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Neil deGrasse Tyson seeks to educate on how discovery can impact us

Neil deGrasse Tyson took viewers on a journey in “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson took viewers on a journey in “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”Daniel Smith/FOXLife

Neil deGrasse Tyson at this point is probably the best-known astrophysicist on the planet. Already familiar to TV audiences through his many appearances on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report,” his profile got another boost last year when he hosted “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” on Fox, an updating of Carl Sagan’s popular 1980 series. That show was notable not only for Tyson’s down-to-earth exploration of the history of scientific discovery — and of the cosmos — but also for his matter-of-fact challenges to creationism and climate change denial. He also occasionally offers light-hearted correctives to scientific errors in Hollywood films such as “Titanic” and “Gravity.” Tyson, 56, the longtime director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, will give two sold-out presentations at the Wilbur Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday. The Globe spoke to him by phone at his office at the Hayden Planetarium.

Q. What will be the nature of your presentation at the Wilbur?


A. It’s often presumed that there’s some canned talk. That’s not the case with me. What will happen is, I will fold in whatever current events might be happening and try to factor that into what is often a cosmic perspective on the world. Generally, I make sure people have been sensitized to the ways in which the moving frontier of discovery can influence our sense of ourselves and our understanding of our place in the universe.

Q. Speaking of which, how do you feel about Senator James Inhofe, who is now chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, calling climate change a hoax?

A. I used to get bent out of shape over things like that. And then I realized a couple of fundamental facts. First, we live in what we assert is a free country. So people ought to be able to say whatever they want. And we have a system of governance where there are people in Congress who represent some slice of the electorate. So if someone feels that way about science, what that tells me is that they’re capturing the sentiment of people in their electorate.


So the real challenge to the educator is not beating politicians over the head, or lobbying them, or writing letters. It’s improving the educational system that shapes the people who elect such representatives in the first place. So if you want to elect someone who doesn’t know how science works, OK. But I’d rather you did that knowing how science works. If you know how science works, and you want someone to represent you who doesn’t know how science works, that’s your prerogative. But if you think you know how science works, but in fact don’t, then you are participating in the political system in a vacuum. And that can be dangerous.

Q. You sometimes use the phrase “science literacy.” Do you have a baseline standard for science literacy?

A. For me, it’s not a recitation of how things work: How does an internal combustion engine work, and what is the Big Bang, and what is the DNA molecule? That’s an aspect of science literacy. For me the most important aspect is understanding how to question the world. [That], plus curiosity. If you’re good at both of those, you’ll be a lifelong learner, regardless of how many years you had spent in school.


Q. Are there are any recent movies that have struck you for good or ill in the way they deal with science?

A. I would rather celebrate the fact that storytellers and visual artists and producers and directors are reaching for scientific themes as instruments in their storytelling. The fact that you would never previously cast a scientist character, because your stereotype never had them coming out from the lab table. In the movie “Interstellar,” for example, the lead five characters — [all of whom] are Academy Award winners or nominees, each of whom has starred in [his or her] own film — these five characters all play scientists and engineers, in the same movie.

Q. In Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” the young Alvy Singer expresses his existential dread by saying, “The universe is expanding,” and his mother responds, “Brooklyn’s not expanding!” Which attitude is more appropriate? Should we be worried that the universe is expanding?

A. I try not to invest any emotion in the conduct of the universe. The universe just is. So the moment emotions get in the way, you can’t think rationally about what’s going on. If we get hit by an asteroid, that would be bad. But the fact that we’re expanding or contracting, to me, I have no investment.

Q. In astrophysics or science in general, what would you say is the next urgent problem that needs to be solved?

A. It’s not a matter of urgency, it’s a matter of the size of the problem. And some problems are bigger than others. “Bigger” in terms of what our absence of knowledge of a solution impacts.


So here’s the universe accelerating in its expansion, against the wishes of all the gravity from the galaxies within it. We can measure this. We have no idea what’s causing it. I count that as a big problem. We call that the dark energy problem: gravity that has no known origin. That’s 95 percent of everything that drives the universe. So our greatest ignorance accounts for 95 percent of what is going on in the universe. That’s an extremely humbling place to be, for the astrophysicist.

Plus, the search for life in the universe has to be high on anyone’s list. That’s not so much a problem to be solved, but a point of discovery waiting to happen.

Q. And you figure it’s got to be out there somewhere because the probabilities are just too large?

A. Exactly. Just run the numbers. The numbers are strongly in your favor if you’re looking for life in the universe.

Q. Do you have a favorite constellation?

A. Oh, yeah, everybody’s got a favorite constellation! For me it’s Orion. Because it actually straddles the northern and southern hemispheres of stars, so everybody gets to see it. Basically, no matter where you are in the world, you get to see Orion.

Plus it has a couple of the brightest stars in the night sky, Rigel and Betelgeuse. And the stars that trace his body pretty much look like the body that’s supposed to be there, whereas so many other constellations are torturously figured to fit the imagination of the ancients. It is also the location of the nearest stellar nursery to us here in the solar system. It’s called the Orion Nebula, and it’s just a gaseous region where stars are currently, as we speak, being born.


Interview has been edited and condensed. Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.