Neil deGrasse Tyson's Reddit 'AMA' is Fun, Informative, and Personable

By Petr Knava | reddit | April 3, 2017 | Comments ()

By Petr Knava | reddit | April 3, 2017 |


Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the internet’s favorite personalities. He’s also one of the most charismatic and effective contemporary science communicators—a role seemingly more and more crucial with each passing day. He stopped by Reddit yesterday to devote some time to an Ask Me Anything. The whole thing is well worth reading, but in case you’re pushed for time, here are some highlights:

Hi Dr Tyson, huge fan. I know its a big question, but how do you go on knowing how small we are in this universe? The thought of my insignificance in the grand scheme of things tends to depress me as much as the vastness of the universe interests me. Thanks for your time!

Why should knowing we are indeed small in time, space, and size have anything to do with insignificance. Bacteria surely don’t feel that way and they are billions of times smaller than us, yet they do most of our digesting. Ant’s surely don’t feel that way yet they likely represent nearly 20% of Earth’s biomass. Why not instead think of how awesome it is that our 3lbs Human brain matter actually figured all this out. Why not look up to the clear night sky, and reflect on the fact that we don’t simply live in this universe, but the universe lives within us — through the atoms and molecules of our bodies, forged in the hearts of stars that long-ago gave their lives to the galaxy … and to us. This is, of course, one aspect of the cosmic perspective that perhaps I and my astrophysics colleagues take for granted, but cannot be told often enough. -NDTyson

Dr. Tyson,
What advice would you share to an undergraduate of physics and mathematics who is very uncertain about a future career in science? Some nights feel defeating from the course work alone, but the thought of a future career based on my education can be overwhelmingly intimidating.

I have no intentions of giving up because I am certain of one thing: learning and applying science fills me with joy.

Thank you for your time and the hundreds of commuter hours I’ve filled with Star Talk

I may be partly guilty for your scientific angst. Most of my public science persona involves conveying the joy of scientific discovery, and especially the joy of curiosity, from childhood through adulthood. What’s commonly absent from my messaging is the steep investment of time and energy (physical and emotional) that becoming a scientist and actually doing science requires. In fact the struggle is what must be loved by aspiring scientists because being a practicing scientist requires this of you daily. Not knowing the answer to a problem and struggling to find the answer is precisely what science is. It’s neither more nor less than this. The fact that you are experiencing this very struggle is not a barrier to your progress it is the best evidence that you are on a path where you belong, if you love what you do. Good luck. Sometimes you need that too. -NDTyson

Dr. Tyson, I have a serious question: who’s your favorite comedian?

Luuuuuv Comedians. Not a single favorite, but my top eleven, in no order, include: Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Burr, Jerry Seinfeld, Chuck Nice, Eugene Mirman. -NDTyson

Life as we know it on earth is cell bases, DNA, and so on. If we did find alien life, are we sure we would recognize it? What if alien life is similar to iron, but our tests couldn’t even detect some other unearthly element that makes it living. I guess my question is, since earth life is so unique and specific to us, how do weexpect to recognize “life” so unique and specific to another world? Could we have seen life on a planet millions of light years away, but not realized it because the details of photography are limited?

Excellent question. We think life is alive and a slap of iron is not because, among a few other reasons, we have metabolism. We consume energy in the service of our existence. If we find any other entity that does this too, it would make a good candidate for life. Consider also that you reference and “unearthly” element. That is not likely at all because the periodic table of elements is full. There’s no room for any other elements to be discovered in the natural universe. And using spectroscopy, we confirm that these very same elements are found in stars across the universe itself. Not only that, the four most common chemically active ingredients in the universe (H, He, O, C, N) are the SAME four most abundant ingredients in life on Earth. So our bias in searching for “life as we know it” is not entirely close-minded. -NDTyson

What’s your favorite book?

As a middle-school kid: “One Two Three Infinity”, by George Gamow and “Mathematics and the Imagination” by Edward Kasner and James Newman. On the fiction side, nothing compares for me to “Gulliver’s Travels”, by Jonathan Swift. Not the Lilliput story that we all know, but the rest of Gulliver’s voyages. That’s where most of the deep social commentary is embedded. In later life, I can’t get enough of Issac Newton. “Principia”, in particular. The most influential book ever on what we call modern civilization. It established the fact that the Universe is knowable and that mathematics is the language it uses to communicate with us. -NDTyson

What’s something you’ve learned recently that’s really blown your mind?

Lately I’ve had about one such incident per week. Although my target is one per day. I recently learned from some dynamicist colleagues that the striking visibility of Saturn’s ring system is not eternal, coming and going with the dynamical forces of all that orbits the planet. Which means if I were around back when the Dinosaurs roamed and showed them Saturn through a telescope, it might have been an uninteresting sight. Very sad. -NDTyson

Tyson doing his best Trump impression, yet still more eloquent.

As someone who lives with very conservative parents who don’t believe in climate change, what do you think is the best way we can reach out to deniers of climate change, anti-vaxxers, and those against GMOs?
Edit: it’s MLB opening day! Who’s your team??

I’m born and raised in the Bronx, so I’m a legit Yankee fan. And as I Yankee fan, we’re disappointed if we go a decade without a “world” championship. As for your parents, ask them of they believe other things scientists have told them? That E=mc2 ? That their smart phone talks to GPS satellites, enabling them to avoid traffic enroute to grandma’s house? That satellites warn them about weather pattern that could risk life or property?. If they are so skeptical of climate change, would they consider buying real-estate in very low-lying regions of the country, or the world? Do they know that insurance agencies are indeed listening to scientists? If none of that works, offer this short piece that i wrote. It’s simply about what science is and how and why it works. Perhaps they never knew that emergent scientific truths are true, whether or not they believe in it. -NDTYson

What is the most exciting thing going on with space exploration right now?
Either in recent months or planned in the near future.

I think it’s the multiple attempts of private enterprise to put their money were our dreams are. At that level, success is not as important as acting on the urge to explore. Lest we all ossify in the present. -NDTyson

What was the defining moment in your life where you thought “I did it?”

I try to best every previous defining moment with a new one. In that way you don’t live in the past, you live for the future. -NDTyson

Hi Neil! Just wanted to know your thoughts on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 relaunch and landing, and what do you think it means for the future of space travel? also, would you ever consider to join a one way trip to Mars?

I really like Earth. So any space trip I take, I’m double checking that there’s sufficient funds for me to return. Also, I’m not taking that trip until Elon Musk send his Mother and brings her back alive. Then I’m good for it. Any demonstration of rocket reusability is a good thing. When we fly on a Boeing 747 across great distances, we don’t throw it away and roll out a new one. Reusability is arguably the most fundamental feature of affordable expensive things. -NDTyson

We consume energy in the service of our existence.
You make my consumption of cheeseburgers sound delightfully majestic.

What should we expect in the next few years from astrophysics?

I’d love me some answers to what Dark Matter is, or Dark energy. I’d also like to know if there is or was ever life on Mars. These are realistically answerable questions in the next couple of decades. In the immediate several years to come, there’s an emerging cottage industry among planet hunters in which we can make measurements of the atmospheric chemistry of exoplanets. These amounts to a search for “bio-markers” such as Oxygen (O2), methane (CH4), and other signs of unstable molecule that could be made by a sustained biosystem on the planet surface. So watch for headlines there in the coming years. -NDTyson

How do you feel about the new NASA bill/budget?

Wolf in sheep’s clothes. My read of the (entire) plan is to remove Earth monitoring from NASA’s mission statement. leaving NASA to think only about the rest of the Universe and not Earth as a part of that same universe. Unless this task is picked up by some other agency, the disconnect will be disastrous to our understanding of our own planet, preventing us from knowing and predicting our own impact on our own environment. My sense is that the next generation (30 and younger) does not think this way. They just don’t happen to be old enough to be head of agency, corporations, or government yet. So I look forward to when they are all in charge. Especially anyone born since 1995 — the year we discovered our first exoplanet. For that reason, I dub that demographic “Generation Exoplanet”. -NDTyson

Hello Neil,
I work at a Christian school. One of my co workers (the science teacher) was banned from showing cosmos. The administrators who banned it (due to a parent complaint actually) refuse to watch it to judge for themselves.
What would you say to them to convince them to change their minds or reconsider?

In the USA, education is entirely local — a surprise to most of the developed world. So a Christian school, or even a public school, could if they wanted to teach anything at all. It’s just a matter of voting influence on a school board. If they fear the contents of Cosmos, they simply fear what science tells them about the natural world.

FYI: Galileo (a devout Christian) famously once said: “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heaven’s go.
So even he saw the line in the sand between the two. But this is 21st century America. And what matters here are the consequences of not teaching science to school children. Innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow health, wealth, and security. So any school district that eschews the discoveries of science has disenfranchised itself from the future of civilization. They can still reap the benefits of it, but they will be paying to obtain (or gain access to) the discoveries of others, and no emergent industries will move their HQ there, if scientifically literate employees are nowhere to be found.

Neil, you’re a great mind who helps reach out and bring many people new curiosity for science & I applaud you for that.
I am not as intellectually inclined as I wish I was but I feel confident as a good orator and communicator having worked sales jobs.
I don’t believe I have the capabilities to go into a STEM degree so what do you think young people in my generation who cannot go into STEM should strive for?
also how’d you like the movie “Life”?

What matters in society is not how many STEM professionals are running around. What a boring world that would be if we were all scientists and engineers. The world needs poets and artists and actors and comedian, and politicians, and even lawyers. What i see is that if you like STEM, but for whatever reason will not become a STEM professional, you can still gain basic levels of science literacy in your life, and blend that awareness into your work. This is already happening in the Arts. There’s no end of art installations, sitcoms, dramas, screenplays, first-run movies, that have been inspired by science. Including The Martian, which helped turn the word “Science” into a verb, and Avatar, the highest grossing film of all time. So if your will not become a scientist yourself, then do not hesitate to allow science to serve as the artist’s muse. Next in line — scientifically literate politicians. -NDTyson

Do you think advancements like those being made at space-X will have meaningful impacts on our goals to go to Mars within the next decade or two?

I’m simultaneously one of Space-X’s biggest critics and supporters. I’ve said many time and many places, e.g. that projects that are hugely expensive and dangerous, with uncertain returns on investments make poor activities of profit-driven companies. Governments do these things first, allowing private enterprise to learn what to do and what not to do, then come next with a plan that involves us all. So my read of history is that private companies will not be the first to send humans to Mars unless government actually pays for it. -NDTyson

What are some personal or career goals you haven’t yet achieved?

To foster an entire generation of scientists as educators so that I can fade away and not even be noticed for having done so. That’s would represent a stunning future of science literacy in the land. That’s a career goal in the sense that then I can return to the lab and publish research papers again. That’s my possibly delusional career goal at this time in my life. -NDTyson

A lot of people have anecdotes of meeting you and claim that you’re an asshole in real life.
Can you confirm these stories? Or give any excuse as to your behaviour?

Wow. I wonder how many people that is. Or rather, I wonder what fraction of all people I’ve met feel that way. (That’s surely a more useful datum than the absolute number.) I may be delusional, but I’d guess it’s less than 1 in 1000. It think my public persona greatly resembles my private and my one-on-one persona. Anything other than that requires huge investments of energy.

I don’t mind being thought of as an asshole if in fact my behavior deserves it. I note that I had just such an encounter with a journalist from Idaho, who write an article titled “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a horse’s Astrophysicist”. I had actually never met him. And he based everything in his article on things that were objectively false. When I publicly called this to his attention, many of his colleagues and friends mocked him for his sloppy journalism and he ended up leaving his job. So there may be strong urges out there for people to think this way. But I wonder how much of it is based on reality and how much of it derives from people’s need to hate.

Another question back at many genuine assholes devote three unsolicited hours to purely answering questions from the public about anything at all? -NDTyson

Hello, have you ever seen Rick and Morty? If so, what do you think of it?

Embarrassed that I’ve never seen Rick and Morty. But I’m generally a fan of smart animation. And now that you’ve called me out, I’ll put it on my list. -NDTyson


Petr Knava
lives in London and plays music

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