Carl Sagan made the universe, the space/time continuum, and other vast theories, accessible to us regular Joes.
But Neil deGrasse Tyson made it fun.
Tyson, the astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, is also the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers, including “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” and host of StarTalk Radio and the four-time Emmy-nominated “StarTalk” TV show on the National Geographic Channel. He also hosted the sequel to Carl Sagan’s landmark “Cosmos” series, and just gave a talk at the Spur’s East Hampton location on Friday, July 26, to celebrate the centennial of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity which was confirmed 100 years ago.
He took a few moments to speak with The Independent.
First of all, tell us about the importance of the 100th anniversary of the confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
It took a total solar eclipse to affirm this. One of the predictions of Einstein’s theory of relativity was that the fabric of space and time curves in the presence of matter and energy. I mean, that’s just completely freaky. (Laughs.)
He published his theory in 1916, but the world was in a bit of a tizzy, since the Great War was underway. So, there were no resources or transportation for something as frivolous as a science experiment. At that point though, people started saying, “Oh my gosh, this crazy idea of how the universe was put together may be real!” But they had to wait for the next total solar eclipse, which was in 1919.
Total solar eclipses aren’t as rare as people make them out to be. They’re actually quite common. You get total solar eclipses every couple of years, somewhere in the world. They occur more often than presidential elections.
Have you ever seen a total solar eclipse? The stars come out. And Sir Arthur Eddington, who confirmed the theory, looked to the locations of the stars that are right near the Sun — as in, their path of light moves near the Sun, since obviously the stars are much further away. He made a careful measurement of where those stars are, on a map. And then he observed those same stars six months later on a map, when the Sun was not there. And what he discovered was that the location of the starlight had shifted in the vicinity of the sunlight. So, this was evidence that the fabric of space and time curve measurably near the Sun.
Sir Arthur is generally considered the first astrophysicist, the first to marry both astronomy and physics together. And luckily for Einstein and everyone involved, the theory was confirmed only three years after he had advanced it.
But that’s incredible! There are dozens of other scientists whose theories weren’t capable of being proven until sometimes centuries after their death.
Exactly! They just sit there as an interesting thought. Now, there are things that Einstein predicted that weren’t discovered or proven until even just a few years ago. But that was one of the more important, fundamental tenets of the general theory of relativity. And it made Einstein incredibly famous in his own lifetime.
You are the face of astrophysics — if not globally, at least in this part of the world. As a kid, you met Carl Sagan, you talk about it in the first episode of “Cosmos.” And you were hooked. And you have this very large personality, which is what makes your talks so engaging. Were you like this as a kid?
You know, no one’s ever asked me that. My parents were highly sociable — they would hold dinner parties a couple of times a month, and even though we were kids, we were there, so I saw how sociable adults conducted themselves. My father was in city government — I grew up in the Bronx — so I saw how he interacted with government officials, friends. So, there was that exposure, but that doesn’t always mean that things come out that way. In fact, there’s an interesting emergent fact in the field of psychology that says that parents have very little influence on the temperament or personality that their kids ultimately grow into. It’s much less influence than anyone wants to believe.
So, I don’t know how much I absorbed, or how much was talked to me, but I do remember running for class president in the fourth grade. This wasn’t for the whole grade, mind you. Just our homeroom class. But I had to have slogans, and talk, and campaign, and I remember really liking it. I liked talking to other people. I’ve always been comfortable in social situations.
And since then, it’s just a prerequisite for me to be friendly. I mean, the sciences are generally not a hotbed of extroverted social people. I mean you don’t find TMZ going, “We’re coming up on a party being held by the astrophysicists!” My hope is that I can have a positive effect on people’s hopes and ambitions, the way other people, and educators, had an effect on me.
You have a new book coming out that’s a little different than your other works. Tell me about that.
It’s called “Letters from an Astrophysicist,” and it’s a compilation of some of the letters I’ve received over the years, and my answers. Total strangers, who write to me with questions, and decisions, about their lives. They’re at a crossroads, and they don’t know what to do, and they want to get a bigger picture. And the assumption is that if they write to me, I can bring a cosmic perspective that might help illuminate a path for them to follow. There are letters from prisoners, from people just diagnosed with terminal cancer, there’s a middle-school kid who’s being bullied who wants to be an astronaut, but he has seizures — there’s some really heart-wrenching stuff in there. But there’s fun stuff too.
You come out here fairly often. What do you make of the East End?
In East Hampton, you can still see the Milky Way. It’s about 100 miles from Boston, and 100 miles from New York City, you’re sort of at the optimal distance from both Boston and New York, at an angle out in the ocean. So, you can still see a stupefyingly beautiful sky. And I don’t want East Enders to take that for granted. Support all of the dark sky lighting ordinances that you can. Because it’s one of the last, great natural treasures — the unadulterated night sky.