Fighting science denial starts with people, not politicians: Neil deGrasse Tyson
American astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about politics, traffic jams and his latest book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.books Updated: Jul 20, 2017 11:49 IST
Albert Einstein has been called many things: a genius, a pioneer, a Nobel prize winner. Neil deGrasse Tyson just calls him a badass.
“I think it fits, right? It’s not a stretch,” he tells Guardian Australia before his appearance in Melbourne on Saturday night. “The dude’s a badass.”
This description of the father of modern physics is one of many notable turns of phrase in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, the latest book from the astrophysicist and host of the StarTalk podcast. He is currently touring Australia with Think Inc to promote the book and talk about the science of the universe, with shows in Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Sydney.
The book has had an extraordinary global reception, and has been in the top five of the New York Times’ bestseller list for 10 weeks. Its success reflects a broader appetite around the world for science told with passion and conviction, outside of high school textbooks.
Tyson stresses, though, that if you’re not in a hurry you really shouldn’t buy it. “If you’ve found time to read other books on astrophysics, you’re not in a hurry,” he says. “Put this book down and read the other stuff. I’m very serious about this: don’t buy the book if you’re not in a hurry.”
The book is not quite astrophysics for dummies; while it is simplified, it is not simple. It is more a collection of the best and most thrilling moments; astrophysics’ greatest hits.
“It’s astrophysics handpicked for the most mind-blowing things that exist in the universe,” Tyson says.
It is also the first time Tyson has recorded an audiobook; those in a hurry, after all, don’t always have time to sit down and read. One particular benefit of this, he says, is to make the book available for those stuck in traffic in Los Angeles – and also for those stuck in traffic in Australia, a situation he nevertheless finds highly improbable.
“Why there is traffic in Australia, I have no idea,” he says. “Hardly anybody lives here. I don’t know what the hell’s wrong, y’all got to figure that one out. Within a 30km radius of where I live are more people than the country of Australia. And you guys have traffic. Maybe it’s just an inescapable law of the universe,” he joked.
Tyson’s mission as a science educator is not without obstacles. In Australia and around the world, the denial of scientific truth is very real, sometimes at the very highest levels of government. But how do you fight and challenge these kind of ideas? Tyson has a different view to some: the focus shouldn’t be on the politicians, he says, but on the people themselves.
“I don’t concern myself much with politicians,” he says. “In an elected democracy, they represent an electorate. So if an electorate votes for somebody who denies what science is and how it works, then the issue is not with the politician but with the electorate.
“I’m an educator and I feel a certain duty to educate the public so that, when they vote, their vote can be as informed as it possibly can, with whatever political leanings they might have. That’s what makes the richness of a diverse political system.”
While the descriptions of black holes and anti-matter Tyson sets out in his book can sometimes sound like science fiction, he stresses that many of the ideas in the genre reflect the science of the real world.
“I don’t turn to sci-fi in the way most people do,” he says. “Most people do it to escape. For me, just [by] doing my job I’m escaping. The universe itself is a form of escapism.
“Warped space, black holes, wormholes: all of this comes from us.”
The near future of astrophysics promises to be particularly exciting: like science, it is driven by data, and for astrophysics that often involves space missions to gather information from the distant cosmos.
Tyson says that the understanding of dark matter may be one of the key developments over the next 10 years. And there is, of course, the possibility of finding life on another planet.
Could the world handle that?
“If you had some philosophy that precluded life from existing elsewhere and then we find it, you’re probably not going to say, OK, we’re wrong, everything we taught is wrong, everything we preach is wrong, let’s close up shop,” Tyson says.
“What is more likely is that it will simply be absorbed into our understanding of the universe.”
He recalls the aphorism that every great truth passes through three phases: “First, they say it’s not true. Second, they say it conflicts with the Bible. Third, they say they’ve known it all along.”
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First Published: Jul 18, 2017 15:10 IST