Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and the host of StarTalk Radio and the television series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” He’s also a frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and he’s appearing this week at Tableau Software’s annual conference in Seattle.
GeekWire interviewed Dr. Tyson in advance of his Seattle talk, mixing our own questions with those submitted by Tableau followers and GeekWire readers. We covered topics including the evolution of technology and its impact on astronomy; the rise of commercial space ventures; science education; and yes, the age-old question of which Star Trek captain is best.
Continue reading for edited excerpts. You can also hear the interview this weekend on the GeekWire radio show, airing at 7 p.m. Saturday on 97.3 KIRO-FM in the Seattle region, available via podcast and on GeekWire on Saturday morning.
GeekWire: We’ve been seeing huge advances in technology and computers, particularly with cloud computing — the ability to process and visualize massive amounts of data. How are those technical advances improving our understanding of the universe?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: So let me clarify a couple of things. I’m going to say something that might at first sound like it’s not true, but in fact it is. If you live in a time where you get to say, “The amazing advances in my field are incredible,” it means they’re not actually incredible, because in five years, you’d look back on those comments you had made and say, “Did I really say that?” Just look back at what people said about getting 1 meg of memory in their computer. That was a slammin’ desktop computer if you had it.
So I have stopped commenting on the advances of things, because I know in a short number of years that follow, it would be laughable given what we would have then achieved. When you live on an exponential growth of anything, it looks like all the greatest advances just happened, just for you, just in that moment. That is the nature of exponential growth.
What we really should be celebrating is this run of exponential growth that has been going on now for 20 to 30 years in the computing realm. It is that entire period that we should be celebrating. There’s nothing special about this moment vs. another.
I can tell you in my field, as advances continue, there are problems that were previously intractable that we’d have to make approximations or we would remove one of the dimensions, do a two-dimensional study instead of a three-dimensional study of a cloud phenomenon and an atmosphere of a planet, or interstellar gas clouds or star clusters. There were ways in the old days that we would make approximations. Now we don’t need to make approximations. We can do a full simulation — a hundred thousand, million particle cluster. We can simulate the evolution of galaxies. So we can do that now, but we’re not done. Now there are other complex systems that no one dreamt of representing because the computing wasn’t available, and now it is. So we’re good to go on this.
GW: So how has that changed things for you specifically?
Tyson: We transitioned in my lifetime from photographic plates to CCD detectors. Astronomers were one of the first people in town to have familiarity with digital detectors, we were doing it in the late 70s before it made its way to cameras or any other use that we now think of as common in society. We collect data digitally and we can move data digitally. You don’t have to ship tapes around. There’s a constant parade of changes in how we conduct cosmic business that has been unfolding over these years, over these decades, that tech has been exponentially advancing. Larger and larger swaths of the universe fall to our analysis. No longer is it beyond our reach. And that’s a good thing. But what I’m saying is, now other problems, previously undreamt of, become the leading edge of this.
GW: Here in the Seattle region we’re seeing many commercial space ventures. I know this is something you’ve commented on in particular in the context of the retirement of the Space Shuttle program. Is the rise of commercial space ventures a net positive or a net negative for our long-term prospects for exploring and understanding the universe?
Tyson: It should have happened decades ago. I’m disappointed it took this long. Commercial space is not what most people think it is. Many people are wondering, are they going to lead us into discovery? No. They’re corporate entities that have a quarterly report, and where profit matters. If profit matters, you are not leading anything that’s expensive and dangerous. It’s not how it works. Space is expensive, it’s dangerous, and it has unquantifiable risks if you’re doing something that’s never been done before. And that is not the kind of environment that will stimulate a capital market’s valuation.
So government does that first. Government can establish a very long-term interest, if they have the vision, without having to satisfy the shareholders with a quarterly or annual report. So the government does it. They decide where the trade winds are, and where the hostiles are and where the friendlies are — I’m being metaphorical, of course — and once that’s established, and once they do it, and patents are granted, then private enterprise can come in and take the routine actions and do that efficiently and make money on it. That’s what the Dutch East India trading company did. They were not the first Europeans in the New World. It was after Spain invested heavily in exploring the New World that the Dutch came around with the marketplace. That’s how it’s always worked.
So I would like to see, going forward, a nice combination of governments leading the way, for exploration and discovery, and private enterprise coming in and making a buck out of it. I don’t have any problems with that at all, and it should have been happening decades ago.
GW: Getting to some of the submitted questions, this one comes from Chuck Hooper. Probably the biggest question we received: “Assuming the Big Bang theory is fact, and, the “known” universe (I refer to it as a glob of galaxies) was built from nothing (Lawrence Krauss book), is it not possible there are trillions (+/-) of other “globs of galaxies”, each expanding, and, someday the edge of our known universe, starts colliding with the oncoming edge of another?”
Tyson: It’s entirely possible that we are just one of some uncountable number of expanding bubbles, in what we have come to call the multiverse. That is the multiverse — that we are just one of many Big Bangs that have occurred. Whether we will collide with one another is a different issue. I guess in principle, that’s possible. However, if all this is happening in a higher dimension, as it must to have a multiverse, then you can expand in dimensions that have no intersection with yours. It’s like having two sheets of paper that are parallel to one another. They can expand to infinity and never intersect, for example. … So it’s possible that in a higher dimension, everybody is expanding, and there’s plenty of room for everybody to expand forever, and nobody will ever intersect. But if we do intersect … I don’t know, do I want to be around for that or not? Who knows what that would look like?
GW: A lot of the questions from the audience focused on education, and I would boil them down to one simple question: If you could change one thing about science education in the United States or globally, what would that be?
Tyson: Why can’t I change two things? Why does everyone always say one thing?
GW: Sure, you can change multiple things. Why the false limitation? Go for it.
Tyson: Plus, the very question implies that it’s a simple thing. The answers to some questions have complexity. It’s like, how do you get the secrets of a great chef? Do they just make a cookbook and you follow the cookbook or is it something more subtle than that? It’s the exact temperature that they sauté this ingredient and mix it with that ingredient at the right time. There’s more than just a list of ingredients. There’s more than just a recipe — do this and all is fine — for most important problems that face us in the world.
For me, what you want to do is put a goal state out there, that is visible and everyone feels, such as in the 1960s, when we were going to the Moon. Any kid in school who wanted to do anything about the future had the urge to major in STEM fields. They weren’t called STEM fields back then, but of course that’s what they were. Science, technology, engineering and math. People were climbing over one another to be engineers and scientists, in a period where people knew and they saw and they felt the value of that pursuit in shaping the tomorrow that you’d have the power to invent.
When you create that culture, then everything responds to that culture. More people want to become science teachers. More students want to stay in science. Because it’s not about, “Oh, I want to do science because my textbook is good.” Or even because they have a good teacher. Something bigger than your textbook, something bigger than your teacher needs to be operating in society. Something that is large enough to transform what is otherwise a sleepy country into an innovation nation. … I think space forms an awesome force of nature in stimulating ambition, especially in the educational pipeline.
GW: OK, in the short amount of time we have left, let’s go to the lightning round.
Tyson: Love lightning round.
GW: This one is from Matt Francis: “What 3 pieces of music/sounds would you put on the golden record on a hypothetical ‘Voyager 3’ probe?”
Tyson: Oh. I liked the set of music that was on the original probe. Three pieces of music. Hmm.
GW: If you want to table that one, we can come back to it.
Tyson: Let me think about it.
GW: OK, next lightning round question: Mac, Windows or Linux?
Tyson: Linux at the heart of everything, and then a Mac on top of that, for sure.
GW: Kirk, Picard or Janeway?
Tyson: Kirk. I love Janeway, but Kirk. I was disappointed that Picard never actually got into a fight. Kirk could use blunt human reasoning that transcended logic, because sometimes emotion matters more than logic. If he had to fight an alien, he’d go into fisticuffs with him. Occasionally you need that. So I’m with Kirk all the way.
GW: Time Machine, Cloak of Invisibility or Transporter?
Oh, Time Machine. Who wouldn’t want a Time Machine? Cloak of Invisibility? Excuse me? We’re going to have that in a few years. A transporter? I can wait a few minutes to get to where I’m going. Give me the Time Machine.
Who’s more intimidating, Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert?
Stephen Colbert, by far. He’s the smartest one out there. His character, I don’t know where he’s coming, where he’s going or where he is at any given moment. … So I have to be hyper-prepared for whatever curve ball he will throw at me. I wouldn’t call it intimidating, but the highest challenge I have in an interview is with Stephen Colbert. A distant second is Jon Stewart. Everybody else is a distant third.
GW: Well, Dr. Tyson, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us.
Tyson: Wait, now about the three bits of music? I would not put music, because it presumes that the aliens can hear. That’s a sense that we have, but it makes big assumptions. But if I have to put sounds, I would put sounds from Earth. I would put a gurgling volcano. I would put the sound of lightning striking, and the thunder that ensues. I would put perhaps the sound of a crashing wave.
These would be sounds of our planet, which are bigger than the sounds that we make as one species on this planet. Because I’d guess I’d want people to know about our home planet. Otherwise we’re being very species-centric. Maybe the bees have something to say. And the birds certainly do, they sing songs. I would be planet-based.