Neil deGrasse Tyson
One of cosmology's leading stars is astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Tyson was appointed to serve on the nine-member commission on the Implementation of the U.S. Space Exploration Policy (the "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" commission) in 2004. His book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with astronomy writer Donald Goldsmith, was published that same year by W.W. Norton.
Futurist: In your new book, Origins, you write that these are "auspicious times for learning what's new in the cosmos." Why is that so?
Tyson: Enabled by technology, we live in a time when our investigations of the universe unfold simultaneously on five frontiers: extremely large ground-based telescopes, large space-borne telescopes, supercomputing models of cosmic phenomena, space probes to the planets, and particle accelerators, which recreate the conditions of high temperature and pressure in the early universe, just after the big bang.
Futurist: How does thinking about the universe's destiny relate to thinking about the near-term future and its complex problems?
Tyson: The universe's destiny has very little to do with the near-term destiny of Earth. But the destiny of the solar system and its constituents is another matter. A rogue asteroid can hit Earth at any time, leaving humans extinct. Mars was once a wet place. But no longer. Something bad happened there. What knobs are we now turning in Earth's ecosystem that may someday leave Earth with the same barren fate? With a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, our "sister" planet, we can ask the same question about global warming.
Futurist: You write that our atoms are traceable to the big bang, which makes us a part of the universe itself. Why is this concept important for people to understand?
Tyson: If people knew these facts--really knew them--would they still wage war on one another? Would they still act selfishly in their personal affairs? Would they harbor hatred for their neighbors? I do not know. Perhaps so. But you can bet they'll think twice about it. By looking up into the vast darkness of space, you are forced by your conscience to take pause and reflect on your own place in the cosmos.
Futurist: On a more personal note, you are an astrophysicist, a communicator, and an administrator of a public institution. What role gives you most satisfaction?
Tyson: When I engage in research on the frontier of cosmic discovery, I occupy a mental and emotional plane of fulfillment accompanied by an itch to share that joy with the public.
Futurist: Who (or what) inspired you to become a scientist and to specialize in the universe?
Tyson: A visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City at age 9. A pair of binoculars at age 11, and a friend who told me to look up with them. I've been hooked ever since. More like a calling, really. Later, while in junior high school, my first scientific and pedagogical role model was the head of the Hayden Planetarium. My parents supported my interest in every way they knew how, although they themselves were not scientists.
Futurist: What made you choose to apply your scientific curiosity and imagination to astronomy rather than, say, medical research or artificial intelligence?
Tyson: There was no contest. Indeed, when I was a kid, I thought that if everyone looked up the way I did then everyone would want to study the universe just like me--how could they not? This naiveté is what tells me that my interest was more a calling than a rational comparative assessment about what to be when I grew up.
Futurist: What would you say your "future-changing" idea is?
Tyson: More people need to look up in the world.
This interview was conducted by Cynthia G. Wagner