Since the emergence of television, each generation has had its own special scientist. The boomers had Carl Sagan; millennials grew up with Bill Nye. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and face of the modern-day “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” is today’s astrophysicist-at-the-kitchen-table. “We are stardust, brought to life,” Tyson writes in 2019’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. With a mind-boggling output of books, podcasts, television and tweets — plus an audience that includes hardcore science enthusiasts and pop-culture aficionados alike — it seems that Tyson is built from a special kind of stardust, both ubiquitous and dazzling.
On Tuesday, Jan. 21, Tyson takes the stage at Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville for An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, where he’ll parse current events in real time. He recently spoke to Xpress about journalism, the internet and the current status of Pluto.
Xpress: When I think of you, science isn’t the first word that comes to mind. It’s curiosity.
Tyson: All of us, as children, are curious to the point of putting our lives at risk. As soon as we are mobile, we are investigating. This curiosity, if you retain it, is a fundamental part of being a scientist. When I think of scientists, I think we’re all just kids. Now, as adults, we have more expensive toys. Telescopes and microscopes and particle accelerators …
Yes, we all have one of those.
Laughs. But it’s coming from the same place. When people ask me how to get their kids interested in science, I say, “They’re already scientists, because they’re already curious. Just get out of their way.”
As a public figure, you’re very accessible. When did you start taking such a social approach to your discipline and why?
I was just doing my normal thing of being a scientist when people on Reddit said, “Neil, they want you to do an [Ask Me Anything].” So, I got pulled in. There’s an appetite for what I have to offer, and I’m being called to express it. I would be irresponsible if I didn’t come to that calling. With tweeting, it’s a little more selfish. I’m sharing my curiosity, but when I see different reactions, I take notes. I fold that into how I deliver my public talks, which are now much more informed by my audience. It helps feed my capacity to entertain.
It’s an experiment, just like everything else.
It’s an experiment in communication.
How have you seen scientific literacy change in the age of social media?
It’s scary. In the old days, you’d have some crazy idea, and you might go to the library or the encyclopedia. If no one supports your idea, you realize it’s probably crazy and move on. Today, you type your crazy idea into search and you get a false sense of objectivity. If you’re not the only one who thinks that way, then it must be true.
And all of a sudden the earth is flat again.
And vaccines are bad for you, and the climate is not changing. This is the opposite of science literacy. This is a slope that landed in some dungeon. Everyone around you is saying, “You’re in paradise,” but you’re really in a dungeon. There’s more access to science than ever before, and there’s more access to nonscience than ever before. They are operating at the same time, and that’s quite a challenge.
In Asheville, you’ll be reading the newspaper. Talk me through what that looks like.
You will see the fun, the folly and the fiction of what people are presenting as facts. Trump says we need a Space Force. In Florida, there’s a storm and the sheriff says, “Do not shoot your guns into the hurricane.” It’s basically current events through the lens of an astrophysicist.
Finally, can you set the record straight on this hot-button issue? Is Pluto a planet, or no?
Get over it! The classification system, which classifies Pluto as a dwarf planet, was voted on in 2006. It’s been that way for 13 years.
It came back around this summer.
It did, and that’s because the person who was the principal investigator of the mission to Pluto, New Horizons, is making a big stink. But, no. We are silently moving on. Pluto is exactly where it should have always been: It is a dwarf planet.
WHO: Neil deGrasse Tyson
WHERE: Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville, 87 Haywood St., ticketmaster.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Jan, 21, 7 p.m. $34-$105