Everyone’s favourite celebrity astrophysicist is once again appearing on our television screens, expounding knowledge and expanding our minds. Starting from 9 May on the National Geographic Channel, StarTalk will see Neil deGrasse Tyson transplant his eponymous popular commercial radio programme to the goggle box. Tyson took some time off his busy schedule to answer our burning questions about human curiosity, his legacy and how to tell if someone is spouting nonsense.
Will there be a time when humans will be driven by curiosity instead of by greed or survival?
No. The answer’s just no.
Or are the three – curiosity, greed and survival – inextricably intertwined?
Okay. So you can explore – as a manifestation of your curiosity – if the cost is not very high. So you can explore the hill, the river, the cave. All right you can just do that. And maybe you’ll get your clothes dirty. But if it’s expensive? Curiosity has never been enough of a driver to stimulate the expense – the spending – to stimulate allocation of resources to accomplish it.
There are only three things that ever drove major expensive projects. One of them is war. The, “I don’t want to die,” driver. The other one is wealth. And the third one is the praise of royalty or deity.
That doesn’t happen much today. But it used to happen often. You build the pyramids. Those are basically expensive tombstones for the pharaohs. The Great Wall of China is an example of “I don’t want to die.” The defence driver. The Columbus voyages were Spain in search of wealth.
So, and if you’re lucky, you can attach curiosity onto that. You can attach scientific experiments onto that and get some science done. We went to the moon. Apollo 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 and you know which mission we sent the scientists on? The last mission. So going to the Moon was not even about scientific discovery. It was about the military prowess over the Soviet Union.
What is your tried-and-tested method of telling when someone is full of nonsense?
Note as much science as you can. So much of someone exploiting you – with their claims – involves some assumption that you know less about the physical world than the person selling you something.
So if someone says, “I want to read your palm and predict your future.” Well, by what power would they be doing this? And, what is the source of lines in the hand? Well they allow your hands to bend without crinkling. And so there’s a whole evolutionary reason for this. So for someone to say, “Oh, this is a world line. You’ll live long.” You say, “Well where’s the data that support that?” And there isn’t any data.
And so you would start probing the claim because you’d know how to think about information. Science literacy is not so much, “How much science do you know?” But how is your brain wired for inquiry? How is your brain wired for curiosity?
I don’t expect you to know whether the answer is one way or another at the beginning. But when you’re empowered, you will know what sequence of questions to ask to allow you to judge – in a more informed way – if the person is lying to you. So I would try to promote science literacy within people, which puts them in a very good situation through adulthood to not be taken advantage of.
Be Ashamed to Die, Until You Have Scored Some Victory for Humanity. Do you think you have achieved a victory for humanity?
I’ve been trying to make a difference in people’s lives as an educator. That’s what I am. I’m an educator. I want to make a difference in someone’s life. I want them to learn something today they didn’t know yesterday. And something tomorrow they didn’t know today. And learn something in a way that helps them live better. That’s really what any educator wants to do. And I think I’ve done a lot of that in my years on this Earth.
I think I have fulfilled that quote. If I die at any day — tomorrow, the next day, before today ends — that quote on my tombstone — I would feel comfortable about it being there. I’m good. I’m good to go with that. I could die tomorrow without that regret. I would sadly miss watching my kids grow up. And the love of my family and my wife. And the inventions yet to occur. And some bottles of wine I’ve been saving for special occasions. But no, I’m ready for that.