Life, the Universe and Everything Else: A conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a renowned astrophysicist, best-selling author and science communicator. This year he was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society and joined us on Drew University’s campus to open Drew’s 2017-2018 Speaker Forum Series on Tuesday, September 26.

Before his much-awaited talk “An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper”, the Acorn’s News Editor, Colleen Dabrowski, spoke to Dr. Tyson about his expectations on science and technology’s advances, advice for future STEM students, German poetry and the importance of science communicators.

Colleen Dabrowski: What advice do you have for students striving to attain high levels of education and success in STEM fields?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s hard enough to get a Ph.D. in anything. To get it in the physical sciences it requires devotion and commitment. I may leave the impression that being a scientist is just all fun and games and becoming a scientist is fun and games, but it is also very, very hard work. It’ll be the hardest thing you do in your life and I don’t want to misrepresent that fact. To choose science as a career requires a level of devotion and commitment. The reason why is, when you get a Ph.D. –– in anything –– at the end of that you are the world’s expert in that one subject. To be the expert in anything takes commitment, to be the world’s expert or the world’s best ballet dancer or track star takes devotion. If there’s anybody that says, “Oh, that’s natural that they have that much talent.” Go and ask them, “How much do you train?” “Oh, you know, 14 hours a day.” That would be the answer. Ask me how much I think about the universe, that’s 14 hours a day. Ask me how long I think about how I might communicate something to someone who wants to learn. It’s every day that I think about receptors in the human mind and how to receive knowledge, information, insight, facts and data. Otherwise you’re just lecturing and people have to meet you at the chalkboard. Or whatever boards are made of today… Do you have any chalkboards left?

CD: We do, Drew has a lot of chalkboards.

NDT: Great! I’m old school, give me a chalkboard. So no, I don’t have specific advice, other than be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life.

CD: That’s very good advice.

NDT: Also, don’t shy away from hard things. If you only do easy things so that you look good in the end by getting a high score, you’ve done yourself a disservice. To do well on easy things is, I don’t want to call it a waste of time, but it’s certainly not helping you accrue unique intellectual prowess in your field. If you do hard things one day you wake up and you’re at the top of a pyramid and everyone comes to you to solve their problems.

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Collen Dabrowski interviews Dr. Tyson in Mead Hall. Photo credits: Anna Gombert

CD: Very good, thank you. The sciences are evolving at a remarkable rate. What do you predict will be major research hotspots for students that are now undergraduates? And is discovering other life in the universe on the table as a possibility?

NDT: Definitely! Life of any kind but much less what we would call intelligent life. I think, Artificial Intelligence is going to be a very real thing on the horizon. That’s gonna affect us all in some way or another. It kinda already is affecting us. I think if you showed Siri to someone twenty years ago they’d be very impressed, but now we’re not impressed, because everybody’s got it. I think we’re on our way there, and we should watch that space. I kinda want to know what was around before the universe, and what is the nature of dark matter, dark energy. I want to know how earth went from organic molecules to self-replicating life. That’s a mysterious frontier of biology. I wanna know if we’ll ever economically successfully mine asteroids for natural resources. That’d be kinda fun.

CD: That would be! In your lifetime of loving and learning about astronomy, what has been your greatest takeaway?

NDT: For me, the great takeaway is: the universe has never failed to stupefy the astrophysicist. We’ve grown accustomed to just being dumbfounded. I celebrate that state of mind. It reminds me of a line from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, a German poet. “We learn to love the questions themselves.” Therein are the seeds of curiosity and curiosity is what grows our area of knowledge, pushing out this perimeter between knowledge and ignorance. Never lose sight of the fact that as the area of your knowledge grows, so too does the perimeter of your ignorance. You will discover something tomorrow and you will stand there and see beyond where you saw before, empowering you to ask a question that you never previously dreamt of. Those are the questions I think about all the time.

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Collen Dabrowski interviews Dr. Tyson in Mead Hall. Photo credits: Anna Gombert

CD: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you. I just wanted to say, the two of us went to the Hayden Planetarium.

NDT: The two of you? And you didn’t call me? You didn’t say hey? You didn’t write, you didn’t text?

CD: We had such a wonderful experience. It was very heartwarming to know that that’s where it all started for you.

NDT: Well, yeah! As a little kid. My office is there now.

CD: I think that’s just the neatest thing that that’s where you’re at now.

NDT: Yup, just trying to keep the universe going. Somebody’s gotta do it.

CD: Yeah, somebody’s gotta do it, and if it’s gonna be you I don’t think there’s anyone better.

NDT: Oh, thank you! That’s very nice and supportive of you. Is there any other question we can sneak in before they come?

CD: We can! So you’re a science communicator, which is a field that is –– to me –– very interesting. So why do you think it’s important to bridge the gap between researchers and the public?

NDT: I think the public needs to know.  For so much science, especially my field, the science that’s conducted is funded by tax-based sources. You deserve to know how your tax money is being spent, there is an obligation of the researcher to communicate that fact. You can communicate as a mentor, you can communicate at local schools, you can conduct interviews with local news, you can write an op-ed, there are many layers here that can fit your talent, for reaching out to other people. I think that should be a fundamental part of what it is to be a scientist, and in that way, people can vote in an informed way about how they want tax money to be allocated. Then they’re not afraid of science because they’ll see that someone down the street is doing an NSF grant and “that’s interesting I didn’t know that. Well, thanks for letting me know”.

Learn more about Dr. Tyson’s Drew Forum talk next week in The Acorn.

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