Book: Letters From An Astrophysicist
Author: Neil deGrasse Tyson
Publisher: WH Allen
Price: Rs 599
You wish to empower people to think for themselves, rather than to have others think for them, and your stated goal is not to be president of a dysfunctional electorate, but to enlighten the electorate so that they can choose the right leader. In our anti-intellectual times, this sounds like a destabilising agenda.
(Laughs) I think the more informed your electorate is, the more stable your democracy becomes, because decisions and laws have strong foundations based on objective truth. Otherwise, you’re building your society on feelings, on what people want to be true, rather than on what is true, and that is never good for the long-term stability of a nation with a diverse population. If you have people with multiple beliefs, and you respect them, then you don’t make laws based on one belief, but on what is objectively true. That ensures stability.
Your public correspondence conveys the distinct impression that the US has an unparalleled enthusiasm for the Bible, creationism and UFOs. What accounts for this?
I think there is a universal urge to seek a truth beyond what science has established. Let me abstract that and say: it’s a desire for the mystery. It’s a very human desire, and the source of all curiosity.
Indeed, a number of formal religions evolved out of mystery cults.
Yes, and I think it may be a fundamental part of what it means to be human. Rather than reject it, it’s best to marshal or redirect it to have people wonder about the mysteries of the universe, which lend themselves to scientific enquiry, rather than UFOs, for which we don’t have good evidence. There are greater mysteries out there. What happened before the Big Bang? What is dark matter or dark energy? There are plenty of big unknowns.
While the US leads the field with its irrational enthusiasms, India, which is also a plural society, is catching up. Extraordinary claims are being made of plastic surgery and nuclear weapons in ancient times, and archaeology is marshalled to validate the sacred texts. Education does not appear to be an antidote. Extremely literate people, including scientists, subscribe to this line. Is there something fundamentally wrong with scientific and
Yes, there is. In school, students are treated like empty vessels, and the lesson plan is to fill the vessel with information, and then an exam gauges how much you retained. But science is a very different kind of activity. Science is a way of querying nature, more than it is a repository of knowledge, and this is not taught. You are not taught how to be sceptical, what it means to take a measurement, what it means to say something is true, or to show that something is false. None of that happens in the science classroom. They just say here it is, learn this and learn that. Science is not taught as a way of thinking. If that were corrected, maybe we wouldn’t have an entire society of adults susceptible to all manner of pseudoscience and belief-driven assertions.
Teaching you to think was the province of philosophy, which you don’t seem to have much patience for.
The sciences have not lent themselves very well to enquiry by the pure philosopher. There’s been a parting of ways. The term ‘physicist’ did not exist earlier — they were called natural philosophers. Newton was one. In modern times, when experiments are very expensive and require an understanding of data, you can’t depend on your senses. Particle physics doesn’t come from your senses, and nor does relativity. You can’t sit in an armchair and deduce the nature of the universe without some exposure to scientific experiments. While scientists have brought philosophy into their craft, the pure philosopher has not reciprocated. But all manner of philosophy is still relevant — political, religious, ethics. What do we do with artificial intelligence, or with the human genome, now that we fully understand it and can manipulate it? We need philosophers to provide ethical guidelines.
You are not atheist because you don’t like the negatively constructed word. But ‘agnostic’ is negative, too, and you are one.
Yes, I don’t like the word, but not only because of the negative construction. I don’t align myself with it because now, it is used as a label. It comes with assumptions that are simply not true. I had a friend who went up in the space shuttle to fix the Hubble Space Telescope, and I posted ‘godspeed’ on Facebook to him. And people wrote in to say, “I thought you were an atheist!” Well, clearly I’m not, because if I was, I should not be using the term. The word comes with an entire portfolio of thought and conduct, and I do not match all of it. Labels are lazy, and they encourage people to believe they know everything there’s to know about you.
Like you’re communist?
(Laughs) Yeah, many people don’t know this — on American banknotes, it says: “In God we trust.” That was not there originally; it was put in in the 1950s to tell the world that we are a god-fearing nation, and the communists aren’t. It was a response to communism.
You want all religions to be taught in school as a general corrective. Would you also advocate a minister for religion?
The American constitution has no mention of God. This guarantees religious freedom from government intervention. If you are strongly religious and want to set up a law drawing on your tradition, it’s divisive. That’s a recipe for disaster, for warfare. The problem is not just religion, but all dogma, belief in the face of all evidence. There’s political and cultural dogma — that’s what Nazism was.
James Peebles has been honoured with a Nobel for building the framework of modern cosmology, from the Big Bang to the present, a story that you tell lucidly in Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Isn’t the recognition delayed by decades?
He earned it in the Eighties. He was a mentor of mine at Princeton. We became friends, and I dropped him a note saying, “Thirty years overdue, but congratulation eventually.” He has influential books on cosmology which touched generations of graduate students, including me. Yeah, the Nobel committee was never famous for being right quick with the awards. They just want to make sure that you get it before you die. Because by their charter, you can’t be dead when they announce it.
What news of cosmology?
So much of our data comes from space missions that you can anticipate discoveries. Telescopes will be looking for dark matter and signs of life in the oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa. The James Webb Space Telescope (launch deferred to 2020) will look at the universe in its first few moments.
The space effort is changing direction — manned lunar missions are back in favour and private enterprise has an interest in space. Originally, moonshots were about prestige in strategic affairs. But now?
I don’t see private industry leading a space frontier. It’s expensive and the return on investment is unknown. Usually, governments do things first, for geopolitical reasons. Once the risks and costs are known, private enterprise comes in. When the Europeans first looked for India and bumped into America, that was a government plan. The Dutch East India Trading Company came after that. But private enterprise may provide hardware for government missions — there’s a long tradition of that, too. Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, whatever. And congratulations to India for getting to Mars, that’s quite hard!
Speaking of Columbus, do you think the future of space exploration may be colonial in nature?
I hope not. If it’s collaborative, then it’s inherently not colonial, because everyone participates. Besides, colonialism got a bad name because countries where people already lived were occupied. That’s just weird, right? But there’s nothing wrong in principle in colonising a planet when nobody’s living there. But colonialism is self-destructive, as we have seen, when the Portuguese, Dutch, French, Spanish and English all wanted to colonise the same place. They fought.
To return to the book, how do you find the time to correspond with readers on such a scale?
I think it’s important to give time to people who take the time to write to me. Because if I’m going to write back to you honestly, I’m going to do some homework. That’s part of my own education, which I always have time for.