Another round of Cosmos

An American popular scientist in the Carl Sagan tradition, Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why he tweets, and why the US needs to rediscover its space mojo

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.

But you’ve criticized Fox’s Bill O’Reilly for using the motion of the tides to prove the existence of God, and debated former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz, a climate skeptic, on national television.

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?

The media are not as egregious as the general public. It’s true, however, that guys like Larry King, who’s now retired, have given quite a bit of passage for people who have made careers pedaling pseudoscience. Especially, perhaps, with those who claim that they can speak to the dead, King took this sort of dispassionate view: ‘I’m just the interviewer here and people are coming in and making these claims, and you evaluate.’ Well, okay, but somebody decided to give these people a seat on your show. You can’t claim an absence of responsibility. If you’re a journalist, then you’ve got find out: Is this person speaking truth? What’s the evidence in support of it? Your neutrality is not “everything is equal.” Your neutrality is: I’m going to ask hard questions, no matter who it is, and if they crumble under the line of questioning, that’s because they had a house of cards to begin with. If journalism doesn’t bring that out, it’s bad for society, because you only have a strong democracy if those who vote people into office are informed and have the capacity to think intelligently about topics and issues—especially in the 21st century, with so many science issues in front of us that require informed judgment and informed leadership. The news media are a fundamental player in this. You can’t say you’re not in the position of power to shape that dialogue, because you are.

Sagan had his share of fan clubs, but he didn’t have the power of social media. How does that change the equation for you?

I tweet random thoughts I have. I don’t have a lesson plan. In fact, people say, ‘Can you tell me the latest on this discovery?’, and it’s like, no, that’s not why I’m tweeting. I occasionally will reflect on a discovery, but I’m not your news service. The 140 characters are giving you access to how my brain is wired in any day of my life, how I see things. Like my tweet when Mitt Romney suggested that we cut PBS’s budget to reduce the deficit. I said that’s like deleting text files to make space on your 500-gigabyte hard drive. That’s by far the most retweeted tweet I’ve ever put up. So my tweets have resonated with people, and I’m charmed by that, so I continue.

The original Cosmos was set against the backdrop of the Cold War. With Sagan’s subtle references to mushroom clouds and self-destruction, there was this underlying message that great scientific power comes with great responsibility. Are there similar events today that set the stage for the new Cosmos, or scientific progress in general?

The original Cosmos came out in 1980, and of course it was layered with implicit and explicit references to the hazards of total thermonuclear exchange. The Cold War shaped what the messages were and how they were delivered. We’re not in the Cold War anymore, and that allows us to focus on other issues that might have been important back then, but now they can come to the fore. You know, there was climate change going on in 1980, but you’re not worrying about climate change in 50 years if you’re going to be annihilated in 10. But our carbon footprint affects many aspects of culture and society, from real estate, through sea-level rise, to agriculture, through drought. We’ll be covering topics such as the use of energy and sustaining natural resources. Cosmos, at its best, looks not only at the universe—just ’cause it’s a really cool place—but at the intersection between Earth and the universe; and Earth not simply as a place we live, but as a planet and a system. You become a different kind of citizen for having watched the show—more enlightened. Empowered by the knowledge of the interplay of the laws of physics on Earth and in the universe, it compels you to alter your behavior in ways that are for the greater good of yourself and others. That’s why Cosmos has been remembered for so long and risen above the din of most documentaries.

To what extent is science coverage in the news media helping society grapple with some of the big issues of the 21st century?

There’s a dimension to news reporting that I think not all journalists have the talent, frankly, to achieve, and that’s to digest information, interpret it, and deliver it in such a way that people have a deeper understanding of what’s going on. You’re not just handing them knowledge as a reporter, you’re conveying understanding as a guide. This is where you have the chance to shape the public’s view of important issues. The ’60s make a remarkable point of reference. There was huge media coverage of our journey into space, and you could argue that it was the coverage that shaped everyone’s dream state about what the future could bring. You had Life magazine—with its sort of pictorial journalism—that helped people to imagine the future, and this is going on in a decade in which there is a Cold War with Russia, a hot war in Southeast Asia, a civil-rights movement in full swing in the US. Yet people paused and reflected on what the future might be. I claim that the reason for that was the fact that the entire nation committed to going to the moon, and the reporting on that was so thorough and so persistent, and it also brought a human dimension to it—we all knew about the folks who had the right stuff, and we knew it took enlightened lawmakers and visionary leaders to accomplish our goals.

With end of the shuttle program and the burgeoning private space industry, the US is probably at the biggest crossroads since the 1960s in terms of trying to figure out what to do next. How are the news media covering the decision-making process?

If you look at recent news, you saw a lot of coverage of stories like Fearless Felix Baumgartner [who set a world record for the highest skydive in October]. It was a huge stunt. It had all the danger and excitement that they said, so I’m not faulting anyone for the amount of attention that it got. I would just claim that if we had astronauts ready to step onto Mars, no one would be paying attention to people jumping out of balloons. If you’re looking for evidence that we’re getting nowhere in space, consider that we were told by marketing folks that Felix was at the edge of space when he jumped. I tweeted one simple observation about this: If you take a schoolroom globe, this fellow’s jump from a balloon to Earth corresponds to a jump of about a millimeter above the globe. I don’t know anyone who would call that space. I don’t blame the media for that. More power to Red Bull [the drink company that sponsored the jump] for getting all the attention it did; this is a free market. But then you had people saying it’s bad when a drink company has a better space program than our government. To contrast this jump with what NASA does is, of course a bit unfair, but it carries the sentiment of how people are feeling because we don’t have spacecraft taking anybody anywhere.

How did the media do on what was arguably the biggest space story of the year: NASA dropping the Curiosity rover into a Martian crater back in August?

I would say it was the second-biggest story after the discovery of the Higgs boson, which I count as frontier science. What was remarkable about the rover was all the people cheering the engineering. There was no science to report at that time. NASA landed the thing safely and it’s the size of an SUV, so it was a huge engineering feat, but we’ve had rovers on Mars before, so why should this receive any special attention compared to the rest? It’s up to the press to explain where the rover fits in the spectrum of space activities, and in the budget we’re allocating for whatever goals NASA has. This would be the full analysis that I think was missing.

But juxtapose that with the Higgs boson. Most people have no clue what it is, but they embraced the fact that there was this huge search to find it by the international community of physicists. What I liked about the coverage of its discovery, and the public reaction, was that it wasn’t a prerequisite that people understood what the particle was. If you look back to 1919 and the first experimental verification of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it was a short column on page six in The New York Times—you would not count it as a major headline. I think the media have figured out how to be as excited as scientists are when scientists make an exciting discovery, and I would offer that as a compliment to the community.

What are the stories that will get Americans dreaming about the future of space in the coming year?

We have to create them. They’re not just waiting to be written. They’re waiting to actually happen so that you can write about them, and I strongly feel that if America doesn’t do it, others will. Somebody has to continue to expand the space frontier, and you might say that I’m biased, but the defense of my argument is simple.

Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st-century economy, and steps into space tap the scientific expertise from many different disciplines in stem fields [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. They’re also exciting and garner headlines in ways that other sciences do not. People read about space, and it inspires them to want to participate on that frontier or contribute to that frontier, no matter what their profession. Maybe you’re an artist, and you want to paint representations of the beautiful photos from the Hubble telescope. Maybe you’re an attorney, and you start thinking about space law and who owns the asteroid that you might want to mine. That’s what I mean by having an innovation nation where everyone shares in the common dream—that science and technology will bring us into tomorrow and be the source of our economic and cultural wealth going forward.

In the 1960s, the fruits of science and engineering and technology were writ large in the daily newspapers. That’s the kind of force that we need to put into play. But the shuttle was not advancing a space frontier, and many people said, ‘Oh, we’re bored with the space program. No one follows the next shuttle launch.’ Well, of course, because it was boldly going where hundreds had gone before. That’s not advancing a space frontier. So I would appeal to the budget-makers to fund all the sciences, not just space—but space would be the great carrot in society to get people interested in science to begin with.

We saw the media’s gravitational pull toward space stories in late November, when an excited quote from one of the leaders of the Mars rover mission was taken out of context and kicked up a lot of speculation about a big discovery on the red planet.

You don’t need to train journalists to sniff out the fact that people like these kinds of stories. The CBS morning program wants me to come on in the first hour on that Monday to talk about whatever this NASA announcement’s going to be from Curiosity [as Tyson guessed on the show, it ended up being the discovery of simple organic compounds], so I think there is a sense that science is important. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t true. I’d get a call from the evening news, or the morning news, because there was a cosmic thing and they wanted a comment on it, but if anything else flinched in the government, or the economy, it would get bumped. I remember driving to msnbc when it was in Secaucus, NJ, to talk about a meteor shower that was impending, but while I was there some story relevant to Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky came up, so they cancelled the asteroid story.

Now, they give it the same weight as what happened in the Middle East or around the world. The discovery of the Higgs boson was a banner headline in The New York Times—as was the story when we demoted Pluto from planet status [in 2000, in an exhibit at the then-recently opened Rose Center for Earth and Sciences at the Museum of Natural History], although it was below the fold. That’s a case where the media created a news story where there wasn’t one.

What do you mean?

It had been a year since we had demoted Pluto. The exhibit was sitting there. No one had talked about it. People saw that Pluto was not among the planets and said, ‘Oh, that must be the movement of science, and okay, fine.’ Then a journalist from the Times overhears a woman looking for Pluto who couldn’t find it, and the reporter calls that in to the Science desk and they do the story with the headline, “Pluto’s Not a Planet? Only in New York.” [The International Astronomical Union did not demote Pluto for another five years.] The headline was accusatory. We all learned about Pluto as kids. It was the underdog planet, and it’s in our culture, so they wrote this story. I don’t have a problem with it, other than it ate two years of my life fielding inquiries, and I got branded as the evil planet killer.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.