Communing With the Cosmos: A Conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson yesterday at a ribbon-cutting for the new observatory in Edwardsville. In addition to the story I wrote for the News-Democrat, I had him cornered at the top of the stairwell next to the telescope, so I asked him a few more questions. Here is the long version of our interview, for those who are interested in such wonderfully nerdy things as planetary biota, the physics of interstellar space travel and the devolution of Pluto.

In case you're wondering, Dr. Tyson is just as emphatic, enthusiastic and personable in real life as he is jousting with Jon Stewart over the planethood - or not - of Pluto. It's easy to see how he has become the Elvis of astrophysicists. I was tempted to tell him that on this year's book tour, the button we sold out of most quickly and literally could not keep in stock was the one that read, "Pluto is still a planet, I don't care what you say."

Q: What do you think about the Christmas Planet? It sounds like something out of Doctor Who.

TYSON: I don’t know if the Muslims or the Jews are calling it the Christmas Planet, so maybe it’s the December Planet. (laughs) It was just announced a few days ago. It’s an Earthlike planet, we’re pretty sure it’s rather rocky. There’s still measurements that have to be made to confirm that…

It’s about two and a half times bigger than Earth. That sounds like “much bigger.” No, no, “much bigger” would be, like, Jupiter. That’s much bigger. There’s a range of planet sizes where they’re all going to be rocky… So it’s an Earth-like planet, orbiting a sun-like star, in the Goldilocks zone. That’s everything, there you go. We’ve found Jupiter-size planets orbiting at different distances from odd stars, we’ve found Earthlike planets but not orbiting in a habitable zone…

This Goldilocks zone, if you’re too close to the sun your water evaporates, if you’re too far away it freezes. So, we have a bias, understandably. We’re looking for life as we know it, so we’re looking for planets where the temperature is just right, in the Goldilocks zone. It was an exciting announcement…

Q: It’s 600 light-years away, right?

TYSON: Right, so people say, when are we going to go there? Hire a science fiction writer for that one. The fastest hunk of hardware we’ve ever launched is right now in motion towards Pluto. If you somehow hitched a ride on that and redirected it toward this planet… (stops to calculate)

Q: I’ll let you do the math.

A: 50 million years. (laughter) So that slightly exceeds a human life expectancy. We just don’t know how to do this yet, how to actually go there.

So the next best thing is to make follow-up measurements to see if the atmosphere has what we call biomarkers, molecules that would only exist in the atmosphere of a planet if life were thriving on its surface.

Q: Like oxygen?

TYSON: Oxygen! Oxygen is highly reactive and on Earth if you took away all the life from the surface and went away, eventually when you came back there would be no oxygen left because it’s trying to react with things. It’s the fact that life is constantly pumping it back out there against the wishes of its own chemical urges is evidence that there’s a thriving biota. I love that word, biota…

Then we can say, maybe there’s more than just microbes and photosynthesis, maybe there’s complex life, maybe there’s intelligence. So then we tell all the SETI people to take their radio transmitters to try to send a signal to them, and of course it would take 600 years to get there. We’ll all be dead before they will have heard the message. If they are there, and they have a way to communicate back, it’s another 600 years back. That’s 1200 years. What were we doing 1200 years ago? It was the Dark Ages. So it’s not clear that you can match these things up.

Q: When I was a kid, we all imagined what space travel would be like when we grew up. For my father’s generation it was the same, and his father’s generation. For kids growing up now, though, I imagine it would be somewhat disheartening, since we’re no longer sending out manned missions in the near future. What can we tell them?

TYSON: I think it’s disheartening for adults too, especially since adults are responsible for not keeping that as alive as I think it could have been. Adults outnumber kids and adults wield resources and funds and opportunity. All this talk about keeping kids interested in space, that’s useless unless the existing adults can embrace what that frontier represents, because they make the opportunities. Otherwise we have to wait until these kids become adults. That’s another 30 years, and I’m not that patient.

Q: You were very involved with the Pluto thing, as I recall.

TYSON: That was because I run exhibits at a museum and we were re-doing the exhibits of the solar system and it was time to put Pluto where it belonged.

Q: As the man who famously said, “Pluto had it coming”…

TYSON: You’re right, it had it coming! I was just the messenger from the people who actually discovered the damning evidence that sunk America’s favorite planet. The book that I wrote on that, The Pluto Files, is not my research on Pluto as a cosmic object. It’s what happened to me after we reassigned Pluto to another part of the solar system. The book is really about the intersection of science and culture.

Q: Has it changed at all in the years since?

TYSON: Nope! I know you’re praying for that, but nope!

Q: They’re still writing letters?

TYSON: Actually, the letter-writing has died down, because we first made this assertion 11 years ago. When do you first learn about planets? It’s like in third grade. So all my hate mail was from third- and fourth-graders. Today, they’re all freshmen in college. They’re not thinking about Pluto anymore, they have other hormonal considerations than the status of a body in the outer solar system.

Q: What do you think about the (Edwardsville observatory telescope)?

TYSON: The exciting thing about it, and (Professor Sabby) should have been jumping up and down about it – I know he was inside – is that you can do this from your kitchen table. That’s the best part of it all. In the warmth of some place other than where you’re freezing your buns off.

It happens that some of the crispest, lowest-humidity days happen in the winter, so some of the best night-sky observing is in the coldest, deepest winter nights. And winter nights are longer than summer nights. So just when the sky is at its best, is when you would most freeze at the telescope.

So the remote-control telescope is not simply a lazy idea, it’s actually an extraordinarily useful idea. It allows you to exploit all of the great observing conditions that are good for the telescope that would be uncomfortable for you the observer.

Q: Is it the same experience, though? At the kitchen table?

TYSON: I used to lament the fact that there was no longer the pilgrimage to the mountaintop. Some of the great observatories in the world are in the most remote places. You take planes and trains and there’s a day when you go by pack mule, not anymore, but that’s what it feels like – the things you have to do to get to the top of these mountains.

Then you’d commune with the cosmos from the mountaintop.

So I missed that, for about five years. Then I came to realize how much time I was spending just gaining access to the telescope. At the end of the day, it’s the productivity that any active scientist is trying to accomplish. The rest, there’s a romance to it, but now there’s a romance to other things.

There’s how rapidly you can observe the night sky, just by touching a button. You used to have to grab the telescope and move it by hand and wonder if you were there, take a picture and develop it in chemicals and you didn’t even know if you had the right image. Now it’s there, it’s instant, so there’s a certain access... and the detectors are a hundred times more sensitive than the detectors that were once used…

It was very easy for a clever person to say, “I don’t have to be at the telescope, I don’t have to be in an adjacent room, I’ll just use a cord that’s a little longer and I’ll go home.” Now with the internet, I can be on another continent and use the same telescope.

So for a few years I missed the romance of the ascent to the mountain, but nowadays I no longer miss it, because of the totality of what remote observing provides you.

Q: They told me that most discoveries in astronomy now are being made by amateurs.

TYSON: I would not say most, but many, and many more than ever before, because technology such as this used to be prohibitively expensive. Now they’re within the budget of avid amateurs and other sizes within the budget of schools, whereas there was a day when that was completely out of reach.