When it comes to making science popular and accessible, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson does it all. He’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which has inspired visitors from around the world to ponder the depths of space. He’s written more than half a dozen books and hosted a series on PBS called NOVA scienceNOW. His illustrated avatar even met Superman last fall, when DC Comics asked him to help pinpoint a plausible location for the Man of Steel’s home planet, Krypton. Tyson is a regular on national news shows and makes frequent cameos on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. His simple yet profound statements about everything from cosmology to climate change have been sliced and diced into a host of viral YouTube videos, with inspiring titles like “The Most Astounding Fact” and “I’m With Neil!” He has nearly 900,000 Twitter followers, and his Facebook page has more than 164,000 Likes. Tyson doesn’t wander out into the museum as much as he used to, his assistant told CJR’s Curtis Brainard when he interviewed him in his office above the planetarium in December. “Too many people recognize him,” she explained—no surprise, given that Tyson has a cult following unknown in the science world to all but the likes of Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, the scientist to whom Tyson is most often compared. In 2014, Fox will air a remake of Cosmos, Sagan’s beloved 13-part exploration of life and the universe released in 1980, with Tyson as the host.
You and Carl Sagan have a lot in common in terms of the way you convey the awe and wonder of science, but how do you differ in your approach to the job?
Carl had much more energy to address people whose minds have wandered from rational paths, and this would include the full gamut of what we would generally think of as pseudoscientific topics or fringe topics. So he would debate astrologers, creationists, faith healers. He had a whole book on the topic called, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
For me, it’s a matter of patience. As an educator, I’d rather try to get people to think straight in the first place, and by that I mean get them to think in a way where they can analyze information in front of them, empowering them to make decisions that are informed about how the world actually works. If I’m successful, the person has been inoculated against charlatans who would exploit their ignorance of the laws of nature for his or her own financial gain.
I was called to those tasks. It was Stephen Colbert’s initiative to push back on O’Reilly, and since I’m an easy date for him—my office is not far from his studios—he called me in to do a kind of half-rehearsed skit, which was very funny, about who’s in charge of the tides. If astrophysicists can fully explain the tides, are they in charge? Or is God in charge? The same is true with climate change. I was invited to appear on Real Time with Bill Maher.
It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions on these matters, it’s just that I’m not going to initiate it. But we need others to do it, so if I fail in getting people to think straight in the first place, then I hand them over to others. The mantle that had previously been occupied by Carl now has several people, including Michael Schermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, and Phil Plait, colloquially known as the “Bad Astronomer” because he writes a blog [which moved from Discover to Slate in November] on correcting bad astronomy in movies, on websites, and in the rumor mill.
Do you think the anti-intellectualism exhibited by O’Reilly is a problem in the media?