The host of StarTalk talks about the universe being a hologram, alien visitations and bringing science and pop culture together.
The host of StarTalk has become one of the world’s best-known astrophysicists, popularising space and science for millions. As the founder of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in 1997 and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Centre for Earth, Neil deGrasse Tyson has his fingers in many pies. For most of us though, he is the author and astrophysicist who regularly writes books and appears on our television screens. His numerous appearances on various US TV shows from The Universe to The Colbert Report have brought the delights of space to the masses. He has also hosted a weekly podcast called StarTalk since 2009, which was turned into a spin off TV show on National Geographic two years ago.
Over the years, you’ve gained a reputation for helping to make science and space accessible to the wider population. How do you go about hitting the right spot for people – what do you think grabs their attention?
I’ve thought a lot about what might interest a disinterested person and I have thought more about the impact of what I’m saying than you can possibly believe. I could say something off the cuff, and you’d say, “Oh man that’s really cool, that’s great, how have you just figured that out?” And I’d think, “No, I’ve thought about this and I’ve watched you react to things I’ve said – I know what you’re going to find interesting.” When I’m talking to people, I’m looking to see if they’ve raised their eyebrows or if they look bored or excited. I have a mental inventory of things that enchant and bore people and the things that people want to hear more of. I bring that to my lectures, books or StarTalk.
Let’s discuss StarTalk. The podcast has been around since 2009, but where did the idea come from and what was your aim?
Three of us started the concept. Myself and my co-executive producers Helen Matsos, who is a NASA astrobiologist, and David Gamble got together and realised there was an unserved population out there who, in our judgement, would enjoy science but didn’t know that they would. We figured there was a population that does not buy science books or write on the calendar when a science programme is coming on television – people who are kind of oblivious to it. And we thought we might be able to create a media product that would attract them. But in addition to that, we realised there was a demographic of people who are sure that they do not like science. Maybe they didn’t do well in their science class and they spent the rest of their life avoiding it. We thought we might be able to reach to them as well. So StarTalk became a synthesis of pop culture, science and comedy.
Why did you go for that mix?
Well, we realised that if you attach science to pop culture, you don’t have to explain the pop culture parts. People know the famous actor, the famous singer or famous politician and if they become my guests, and if my conversation with them explores science, then fans will follow them to the show and we get to expose people to science and show them how ubiquitous science is in their lives. We get to show them that it’s even touching their favourite person. So in the studio, I have my co-host, a professional comedian, and I typically bring in an academic on a particular subject that we cover in the interview with the pop culture person. The comedian is a valve of levity and the expert is a valve of gravity and I control those valves in such a way so that the listener can get, in my judgement, the right balance of science, as it appears in everyday life. And you end up smiling along the way. So this was an experiment and we proposed this to the National Science Foundation and they agreed it would be interesting.
StarTalk has made the transition to television and it’s the first weekly late-night show to be based on science. It’s also been nominated for an Emmy. But how comfortable have the guests been about science and have you been surprised at the science knowledge some of them have?
It cuts two ways. I like to think of pop culture on StarTalk as the scaffold on which we place scientific topics so my interviews are never to test the person to see how much science people know. That’s not the point. What I want to know is how much science interest they might have, and if they don’t have any interest, that becomes the challenge; for me to find ways that science has touched their lives. So with [former US president] Bill Clinton, my favourite story was of him sitting around the table in the Oval Office with some important heads of state not agreeing on something. He said he had borrowed a Moon rock from NASA that he kept in the centre of the table and every time there would be some conversational political impasse, he would point to the rock and say, “That rock is from the Moon.” It gave everyone some cosmic perspective and by playing the science card on everybody, they were playfully taken aback and could have a fresh conversation on what they needed to agree on. It’s interesting to know that a head of state would do that.
“People know the famous actor, the famous singer or famous politician and if they become my guests, and if my conversation with them explores science, then fans will follow them to the show and we get to expose people to science”
You’re not afraid of tackling some big ideas of space. We noticed recently that you said the universe could be a simulation. Why do you think that’s the case?
So I was slightly misquoted there and, you know, headlines take liberties and they become click bait for others if you’re surfing the internet. What I said was that I think it would be really cool if we were some alien simulation, maybe someone’s PhD thesis experiment. It would be like, “I wonder what would happen if we set up these laws of physics and these laws of chemistry and biology and let’s watch.” And then I wonder if the aliens would start getting bored and start to throw in things to disrupt what might be a peaceful, tranquil world. But there are serious, philosophical questions and conversations about physics being conducted around this.
If we were in a simulation, do you think we would be able to tell?
One of my favourite references to this was from a colleague of mine, Max Tegmark who is a professor of astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He said to imagine you’re playing a game of Mario – any of the Mario video games – and let’s say you are in the game. You start taking measurements and you say, “Okay, if I jump, I jump this high and the other characters don’t jump as high as I do.” So you start setting up laws of motion that apply inside the game and eventually you might figure out all the laws of motion and that is your world. But is that anything different to what we’re doing with our branches of science? We’re trying to figure out the laws of nature.
Well, where do those laws come from? It’s still a little bit of a mystery. Religious people would say God made the laws but if you’re more prone to secular accounts of things, you might ask are these coming about naturally or by hand, by someone who has created our world for their own entertainment? And then you get deeply philosophical and say if we are a simulation of some super intelligent alien species, is that indistinguishable from the concept of God? That’s another interesting topic to have a debate over a beer at a bar on, something to start arguing about because everyone is going to have an opinion no matter how much or little research they have done on the subject.
Many similar debatable subjects have surfaced of late. Do you believe our universe is just one of an infinite number?
It’s not a matter of what I believe in. I don’t know that there is anything I believe in. That implies that I don’t have any evidence for what I think is true. No, there are compelling arguments out there for why there might be a multiverse and they are grounded in physics and sometimes quantum physics, and I sometimes find them compelling enough to invest more thought into what it might be like. The idea of multiple universes is a high concept idea and people have a bit of armchair philosopher in them. It’s fun to be able to tap that urge for people to want to think that way.
There is no hard and fast evidence of a multiverse, is there?
No, there’s no evidence. There are strong theoretical arguments for why we might have a multiverse but it’s not clear how you would get evidence. If you have no access to it, then what does it mean for you to hypothesise the existence of something that you will never detect? One of the things we’ve learned in science is what matters are the things that you can measure, detect and interact with. If you can’t interact with it, does it even make sense to talk about it? But if you’re intellectually active, you will talk about it.
There are strong theoretical arguments for why we might have a multiverse but it’s not clear how you would get evidence.
The idea of the universe being a simulation is different to hologram theory, but do you think the hologram principle could hold some truth?
The hologram hypothesis is intriguing. You come up with it when you have an event horizon around a black hole and I’m intrigued by that, this idea we are a record of something playing out in another way inside of an event horizon.
So what intrigues me from the point of physics is that certain other things we know are true want us to think this way about the event horizon and that there would be a hologram. Those are the interesting hypotheses in physics, where other things that are tested and you know to be true are logically required for other things to be true. So I’m still following that space to see the next wave of development in it. But I’m all for it. The weirder the universe is, the better.
One thing we picked up a couple of years ago was your fear that we’ve been visited by intelligent aliens who have seen life on Earth and believed it to be unintelligent. Do you think there is life out there that has tried to contact us?
I just wonder, not only whether we have we been visited by extremely intelligent aliens, but whether we were simply not interesting enough to them because we’re too stupid as a species. It’s like, are worms interesting to you, unless they are your research speciality? Do you walk down the street, see a worm, pause and reflect? “I wonder what that worm is thinking? Let me see.” No, you step on it or you walk by. It does not intrigue you. So if plenty of life forms on Earth are not interesting enough to stop you in your tracks, then why couldn’t there be life forms vastly more intelligent than humans that see Earth as this boring place of DNA-based life and move on? We would do that, and we already do that with other forms of life on our own planet.
The other possibility is they are so intelligent that they created a simulation – and this is, of course, the simulation hypothesis, again, that they created us for their own entertainment. So these are some things to talk about, perhaps. Whether or not they are grounded enough in scientific peer-reviewed papers, they are fun to talk about in a bar over a drink.
On a lighter note, we’ve heard you’re starring as Neil deBuck Weasel in the upcoming movie Ice Age: Collision Course. How was that?
[Laughs]. Oh, that’s very short. I’m only in it for a couple of minutes. I think it’s novel that I’m in the movie but it’s very brief; I’m helping another character try to save the world by using physics. I don’t want to over-think my role in this.
And you also have a new book on its way. What subjects are you delving into?
The book is the soul of StarTalk. It is the show turned into something that you can carry with you and open and dip in to, and it is a celebration of all the ways science has, does and will continue to touch our lives. Since it pivots on this pop culture scaffold, it means every page you turn to, you have an entry point because all the entry points are pop culture pathways that go in. So we are proud of this as a creative work, to take content stimulated by the show and take it further in printed form.
This article originally appeared in All About Space issue 54, written by David Crookes