Neil deGrasse Tyson on Communicating Science So We Actually Get It

Neil deGrasse Tyson


I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating

Neil:                                                                               You know that there’s certain foundational pop culture knowledge that almost all of us carry with us, okay? It’s a pop culture scaffold. What I do, is I roll that scaffold in and I say, all right, let me try to clad the scaffold, let me clad that with the science I’m trying to communicate with you. I embed familiar things with the unfamiliar, and then you have a comfort level with the new information that I’m trying to communicate.

Neil de Grasse Tyson is an astrophysicist who has brought the heavens to earth for millions of people around the world. For years, he’s been able to communicate with us about the universe in ways that make the mystery of the cosmos clear and vivid enough for people like me to be both awed and delighted. I was really curious to know how he did it.


Alan:                                          00:00                       Neil, I’m so glad you’re on the show. This is really terrific because, you know, I don’t communicate science. My job is to help scientists tell their story. But you’re a real scientist and a real communicator.

Neil:                                           00:13                       Okay.

Alan:                                          00:13                       So you are in deep trouble.

Neil:                                           00:17                       Well I assure you, your job is secured because there’s plenty of  folks who want it who want to ultimately learn science and then try to share it with those who want to know about it. So you’ve got to keep at it with the institute in Long Island at Stony Brook. That’s a first of its kind by my read.

Alan:                                          00:37                       Maybe. I don’t really know, but we trained, not only in the States but around the world, over 12000 scientists and doctors now. We’re really making progress. But, do you have a theory of communication? What’s your engine, as you explain the science to the rest of us?

Neil:                                           01:18                       That’s a great word to use, engine. I like that. What I figured out, not on purpose, it just kind of descended upon me. When you speak to people, if you pay attention to their attention span while you’re speaking to them, there’s a lot to learn from it. Do their eyes drift? Do they look sleepy? Do they still turn slightly away from you because they want to keep walking and you have stopped them in the street? Their body cues that are hugely informative if you cue on them. Do their eyebrows raise up? Is their mouth agape? Do they ask another question? This should be indicators to you on how successful or not

Alan:                                          02:06                       You know what’s funny?

Neil:                                           02:07                       What? And the title of your book. What was it …

Alan:                                          02:11                       What … If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?

Neil:                                           02:13                       Thank you.

Alan:                                          02:14                       Not only that. This is why we teach improvisation to start our classes in communication. Because the improv exercises get you accustomed to doing exactly what you’ve just said, to pay attention to the other person. You get so much information from their face and their body.

Neil:                                           02:37                       And they’re not even knowingly doing that. It’s just autonomic. If you’re feeling good, you express it. We’re emotional creatures, and so you can definitely cue into that.

Neil:                                           02:58                       So you start there, but then I noticed, I have a difficult concept that I think I’m in a groove and it’s not connecting.

Alan:                                          03:23                       So what happens?

Neil:                                           03:24                       So then I got to pull out the pop culture scaffold.

Alan:                                          03:27                       There’s a bit of jargon you retain though, right?

Neil:                                           03:32                       Yeah. You take notes on this one.

Alan:                                          03:34                       What kind of scaffold?

Neil:                                           03:35                       Okay, it’s a pop culture scaffold. Here’s how I think about, this is metaphorically described here. Everybody knows most of what comprises a pop culture scaffold. You’ve heard of the Pope, you know who Donald Trump is, you know Beyonce. Even if you don’t buy her music, you’ve heard of her. You’ve heard of the Kardashians. You know that there’s certain foundational pop culture knowledge that almost all of us carry with us, okay? What I do, is I roll that scaffold in and I say, all right, let me try to clad the scaffold, because you already have the core knowledge of it, let me clad that with the science I’m trying to communicate with you.

Alan:                                          04:22                       Like what? What would be an example of that?

Neil:                                           04:24                       Okay. I’m trying to describe to you the Coriolis force. This is a little obscure, all right?

Alan:                                          04:33                       The Coriolis force is so connected to the idea that if you go below the equator your toilet runs backwards or something like that.

Neil:                                           04:41                       They wouldn’t say it runs backwards, they’d say it runs forward.

Alan:                                          04:44                       They don’t know what’s going on up north.

Neil:                                           04:45                       You recited sort of the comical version of that, one step across the equator-

Alan:                                          04:53                       Water swirls down the hole in the opposite direction from what we’re accustomed to over here.

Neil:                                           04:59                       Yes, but you need huge systems for this to honestly, to manifest honestly in the experiment. You can’t just take one step across the border and then claim this works. It has to be a large system. In fact, this Coriolis force is strongest sort of in mid-latitudes. That’s why all your hurricanes are there. A hurricane can’t cross the equator, you ever think about this?

Alan:                                          05:21                       Whoa, no kidding. Because of this?

Neil:                                           05:24                       Correct, because north of the equator, hurricanes rotate counterclockwise. South of equator, the cyclones, whatever they call them, rotate clockwise.

Alan:                                          05:32                       In trying to rotate the right way, they just weak and fall apart.

Neil:                                           05:35                       They get weak and disappear at the equator, that’s correct.

Alan:                                          05:38                       Wow. Now, how do you attach that to the scaffold of popular folk?

Neil:                                           05:55                       Yeah. I say, you know, there was a Cincinnati Bengals football game that I caught by accident as I was channel surfing waiting for a movie to begin. They were overtime, and then it went into sudden death. The Bengals wanted to kick a 50 yard field goal. That’s very long. If they kick it and get it, they win. They kick it, and it went up, and it tumbled, it hit the left upright and careened through the posts for the win.

I did the calculation, looked at the orientation of that stadium, looked at its location on Earth, and I happened to know that the winning field goal of the Cincinnati Bengals was aided by a 1/3rd of an inch deflection to the right because of Earth’s rotation. The point there is, I know you’re interested in football because so much of the country is, and now I bring a bit of laws of physics into it. I tweeted that, by the way, when that had happened.

Alan:                                          07:24                       Is this just a way to get me interested, or did you actually  calculate?

Neil:                                           07:29                       No, no. I have some calculations in my utility belt. You want to be overprepared for something, because you don’t know what you’re going to encounter or what the knowledge base will be of the person you’re having the conversation with.

Alan:                                          07:39                       You were calculating the spin of the ball?

Neil:                                           07:42                       No, no. The spin of the ball doesn’t matter. It matters for other things, but not for this calculation. What matters is how long is it airborne, and is the ball going north-south? If it’s going north-south and it’s airborne for three seconds or whatever, I forgot what my calculations showed, that will tell you how much it will deflect, and that’s what clouds will do moving through the air.

That’s what missiles will do. If you want a missile shooting north-south and you’re the military, you have to factor in the Coriolis force to make that happen. In fact, there’s a famous case of the British, they already knew about the Coriolis force for their long-range missiles. They went to the southern hemisphere, and all their missiles missed badly. They forgot to flip the mathematical sign in their equations to have the Coriolis force correct in the opposite direction.

Alan:                                          08:31                       When was this?

Neil:                                           08:32                       I forgot where it was. In the last 100 years, the Brits went south to try to fight a war. A modern enough war so that the missiles would go long range.

Alan:                                          08:43                       You know, that’s a good indication you should stay in your own neighborhood.

Neil:                                           08:47                       If you’re going to be a bully, stay on your own block.

Alan:                                          08:50                       Bully people you know.


Alan:                                          10:35                       So it sounds like you follow the idea that you don’t need to tell them everything, but enough to get them interested to know more.

Neil:                                           10:45                       Very perceptive, because so many people, especially academic professors. They’re put in a situation where they want to teach something on impromptu, but they feel like they’ve got to do the syllabus thing. No, no. The person is standing there listening to you in the street. You don’t have to be complete.

Alan:                                          11:01                       When they sign up for a course, then you can-

Neil:                                           11:03                       There’s an expectation and they’re paying for the course.

Alan:                                          11:07                       They won’t leave because they won’t get their money back.

Neil:                                           11:10                       Exactly. The guarantee is they’re going to work no matter what. This is the difference between lecturing and communicating. Anybody can lecture at the front of the room, face the chalkboard or the white board, whatever they use today, without actual reference to whether you’re communicating.

Alan:                                          13:04                       You’ve got an ability that not everybody has, you’re a funny guy. What’s the role of humor when you’re communicating?

Neil:                                           13:18                       I deeply respect comedy as an art form. That’s a big part of your professional career. Weren’t you a comedian fundamentally before anyone called you an actor?

Alan:                                          13:30                       No, I’ve always been an actor.

Neil:                                           13:32                       Okay, but you’ve always had good comedic timing.

Alan:                                          13:35                       I always loved doing, I grew up at the age of two, my earliest memory is two standing in the wings watching burlesque comedians.

Neil:                                           13:46                       Oh, wow. And you turned out okay?

Alan:                                          13:47                       Well, I also watched the rest of the show, so had an unusual childhood, but I always valued comedy. It’s a really interesting thing.

Neil:                                           14:00                       Comedy people are very smart-

Alan:                                          14:02                       Yes. You’ve got to be smart to be funny.

Neil:                                           14:03                       You’ve got to be smart, and you’ve got to know things to reshape them and bring them back to the person. So yes. If there’s a great movie out but there’s a comedian who just put out the hour special, I’m going to watch the comedian. I learn new ways of being entertaining, the rhythm of their storytelling and I try to fold that in, so yes.

Alan:                                          19:54                       You love to communicate to the public, I get that impression.

Neil:                                           20:02                       Let me say that differently. When I’m tasked with it, invited on a talk show, on a podcast … This doesn’t count, because we are talking about communicating. I’m talking about other shows where you communicate, when I’m asked about a thing where I have to communicate the thing. I’m hardly ever asked about the act of communicating. This is a very special and rare podcast for me to be on by the way, because I get to share some …

Neil:                                          20:30                       I get to share some of these tactics. I embed familiar things with the unfamiliar, and then you have a comfort level with the new information that I’m trying to communicate.

This, I think it has worked. I ended up doing this without knowing. I think it was my sensitivity to what was working. One day, I sat down and said, oh my gosh, that’s what I’m doing. But do you know what it requires, dear sir? You’ve got to spend some hours every day watching the crazy TV shows that everyone else is watching.

Alan:                                          22:59                       So you know what reference exists.

Neil:                                           23:00                       You’ve got to watch the football game, you’ve got to watch the World Series. You don’t have to watch all games, watch a few. Look at some of the great players, because people talk about them at the water cooler. Look at what the social media trends are doing, because people are talking about it. When you confront those people, that will be current for them.

Alan:                                          23:21                       That’s a really interesting idea.

Neil:                                           23:23                       Yeah. I would say 20% of my life is familiarizing myself with what other people care about whether or not I care about it. I now remembered what you had asked me. You commented that I must really enjoy it. I think about it differently. If I’m asked to communicate, I might as well try to be as good at it as I can, if that’s the job of the moment. I mean, why not? I spend so much of my life contemplating the universe. The least I could do is contemplate how to communicate.

On my very first invitation to Jon Stewart when he was on The Daily Show, he’s a comedian, he’s smart. He’s very current events literate. Famous for having people, deer in the headlights, the politician would want to come and want to give their boilerplate, and he would ask them questions through the backdoor, around the side, and they would just be stumped. I said, I am not going to be stumped. And he’d be throwing comedic quips in the middle, and people would be stumbling over the comedic quips. I said, that is not going to happen to me.

I watch a series of his shows. I timed how many seconds he would give you to talk before he would interrupt with a comedic quip.

Alan:                                          24:33                       What did it turn out to be?

Neil:                                           24:35                       It was about seven seconds. Yeah. One, two, three, four, five, six, about seven. That was the average. Of course, there was variation.

Alan:                                          24:42                       You can’t start out with any throat clearing. You’ve got to come in with the goods.

Neil:                                           24:47                       I said, I’ve got to put out a soundbite that fits in seven seconds, then he interrupts it with the quip, and then we have the funny quip and a complete thought that are on the table. I’m not going back trying to fill it in, I’m not flustered that I didn’t get my point across. The rhythm of the host is everything. Otherwise, you’re going to go there and just give your boilerplate. You don’t fit in with the moment.

I was once on a show where I was, it’s on HBO, I was at the limit of my coolness.

Alan:                                          25:20                       What do you mean? Why?

Neil:                                           25:22                       I was the only person in the studio with a button up shirt, it was very hip hop. Everybody had their hat on crooked, from the producers, the writers, the directors, the sound, the lighting. I’m there, the scientist in this hip hop show, and it was like, oh my gosh. They’re going to find me out and I’m not going to … I’m trying to hen with them. One of them is from the Bronx, I’m from the Bronx, it was the Bronx in the house. That got me a little bit into the show. At one point they asked me, who’s my favorite member of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Alan:                                          25:58                       Oh wow. I’d be stuck there.

Neil:                                           25:59                       I said, I quickly was like, okay, I only know one member, so let me give that name. I said, “Oh, it’s the GZA of course.” They said, “Oh, good, good, good!” But they didn’t know I was drawing on a supply of one.

Alan:                                          26:15                       Did you turn that into science?

Neil:                                           26:17                       I tried. I tried to do that every turn. You’d be surprised how much science there is that’s attachable to pop culture. This is why on my podcast that you so graciously agreed to when your book came out on, Would I Have This Look On My Face, that turned out to be a very successful podcast for us, so thanks for agreeing to have that interview beyond the podcast. This wat the 92nd Street Y.

Alan:                                          26:42                       Yeah. Somebody just stopped me on the street yesterday and said he enjoyed that podcast.

Neil:                                           26:47                       Excellent, excellent. I’m helping to make you famous.

Alan:                                          26:53                       I am so much more famous than I was before that podcast.

Neil:                                           26:59                       What was I going to say about that? Oh! The podcast, what we do is, my interview in the podcast and for the version of it that lands on television is with a well known person, but the show, when we cut it together, I have academic experts at the table analyzing subject matter that came up in the conversation with the celebrity type. Why? For StarTalk, you come for the celebrity, but then you stay for the science and the analysis.

Alan:                                          27:29                       For you, they come for the science.

Neil:                                           27:31                       Well, no, I mean, I’m just saying, we also interviewed, who’s the one with the most number Twitter followers?

Alan:                                          27:42                       Lady Gaga.

Neil:                                           27:43                       Close. See, you’re going into your pop culture references. Katy … Katy.

Alan:                                          27:52                       Katy Perry.

Neil:                                           27:53                       Yes, thank you. Katy Perry was a guest on StarTalk. How did we spin that? Well, she wrote a song about making love to an alien. We’ve got a segment on what would alien anatomy be like in the show, and is that even realistic. There’s science in everything. That’s all I’m saying.

It’s true, there isscience in everything. And most of us are awed by that when a good science communicator can show that. But sometimes science discovers things that make people nervous. Sometimes when science pulls back the carpet, there are things there that are a little scary. What then? I ask Neil about that – when we come back.


This is Clear + Vivid. Now back to my conversation with Neil de Grasse Tyson.

Alan:                                          28:20                       Let me ask you something. What about what the public is sometimes worried about I think, which is the responsibility of scientists not to investigate things that turn out to hurt us. Marie Curie hoped that her work on radiation, for which she won a Nobel Prize, would lead to cancer treatments and save a lot of lives. She also died from radiation poisoning, and so have many other people when you think it’s been turned into weapons. So do you feel that you have an obligation to worry about the consequences of what you discover when you try to figure out nature, or is it just your job to figure out nature?

Neil:                                           29:14                       That’s a terribly important question that isn’t asked often enough. Here’s the problem with that concern. There’s a divide in the road. The divide in the road is, are you a scientist tasked with making weapons, and what is your moral compass in doing so? Are you a scientist just exploring the frontier that later on happens to have applications in warfare? These are two very different activities conducted by a scientist. In my recent book, Accessory to War, the subtitle is The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.

Alan:                                          30:04                       And that sounds a little ominous.

Neil:                                           30:12                       It does, because in retrospect, the word Accessory to War, accessory’s a legal term, when you commit a crime …

Alan:                                          30:21                       And you drove the getaway car.

Neil:                                           30:23                       Right, drove the getaway car. I didn’t mean it in the sense of a crime. I meant it in the sense that, no, we didn’t make the weapon. Maybe we did design the car that you used. Maybe we did the drive the car away from the scene. But no, we didn’t …

Alan:                                          30:52                       And the Manhattan Project during World War 2.

Neil:                                           30:56                       Now this, I’m working my way there. You’re ahead of me. Much of my understanding of war was shaped growing up in the 1960s, and your show, MASH, was a 1970s gift to us all, which exposed us to war, Korea, but mostly the Vietnam War were television wars, and so you see war. For me at the time, war equals bad. There was no good war. What do you mean? Why would war ever be good?

That’s my starting point in thinking about conflict. When I research for the book, then I realize, wait a minute, there’s statues of war heroes of all the other wars, of the Revolutionary War, the Spanish-American War, the Second World War. Soldiers stride a horse holding weapons. I’m thinking, somebody must have felt good about those wars, because these are proud statues. Maybe not all war is bad. Let me think about this more deeply.

Then you realize, it’s 1930s and Hitler is rising, and are you going to stand by idly? Hitler invades Poland, 1939, or are you going to say, we need to stop this, civilization needs to stop this, it is our obligation. You enlist, you become a soldier. If you’re a scientist, what do you do? You give your intellectual capital to the war effort. This is what spawned the Manhattan Project.

Einstein started the Manhattan Project, little known fact. His letter to Roosevelt said, “It looks like Hitler has got physicists and he’s trying to make a bomb of unprecedented power. We cannot let that happen. We have to get a bomb before him.” Boom. Bad word, sorry. Sorry, sorry. Bada bing. Bada bing. We launched the Manhattan Project.

Where the moral compass sets in is, all right, by 1944, Manhattan Project is still getting research, and we learn Hitler really isn’t where we thought he was with his bomb research. 1945, the Third Reich is collapsing. Okay, we don’t really need the bomb anymore. Do you walk away? Are you just a curious physicist? This is cool science, heavily funded, I want to do it anyway, because I want to see if we can do it. Or do you say, it’s a weapon, it’s my country, I want to defend it with the best weapon we can. This is where the moral compass sets in.


Alan:                                          37:00                       Right. There’s an interesting take on this I think in Richard Feynman’s experience during the Manhattan Project. He said that he got so excited and so did most of the people working there, that they just wanted to solve the problem. It was a scientific nut to crack.

Neil:                                           37:19                       Here’s what happens. Normal science doesn’t get funding on that level.

Alan:                                          37:23                       Right, right.

Neil:                                           37:24                       When you get military funding for science and you really are interested in the frontier, but you don’t care what then happens, if you know the people funding your work is the military, we can’t be so naïve as to think that at the end, they don’t want a bomb out of you. That’d be too naïve, right?

Alan:                                          37:41                       They knew they wanted the bomb, but when he saw what the bomb did, he got very depressed, went into a decline emotionally as a result. It suddenly hit him, it wasn’t just the thrill of solving the problem, it was a product at the end that was going to really hurt people.

Neil:                                           37:58                       Correct.



Neil:                                                                               So what I learned was, my historical brethren, the astrophysicist of yore, decades ago, centuries, millennia, we have been handmaidens to military conquest. We didn’t build the bombs, but we helped them navigate. We know where the stars are in the sky and what you can see from different parts of the Earth that helps you know where you are on Earth. If you’re going to build an empire, a seafaring empire, you’re going to want to know where the enemy is, where the promontory is that you’ll crash your ship. You want to know all of this. There’s been an astronomer on board every one of these ships, or someone trained in navigation by an astronomer.

Take the example of Captain Cook. He explored the South Pacific, he’s a Brit. By the way, you know why he went to the South Pacific? There was a transit of Venus that was taking place.

Alan:                                          34:53                       There was a transit of-

Neil:                                           34:53                       Transit of Venus. This is when Venus, in its orbit around the Sun, comes exactly between us and the Sun. You see this black dot work its way across the disc of the Sun as Venus passes exactly between us. Happens once every couple of hundred years, I forgot the exact date, but it’s around that infrequent.

Alan:                                          35:10                       He went down to look at it?

Neil:                                           35:17                       He was on assignment from the government. This is where the plot thickens. If you make that measurement, you will learn very interesting things about the solar system, the scale of distances between and among the planets. It’s a scientific expedition. Fine. That’s what the top sheet says.

Flip it over. By the way, psst, psst, while you’re down there, here’s some navigation tools we just perfected. Use these to map every new coastline you find, and bring back that information.

Alan:                                          35:48                       So they could conquer it?

Neil:                                           35:49                       That’s what he did. Within two decades, Great Britain took control of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Fiji, the Cook Islands. All of those countries and more, take a look at their flags. They’ve got the Union Jack as an insert on them. It’s all because of his voyages to the South Pacific.,So  does the scientist have control over what their government does with their discovery or invention? We publish in peer reviewed journals that are publicly readable. If I do something that’s, I’m not hired to make a weapon. I want to just explore. Oh my gosh, I just made a discovery and the military looks over the picket fence and says, “We could use some of that.”

But I can tell you then, in astrophysics, I don’t control what they take from me. But, I can in principle control what I use from the militaryt. As liberal, anti-war as we are as a community, because we’re mostly academics, and academics are that, if something shows up on the other side of their picket fence that got declassified and is going to help our work, we say, “Yeah, give me some of that.”

One of them is Project Keyhole.

Alan:                                          39:18                       I don’t know what that is. What is Project Keyhole?

Neil:                                           39:24                       It’s classified. You’ll have to redact this. No.

Alan:                                          39:27                       Wait a minute, is it a flying saucers thing?

Neil:                                           39:30                       That was Project Blue Book, the flying saucers. Project Keyhole was a set of telescopes put in low earth orbit looking down as surveillance telescopes basically. We said, “Hey, that’s a really well designed telescope. Oh my gosh, look how well you’ve thought all of this through.” When that became declassified, we got one.

Alan:                                          39:51                       And you turned it in the other direction.

Neil:                                           39:52                       Turned it up, and it became the Hubble Space Telescope.

Alan:                                          39:54                       Oh, great.

Neil:                                           39:55                       Not an accident how well that thing worked. Was any of us saying, “Oh, that was used for military”? Now, of course, surveillance is not actively killing people, but it supports operations that do, like the Second Gulf War was completely enabled by space assets.

Alan:                                          40:11                       What about this idea of a Space Force? Does that have military connotations?

Neil:                                           40:18                       Completely. Yeah, yeah, completely. The speeches given, the Trump speech followed by the Pence, Vice President Pence speech, they were very sort of muscle, testosterone, here’s my bicep, get off my lawn. Space is our lawn, and you’re on it. Get off of it. It was very aggressive in its posturing.

The fact is, space has been militarized for 50 years. If you understand militarization as not that it has lasers pointed at Earth or dropping bombs on heads, but that it enables operations on the ground. The first spy satellite that ever went into orbit was the beginning of the militarization of space, and we’ve been doing that since the 1960s.

What did the Air Force figure out they wanted to do, under who is the US Space Command? They said, in the tradition of knowing where you are on Earth brought to you by astronomers in antiquity, we want to know where we are on Earth to within very high precision. Let’s invent the GPS system of satellites. That is a military project launched by the Air Force, the space branch of the Air Force, and that enabled the Second Gulf War, 2003, to operate efficiently and with very high knowledge of targets, day and night. The command and control of the land, sea and air invasions were all orchestrated by space assets.

Alan:                                          42:31                       So should we have a Space Force or not?

Neil:                                           42:34                       I don’t tell people what they should do. I can tell you that it’s not, just because it came out of Trump’s mouth does not mean it’s a crazy idea. The idea’s been around for a while. I even proposed it 17 years ago in a commission that I was appointed to by the White House to study the future of aerospace in the country. The reply from a four star general of the Air Force, “We got this. Space is a branch of the Air Force. We don’t need a different branch.” I said, fine, I’m not going to second guess the general.

But if you do pull it away, then all of the space activities of the Air Force just get shifted over. It’s an accounting shift at its most basic form. Then you might add some things to it. I’d throw in asteroid defense if I had control over the portfolio.

Alan:                                          43:17                       That seems like an enormously important question which keeps getting put aside.

Neil:                                           43:21                       Of course. It’s not just protecting your borders, it’s protecting your species.

Alan:                                          43:26                       That’s right.

Neil:                                           43:26                       Yeah.

Alan:                                          43:30                       To me, a kind of minor problem that inhibits both the military uses of space and the scientific uses of space is all the junk out there. How do you know how to launch anything-

Neil:                                           43:47                       Thank you. Throw in space junk as a goal of fixing through the Space Force. Junk effects everything. Not only your spy satellites and other military operations, but it effects your commerce based satellites. Think of, there are entire industries, there are entire companies whose business model requires access to GPS satellites, such as Uber. There is no Uber without GPS satellites, because that’s how it knows where everybody is and who’s coming and who’s going.

The value of our space assets is measured not only in the cost of the satellites, the hardware, but also in the commerce that it enables, the security that it provides. If you have debris interfering with that, then as far as I’m concerned, the military is not doing its job.

Alan:                                          44:40                       I’ve seen plots of the debris. It’s like, how could you find your way through that stuff?

Neil:                                           44:47                       Alan, I think we have been visited by aliens, because they saw those plots of the debris.

Alan:                                          44:51                       They’re afraid of getting through it.

Neil:                                           44:53                       They said, “uh-uh (negative), we’re going to a different planet.”

Alan:                                          44:57                       These people live with their garbage.

Neil:                                           44:58                       We’re not going to this cesspool.

Alan:                                          45:01                       Is all that stuff traveling fast? I mean, can you get hit with a bolt?

Neil:                                           45:05                       It’s traveling 18000 miles an hour. A paint chip will take your nose off.

Alan:                                          45:10                       Yeah. A little piece of something can knock a hole into your space ship, right?

Neil:                                           45:14                       Yeah, or damage a critical part of your satellite and render this billion dollar satellite obsolete.

Alan:                                          45:23                       Have we had losses like that?

Neil:                                           45:23                       I don’t have the full inventory, but we do have evidence that these particles have hit things. There’s been satellites that we bring back, and you look at them, there are pock marks on it from debris. It’s a problem that would need to be addressed ultimately.

Alan:                                          45:42                       How would you do it? Take up a giant net and …

Neil:                                           45:45                       A vacuum.

Alan:                                          45:47                       You could drag it down, back … What do you do?

Neil:                                           45:50                       I don’t know. Yeah, a net. I don’t know. What you would need to do is, put it on a downward arc so that it will always encounter thicker and thicker atmosphere, and then it falls out of the atmosphere exponentially.

Alan:                                          46:38                       You’ve got to probably make a calculation to make sure you don’t wind up with some debris hitting 14th Street.

Neil:                                           46:45                       Exactly. I care about 15th Street too, by the way.

Alan:                                          46:50                       I don’t know, I like 14th Street.


Alan:                                          47:08                       So here’s my question. I’ve heard you say we’re not at the center of the universe. There is no center of the universe.

Neil:                                           47:16                       I tweeted that just a few days ago. It’s one of my top 10 tweets now. Apparently it really resonated. I said, “Because the universe has no center, you are not it.”

Alan:                                          47:27                       It seems to me that everything is the center of the universe, and therefore nothing is.

Neil:                                           47:35                       You can look like you’re in the center, but you’re not actually in the center. When you’re a ship at sea, it looks like you’re in the center of your own horizon, because the distant of the horizon is the same every direction. That makes you in the exact center of a perfect circle.

Alan:                                          47:48                       Well, let’s take that round thing that you’re positing, the ship is on a globe. If we switch it to a balloon, and you start with a balloon that is so small it’s …

Neil:                                           48:00                       Infinitesimal, okay.

Alan:                                          48:01                       Yeah. Then as it starts to inflate, the balloon has polka dots on it, and all the polka dots move farther and farther away from one another.

Neil:                                           48:10                       Polka dot galaxies, right.

Alan:                                          48:11                       But there’s no polka dot that’s at the center of the surface of the balloon because every other one would compete percentages.

Neil:                                           48:20                       Precisely correct. Consider the questions that people don’t ask. There are people that get angry when you say the universe has no center, “It’s got to have a center!” Pause. Okay, what is the center of the surface of the Earth? It has no center. People understand certain questions. Here’s one, the universe has no edge. “It’s got to have an edge.” Okay, where’s the edge of Earth’s surface? You know to not even ask that question.

Alan:                                          48:43                       But you know, one of the problems is what we talked about at the beginning of our conversation, which is what’s going on in the head of the person you’re talking to. I know from my experience listening to the suggestion that there’s no center to the universe, I have a problem because I’m always outside of the universe when I think about it. I think of it as a tiny dot that starts to expand, but I’m always outside that expansion.

Neil:                                           49:12                       Watching the expansion, yeah.

Alan:                                          49:13                       Watching the expansion. You’ve got to change my point of view somehow.

Neil:                                           49:17                       Keep that point of view. You’re outside of it, so you can see the point where the expansion began. If you’re on the surface of the balloon, you have no access to that point. If you’re outside of it, the balloon is expanding into your space, right, you’re in a higher dimensional space, so you have this luxury of perspective. You can say, I know where the center of the balloon is, it’s down in the middle. I can access it, but you can’t. So yes, the universe has a center. It was where everybody was 13.8 billion years ago, and that’s the Big Bang, but you don’t have access to that right now.


Alan:                                          49:53                       I’m sure that some people are fascinated by this and some people are already asleep.

Neil:                                           49:59                       No, I’m checking if people are asleep. I’m checking. By the way, there’s also inflections in your voice. Are you monotone, or are you interesting to listen to?

Alan:                                          50:19                       I was just listening to athletes today on television.

Neil:                                           50:23                       Was it football? You going to learn football for a change.

Alan:                                          50:25                       No, no. They were hockey players.

Neil:                                           50:27                       Hockey players, all right.

Alan:                                          50:30                       They were very presentable people and had interesting things to say, but they talked in a monotone like this. The athletes talk in interviews always like that. What do you suppose that is?

Neil:                                           50:40                       Some of it is training. If you notice, most of what they say is completely innocuous. “Well, we tried hard. We’ll try better next time. I’m working with my team mates. Came here to play, they played harder. We’ve got to do better next time.” They’re not going to tell you, “Why did my team mate drop the ball? I’m so pissed off.” All of a sudden, that explodes, it explodes. People talk about that and they forget the game.

Alan:                                          51:08                       That’s why we try to make people open to the people they’re talking to, so the real them comes out. You get animation, you learn more from the person’s animation than you do from a recitation.

Neil:                                           51:19                       There are more cues of communication, that’s right. By the way, when I’m on a stage, I give public talks many times a year. They always say, “Are you’re going to stay behind the podium?” It’s like, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you asking me … ”

Alan:                                          51:35                       I’ve got to have that same discussion.

Neil:                                           51:37                       What, do you want me to stand here for two hours and talk?

Alan:                                          51:40                       It’s a fortress. You hide behind a fortress.

Neil:                                           51:45                       I say, “No, I will use the entire stage.” What I’ve done, I used to dance, I was a performing member of several dance companies … in my day, not anymore.

Alan:                                          51:54                       What kind of dancing?

Neil:                                           51:55                       Three different, one was Afro-Caribbean, another was international Latin ballroom, and a third was a ballet and performance dance on Broadway, jazz dance, that sort of thing.

Alan:                                          52:07                       You lend that ability to talks? I’ve never seen you do that.

Neil:                                           52:11                       When I’m on the stage and I feel something, my body participates in that feeling. It’s not just-

Alan:                                          52:19                       As you say that, you’re wiggling away.

Neil:                                           52:21                       I did do a little jiggle wiggle in the chair as I said that. Think about it. Words can be very expressive if you’re a good writer, okay? Let’s say you’re not a good writer, but you still want to communicate. Well, now your facial expressions can aid the words.

You can’t see the facial expressions of John Steinbeck when you’re reading him, or any of these great authors of the past. They have to rely on their words so you can capture the emotion of the page. If you’re not that good, but you’re in person, you have your facial expressions to assist the words. If you’re on a stage, you have your words, plus your face, plus your body.

Alan:                                          54:13                       And I have the feeling, in fact, I try to operate on this idea, that even when the person you’re talking to is not there in front of you and you can’t read their face because you’re writing for them and they might read this a year from now or 10 years from now and you’ll never see them doing it, you can still make an estimate of what they’re going through as you lay down the sentences.

Neil:                                           54:37                       Very important comment, because I have seen people, stand up comedians who have become actors. As an actor, you’re looking at a camera lens, let’s be honest. You’re not looking at an audience. They become actors for a little too long. Then they go back to the stage, and they’ve lost it all. They’ve lost the ability to read their audience, they’ve lost the ability to engage. I have found that if I go a long time without the one-on-one or one on an audience, just talking to a microphone or to a camera lens, I don’t trust that I’m still connecting.

Alan:                                          55:28                       What about when you write, when you write a book? Are you thinking about …

Neil:                                           55:32                       Oh my gosh. Okay. My previous book to the Accessory of War, Accessory of War is like 600 pages. My previous book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry …

Alan:                                          55:45                       Great title.

Neil:                                           55:46                       I love it, because you have to pick it up, right? It’s like passing a book that says, “Neurosurgery in Three Easy Steps.” Got to pick it up. You’ve got to wonder. You’ve got to see what’s in there.

Alan:                                          55:58                       What happened when you were writing it?

Neil:                                           56:00                       I’ll tell you, it’s a small book, and that book is the distilled essence of every mind-blowing cosmic scientific thing I know. Mind blowing. It is the sum of every eyebrow raising thing. I’m using these cues.

Alan:                                          56:16                       As you write about it, you’re hoping and thinking of ways-

Neil:                                           56:20                       I write about it and I say, this made a person’s eyebrows raise the last time I shared this on the airplane when they learned I was an astrophysicist or at the talk show. I have the data, and I’m using the data to inform the sentence. Not only that, if a sentence is carrying a little too much information, it’s a little weighty, my next sentence is going to be three words long.

Alan:                                          56:41                       Yeah. You’re thinking about the reaction.

Neil:                                           56:42                       I am thinking about their attention span and am I carrying them, every page, and preface, I hate prefaces. Why spend 10 pages on a preface? Just put it in the damn book if it was that important. The preface of my books, they’re like, one-and-a-half pages long. You start reading, “I don’t like prefaces either. Oh, it ends right there. Of course I can read it,” right?

Alan:                                          57:03                       We’ve run out of time.

Neil:                                           57:04                       Oh my gosh.

Alan:                                          57:05                       The control room is telling me we have to wrap up. Before we go, we have seven quick questions for seven quick answers.

Neil:                                           57:11                       Bring it on. Lightning round. Go.

Alan:                                          57:13                       First question. What do you wish you really understood?

Neil:                                           57:18                       I wish I really understood the limits of the human capacity to know and to understand, I wonder whether we are actually smart enough to actually figure out how the universe works at all.

Alan:                                          57:34                       I wonder the same thing. Okay, number two. What do you wish other people understood about you?

Neil:                                           57:40                       Oh, I don’t care about me. I’m not relevant in this. I’m a cosmic messenger. Oh, yes, sorry. I wish I was better understood what my motives for commenting on science in movies. People see me as an annoying … I’m so deeply misunderstood.

Alan:                                          58:01                       You feel better. I agree.

Neil:                                           58:03                       I’m really trying to enhance your movie-going experience when I comment on movies.

Alan:                                          58:06                       Number three. What’s the strangest question someone has ever asked you?

Neil:                                           58:11                       Can I please sign their shrink wrapped frozen pig heart that they just pulled from their, it’s a medical student, and he had a pig heart. He just wanted me to sign the freeze wrap. I was signing books and things and up comes a pig heart. That was the weirdest thing ever asked.

Alan:                                          58:30                       Okay. How do you stop a compulsive talker?

Neil:                                           58:34                       Go to sleep in front of them.

Alan:                                          58:38                       Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?

Neil:                                           58:43                       Yeah. People who aggressively think they know something but think they don’t. I have no patience and no … especially when they’re using it to exploit others. If I were a superhero, these are the people I would protect the world from.

Alan:                                          58:59                       How do you like to delivery bad news? In person, on the phone, or by carrier pigeon?

Neil:                                           59:06                       By text.

Alan:                                          59:07                       By text? That’s funny, we haven’t-

Neil:                                           59:09                       No, no. A text, you’ve got to prep the pumps. I’ve got something I need to share with you, we need to be alone. Let’s find a place.

Alan:                                          59:17                       I see, and then in person.

Neil:                                           59:19                       Then it’s in person, definitely in person.

Alan:                                          59:20                       Okay, last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?

Neil:                                           59:27                       Oh. That’s an important … I would say active dishonesty.

Alan:                                          59:34                       Okay. You’ve been terrific, thank you so much.

Neil:                                           59:36                       Yeah, okay.

Alan:                                          59:37                       Really, as I always do, I love talking with you.

Neil:                                           59:40                       The same here. We’ve been friends for a while. Thanks for having me on the show.

Alan:                                          59:45                       Thanks for being on the show.


My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.



Neil’s latest book, Accessory to War, is a great read – and I recommend it. Neil and his co-author, Avis Lang, explore the centuries-old relationship between science and military power — and they talk vividly about how science, especially astrophysics, has been used in warfare.


Neil is a prolific science communicator and someone who I admire for how he has helped to raise global awareness around the importance of science and research – and he does so by using good communication methods. You can find out all about Neil by going to the Hayden Planetarium web site


And, if you’re in New York – check out the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History – Neil’s just one of the many stars of that show!

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!