Neil deGrasse Tyson is a world-renowned astrophysicist, author and science educator. And recently, he also got involved in suggesting names for Beyonce’s twins.
You might be wondering why a man of such prestige would be interested in what one of the world’s biggest celebrity power couples should call their newborns. And it’s not because he’s a Queen B fan.
HuffPost UK was granted an audience with the captivating and charismatic Tyson at the recent Starmus Festival in Trondheim, as we wanted to find out the secret to engaging the everyday person in science – a practise the scientist appeared to have refined to a T.
“I don’t take an issue and engage people,” he explained. “What I do is very different from that.
“Six weeks ago I published ‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’. And I like that title because it’s astrophysics, which feels heavy, but it’s for people who are in a hurry.
“I’m in a hurry, I’ve got kids, I work, I go to school, I’m in a hurry, OK. I think for many scientists and educators there’s the urge to get a curriculum, or the contents of a syllabus, and say ‘I will now teach you this phenomenon, and you otherwise don’t know any science at all’.
“But [when you’re reading] you’re not really in a school setting. I’m not going to test you later, I’m not going to give you a pop quiz. So, that actually relieves you, the educator, of the need to be complete. Or thorough. Instead, what you can be, and which I’ve done in this book, as an example, is I’ve curated topics in the universe that in my opinion are completely mind-blowing. And that’s what I’ve put in the book. It’s not every topic. It’s not every detail of the topics I talk about. I’ve picked the stuff that can be described in such a way as to be completely mind-blowing.
“And you don’t know any science, but you read this and your mind is blown. You say: ‘This is fun stuff, this is interesting stuff. I now understand some things I never understood before. Now I want to learn more.’ That’s what I do.”
Pressed on how he gets that first engagement, Tyson says the everyday person probably isn’t going to pick up ‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’ if they have no prior interest in the field. So how does he pique their interest? This is where Beyoncé comes in.
“Pop culture is a huge force. It should be one of the forces of nature.” If you initially think he’s joking, it’s not. He’s deadly serious.
“You come to me with a scaffold of pop culture, so you know Beyonce is pregnant, and you’ve heard of the Kardashians, and you know things. But I also have to know those things if I’m going to communicate with you. If I don’t know those things and I just deliver [my] things then I just lecture. And curious, how the word lecture certainly in the US, it has meaning while you’re in college, like ‘I have to go to my lecture today.’ But when you get out of college, it’s a bad word. ’Don’t lecture me, why are you lecturing me?”
Here he points, as if to pre-empt a response. “’I don’t want a lecture.’
“It’s a bad word. And so what is a lecture? It’s someone speaking knowledge, and gives very little attempt to communicate with you. You have to come to here,” he explains, holding his hands out and meeting them together midway with a loud clap, “to embrace and appreciate what’s just happened.
“Whereas if I turn the table and I say, you have a scaffold of pop culture, now I’m going to learn what that scaffold is. And anything I now want to teach you or show you in science I will clad your scaffold with that science.
“And then,” he concludes, clicking his fingers three times, slowly, around his head, as if he truly is channelling the Queen of Pop, ”you easily receive it.
“So, for example, let’s go back to Beyonce” – here, another snap of the fingers – “she’s pregnant with twins. She should be delivering right now*
“I think she has,” I venture, knowing full well she has.
“She has? OK. So, two months ago, I posted 20 tweets, suggesting names for her twins. But cosmically inspired. Now I would not have done that had her first kid not been called Blue Ivy. If you have a kid and you call it Blue Ivy, you’re ready for any name. Alright?”
“Alright,” I concede.
“If that child is called Mary, I’m not going to come up with any weird cosmic names. So I thought it was well within my rights to offer these names.
“So I posted a series of word pairs that are completely inspired by the universe, but now they could be names for Beyonce’s kids. And so as an example, one of them would be, Quin and Tessence. You put them together and you get the word Quintessence. And quintessence is the fifth essence. Quint – essence.
“No,” he corrects himself. “I said Quin – and Essence. But the word comes from Quint – which is fifth – and Essence – which is the fifth thing beyond earth, air, fire and water. The four elements. The quintessence was this thing which was not any of those four.”
Tyson delves into the meaning of quintessence, before bringing himself back to the interview.
“My point is, if I just started to give lectures on the four elements plus quintessence, it’s like ‘what am I doing? I’m just gonna listen’, but now it is attached to something that people care about. And, and I have a whole set of those words. And it’s like, ‘oh, now I want to learn more!’.
“And there’s no greater force of learning than a person who’s self-driven. Especially since you’re going to spend many more hours of your life not in school than in school.
“And I’d like to see a world where, when people get out of school, they say to themselves, now I know how to learn. And I will spend the rest of my life continuing to do so. But for so many people it’s like, now we’re done learning, why don’t we start life?
“You get married, have kids, get a car. And so they’re not thinking that every day they should be continuing to learn. So, if I can stimulate that curiosity, I’m delighted to be in such a role.”
Tyson is one of the most composed and collected people I’ve ever interviewed, and I’m curious to see what would ruffle his feathers. So I bring up climate change, explaining I have struggled to find new ways of engaging readers in the issue, and ask his advice on what he would suggest.
“Part of what it is to educate is to teach people not only the consequences of their actions, but especially the consequences of their inaction.
“It’s harder to write about inaction,” he admits. “Because there’s nothing that happens in that act. And then later on something happens but it’s hard to blame somebody who didn’t do something active.
“Our brain always wants to blame someone who did something. Rather than blame someone who didn’t do something but could have. So you have certain challenges in our world; energy, transportation, housing, food, where you have to ask ‘what kind of a world do you want to create?’ Especially when you have power of knowledge, of insight into how the world works so then you can do something about it.”
“You have people who publicly deny an emerging scientific truth,” Tyson muses. “A truth that is objectively true. And they might do so for cultural, religious or political reasons, because it conflicts with their own personal truths.
“People need to understand what science is and how and why it works, so that when a scientific, objective truth emerges, you say, well, that’s the reality, now let me have my political fight in the face of that reality, rather than having a political fight about whether that reality is true.
“And,” he sighs, “that’s what’s stalling so much world politics today.”
I start to ask Neil whether it frustrates him when science becomes political, but he cuts me off: “I don’t invest emotion in any of this, so there is no frustration.”
“OK”, I say, and attempt to rephrase the question; “How do you think -”
“I’m disappointed,” Neil interjects. “And I say, where has the educational system failed, that they think that they have the latitude to deny something that is objectively true?
“I try to give an example if you gained a pound this week, are you going to say ‘I want to repeal the law of gravity because I don’t like it.’? Are you going to do that?”
I shake my head.
“No. Well,” he chuckles, “I hope not.
“There are certain things you have learnt not to do because you have accepted those as objective truths.
“A scientific truth is not any one scientific paper, in any science. So scientific truth is, when multiple experiments by different people in different labs, ideally in different countries, begin to agree with one another. A truth is the consensus, not of opinion – because it has nothing to do with opinion – it is the consensus of observation and experiment that has emerged.
“We could all be getting different results, but do you know what the press does?,” I shrink in my seat, as if I’m taking the hit for journalists everywhere, because I know what’s coming.
“They go to the one result that they like and they report on that,” here I see the feathers begin to ruffle. “Or the one person whose result is especially controversial, and they report on that. The journalist will not step back and say: ‘What is the sum of all this work? Is there a trend line, oh my gosh, there is a trend line, that is an emerging truth, I will write an article about that.’
“It’s true for any subject. Any scientific frontier. If someone walks in and says ‘it’s true because I saw it’ – no, I don’t need your eyewitness testimony. What you do is you say ‘here is the results of my experiment’. And then you compare it with results from other experiments. And if there is agreement on some level then you pay closer attention and maybe design an even better experiment to verify how much the results actually agree. That’s a scientific truth.
“Apparently people don’t know how to embrace that. And I see that as a failure of the education system.”
I sense I’ve hit the nerve, and I venture to ask whether his powers of conversation would extend to engaging Donald Trump in the climate change conversation.
“Um, I don’t engage politicians,” he replies, matter-of-factly.
There’s a short silence while I wait for Tyson to elaborate.
“Because they represent people who voted for them,” he finally adds. “The lobbyists engage politicians. They get politicians to do what they want. Without regard to the wishes of the people who voted that person into office.
“I guess I’m the opposite of that.”
How so? I enquire.
“The politician is the person who is elected,” he explains. “As an educator, it’s my duty to teach an electorate all the ways the decisions they make or don’t make can influence their life. Then they make an informed decision on their vote.
“When you do that, you will never have politicians up at the top who do not know or understand what science is or how it works, if the electorate knows what science is and how or why it works.
“So, you could try to impeach Trump, you could do whatever you want to Trump. There’s still the matter of the 60 million people who voted for him. They’re still there.
“Politicians, they come and go. The electorate remains. So, I’m delighted to give talks in Trump country. I’m an educator and I teach people. Ideally not what to think, but how to think about the world. Leave them empowered so they can think freely for themselves.
“And you’d be surprised how many people have never been trained to do that. Because what does the school system do? Unzips your head, and they pour knowledge in, and they zip it back up and then you have to say what you learnt in a test. And in there, I don’t remember seeing people trained how to process information. How to take data and turn it into information. How to take information and turn it into knowledge. How to take knowledge and turn it into wisdom. Decision-making wisdom. And I don’t see that happening in the school system.
“When you’re empowered,” he continues, now in full flow, “you delight in thinking for yourself. But there seems to be some human urge to have someone else do our thinking for us. It’s … I don’t want to call it lazy … but it’s … maybe you’re too busy, so you find someone you trust and let them tell you how you should think about one thing or another.
“I get that, but, that means you’re not in control of the democracy. You might as well be in a dictatorship if you’re seeding decision-making, impactful decision-making ideas to others, who then hand it to you, and then you hear it persistently.
“That’s another kind of truth, a political truth. Political truth is something that became true because it was incessantly repeated to you. A politician wants you to think this way, with or without regard to whether it is objectively true.”
And with that, the interview finishes. But as he’s getting up to leave, Tyson stops and delivers one last parting musing:
“It’d be interesting if Beyonce picked one of the names. That’d be a crazy news story.”**
*HuffPost UK conducted the interview with Tyson in May
** Beyoncé named her twins Sir Carter and Rumi