A Conversation With Neil deGrasse Tyson About ‘Cosmos,’ Race, and Celebrity

This morning, I sat in a coffee shop in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood questioning the decision to wear the youth XL NASA polo I acquired upon visiting the National Space Hall of Fame last summer in Alamogordo, New Mexico. I did this as I stared at passersby on the sidewalk, waiting for Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and the host of Fox’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I knew that once I saw him, I’d have approximately seven seconds to pull it together before I was shaking his hand and guiding him to the booth I’d reserved 90 minutes earlier, mainly out of fear of being late and standing up Neil deGrasse Tyson.

And then he appeared. Taller than you’d expect, Neil rounded the corner, shook out his rain-covered umbrella, snatched off his shades in a Denzel-like way, and walked inside. I approached, introduced myself, and then he pointed to my shirt. “You’re already in uniform,” he said. Realizing that, in his head, he was probably mocking me, I walked back to my seat as he ordered a hot chocolate.

When he returned, I looked at the list of questions to my left and began. It was a mix of serious and fun, relevant and wildly tangential. In my head, I was thinking about talking to Neil, the prime-time TV star. The often-caught-dancing Neil. The famous-friends Neil. The meme-able Neil.

Within two minutes, I scrapped pretty much everything. Because I didn’t want to waste a second of this man’s time, nor did I think he wanted to have his time wasted. Talking three feet away from one another was both extraordinarily comfortable and one of the more intellectually intimidating and intimate scenarios I’d been a part of. When he got that hot chocolate, he looked like he wanted to actually talk. So we talked.

It wasn’t perfect — my interview or his answers — but it was certainly revealing. And it left me wanting to know more about this wildly intelligent, complex man.

♦♦♦

Last summer, I went on a countrywide road trip and went to the National Space Hall of Fame, which began to reinvigorate my passion for science and space. Going on this trip reminds me of the reaction many my age have had to Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Were you trying to target a specific audience when you created this show?

Everyone. There’s no specific demographic. Ann Druyan, the writer of the show [and wife of the late Carl Sagan], succinctly noted: anyone with a beating heart. The cosmos is not for one demographic. It’s for everyone. It belongs to everyone. So that’s the target, which is harder for marketing people — how to sell ad time and that sort of thing. But if you look back 30 years ago, 40 years ago, there were TV programs that everyone watched. No one was thinking, What’s the demographic that watches The Ed Sullivan Show? The whole family watched The Ed Sullivan Show. Everybody. So perhaps it hearkens back to those times, when there are things that could be conceived and delivered to everyone.

Whether we succeeded is a separate question. But that’s the target. The target is everyone.

Do you have an especially strong desire to get kids watching it?

Everyone. Everyone. Everyone. And personally, professionally, I target adults, not kids. Kids will come. They’re already curious. When they’re young enough, they’re completely curious about the world. Often that gets lost because adults constrain their curiosity. But adults in America are in charge, they outnumber children five-to-one. They hold office. They vote. They wield resources. So to say, “Oh, let’s get kids interested in science” — I’m not patient enough to wait the 40 years for a middle schooler to become president so we can have a scientifically literate governance. So everyone’s the target.

What was the process of getting Obama to introduce the show in the first episode?

That was their choice. We didn’t ask them. We didn’t have anything to say about it. They asked us, “Do you mind if we intro your show?” Can’t say no to the president. So he did. He may have been riding the very high media attention that Cosmos had been getting on the ramp-up. Because it was airing in prime time on a network —

It was a good look for him.

Right. Because it was airing in prime time on a network, reporters that normally covered television entertainment and not television documentaries were tasked with covering Cosmos. It was on their beat, the Fox lineup on a Sunday night. So the media attention ended up reaching not only the traditional people that would talk about a documentary, but entertainment reporters. The geek blogosphere was abuzz, and also people who were curious, fans of the original series, and were curious what would happen for it being on Fox. What does it mean that Seth MacFarlane, who’s best known for his fart jokes — what does it mean that he’s executive producing? There were a lot of people who had some anxieties about that and were eager to learn what would unfold.

That same week, by the way, Obama — the White House — released its budget, which included a reduction in the science spending in NASA. So if you look at it politically, rather than gesturally, it’s easy to think of that as a way for him to try to gain points back in the science community, immediately after dropping the science budget for NASA.

There were some things I thought were quite risky, particularly the animations. Why did you want to take that approach as your way of shedding light on unsung heroes of science past versus reenactments or other ways?

There’s a half-dozen reasons. I can list them, but they’re not in order. One of them is, Fox was apprehensive about what it would mean in prime time to have actors with glued-on mutton chops and fake British accents reenacting historical moments. They were concerned that would come flat. Another concern was that if we want to get talent to perform, it would require that the talent that we sought out be available when we would be shooting in the location where we’d be shooting it. The location would’ve likely been Europe, so that you have access to older buildings and streets that are timeless.

That giant green pasture, was that in Europe?

What?

It was this very big green field that you were always in when you were doing monologues, was that in Europe?

Green? I was in a lot of places. I couldn’t characterize a green field as being more representative than others.

I can’t think of another distinguishing factor of that green field.

I’d say the biggest green field that I was in was in Monterey, California. That’s where there was a green field in every direction.

No worries. Back to the animations.

If you have live action, it restricts what you can do with the story. If you want to get inside someone’s head and show what they’re thinking or dreaming, you can’t really do that. With animation you can; if I put you on a set, it has to be real. But if it’s real, it’s harder to focus the viewer on what I want them to pay attention to. It’s not impossible, just harder. With animation, you can suppress the background — at will — and then focus on an animated character and what they’re saying. And also, it would be vastly cheaper to do so than hauling in an entire production crew. So there’s probably only four or five — I think there’s another reason in there I’m trying to remember.

The suggestion was made by Seth. He already had an animation team — it’s what he does. He decided to create a look and feel specific for Cosmos. The animations, with one or two exceptions, are photorealistically texture-mapped roads and buildings and sky and trees. And so the only things that are specifically animated are the characters within it. Almost in a graphic-novel feel. So if you look carefully at the animation, the stone, it’s real stone. It’s real ground, it’s real clouds. Texture mapped. So we were hoping it would form a look and a feel for Cosmos.

Oh, here’s the sixth reason — it also provided another kind of storytelling element. So Cosmos is not just one note, one set of vocabulary words — there are others introduced. So I’m on the ship, looking into the past, looking into the future — wherever we need to be visually, we’ve got animation, and we reserve certain types of storytelling for each of those storytelling elements. This creates a visual and intellectual variation in how the material is presented. I was originally on the fence about the animation. Not knowing where it would go, how it would land. By the second episode, I was longing for them. For me, they work magnificently. And you knew the moment you go to animation there’d be some historical story told. You’re going to learn about somebody. For example, last night’s episode, I don’t know if you saw it — were we going to actually put someone in a balloon? No. We’re not. Animation, you put him in a balloon.

No one’s going to get hurt — it’s animation.

And it allowed us to get prime voicing for many of the characters. We had Patrick Stewart as William Herschel. Richard Gere. Kirsten Dunst. So that was good, we felt.

Perhaps the most interesting constant of the show was the notion of shedding light on the unsung heroes of the science community. It brought me back to being a child and learning of the lesser-known black-history figures that weren’t the main five or six civil rights leaders. Was discussing these people something you knew going in you wanted to do?

Yes, one of the angles of Cosmos is to celebrate the efforts of people who have struggled to bring scientific truths into public awareness. It’s usually some kind of dogma that interferes. Religious dogma, sexual dogma, social dogma, cultural dogma — there’s often some force operating against a person becoming successful. And in some cases it was poverty. If you were poor, you had no hope at all. And these are people whose contributions have transformed not only science but our understanding of our place in the universe. Many have science discoveries that don’t accomplish that, so we leave those for some other documentary that someone else might make if you’re only focusing on science. But for discoveries that change our outlook, those are the ones that have high priority. By the way, there might be discoveries that change our outlook, but the person doesn’t have an interesting story. When you’re doing television, it’s got to be visually interesting. The story has to be interesting. The science has to be good. And for Cosmos, it has to matter to the human condition.

In the period since the show began, are you becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of being a public figure? You’ve been one for years, but once you’re on television, on prime time, the idea of existing in plain sight becomes harder than it once was when you weren’t on TV every week. Is that something you wholly embrace, since it’s in the name of something good, or does it get annoying?

I was already heavily recognized before Cosmos. If you add up all the time I was interviewed for some show that would appear for national television, it was about three times a month. Evening news, Jon Stewart, the morning shows. So not as a featured person for an entire hour, but I had enough presence on television that I’d already passed certain thresholds of acceptance or denial about being popularly recognized. So Cosmos is a multiplier on top of that, but it didn’t take it from some comfort zone to an uncomfortable zone. It didn’t change the nature of it, it only changed the magnitude of it. So as an educator, if someone IDs me on the street, what I want it to be is someone saying — and this happens a third of the time, a third to a half — someone saying “Oh, you Tyson?” I say “Yeah, yeah.” And they say, “Tell me more about black holes and quasars and the Big Bang.” Which means I’m not the destination of their interest. They know that I have supplied them with insights and knowledge about the universe and just simply want more of that.

It’s not just, “Hey, I want a picture.”

Right. So that means I’ve succeeded as an educator. Otherwise it’s cult-building. Now, I would say half are not asking those questions. So this worried me early on. Am I failing as an educator? Am I somehow presenting myself before I’m presenting my content? I thought long and hard about this, spoke with people about this whose opinions and perspectives I value. And what they told me was, there are people who are already science fans that are going to be asking questions no matter what. Then there are the people who are science-leaning but science wasn’t quite awakened fully within them, but they didn’t need convincing. Once it got awakened, they’re there. So that’s the community of people who are asking me questions.

Then there’s a whole other community of people who had never thought about science. Who didn’t know they liked science or knew they didn’t like science. And so the task there is to just get them to have any appreciation at all for the subject. And that threshold doesn’t necessarily come with boundless curiosity. It’s simply a statement of awareness that there’s science there. So it was hypothesized that this other half of the people simply see me as awakening science within them, but they’re not yet in a place for questions to come rolling off their tongue. So, in that, we should celebrate that they want to get a selfie with a scientist. Because it’s something they never would have done in their lives. So while that’s awkward for an educator, societally it can only be a good thing.

Is being labeled something like a “celebrity scientist” something that worries you?

Nothing that anyone says about me worries me — no, no, that’s not true. What worries me is if people think I said something or meant something that I didn’t. And then they create a whole reaction to it. So then there’s a mismatch of what I said versus what they think I said or meant. So sometimes I go into the blog and type in a thread that says, “Well, that’s out of context,” just to redirect the ship. Other than that, the fact that “celebrity” happens — it’s how they react. It’s their reaction function, if you will, to what I am to them. It’s society taking ownership. And I don’t expect or have the interest to fight that. It just is and I accept that.

One thing that I did appreciate — and it’s not directly related to the show — once you were on a panel at the Center for Inquiry, I think Larry Summers was there, and there was a question directed your way and you began talking about your upbringing of being black and wanting to be an astrophysicist and people wondering why you wanted to be an astrophysicist instead of other things that are more thought of as “logical tracks” for a young, black, tall man.

OK, a couple of things.

Yes.

That was nine years ago, 2005. There’s a lot of stuff of me going back 15 years and it’s only ever a matter of whether someone digs it up and reposts it. Clip something out and repost it. And if it happens to be a site with a lot of traffic, things have gone viral that others presumed just happened. Simply because they just saw it rather than when it actually happened.

All right. So that was a conference on religion and science and the conflict between the two over the years. It took place here, hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. And at the end someone asked a question referencing Larry Summers at the time. Larry Summers is not in the news today. Regarding the performance of women in sciences. I fielded the question because I was able to analogize what it is for people to have expectations of you for a reason that you are not in control of. But you have other ambitions. So that’s when I mentioned being black in America growing up, when I would have otherwise never mentioned it. I don’t give talks on it. I don’t even give Black History Month talks. I decline every single one of them. The point of that was preamble to reference the fact that you have people suggesting that women are not as interested or not as talented to go into the sciences as men. And I’m saying before you even have that conversation, you have to be really sure that access to opportunity has been level. And if my life was any indication, that’s not the case.

So that’s what happened. But what then happened, that clip ended up being “Tyson was ranting about being black.” And I don’t rant about it. It never comes up. It’s not part of my public profile.

Why do you think —

In fact, since 1993, I’ve declined every interview that has my being black as a premise of the interview. Because it’s not my public — I don’t come up and say, “I’m your black scientist. Here’s what black people think about science. Here’s how astrophysics affects black people.”

But when I watch that clip, regardless of the time period, the reaction — the fact that it resurfaced and the reaction to it on Twitter, it was clear people were — I don’t know if “shocked” is the word —

Yes, shocked. Yes. Yes. They reacted. People reacted to it. And they heard me say something that they’d never heard me say. So they reacted. And then they think there’s some inner pent-up thing because that got a whole lot of attention. And there are people only learning who I am now and they think that’s raging within me.

But it’s not?

It is so not. It is the last thing I think of when I am performing professionally, bringing the universe to audiences.

My reaction wasn’t one of shock —

Oh, and by the way, that has already been reacted to by a white supremacist. He was on Fox News.

So that’s another reason why I generally don’t even think about it. Because that then becomes the point of people’s understanding of me, rather than the astrophysics. So it’s a failed educational step for that to be the case. If you end up being distracted by that and not [getting] the message.

Do you think actively not talking about that makes it a bigger deal when you talk about it, which goes against what you want in the first place?

Yeah. I can’t control what piques people’s interest in a portfolio of things that I say. People pick, choose whatever it is they’re interested in. I was describing a time twenty, thirty years ago, before the Jim Crow South. If you had to engage me, engage me about modern times, not about thirty years ago.

In the run of this show, have there been people that you’ve met, celebrities, that have approached you about being really into the show?

Oh yeah. Many. Many of them. And I think that’s a good sign. I don’t know how much TV celebrities watch, I think they live highly scheduled lives, but I’ve been very warmly received by people who are already famous for a long time. Sidney Poitier among them. Very big fan of the universe. He became a fan of mine after the Rose Center was built. So I first met him back in 2000, but we just chatted for a half hour just a couple of days ago.

That’s very awesome.

He’s cinematic royalty. Other people, I met Meryl Streep before Cosmos, at a movie she was in — an indie movie. And the producer made sure to introduce me to her, so I went up to extend my hand and she said, “I recognize you, you’re famous.” So that was fun and charming. She was part serious and part playful because we all know she’s famous and she knows she’s famous, but I’m happy it’s fame with some mission statement.

I don’t know if you’ve ever met or talked to Pharrell Williams —

He called me six years ago —

Because he’s a huge fan of the original Cosmos.

He called me six years ago, multiple times, at my office, and we never connected. It was [a case of] I could do it but he couldn’t do it, then he could do it then I couldn’t do it. So it never connected. So I dug up the emails from that time and sent an email back, but the email was dead. I’d be happy to explore the depth of his interest, however it has manifested or sustained. And there are others interested in education — Will.I.Am is big into education. So star power, celebrity star power in the interest of science literacy and education is unequaled in its potency to influence public sentiment.

Why make the ship — the Ship of the Imagination  vertical?

The ship was conceived by Ryan Church. He’s designed many ships in the past. His task was to design a ship that was impossibly minimalist. That’s why there are no knobs. No control handles. There’s nothing. And the ship is highly reflective. So when it’s in space, you see reflections of space. So the ship is not a distraction to you when we are going places, when we are maneuvering. So when you’re in space, where there’s no air resistance, then it can fly in any orientation. It flies vertically because it gives full view out the front window. Then it’s a full hemisphere going forward. When you go into the waters, it turns and dips in very aerodynamically — very minimal splash. [Mimics a small splash with his hands.] So it served very simultaneous needs. Successfully.

Finally, I was a part of a [Cosmos] viewing party every Sunday. And it kind of started as a joke, but then we were all traveling every Sunday to watch it together. And we would usually put the TV on mute during commercials to talk about what had just happened. But one of the things I’ve tried to explain to people and keep stumbling on and would love a re-explaining of is the piece about the human eye and the ability to see coming from the creatures at darkest parts of the ocean.

Yes, the intent — and I don’t know how well we succeeded at this — was to show the actual scene split-screened with what the creature sees. So we start out by a patch of skin having a certain number of photoreceptive molecules in it. In the variation of molecules that are there, some are photoreceptive and some are not. Which means light hits them and they absorb the light. And they change. And then you recognize how they change. That’s what I mean by photoreceptive. If they’re not photoreceptive, light would just bounce off or —

[Neil looks at his phone, asks what time it is, asks when we started, says, "Oooh, I've got to go," I apologize, he says there's a car outside, that he's got another interview, and then tells me he's due up at HuffPo, which somehow causes us both to laugh, perhaps for different reasons, and then he finishes explaining because he can't help himself.]

So the question was — the eye. That enables the organism to distinguish light from dark. Those that had a tendency to go to the light had one consequence and those that had a tendency to go away from the light had another consequence in their lives. OK. So what then happens is, if there’s any depression at all in the texture surface of the skin, you end up making a cavity where the light can actually come to a focus. And all of a sudden an image starts taking over. If light begins to come to focus, it begins to sharpen. So you go from light to dark to shape. Non-shape to shape. And all it takes is variations on this. And those that can’t see [well] don’t reproduce, and those that do see well reproduce. The argument that Paley had been making, [who] was a religious apologist from the 18th century, was that an eye isn’t useful unless it’s fully developed as it is. It’s completely useful. People who have very poor eyesight would rather have poorer eyesight than no eyesight at all. So it was a false premise to presume. And it’s not a challenge, given what we know is out there in nature.

I’ve got to run.

Filed Under: Science, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Cosmos, Space, Q&A

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Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

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