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GOOD Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson GOOD Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson

GOOD Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson

by Morgan Clendaniel

January 31, 2009
In 2006, when the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto from "planet" to a "dwarf planet," there was public outcry. But one of the most important voices in American astronomy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, was pleased. Tyson, who has long argued that Pluto does not qualify for planetary status, was prompted by the ordeal to dig through his archives and catalog the entire debate over Pluto's true nature. His new book, The Pluto Files (out this week), is the fruit of that labor. GOOD talked to Tyson about The Pluto Files, his upcoming projects, mnemonic devices, and his relationship with Stephen Colbert.GOOD: What was the impetus for writing the book? Were people so upset with you for ruining Pluto for them?NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: You know, I'm fundamentally an academic, so I don't think every day of writing a book for the public. And what happens is, when I've written enough essays on a subject or I've had enough conversations about a subject with people, I feel compelled to write a book. And in this case, I had a file, with all my correspondence with colleagues, with the press, with pissed-off school children, and I said, I can't just keep this contained to myself. The best way to share it is in the form of a book, hence the title The Pluto Files.G: But you didn't really feel like it was that much of a scientific question, right?  It seemed pretty cut and dry to you.NDT: Exactly. Pluto is mostly ice. Let's put it with the ice guys and go out and have a beer. We're done. So, I thought that everyone else would just sort of see that as it was, but that really wasn't the case.G: What's the closest thing that you've seen to this? A case where the layperson cares about a scientific matter?NDT: When they announced that they were going to cancel the repair mission of the Hubble telescope. The loudest voices of objection were not the scientists; it was op-ed pages, talk-show hosts, and the general public. It was an outcry. I had never seen such an outcry over a scientific instrument before. In fact, it's surely without precedent. And it's not because these people had an economic interest in it. If you close down an important science lab in a town, people will object to that because people lose jobs or some other practical matter. With the Hubble, that was the last time I saw the public band together over a scientific challenge. I think it's that everyone's got a Hubble photograph as their wallpaper of their computer. So the Hubble touched people, and maybe in some ways Pluto has touched people, particularly in America, because we've got a dog of that name. So we feel like it is a personal affront, I think.G: Do you think it is something like the American ethos of rooting for the underdog?NDT: No, I used to think that, but I don't. I think it's really Disney's dog.G: So, you think if the dog was named something else, no one would have even noticed?NDT: No one cared that much about the planet Mercury before Pluto was found. I mean, Mercury was the smallest planet. Nobody cares that much about Siri, the asteroid. It's the biggest asteroid, but it's like the smallest round thing in the solar system. Nobody cares.G: But you cared. You wrote a book.NDT: And the book was completely cathartic for me. When I finished the book and handed in the manuscript I was floating.G: Is that because you felt like the book was really hard, or because it unloaded some Pluto guilt?NDT: Oh, no. Not even the least bit of guilt. Just Pluto baggage, Pluto albatross, Pluto yoke. Pluto-it was this thing around my neck and I floated away. Now I can think about other projects.G: What are you working on now?NDT: I'm collaborating with two of the original three creative principles from Carl Sagan's Cosmos to produce a 21st-century version. It's still a couple of years away, but we're writing treatments for what that would be. Another thing I'm working is on a radio program [called Star Talk]. I'm actually trying to get National Science Foundation money for it, but it's a radio program on science intended for the AM talk radio listenership. And Joe six-pack could be among them.G: How are you planning on doing that?NDT: Every time I tell this to people they say, "Oh, on NPR?" No, NPR already has science programming, and everyone who listens to NPR is already fluent in science. I'm talking about the people who wouldn't necessarily know science if they stepped in it. That's who I want to talk to. I have a co-host who's a comedian, who can have fun with the subject, and her name is Lynn Koplitz. So we are working on a pilot for it now. We have a couple of live demos of it, but we are working on sustained funding to make it go. I look forward to the challenge of that.G: So speaking of making science accessible to the masses, are you still the most frequent Colbert Report guest?NDT:  Yes, I've been on five times. I think three is the next one down.G: How did that happen?NDT: Well, first, as we all know, these are smart guys. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, they're smart. Second, they are smart enough to know the value of science in any electorate, in any democracy. I think they are being very responsible to include scientific subjects on their programs. They are being culturally and politically responsible by doing it. And if I can give them sound bites that they like, so that they can invite me back, then I'm happy to do so. I've never been on Jay Leno, for example, and Jay Leno hardly has any scientists, right? So, in the few years Colbert has been on the air, he's probably had more scientists than Jay Leno has ever had. Not including the animal folks, who bring in the fun animals to the show, that popular feature of evening talk shows. Oprah has never had a scientist on her show, except for the health sciences. So, it's a difference in outlook. How do you view the role of science in society? Do you view science as something else, or do you view it as a fundamental part of what it is to be alive? And obviously I'm on the side of the latter.G: And so, with Pluto gone, what is your new preferred mnemonic device for the planets?NDT:  I don't do mnemonic devices.G: Because you know the planets already?NDT: No, because I think it is a pointless exercise containing no scientific value at all, or pedagogical value.G: Because the kids should just learn the names of the planets?NDT: Because it's just memorizing names rather than understanding what's going on in the solar system. And I feel strongly about that, and whole swaths of the book are given to this discussion.G: How would you tell people to remember the names of the planets?NDT: I wouldn't. I say it doesn't matter. As long as you know that there are some big giant ones out there and you can cite a couple of them, Jupiter and Saturn, whatever. But so many of the things have names. There are 10,000 asteroids that have names. Nobody's trying to remember those.G: One's named after you.NDT: Indeed, one is named after me. So, it's not a worthwhile exercise. It's just not.G: One last question: What the next biggest scientific discovery going to be? NDT:  In the next 10 years, the possibility of finding life somewhere other than earth in the solar system, like on Mars, for example. That's very real.G: Will it be friendly life?NDT: Oh, microbial. I'm not sure about friendly microbials. There's a lot of stuff in your lower intestine that can choose not to be friendly at a moment's notice. But I don't think they are into world domination just yet. It's not the kind of life that would come to us in a flying saucer or crawl out of a cave. The Pluto Files on Amazon.Photo: Dan Deitch
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GOOD Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson