For a guy who has spent his career trying to explain the riddle of the cosmos to the rest of us, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, is under no illusion that his job is an easy one. “The universe,” he likes to say, “is under no obligation to make sense to you.” When he says “you” he means all of us — astrophysicists like himself included. Our species came of age in an environment of Earthly physics — with a one-g gravity field, a fixed sense of hot and cold, up and down, cause and effect — and the universe at large blows all of that up.
But Tyson remains determined to help us make sense of it all, and his latest effort is a slim, readable book with the appealingly straightforward title, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. It is dedicated to “all of those too busy to read fat books, yet nonetheless seek a conduit to the cosmos.” With its pleasingly understandable explanations of dark matter, dark energy, the origin of the universe, the nature of matter, and more, the book goes a long way toward becoming that conduit. Recently, Tyson sat down with TIME in his office at the Hayden Planetarium to talk all matters cosmic.
Astrophysics can be mind-numbingly complicated and it’s hardly actionable knowledge even if we do understand it. There’s not much I can do with an understanding of a wormhole. So why are we so fascinated with something we will never fully grasp?
I have my own unverified hypothesis. Humans are one of the few, if not only, mammals that are completely comfortable sleeping on our backs. And we sleep at night. So what happens? You wake up because there was a noise in the brush. There’s the sky. Think about it. Does a horse ever look at the sky? When you look up, there is a sense of wonder that is on a scale that I think lands deeper within us than when you look down. Why else were all of our gods up in the sky, or up on mountains above us?
Yet as soon as we try to make sense of it we come up against concepts like quantum entanglement and the relativity of time and never get any clarity. It’s almost like astrophysicists are a council of elders speaking a language none of the rest of us can.
No, no, it’s the opposite. When I see a pretty rock on the ground, I say, “That’s a pretty rock.” The geologist says, “Oh, that’s feldspar.” We’re done with the conversation. But if you look at the sun and you see spots and you ask me, “What are those?” I’ll say, “Those are sun spots.” (Laughter) That’s the official name. What’s this red spot on Jupiter? Oh, we call that Jupiter’s Red Spot. What’s this dark area of space? You fall in, you don’t come out? Oh, that’s a black hole. These are official terms. Official! We use these terms when speaking to one another.
Still, being able to label something isn’t the same as being able to understand it. Black holes are a good example of a phenomenon that is impossibly confounding, despite its accessible name. How do you get around that?
We all come to the table with a certain scaffold of pop culture, and I try to clad the scaffold with science. I was channel-surfing once and stumbled on a football game that just at that moment entered overtime. It was the Cincinnati Bengals, and they kicked a field goal and there it tumbled, and hit the left upright and careened in for the goal. And I said, “Wait a minute.” So I quickly checked the orientation of the stadium—the latitude. Then I tweeted that the winning field goal was aided by a third of an inch deflection to the right due to Earth’s rotation. That gave me an excuse to talk about the Coriolis force in a second tweet.
So are we forever doomed to understand astrophysics only by metaphor or example? Is it unique among the sciences in being impervious to deeper understanding.
Not at all. Think about the microscope, which showed us things we’d never seen before. Leeuwenhoek perfects the microscope. Gets a drop of pond water and looks at it. Holy sh-t! That’s probably not what he said, but that’s what he felt. He wrote a letter to the folks in England, the Royal Academy, saying I have found these little animals swimming in a drop of water. He called them animalcules, little animals. They thought he was pulling their leg, so they pulled his leg back, and they said, “Oh, okay, next time you take a look, do so without having consumed gin.” They would eventually send someone up there to verify it. [Science] doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to be.
Is there a danger that comes from laypeople overreaching—grasping at science that is just too complicated? If I read your book and then fancy myself an expert—even though I misunderstood it all—was I better off not having the information to mishandle?
I think that’s the wrong question. If I succeed, then you’ve learned just enough to want to learn more. Not just enough to think you know everything and thereby have an incomplete knowledge and then trip over yourself for not knowing what you don’t know. Say you’ve heard about an exoplanet. It’s kind of cool, but you don’t know much about it. You’ve heard about dark matter, why is it dark? I don’t know. Explain it to me. This becomes the connective tissue of all these bits that you’ve been seeing coming across the news wires. If I’ve succeeded, I have made you hungry for more. It’s only the beginning of your exploration. If you came out of this saying, “I’m good,” then I failed.