Dr. Tyson for such a gracious tour.

FLATOW: And you can go to our website and see the video up there right now, and also all the other videos that are up there for your enjoyment. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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