A conversation on the universe, anti-science and vexed question of UFOs

Q&A with American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

The communication of science is now arguably more important than ever, gaining a resurgence in appreciation since the beginning of the pandemic, and recently bolstered by the success in raising awareness around the Cop26 climate conference in November.

Although, over the years, many scientists have not considered the public dissemination of their research to be a crucial aspect of their work, a small few have pioneered the field of communications and led by example.

Carl Sagan, who back in the 1970s and 1980s pioneered television programmes about space and astrophysics, was one. Neil deGrasse Tyson, well-known television series narrator and YouTube commentator (two interviews with Joe Rogan have 26 million views between them) is another – a modern star of science who has followed in the footsteps of Sagan.

Tyson, currently the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, has previously been awarded the 2004 Nasa Distinguished Public Service Medal and the 2015 Public Welfare Medal, issued by the US National Academy of Sciences, for his "extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science".

Conor Purcell recently interviewed Tyson in New York via video call, when they discussed topics around his new book A Brief Welcome to the Universe, the importance of science communications, and why he remains sceptical about UFOs.

Why did you co-write this new book – and why now?

This book is basically a brief, condensed version of a much larger volume called Welcome to the Universe. That volume is essentially a textbook created for teaching purposes, but it reads differently to a textbook. Myself and my two co-authors, Michael Strauss and Richard Gott, previously co-taught a class – an introductory astrophysics class – at Princeton University. This is going back to the 1990s.

The reason why we co-taught it is that no single one of us wanted to teach the entire class alone, as we had very busy semesters, you know, with research commitments. So we banded together and asked ourselves, what do we need to do that will lighten the load on each of us?

So we decided to write a textbook. But later on we realised that not everyone is going to pick up a 500-page book, or however many pages it was. So, more recently, Princeton University Press asked us if we would be interested to make a shorter version of it. So we created this pocket-sized version which can now be enjoyed by everyone.

Why is science communication so important to you?

Scientists are generally not rewarded for bringing their work to the public. They’re just not. It’s not in the equation of what gives pay raises in science, or advances, or anything like that, or even getting hired. I’ve seen people give lip service to it, and they’ll say, oh yeah, we care about your teaching. But in the end, no, they don’t really, at least not here in the US. I know that to be the case and unfortunately I don’t think that I alone can change it.

So I can say duty is a part of why I communicate science. If I can do it, and I can do it well, and people embrace it, then there's a benefit to society by boosting the scientific literacy of the electorate, or just human beings who live on this planet Earth. So for me to not do it would be irresponsible. That's how I think of it. Also, we cannot forget that the grants we get from the National Science Foundation and Nasa, here in the US, are all generated by tax money. It's the nation's citizens who pay these taxes, so I believe it is our collective duty to at least let them know what the hell we're doing.

Why did you shift from science to become a science communicator?

Over time I just became increasingly responsive to artists, writers, producers, designers and novelists in their quest to have real science in their work. It was a gradual process. They didn’t have to give me the call – they could have just invented the science or made it up – so I was impressed because they cared. In each case they actually care about the science being right. I deeply respect that, and so I practically drop everything in the service of those calls, and over time I really began to love how the science was reaching the public.

I have also found that the attention I give to being better every day at bringing science to the public has resulted in the public wanting even more. So it’s almost a runaway process. Okay, I say to myself, maybe what I did there really worked. So can I improve on that? Yeah, so I do, and then even more people show interest. So this leads to interviews on the evening news, on talk shows and on documentaries.

How do other scientists feel about communicating science?

I know that the great Carl Sagan, early on, when he began to publicise his work and the work of his colleagues, received some pushback. In his day, no scientists went near television or anything like it, such as science comedy shows which came years later, and were somehow inspired by him. But what happened was that, as time passed, it became more accepted, even important.

I’ll give you an example. Here, in the US, as a scientist in your district, or wherever in your state you happen to live, you might be hoping to get funding for a science project, a telescope or a probe, or whatever, and you would end up speaking to your member of Congress.

Then the Congress member would say, wait a minute, are you doing the same thing that I saw Carl Sagan do on television? That is cool. Let’s do it. And what people found is that the tide waters rose for everyone, the more attention he got, because he was reaching everybody in ways that most scientists couldn’t.

What about the rise of anti-science? You were embroiled in some debate around the Pentagon’s release of images of UFOs this past year.

People often misrepresent my position on this. I simply said – I tweeted – if you look at the Pentagon navy videos, which we’ve all seen by now, there are billions of high-resolution photos and videos uploaded to the internet every single day, most of which are of better quality.

So, if your best image of an intelligent alien visiting from outer space is monochromatic, out of focus and hazy, then we have more work to do. It’s that simple. And just because you don’t know what you’re looking at, it doesn’t mean, therefore, that you do know what you’re looking at!

So, I try to reinforce in people what the U stands for in UFO. Think about that. So, anyway, people got angry with me on social media. They were saying things like: ‘You’re not a scientist, if you’re not curious about this.’ But I am curious. I am curious, but I remain completely unconvinced, precisely because I am a scientist.

Do you think we should fund such investigations in the future?

Regarding UFOs? Yes, for sure, despite doubts I’ve just outlined. I see it like this. I think some percentage of any research budget should go to investigating flying objects which cannot be identified. That should be an obvious part of the job for any defence system. Is it a threat? What is it? Should we worry? And then, if they do exist, and are extraterrestrial, maybe one day we’ll capture one! That would be great. Then we could study it.

But even that aside, we’ve actually had active research programmes ongoing since the 1960s. We’ve been sending out signals, trying to receive signals from potentially intelligent civilisations in the galaxy. The SETI Institute is all about that, of course.

Now, a new programme at Harvard, the Galileo Project, established by Avi Loeb, is trying to get people to be a little more open to the possibility that there could be alien artefacts floating around out there, throughout our solar system, and beyond.

Of course, the UFO enthusiast community has always been interested in that, but what's different here is that Professor Loeb carries the pedigree of a Harvard professor, and is associating real analytical science with the endeavour. I wish the project the best of luck.

Dr Conor Purcell writes about science, society and culture. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell – some of his other articles are at cppurcell.tumblr.com