His father was a civil rights activist. His mother was a specialist is aged-care. NDT tells Marc Fennell about feeling inadequate in his parents’ shadow… also shares some amazing facts about space.
Marc Fennell: Quite a few people know that you used to be a wrestler in college. And there was a period of time when you did dancing, as well.
Neil DeGerasse Tyson: Yeah, in a couple of dancing troupes, not the Bolshoi, like: college troupes.
Look at those pins! Look at those pins! There was one occasion, when you very briefly, oh so briefly, considered becoming a stripper.
So, I'm very disappointed in myself because...
So are we: that you didn't pursue it. I'm mean, c'mon!
OK. So, in graduate school they don't pay you very well. I was barely making ends meet and I didn't know another way to make money.
And so, some of my fellow male dancers said, “Why don't you come dance with us down at the club?” I said, "What club?" They said, "There's a place women come to where the drinks are cheap and they put money if your jockstrap. So I go and the first dance, they come out with asbestos-lined jockstraps doused in lighter fluid and ignited. So there's flames and they come out dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis' Great Balls of Fire.
This feels like a portent of what's about to come.
In that instant. I said maybe I should be a math tutor.
Have you ever considered what you'd do if you did go into space?
I would go back four and a half billion years and observe the formation of the moon. That would just be cool. All the best evidence today, suggests that a Mars-sized protoplanet side-swiped Earth and the debris formed a ring around Earth you would have had a ring temporarily. That itself would have coalesced to then become the moon. That would have just been a striking thing to have witness.
How long would that have taken, from the strike to the moon?
So, some estimates differ, but shorter than you'd think. From multiple months to just a few years. The debris orbits in just a matter of days and then, you just grow and grow and grow and the rest will collide on you or on Earth. And there you have the Moon.
You've been quite vocal about criticizing cuts to science budgets in the US. But you've been very careful I've noticed to not call out any particular politicians. Why is that important to you to not name Trump, as it were?
Thanks for noticing that, because it's not about the politicians
In an elective democracy, which most of the western world enjoys. You choose who represents you. So...if there's a politician who feels a certain way about anything chances are the people who voted that person into office feel that way.
And as an educator I'm duty bound to educate the electorate. So that in a democracy they can make informed decisions about who represents them
Can I get you to go back to your collage years for a second?
You had a friend who something to you, you were on a wrestling team together and it called into question for you whether you becoming as astrophysicist was the best thing you could do for the African-American community. Do you remember that conversation?
What was the conversation?
He's a fellow wrestler of mine, he's also black. He asked "How're you doing?" I said, "I'm working hard I hardly have time to go to the bathroom." He said "What're majoring in?" I said "Physics." "And what do you want to do in life?" I said "Astrophysics."
And then he judged in that moment that the black community doesn't have the luxury of someone with my talents to be devoted to something as esoteric as astrophysics. Meanwhile, he was studying economics and enterprise zones and he actually would win a Rhodes fellowship. And so that was a heavy burden he put on me, because I was studying what I loved. I was not studying what other people wanted me to. I was not fulfilling what other people though I should do. I was doing what I loved.
My father was active in the civil rights movement. My mother went back to school became a gerontologist. These are caring people, and here's their son the astrophysicist, that's a little odd. I carried this sort of albatross around my neck for for at least ten years. And I didn't shed this. It was a little bit of a guilt, little bit of a guilt trip.
I didn't shed this until I saw myself on television. There were explosions on the sun solar flares that were headed towards earth, and the local news was worried about this, they saw it come over the wire back when the wire carried news teletype. That's how old I am.
Ancient. Ancient Neil Degrasse Tyson
And they read it, so they called looking for some faculty member, but it was lunch time everyone was out. I was still in my office, and so the secretary sent it to me cause nobody else was around.
So I answered the question. "Oh it's just a blob of plasma headed towards earth, the sun does this all the time. Our magnetic field will protect us, deflect it towards the poles." Then I went home and saw the interview. And...it was kind of an out of body experience, cause there I was eating dinner, but there I was on TV, how does that happen?
You've got to get over that first, your first time seeing this, but then I noticed, oh my gosh this reporter did not ask me, "How do black people feel about this radiation from the sun?" "How does it affect your skin vs the skin of others?" Nowhere in that conversation was my skin colour relevant to the subject at hand. Science ruled that conversation. He was asking someone with dark skin, whether Earth was going to be safe. And I realised that since every other conversation I had ever seen between a news reporter and a black person on TV was either because they were an athlete, an entertainer or because they had some professional focus on the plight of those less fortunate; that I had never seen a conversation with a black person that had nothing to do with being black. I'd just never seen that before.
Can I ask you a science question? Why is it important to you to be burried?
I want to rejoin the Earth. If you bury me, I will then decompose to the flora and fauna of which I have taken so generously. If you cremate, then the energy of your body converts to heat. The heat warms the air, the air then radiates that back to space. Your energy is still in the universe, it's just of no use to any other living thing. And so, I might as well in death, serve the needs of those in life.
When you consider the vastness of space and time and Cosmos, what does that do to your sense of self?
I bask...in how small we are. Why should being big be what makes you feel good? In one centimetre of your lower colon lives and works more bacteria than the total number of humans than have ever been born. And we like to think that we're something special. You know, all you are to those bacteria? You are a darkened vessel of anaerobic faecal matter.
I've been called that before. And much worse!
No matter what you think of yourself, that's all you are to the bacteria. We're sharing the same vessel.We are co-dependent in our survival.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, thank you so much.
Oh, sure! Sure!
I appreciate your time.
I love your NASA shirt.
Thank you, thank you. This is 'sucking up through fashion'.