Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Neil de Grasse Tyson (@neiltyson), who was appointed the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in 1996. Dr. Tyson’s professional research interests are primarily related to the structure of the Milky Way galaxy, and the formation of stars, supernovas, and dwarf galaxies.
Dr. Tyson graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, received his BA from Harvard, and earned his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991. He has 21 honorary degrees and was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry and, later, the President’s Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy (dubbed the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” commission). In 2016 he was appointed by the US secretary of defense to be an advisor to the DoD on the future of sci-tech innovation.
Since 2006 Dr. Tyson has appeared as the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s spinoff program NOVA ScienceNOW. He also hosts a popular radio show and podcast called StarTalk in addition to the Emmy-nominated StarTalk TV show on National Geographic.
In 2014 Dr. Tyson hosted a reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Neil, welcome to the show.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah thanks, Tim. It’s my first time.
Tim Ferriss: It is your first time. Hopefully not your last, but —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: For now, the first debut appearance. Of course, that’s the department of redundancy department way to describe it. But not our first time chatting, but first time, in this case, being able to ask you all the questions I’d like to ask.
I thought we’d start talking about talking. Specifically, I’d love to hear about any influences or inspirations for teaching or speaking. You’re such a good communicator. There are many scientists who are good scientists who are not good communicators. There are many good communicators who are not good scientists or scientific thinkers. Who are some of the people who have influenced or inspired you when it comes to communicating the way that you do?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: First, to your credit, believe it or not, no one has ever asked me that.
Tim Ferriss: All right, here we go. Good, promising start.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: This is a good first pitch home run right there. I can go back to my childhood and middle school years where I had already sort of exhausted the exhibitry of the American Museum of Natural History’s astronomy section, which is basically the Hayden Planetarium. It’s not just the planetarium, their exhibits and lining the corridors and things.
It doesn’t take much to exhaust simple exhibits. Fortunately, for me at least, the museum had sort of evening classes and lectures and lecture series. So I was an avid consumer of these additional offerings of the institution.
I remember distinctly there was some instructors who just had such a facility with words and sentences and humor and tenor, where I said to myself — by the way, just to back up, I knew I was interested in the universe from age nine so I’m already there. All right? So this is not a matter of, “They got me interested.” No, I’m already there.
But there were a couple of instructors that had such a facility with delivering information in a pleasing, enjoyable way, that I said to myself then, I must have been 14 or 13, that if I’m ever an educator, I want to be as effective as they are. It had to do with the combination of you could just sit down and — they’re good storytellers, right? One of them would be describing sort of the constellations of the night sky and all of the mythological characters that are up there and what Greek and Roman traditions were behind it, and what the stories are. So to hear how they told the stories and when and where they put emphasis, I’d never forgot that.
So that was one side of it. Now another side, there was a scientist, also an educator. But in this particular case, he had such a facility with the content. He just knew so much about the Big Bang and black holes and galaxies and stars and planets. I said to myself, “I don’t know if I will ever learn as much as he knows now.”
Now I didn’t realize — I was only 14. My life learning until then — my entire life is small compared with how long he’s been alive, right? I mean, he might’ve been 50 at the time, I don’t know. But I just could not even imagine learning what it would take to learn as much about the universe as he did. But I said, “If I ever am successfully a scientist, I want the command of the content the way he has.” Plus, he had a very good sense of humor as well.
So if you combine knowledge-based humor, facility with words and language, and storytelling, that was in me. Or at least the mission statement to achieve this was in me since my mid-teens.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible. Directionally, you said at age nine you were already sort of pointed in terms of interest at the universe, as you mentioned. How did that develop?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, so now you are now the thousandth person to ask me.
Tim Ferriss: I figured I would follow up with a first by asking the nth number question. Just for those people who don’t know your background.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Does that negate the first question?
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. It doesn’t negate, it just averages down.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The other one was a home run you already scored. Right, yeah. So this is a bunt. Let’s see if we can get to base on it.
It was a first visit to the Hayden Planetarium, my local planetarium in New York City, which happens to be large and significant. So the word local doesn’t really capture what’s actually going on there. It’s a content producing facility. So we produce — of course, I’m now director of that planetarium, that very same planetarium.
But my parents would take my sister, my brother, and me to each weekend. It felt like each weekend, but it was probably maybe one or two weekends a month. But on family trips to various cultural institutional offerings in the city and in the region. So it didn’t matter. We’d go to the aquarium, we’d go to the zoo, we’d go to the art museum, we’d go to an opera, we’d go to a play, we’d go to a Yankee game, a Giants game, a college football game. It would just be something where we would observe adults doing with expertise. Okay?
So it wasn’t just, “You want to grow up to be a doctor, a lawyer, Indian chief.” No, it was, “What else do full-grown humans do in this world?” That exposure was significant. I thought it was just they’re just trying to get us out of the house. But there was a master plan in place, a master objective, which was to expose the three of us to as much as they possibly could. So that when we decided what we wanted to be when we grew up, it would have a certain authenticity of origin.
I mean, think of how many people who were raised by ambitious parents, where they — the parents really kind of tell the kids what they’re going to major. You’re going to be a doctor, or you’re going to be an attorney like your parents, like your mother. Or, “I never could be an attorney but now you’re going to be one,” right?
There are these pressures, some overt, some covert, but there’s so many places or occasions where kids are not really doing what their heart wants them to do. They’re doing what their family wants them to do or what their family needs them to do. “You’re going to inherit my business and you’re going to be an expert in furniture.” Whatever it is.
That was not going on in our household. In our household, it was a free expression of interest. When I first went to the Hayden Planetarium at age nine, I was hooked. I mean, you sit back in this big comfy chair. I realize now that big comfy chairs that recline in the dark will put an adult to sleep immediately. But as a kid, it was, “Wow.” And then the lights dimmed and the stars came out.
At first I thought it was a hoax because I had seen the night sky from the Bronx where I grew up. You get a couple dozen stars, tops. So I had no idea that that wasn’t real, that it was light polluted and air polluted. Back then it was much more air pollution. I had no idea, so I thought it was a hoax. But it was an entertaining hoax. So I was not going to stop it or walk out.
Only later would I learn that that sky on the dome was authentic. What’s embarrassing, in an urban sense, is that to this day when I go to mountain top observatories, some of the finest observing sites in the world, and I look up and I see the night sky, I whisper to myself, “Wow, this reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium.” It’s a little embarrassing, but it’s true. So yeah, that’s how it began.
Meanwhile, my brother would — we would visit an art museum and he was totally taken by art, and would ultimately attend the High School of Music and Art in New York. And I would ultimately attend New York’s The Bronx High School of Science. My sister ultimately was a total sellout and she went into corporate America. She got her MBA. But she loved horses and we had gone horseback riding in Van Cortlandt Park. There were stables there.
Again, these are things you can do. So she’s had a lifelong appreciation for equine sports and just riding in general. But my point is all of our interests are genuine and I think we’ve been happier for it. We’re not hiding some inner need at the risk of disappointing parents.
Yeah, so that’s the full story right there. That’s my origin story.
Tim Ferriss: I want to dig into maybe some of the inner folds of the origin story. It certainly sounds like you and your family, at your parents’ encouragement, used New York City as a learning laboratory of sorts, and you had these weekend excursions.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: You just said it way better than I just did. A learning laboratory. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: You’re welcome.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Can I use that in the future, may I?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, all yours. I’d love to hear, if anything else comes to mind, say, during the week or evenings when families were together, were there any other habits, or routines, or approaches that they used for curiosity?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes, but before I tell you that, there’s something else I want to add. I don’t mean to pit demographic against demographic, or neighborhood against neighborhood, but I can tell you that — think about how many parents, particularly back then, there’s less so today. But back in the day of urban flight, where — I’m stereotyping here. But let’s imagine you just got out of college, you got married, and you got a good job in the city.
So you’re working in the city, and you and your spouse say, “Let’s have kids, but we don’t want to raise them in the city. There’s no backyard, there’s no swing set.” So you save your first bonus check or whatever because these are upwardly mobile couples. Then you buy a home in the suburbs. That’s where you birth your kids and that’s where you raise them. Then they attend suburban schools.
So when you go out to the suburbs, you don’t have these cultural institutions because cultural institutions are focused in the city. Not only that, on the weekend where are the kids going to go? They go hang out at the mall. Right? So the interstitial time, the downtime does not have the access, typically. Especially, you don’t even know how to drive yet until you’re 16 or 17, so you’re already almost out of high school before you have a full up sort of driver’s license.
The fact that we were in the city meant yes, the city was our laboratory. There’s just another quick thing. You didn’t ask this, but I remembered researching it. You can also ask the question, particularly back in the very dangerous times of the city. When I grew up, there were 2,000 homicides a year in New York City, about seven a day. So that was just your state of mind.
This was the late ’60s, especially the 1970s. If you’re a movie buff, that’s the decade that Escape from New York was made, where this is — it’s got a cult following, but I think it was one of the worst movies ever made. Not just because I’m from New York City and the government had turned Manhattan into a prison, right? The Island is a prison, right?
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: So they just dumped criminals there and let them fend for themselves. Whole thing aside, they did that to my hometown. I still think it was an awful movie. But yes, that was made in that era.
What point was I making about —
Tim Ferriss: You were weaving your way to other ways your parents cultivated curiosity outside of the weekend.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, yeah. Right, sorry. Thanks for remembering where I’m trying to go with what I’m saying. You should be host of a podcast.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve been thinking about it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Now I wanted to slip in another little fact, that you can ask the question, “What are the chances, given crime and all the other factors, of not surviving to age 18?” Okay? And you can say, “I want to live where my chances of survival to 18 are at its highest. That would be one measure of the safety of the neighborhood that you choose.”
Well, someone did a study on that and here’s what they found. They said, “Let’s compare the city and the suburbs.” The city is where everyone is thinking that everything is dangerous. Right?
Going back, this study was done probably about when the homicide rate was around a thousand a year. It had dropped. I think I remember reading this in the 1980s. By the way, right now it’s just a few hundred. Most of those homicides are between people who know each other, which is very hard for the police to stop if you have access to each other. So it’s between you and your drug dealer, that sort of thing. So if you’re pretty sure no one you know wants to kill you, then the statistics are extraordinarily safe for New York City today. Today. But we’re going back 30 years.
Now watch, so the study was, “What are the chances of dying before age 18?” You want to compare neighborhoods of equal income. Okay? So you go to the Upper East Side of New York, a very well-to-do place. Then you go to Scarsdale or Greenwich, a well-to-do suburb of New York. One is in Westchester, one is in Connecticut, but they’re both in commuting distance of New York.
Here’s what they found, that you were two or three times less likely to survive age 18 in the suburbs than you were in the city, at any income level. And you say, “Well, what’s going on there? What? I thought the city was dangerous.” The city is dangerous. But you know what’s more dangerous? Driving, okay? Driving is more dangerous. Auto accidents of drunk teens who just got their learner’s permit or their just minted driver’s license. Or prom night, or you kill somebody else because you’re drunk, or you were playing in your front yard and the ball rolled into the street and you’re a kid and you roll out and you get hit by a car. Car related deaths. Vast. So they swamped the deaths from violence that would occur in the city.
Also, suicides were higher in the suburbs than in the city. I wonder, not that I have any expertise in psychological health, but you’ve got to wonder how low can you feel walking home after you’ve stepped over three homeless people, right? I mean, how much at the bottom are you? As Redd Foxx once joked — because poor people commit suicide at a lower rate than rich people. He said, “Well, it’s hard to kill yourself jumping out of the basement window.” That was Redd Foxx.
Anyhow, that’s just a little side thing about city life versus suburban life. As you may know, there’s a flight back to the city in recent years. Upwardly mobile people want to — did well in college and they’re lifelong learners. They want to stay close to the learning centers. You have art openings and wine tastings and indie movie premiers. None of that’s in the suburbs. That’s the challenge here. So there’s a return back to the cities in the real estate trends in recent years.
But anyhow, getting back to your point, so once any of our interests were revealed, my brother, my sister, and my interests were manifested, then my parents fed those interests. My parents are — a sociologist activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He even worked under Mayor Lindsay back then, just trying to keep the powder keg from igniting.
In fact, in the late ’60s, New York City had only the smallest of inner city unrest relative to Watts, or Detroit, or Cincinnati, or Washington, or Atlanta. There were cities that burned, especially in 1968, the most turbulent year of the most turbulent decade in American history since the Civil War, the 1860s. So there was New York City.
My father was active in that. He was commissioner of the Human Resources Administration. What is that? These are people who care about you and what job you might have. What is a riot but the last gasp of hopelessness expressed? That’s what a riot is. If you have hope, or I’m going to have a job this summer, I’m going to make money, I’m going to do this. There are people who care about me. This city cares. This whole state of mind has basically, I will come out and just say, diffused whatever might have been a riot in the biggest city in the country, with the largest quote, “ghetto” in the country. Now we just call them inner cities.
So that’s what my father was engaged in. My mother was a homemaker until we became empty nest. Then she went back to school and went on and got her undergraduate degree, which she hadn’t finished before they got married. And then a graduate degree in gerontology.
I’m taking you down that path just to alert you that both my parents were active in professionally relieving the suffering of others. Right? That’s their goal. And here’s their kid, the astrophysicist. So they have no clue how to help me along at all. Except whenever my mother would visit a bookstore, she would go to the remainder table. I don’t know if those still exist. Where publishers, they printed too many books and then they just want to get rid of them. They shake the tree, the books fall out, and they sell high quality books for like 50 cents or a dollar.
My mother would just find any book on mathematics or science, certainly astronomy. Bought them for a low, low budget. They would come home, they would be my birthday gifts. I had the biggest library of any middle schooler in the hood. That included brain teaser books. So they didn’t know for sure. But basically, some of this is let’s — how does the saying go? Raise the flag and see who salutes it, right? So they were raising these books flags, and which ones that attracted me, which ones didn’t. Most of them were good. Most of them further developed me. They would buy art books for my brother. So it’s seeing what our interests are and then supporting it. I had no regrets.
That was my wife’s and my objectives with our kids. My wife has a PhD in mathematical physics and I have a PhD in astrophysics. People come up to us and say, “Are your kids okay? Can that mess up your kids?” It’s not. People only think that when you have science parents, not when they have lawyer parents or anything. Our kids are into their own thing. They’re not pressured to do science or anything like that.
Tim Ferriss: I have to pause just to mention that this is deja vu all over again for me. It’s the first time I’ve had a guest describe exactly what happened with my family also. My parents exposed us to a lot. They would see what caught our attention. They didn’t have budget for new bikes or other things, but my mom would always say, “We have budget for books.” What that meant was going to the remainder table, specifically, at the bookstore to pick up books on whatever had caught our attention. It’s very, very similar. That’s really wild.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The thing is, as I got older, when I considered writing books myself, I said, “Suppose my book ends up on the remainder table.” It’s a bittersweet thing. It’s like, “I don’t want it to be on the remainder table, but that’s how I cut my teeth in this.” It’s not selling well if it’s on the remainder table. Actually, that’s not always true. Sometimes they just want to — the hard cover is slowing down and they want to go to paperback. So then they release the hardcover to the remainder table and then the paperback does well on another budget level.
But so yeah, the remainder table, I have a love hate relationship now that I’m an author with it.
Tim Ferriss: If we jump from where we started around 14 at the beginning of this conversation, and flash forward. Not too far forward, I suppose. Could you describe — and this is I’m sure something you’ve been asked before, but I’m going to add a twist to it, which is could you describe for people who don’t know the name, who Carl Sagan is? And then also, perhaps share a story or any observations about what people don’t fully appreciate about him or don’t know about him?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, excellent. Thanks for that question. Carl Sagan is probably the most famous popularizer of science there ever was. I can’t say he’s the most popular scientist. That would probably be Albert Einstein, or Isaac Newton, or Stephen Hawking. But if you look at sort of visibility, he was a very productive scientist in his own right. But that’s not how most people remember him. They remember him as initially, author of some very, very readable books on the universe. As multi-time guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny Carson, the Tonight Show host who preceded Jay Leno, who preceded Jimmy Fallon. So there’s only been a handful of hosts of The Tonight Show.
Carl Sagan came of age at a time when Johnny Carson was host. And Johnny Carson was a big fan of science. More so than Jay Leno was. So Jay Leno, in all of his tenure, had very few scientists on. I was on his show the last week before he swapped out with Jimmy Fallon.
But anyhow, so Carl Sagan had a very potent way of communicating science concepts. I already knew I was going to do astrophysics before I even knew he existed, so I can’t credit him for inspiration to become an astrophysicist. But what I can credit him for is the power of analogy.
I’ll give you an example. I heard him give a talk and he was describing the size of a payload in a space mission. So rather than say, “It was eight inches by six inches,” he didn’t say that, he said, “It’s about the size of a two-pound coffee can.” And I said, “I know exactly what that is. Okay, I got that. All right.” Something that simple, not giving the metric of something, giving something else that is familiar in your life, somehow makes it real. So that thenceforth, anytime I saw a two-pound coffee can, I thought about space missions, right?
Tim Ferriss: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Neil deGrasse Tyson: He was really good at that. So I said, “Wow. Okay, if I’m ever in the position of communicating complex ideas to the public, I will try to make sure that I can fold this in as well.” I think one of my best versions of this was I was being interviewed on the Today show back when the Cassini spacecraft had just pulled into orbit around Saturn for a 12-year observing mission, right? Observing the rings, ring system, the moons, their magnetic fields, the gas, everything about the Saturnian system.
The host asked me, trying to go hard-hitting, said, “Dr. Tyson…” This is after we said nice things about the spacecraft. Now it was going to take a turn. Now I knew journalists do this, so I was just ready. You had no idea how ready I was. Out comes the question, “Doctor, this is a $3 billion mission. How can we possibly justify that expense with all the problems we have in the world today?”
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay, if I’m going to be stumped on national television, it’s not going to be by a morning host. It’s going to have to be someone who was in the trenches in Vietnam, one of those reporters, all right? Then I’m okay with that. But I’m not going to be stumped on the morning news. I’m sorry.
So I said, “Wait, it’s not $3 billion. That’s the cost of the 12 years. What matters is the budget per year, all right? So the budget per year, it’s $300 or 400 million a year. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.” Bam.
Now, we all — lip balm in a general sense, so it includes lipstick, ChapStick, all the stuff we put on our lips. You add that up, it costs more than that mission. So I was very proud of that. I didn’t know at the time that — this was the Today Show and you know they have the people in the plaza outside looking in the window, holding up signs from their hometown. I didn’t know that the audio from the show gets piped out into the street. Because when the show ended, I walked out. There was a chorus of people holding up their ChapStick saying, “We want to go to Saturn.” So I thought, “Wow, I could start a ChapStick movement.”
But all of that, it’s traceable to Carl Sagan’s ability to find some other analogy that drives home the scientific point that he was making. So to complete the influencers on me as an educator, his facility with that, I’ve tried to make part of my own methods, tools, and tactics when I find myself in those situations.
Tim Ferriss: In the mid-’70s, why —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Wait a minute. Excuse me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: After everything I just said, he went on and made Cosmos. Okay? It’s called A Personal Voyage. It came out in 1980, aired on PBS. That was seen, I think, by a billion people. It was the most successful documentary there ever was. That really made him a household name at the time. We’re now 40 years ago. And invited by heads of state to places and this sort of thing.
What distinguished that from any other documentary, no one thinks of Cosmos as a documentary. There’s something else going on in it. It has to do with the creativity of not only Carl, but especially the co-writer — it had two co-writers at the time, Ann Druyan, who he would later marry, and Steve Soter, who is a colleague of mine. In fact, he’s got an office in my department.
That combination of wit, insight, sensitivity to the human condition made Cosmos something else. It was like this was not just about the universe, it’s about why all of science matters to us. Not only to you the individual, but to civilization. It was a call to action to become better shepherds of this world. Back then we were still in the Cold War, so nuclear threat was real.
I was privileged enough to host the second of these Cosmoses, if that’s the plural of cosmos. Cosmoses in 2014, 34 years after the first. Ann Druyan as the lead writer in that. She, while not a scientist herself, I can tell you that she’s one of the most enlightened people I’ve ever met. She sees and feels the science. So that there’s science that needs to be conveyed, she will find a way to communicate that science such that you will never forget it. That becomes part of your inner soul of concern and curiosity. That’s the potency of this series.
So I don’t think science, communication, and science education has ever been the same since Cosmos has landed on the landscape.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to come up — or I should say come up, come back to a Carl Sagan follow up. But since we’re talking about science, science communication, I would like to revisit — and feel free to fact check this because I don’t want to believe everything I find on the internet. But this is from Harvard Business Review. The question to you was, “How can schools and workplaces emphasize curiosity?” We can focus on the schools.
The answer I have, which I’d love to hear you comment on is, “There should be a class where you learn how and why science works and what the methods and tools of science do. In many people’s understanding, science is just this body of knowledge. But really it’s a way of querying nature.” How would you teach such a class if you had that as your mandate or you chose that as your mission; what might the structure or curriculum look like if you were to teach such a class?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Okay. First, I have no memory of that answer, but I do remember saying that. No, no, I don’t remember being in the Harvard Business Review. Wow. Okay.
Tim Ferriss: It could’ve been syndicated, could’ve been copied and pasted.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Possibly.
Tim Ferriss: Who knows what agreement they have.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right, because why would Harvard Business Review care about me at all? So yes, but that entire quote is accurate. It’s what I think and it’s what I’ve said, and I would double down on that and say this shouldn’t just be one class. This should be an entire line of curriculum that threads through all of your years in school that capture the need to stimulate curiosity. So yeah, you have to learn how to ask questions and courses typically are, “Here. Here is knowledge and learn it.” Rather than, “Here is something we don’t understand. How would you probe it? How would you ask — what sequence of questions would you ask to learn what this thing is?” Right? I mean, let me just — this might be contrived, but it’ll serve the point. Let’s say there’s a sapling there, like a small tree growing. And say, if you didn’t know anything about this, how would you go about investigating it?
You’d say, “Well, okay, I’d ask, what does it weigh? Can I weigh it? What are these things on a thing?” We call them leaves. “Well, what’s the purpose of a leaf? What happens if I block it from sunlight, because it looks like it wants to see sunlight. What happens if I do that? What does it need to live? Does it need soil? Does it need water? It looks like it likes water. What happens if I don’t give it water? What happens if I give it Coca Cola or something?” So, it’s an open-ended inquiry into the operations of nature. And the open-endedness, I think, I think is what stimulates curiosity because some of your questions won’t lead to an answer and others will. So you want to hone that, and you don’t always know in advance which are the best questions to ask.
If you ask the question, “What kind of cheese is the moon made out of?” Well, okay. You know, grammatically, that’s a legitimate question. But scientifically, if you don’t know, and you think it’s cheese, then you’ll set up experiments to try to test. Is it Roquefort? Is it Edam? Is it a goat cheese? Do you know?” And you found out that none of anything productive. Why? Because it’s not made of cheese. That itself is a revelation. It’s made of silicates. Silicate is an active ingredient in rocks. And silicate is a very common ingredient in the universe. So, I think the class would stimulate open-ended inquiry in all the different academic subjects. So not only the science subjects, but also history and English. I mean, why not? “Where did this word come from?” Oh, I don’t know. Let’s find out. “Well, here’s the root. Here’s the, this. Oh, who first used it?” Why is it that I did not know about the Oxford English dictionary until I was like 25 or 30. Okay? Why? Why is that so?
The Oxford English dictionary is every single appearance of a word in the history of the language where the usage of the word pivoted. So it has not only the first appearance of the word, but any subsequent appearance where someone gave it a different nuance of meaning. And that’s kind of fun to dig that up. How come we never did that in English class? That would have been really fun, and I would have learned then instead of two years ago that the word acronym — acronym, we all know this word — do you realize that’s a modern word? I have a dictionary from 1939, and it’s not in that dictionary. It’s an unabridged dictionary, and it’s not in that dictionary. I would later learn that that word was invented to describe all of the abbreviations that came out of agencies and organizations in the second World War. Acronym. And technically it’s an abbreviation that you can pronounce as a word. So NASA is an acronym and SCUBA is an acronym and LASER is an acronym. But IBM or CIA are not acronyms because you can’t spell them out. But that would’ve been just kind of cool. This is inquiry. This is free inquiry into knowledge.
And if you can stimulate that, then kids who get out of school will not celebrate the end of school. They will lament that, they will lament, “What? I can’t learn anymore?” Oh, yes you can. Because you now know how to be curious, and you will now shape a life long — you’re now creating an arc of learning that continues for the rest of your life.
Tim Ferriss: This is a really important subject, of course, and —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: By the way, I’m giving you very long answers. Is that okay?
Tim Ferriss: Long answers are great. This is why we have time.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: This is not a short podcast.
Tim Ferriss: No, not only allowed, but encouraged.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: All right.
Tim Ferriss: And I’d like to dig a little deeper on scientists versus scientific thinking, because it strikes me that I’ve come across many people just in travels, public speaking, and so on, different types of engagements, who would say, “I’m not a scientist.” And in saying that, sort of throw out the hope or possibility of developing scientific thinking. And I certainly wouldn’t call myself a scientist, but I’ve greatly benefited from reading Bertrand Russell or there’s a book called Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, who’s an MD, but who writes about many different things. And this book talks about how to read a study and how to read journalism that supposedly accurately covers studies. And I found it deeply enriching and valuable in navigating reality. Are there any particular books or resources you would recommend or approaches for people who would like to develop their ability to look at the world through this type of lens that you’re describing?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: So, that’s an important and insightful question because — you know, you should really be a host of a podcast. Just so you know. If I haven’t convinced you of that by the end of this. So, you’re right, not everyone can be a scientist and there’s all this talk, “We need more scientists in Congress.” And I think that’d be great. But what you really need are scientifically literate leaders who know how to trust the emergent scientific truths of scientific research and how to then embrace that and folded in as necessary into legislation or policy, either the executive branch or the legislative branch. So, it’s possible to be scientifically literate and not be an expert in any particular scientific line, discipline. And so what does it mean? Tapping back to a few moments ago. It means knowing how to ask questions. It means knowing how to invoke skepticism.
Skepticism allows an open mind for things that you’re unfamiliar with to be true, but it does not allow your mind to be so open that your brains spill out, and you lose the capacity to judge what is true and what is not. And so I, in this effort to know what is true and what is not, I, at the risk of sounding self-serving, one of my books is called Death by Black Hole. In spite of its title, gory title, it’s actually about what science is and how and why it works. And when people write to me with questions, I know based on how they worded the question, whether they read that book or not. That’s how effective I think it can be on the reader because it says, there are chapters in there on how do we know what we know and why do we know what we know? And what is our confidence in what we know?
And so there’s an entire unpacking of the anatomy of science in that book. And until recently, that was my biggest selling book. But I have a couple of books that have done better than that since then. But I’m very proud of that book and the summation of what it delivers to the reader. If you’re collecting book names, another good book is How to Lie with Statistics. A cute little tiny book that tells you all the things who people want to fool you into thinking something that’s true, that’s not, and how they manipulate statistics in order to accomplish this. It’s in print. It has been in print for like 50 years. I think it came out in the 1950s, so that would make it 60 years. So that, I think, put that one very high on the list, and I’m going to make a note of this other book that you’re describing. What was it? Bad Science. If it influenced you as much as you say then I’m going to check it out.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a good book. It’s by Ben Goldacre. Gold and then acre, like the parcel of land. It’s very helpful specifically for parsing health related information in media or marketing.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. So, one thing I have to say is, the press, and in all fairness to them, each journalist wants to be the first to break a story and because then everyone references them as the, and this is how Pulitzer prizes are given. If you break a story. And if you hang out at the coffee lounges of scientific conferences, and you hear a new result that could be amazing or devastating or mind blowing, and you write an article about it, what you’re not doing as a journalist is honestly presenting the likelihood that it’s true. You’re just presenting it as true. Or you’ll say, “If this is true, this will revolutionize everything.” And then you leave that phrase in the first sentence of the article and all the rest of the article assumes it’s true. And so the reader is left with the assumption that it’s true, whereas a scientific truth is never any one person’s research paper ever.
Tim Ferriss: Ever.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Ever. The research frontier is a ratty, bloody, bleeding place, and most things will be wrong. And the few things that are right are demonstrated to be right because of verified other research that supports it. And so what you’re looking for is a consensus not of opinion. I’m using that word because I don’t have a better word. It’s a consensus of scientific experiments and observations and once you have that you can say, “Oh my gosh, this result continues to persist as the results of experiments even when conducted by this person’s competitor, even when conducted in another country where they use 240 volts instead of 120 volts.” Maybe the power of the experiment influences the results, you know, who knows? You just don’t know. So, when you have enough different people getting the same result, now the journalists can talk about it as the new truth but they don’t because they want to get — this is a problem.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The importance of replication I think does not get enough popular press. And you mentioned earlier that in some measure, becoming a scientifically literate person is determining what sequence of questions you might ask to figure something out. And I think you could enjoy Ben’s work. I can point you to some of it because it’ll help readers to, at the very least look at, say, a piece in a newspaper or a magazine or online and identify what is missing. Right? So, if somebody says eating bananas doubles the risk of colorectal cancer, something like that. Right? Well, there are a bunch of questions, which are like, “How did you determine that? How many bananas? Were you injecting bananas into rats? Are rats comparable to humans? And if doubled means that the risk went from one in 20 million to two and 20 million, is it really something that you need to worry about?”
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Right. Because we remembered the word doubled without reference to the baseline on which you were doubling.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That How to Lie with Statistics is a great one too. Yeah. Make sure your Y axis has a label. I promised I would come back to it and I want to, in part because Carl Sagan is one of those people I would have loved to have met. I would have loved to have had a chance to meet him. If this is true, why did the admissions office of Cornell University forward your application to Carl’s attention?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, yeah. So, when I was 17, a senior in high school applying to college, Cornell, where Carl Sagan was professor, was one of the schools I applied to and unknown to me, they forwarded my application to him. They had already accepted me and I think they had already accepted me. Is that right? Actually it doesn’t matter at this point. They forwarded to him to get his reaction to it and my application was dripping with the universe. I was in the astronomy club. I walked dogs to buy my own telescope. In the glory days of dog walking before you had to clean up after them. Pre-pooper scooper laws. He saw my application and sent me a letter in the mail saying, “I saw your application. I’d love to help you decide if you want to come to Cornell and I’d be delighted to meet with you and give you a tour of the campus the next time you’re up here.”
It was like, “Holy shit. This is Carl Sagan, the one who was on The Tonight Show and all the books.” Yes it was. And sure enough, I got on a bus and went from New York City to Ithaca, all four and a half or five hours of that bus ride. And sure enough he met me out front of the lab and in fact it was a Saturday that he did this because I couldn’t take time off from school and showed me the lab and I remembered he was sitting behind his desk and he reached back, didn’t even look, grabbed a book from the shelf and then signed it. It was just one of his books that he wrote. That’s bad ass. If you didn’t have to look to pull this thing off the shelf behind you because one of the books that you wrote — I still have that book. It’s signed, “To Neil, future astronomer.”
Tim Ferriss: Amazing.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It’s still in there. Oh, then it started snowing and I was scheduled to take the bus back and he left me his home phone number and said, “If the bus can’t get through then call me and spend the night with my family and go out tomorrow.” And I thought, “What’s going on? Why?” I’m thinking to myself. And I realized that he was deeply committed to making sure that a next generation had access. The next generation had the enthusiasm that he had. And I said to myself at the time, “If I’m ever as remotely famous as he is, then I will give time to students, allocate time to students, the way he has to me.” And now I joke that, because now of course I have my own books behind my desk that I reach for when students come in, and every time I do that I say, “Yep. This is an homage to Carl.” And I joke that if I’m on the phone it’s, “Barack, I got to get back to you. I’ve got a student who’s waiting for — ” Students first. So I already knew I was going to be an astrophysicist at that point. But that exchange with him codified for me what kind of a scientist I would be, what kind of humanity I would carry with me in my interactions with others, especially students.
Tim Ferriss: What do you hope to instill or infuse in students, if you have a short amount of time with them? If they are in your office, and you’re going to reach back and grab a book? What book?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, a great question. It’s ambition. Ambition has gotten a bad meaning lately because people think, “Oh, that’s an ambitious person in the office place.” In the business setting. That usually means you’re stepping on top of people to get forward. “That’s an ambitious person,” and it doesn’t always mean that, but it carries some of that patina today. I’m simply saying, what is your confidence in yourself? What are you doing to boost who and what you are in this subject? And how far do you want to take it? These are all aspects of the ambition tree. And so I also encourage people, you should not distract yourself with what grades you’re getting. After your second job, no one asks you what grades you got ever. All right? Go ask any 30-year-old person, “When was the last time someone asked what their GPA was?” They won’t even remember when that was. What matters is, are you a good problem solver? Are you moral? Are you a hard worker? Are you a good leader? Do you have insights into the field? These are the questions that matter.
And if you take hard classes rather than easy classes, you might get a lower grade. Sure. But if you take an easy class and get a high grade, well, that’s what everyone else is getting. So you will not distinguish yourself in the actual workplace because everyone else has exactly that same profile because they took all the same easy classes you did. If you take a harder class, risk the lower grade, you are actually ascending a pyramid or a ladder. Let’s say. You’re adding rungs to a ladder that you then ascend and every next rung you are higher above the ground than everybody else. And at one point you will reach a rung of the ladder where no one else is adjacent to you and people have to beat a path to your door to solve their problems, their business problems, their academic, whatever it is they’re doing because you kept ascending, doing the hard things to accomplish it. And this is a recurring message that I give students who come in and in my next book, Letters from an Astrophysicist, it’s curious that you have these arc of questions because these are letters I’ve written in exchange to questions asked of me where all of these topics have been covered.
Because I get letters from students, there are also letters, an open letter I wrote, a letter to my parents that I wrote for their 30th wedding anniversary. This is back in the 1980s, where I’m thanking them for supporting me, you know? So, this whole part of this conversation that involved me remembering what my parents did, that’s in there, you’ll see that and wisdom from my father about how to stay grounded but also to continue to dream about where I want to land. However high above the ground that dream is. So I’m delighted to say that a lot of this conversation is actually contained in that book.
Tim Ferriss: Now let’s talk about that for a second. So the Letters from an Astrophysicist, you have in reading, in preparation for this, looking at your bio, looking at your current projects. I mean, I somehow create the illusion that I do a lot of stuff but you really seem to have an incredible ability to work on multiple projects. You certainly have more opportunities than bandwidth to execute on all of those opportunities. How do you choose to write a book, let’s say, like Letters from an Astrophysicist? Why that book and why now? Just the decision process for choosing that amongst all of the many things that you could spend time on.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, so it’s a matter of, you remember the game in the arcade where all these coins are piled on top of each other, and you have this pushing bar?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: And the bar pushes and you add another coin, and it pushes, and there’s a big stack. Is it going to come? No, it’s not going to come. Let me try again. I don’t know what that game is called but I think we’re all familiar with it. There are occasions where so many things are preloaded in my life and I have to ask, “Well, what am I going to do today instead of tomorrow? What should I have done yesterday?” Well, there’s this big stack that’s ready to spill over. That’s the one I got to do now. Otherwise I’ll lose it all. Or it’ll roll down the street. So, some of it is, not to overstretch the metaphors, but some of it is like the person who spins the plates and keeps them all spinning all at once. I don’t know if that arcade trick is still — that doesn’t make the evening variety shows anymore. That used to count as entertainment. Plates spinning on sticks.
But yeah, I’m spinning. And people have asked, “Well, how do you achieve equilibrium in life? What is the balance?” There is no balance. It is never in balance ever. With family, with kids, with wife, with work, with writing, with television and other media, with Twitter, nothing is ever in balance. And so I spend a lot of time trying to do what I do do more efficiently today than yesterday. Then you can squeeze in a little more. But no, there is no balance. There is no. How do I accomplish it? I don’t know. The letters book, although, has a simpler origin story. I’ve been answering letters from the public forever. In fact, my first and third books are compilations of Q&A. I used to have a Q&A column in a magazine called StarDate under the pen name Merlin.
So my very first book ever was called Merlin’s Tour of the Universe, which was a compilation of those letters. And then I had more and it had enough for a second volume, which became my third book. But that was 40 years ago, 30 years ago. Right now, in sort of my modern life, I would answer questions from the public and every now and then, some of the questions would be sort of straightforward science questions. And I have a team of people at the Hayden Planetarium who can field those and I made sure that it was answered under their own name if they answered it, even though it came to me, it would come from them. Other letters, much more personal, much more specific to me, about in reaction to something I said or wrote, those letters I would answer personally. And one out of 10 of those letters I would find myself doing a little extra homework to make sure I gave sort of the fleshiest answer I could or I would put in a little extra literary effort.
And when I would do that, I say, “It’d be a shame if only this one person saw this letter.” So I put it aside in a folder on the possibility that I would one day collect letters into a volume. And so two years ago, because books take time to plan and contract and all of this, I said, “Wow, I’ve got 500 letters of this variety where I’ve put an extra effort to communicate. And I think it’s time for a book.” So I culled them down to about 200 and that was still a lot. And with the help of my agent editor, said “Let’s hone it down some more.” So now the actual book, Letters from an Astrophysicist, has 101 letters, which is the creme de la creme de la creme. With regard to range of content, with regard to insights, with regard to two plight of the person who asks the questions, I have three of them are from prison inmates, others are from parents trying to be better at raising their kids.
There’s a whole chunk from religious people, there’s Muslim, Jews, Buddhist, but most of the religions as you might guess are from Christians who are desperately trying to reconcile science with biblical passages. And so there’s quite the slice of who is out there and who is asking questions of an astrophysicist. And so that became the collection. So the editing was huge because you can’t put everybody’s full letter in because many of them were just rambly babbley. And so I paraphrase many of the letters just to get it in there, but once that was done and then you have to edit for clarity and grammar and all the rest of this. An editorial choice, I said, when punctuation is expressing emotion, when excessive punctuation expresses emotion, I leave it in. So when someone says, “I want to know the answer to this now.” And now is capitalized and it has three exclamation points, I leave it in. Just so you can share the person’s feelings in composing the letter.
One of the chapters is hate mail, just really pissed off people. So I’m just honest about what kind of correspondence I’ve had with people. Most of it was over a 10-year period when my email was publicly findable on the internet and some other letters have trickled in since then. The prison letters have trickled in since then; they don’t have internet. So it comes as a paper letter to my office. And so that, I’ve been working on that for the last two years and so finally it hits October.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Exciting. Congratulations. I want to come back to the comment on balance, which makes sense to me. Maybe like trying to stabilize your heart rate indefinitely, it’s not a great idea.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Excellent analogy.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Heart rate variability. It’s a thing. And in navigating a full life, as you do, if and when you ever feel say overwhelmed or scattered in some way or if you feel like you’ve lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? Do you have any practices or questions, anything that you use to refocus or sort of down-regulate in order to reassess things?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: All right, that’s a great question, and I think that would be a perfect question for most people, but I run my life a little differently from that and so it’s as follows. I agree to probably 10 percent more projects than I will finish. I get about four times as many requests to participate in projects than I will ever — so I have to say no to most things. And the ones I say yes to, it’s about 110 percent. So it’s like airline overbooking, if you will. Continuing creative analogy. You don’t overbook so much that there’s a mutiny or that people want to overthrow your — but there’s just enough so that circumstances will have whatever is the 100 percent of what I produce, get made. The other 10 percent don’t get made. It’s that simple and so basically I default on about 10 percent of the projects that I agree to in advance and that means the time is always completely full, always.
And how do I refocus? No, it’s not quite like that. My day, as is true with anybody’s day, is comprised of time slots of very different quality from one another. All right? When I’m on the subway, I sit in the corner with a hat and glasses. So I minimize the selfies that would get requested, and I do email. You can do email anytime of day or night. You don’t have to go, “Oh, I have to focus now. I’m about to do email.” No, you can do email waiting for the bus. All right? The interstitial time in my day, I do email. It’s not the only time I do email, but that’s when I do a lot of the tedious email when I wouldn’t otherwise be doing anything. Okay? My wife is an avid consumer of news. She sends me clips mostly from the New York Times but other sources as well, if she thinks it has some relevance to me. Remember she has a PhD in mathematical physics, so we have strong alignment in terms of what I would consume and find interesting.
Tim Ferriss: She’s not sending you a lot of horoscopes?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No. So she actually is a pre-filter for news. Right? And so that works great. There are periods of time on the weekends where I have a five-hour block. I will write during five-hour blocks. It might take you an hour to get into it. All right? Well if you only have an hour block, and it takes you an hour to get into it, you can’t write in hour blocks. It doesn’t make any sense. So all of the timeframes throughout the week are allocated for what kind of things I would do in them. So, there isn’t a time, “Well, I have to focus.” If I only have an hour, I don’t have to focus. I’m just doing email. It’s not about getting ready to focus or regrouping. Plus, everything I agree to, I’m excited about. I want to do it.
I do it because I think I can do it uniquely. And so there isn’t this, “Oh, I got to slog through this.” I’m fortunate that most of what occupies my day is electively, has electively landed on my calendar. I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t feel like open heart surgery tonight. Right? They don’t have this luxury. They have to be on point, on focus when that is necessary. All I do is study the universe. The patient never dies.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s talk about Dr. Tyson Airlines for a second.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: With the overbooked airline! Okay.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. With the overbooking. So in the airline business, they have systems for managing overbooking if everyone happens to show up. So they might ask for volunteers, and then they offer bribes, and then they offer free trips, and then so on and so forth. What is your approach to canceling or renegotiating the 10 percent breakage, so to speak, that overage? What does the communication look like?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: There’s a lot of finesse there. Again, that’s another insightful question because the energy and effort to say no gracefully is way greater than saying yes. Because you can say yes ungracefully and it’s a yes, but a no — there’s no reason to make enemies with people. You want to make sure they’re still there. You want to make sure they might ask you once again to do what it might be and then maybe it’ll end up in the 100 percent rather than in the overbooking part. So just to be clear, the overbooked could have been in the accommodated part. It just landed in the overbooked section. So what I will typically do, I’ll send a polite note of regret and say, “My calendar got away from me. I could not keep up.”
And that is a very believable fact, right? They know what I’m doing and how productive I am. And then I’ll try to offer something in recompense. I will say, “Can you check back with me in the spring?” And when I think my table will be more clear than it is now. There are places where people want me to come give a talk or to host a fundraiser or something. And I say, “Maybe I can do it. I’m not sure. I know I can’t do it, but how about this? I will donate autographed books for you to auction at this fundraiser.” And then there’s some comeback. So that’s my equivalent of offering discount on another trip or whatever airlines are doing these days.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. Thank you. This is a sort of an area of study that’s become increasingly interesting to me. Not just how to say no initially, which may be the easiest if done well the first no, but also how to renegotiate as needed when circumstances change or when you’re overbooked and things along those lines. So thanks for telling, sharing your approach. I’ve been fascinated by your approach to preparation in a number of different examples that came up when I was reading in prep for this.
The first was despite being wooed by Carl Sagan, you did not go to Cornell. You were accepted at Harvard, NYU, MIT and Cornell, maybe among others. I’ll just give two examples then I want to follow up with a question. So these are both from The New Yorker profile. You went about deciding to go by making —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: By the way, that New Yorker profile, I was going to write a companion analysis to that profile. Only because, while the profile was fact checked, it was not impression checked. And you can say something that is factually true, but then you can ask, “If someone reads this, what are they going to think?” And if they don’t think what that which is true, even though what they read was technically a fact, then the article is not authentically communicating reality.
And so I was going to do that and I just never got around to it because it would be kind of nitpicky, and let me just move on. I might still do it if I ever teach a writing class. Which I once did, by the way. I was visiting a writing professor at Yeshiva College in upper Manhattan. Fascinating. A visiting professor of writing. It was of course nonfiction writing and science writing, and so I very much enjoyed that. It allowed me to formulate what it is I do in the context of a curriculum rather than just this is what I do. I was going to do that. But so now if you’re going to quote from it, if there’s an impression check, I will jump in and —
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes, please do. And I’m sorry that you had that experience. I also had that experience with a New Yorker profile.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, you did?
Tim Ferriss: Which was a really upsetting to me at the time with the impression, sort of the impression assessment as you put it, which I think it was put very well. So these I think may be pretty neutral. So the two things that I wanted to mention, and you can correct me if these are inaccurate, were to decide where to go undergrad. You created a spreadsheet that listed recent contributors, physics and astrophysics, articles to scientific Americans showing which schools they’d attended and which faculty they had later joined. The school that appeared most frequently on the spreadsheet was Harvard. And so you decided to go there. And then I’ll give you one more and then you can correct or —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: That’s accurate.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, great. The second was before going on The Daily Show, this is with Jon Stewart, you studied past episodes counting how many sentences Jon would permit a guest to speak before butting in with a joke, and so you were able to really, not necessarily script out, but plan very effectively having taken those preparatory steps. And what I’d love to know is if there’s a particular example that comes to mind of preparation really, really paying off. If there were any inflection points in your life or just particularly important moments where preparation has paid off for you.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It paid off not in a literal money sense, but in a success sense. It pays off every single time I am interviewed on television, because I look at the host and I look at, like I said, as was accurately portrayed in that profile for Jon Stewart, I knew that if he interrupts you before you get a point across, everyone will laugh at his comedic quip. But now you have this dangling information that you have to get back to, and maybe you won’t get back to it smoothly and maybe the conversation will move on. And that makes for a messy trail in the exchange that you’re having with the host.
So I would parcel my information in these container ships, in these containers where I would get that across. He then interrupts and now we have a fully expressed thought and we have a funny quip and then we move on, and now we have a nicely knitted together interview. So it pays off every single time. I study — well, how often do they reference current events? Well, I better do my three-day read of current events so that if — they’re not going to go back a week because it’s not going to be current in people’s minds, they’ll go back three days tops, typically one or two days in a reference. And so I will have to study that.
I also need to know, depending on how pop culturized the person is, I’ll go in there brushing up on what did Beyonce do? What did — you pick some pop performers. Did they do anything funny or stupid or embarrassing? I need to know that because they might make reference to it. And I don’t want to look like I’m not connected. As a result, I spend some stupid amount of time — that’s not fair. I spend more time than I otherwise would, how’s that for [inaudible] lately exposing myself to pop culture. And current events, we all should of course, but pop culture — getting exposure to pop culture is what enables me to communicate with people who live in pop culture, be they interviewers or their audience.
Tim Ferriss: You know what I’d love to do, I only have a handful of questions left, is for those people who listen to this interview or any interview on this podcast, it’s sometimes easy to feel intimidated by guests when reading or hearing about their many, many, many great successes. If you’d be open to it, just to kind of humanize things a bit, would you be open to sharing how a failure or apparent failure perhaps set you up for later success? Or a tough time that you were able to get through? Are you open to sharing?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, of course. Well, first of all, let’s start with the more recent example. There was an episode of The Colbert Report. I ended up being on his show about 13, 14 times, something like that. I think I was his most repeated guest actually. One of the times I missed a current event. Now his interview in character is the most challenging interview I’ve ever done on television. And to this day is the most challenging because Stephen Colbert is smart. I think he’s the smartest one out there. And he’s creating this character. So I have to know what does a double thread through that. And it could rear itself in any way at any moment.
So there was in one episode, the news had broken about the governor from South Carolina who was having affairs with a woman in Argentina. This got revealed and it was embarrassing, and everyone — and this governor of South Carolina, who no one had heard of before, became a household name. I think this was especially relevant to Steven Colbert because he’s from South Carolina. All right, I missed that news story. All right. No, I mean I knew of it, but I didn’t preload my utility belt walking into that interview. And he leads off by saying, “I just read recently that there was a survey conducted that most people cannot name a living scientist. What do you have to say about that?” And so I said, “I don’t care if you can name them. I don’t care about names. I care about ideas. I care about the science itself. And he said, “Well, but really though. Isn’t all that it would take is to have some scientists go to Argentina?”
And the whole audience started laughing. And I said, “Why are they laughing?” [crosstalk] funny. I have no idea. I’m saying holy shit, okay. So I then had to go to plan B, and the plan B is I will laugh alongside the audience. Okay. And smile, nod, and then move the subject forward, preventing him from coming back to it, because I put something else on the table that he then has to deal with. That was me saving face. That’s my ego in there. Rather than saying, “I have no idea why you’re all laughing,” and they then have to explain it to me and then that messes up the joke. But I successfully steered out of that mudslide and kept going forward. So that was a mistake because that was very current events and I just missed it and I had no excuse at all.
There was another — so it’s that’s just — oh, another one. I was a guest on Desus and Mero. These are two very hip hosts of a talk show. Very, very hip, complete with hoodies and graffiti sprayed on the jackets. I’m walking in there with a sport coat and a button up shirt, and no one in there is wearing a button up shirt. Not the production crew, nothing. So I say, “Damn, how am I going to pull this one off?” Okay. Because I don’t have just one message delivered one way. I try to fit an audience, right? I mean, that’s what you should do. They have a following and I am a guest on their show. Let me try to fit that environment. So I’m in there and they’re asking very hip questions.
I’m at the limits of my cool. I don’t know if I can continue this. I’m at the limits and I see one of them is wearing a Yankee hat because he’s from the Bronx. I’m from the Bronx and I’m a Yankee fan. That gave me someplace to go in the conversation, keeping it buoyant. And at one point they asked me, one of them asked me, “Oh, by the way, who’s your favorite member of the Wu Tang Clan?” It was like oh shit. I only know one member of the Wu Tang Clan, so I’m just going to say his name and maybe that’ll get me through this. I said, “Oh, the GZA of course.” “Oh yeah, great, great. Good answer.”
I don’t know if they knew I was at the cliff face right at that point. So again, the point is where it’s serving their audience and to have some awkward interview doesn’t serve anybody. So now that’s probably not where you wanted me to go with these answers, and I’ll go there.
So you’re talking about failures. I was never anyone’s model student. And what is a model student? It means you get good grades in class and you’re not disruptive. Well, I had mediocre grades and I was disruptive. Okay. And disruptive, not in a bullying sense, but just I had a lot of social energy. I’d pass notes among friends and. This is an era when spitballs were in and I’d shoot spitballs to the ceilings, see how long they would stick, things like that. And that is not the conduct that any teacher would say, “Hey, he’ll go far.”
Now here is one of the impressions that were false in the New Yorker article. It said that I was a mediocre student. Okay. But that was a translation from, I had mediocre grades, but I was anything but a mediocre student. Like I said, I was part of the astronomy club. I’d take an extra classes at the museum. I already knew I was reading far more than anybody else of my classmates. I was visiting observatories when we were on trips to cities. I was very committed and very [inaudible 01:24:01]. I was into photography. I set up my own dark room at home, back when dark rooms were a thing. I would take over a bathroom. One of our bathrooms didn’t have any windows. I took that over. I sold photos to the local newspaper when I photographed graffiti. There was an anti graffiti movement.
And so in my mind, I was never a mediocre student, even though my grades were mediocre. But if you have the bias that your grades are who you are, then yes, you’re going to write a sentence and an article, “He was a mediocre student,” right? If I say to you, “This person is a mediocre student,” what are you going to think? Oh, they’re not really interested. And they don’t even know school is for them. There’s an entire impression that you get if we’re told this is a mediocre student. That was not me. Nothing could have been farthest from the truth about me. And it’s all the rest of the stuff I did. I won an expedition, I got a scholarship to go on an expedition to study Stonehenge with other research anthropologists. And Stonehenge has scientific value. And so I brought science, my — this was in high school while I did this. And I also viewed a total solar eclipse off the coast of Northwest Africa. And I was 14 when I went. I lied and told everyone I was 16, went alone, brought my telescope. I had a scholarship to do that.
All of this is going on. All right. And that’s why I was admitted at Harvard. Harvard didn’t give a fuck about, excuse me, didn’t care about the grade. If the rest of this is what’s going on in my life, it means I’m a doer. It means I have ambitions, it means I have a mission statement for myself and what I want to accomplish in life. And if you just want to go into the classroom and take a test, get a grade and have that be the sole assessment of whether you think someone is going to succeed, fine. But if you also recognize that there are people out there who get stuff done in their lives, then that gives you access to a whole other category of person who is out there.
So did I learn anything from not being any teacher’s best student? No, because I was self-driven, but it’s still awkward and uncomfortable to know how driven you are but then not get recognized for it. And ultimately I was recognized by the colleges that admitted me. And then later on I made it into something called the Harvard 100. It’s a list of Harvard’s 100 most influential living graduates. I think that they knew what they were doing when they admitted me. And by the way they get more applicants who are valedictorians of their high school than there are slots in their entering class. So if they wanted to they could just take every valedictorian. But they apparently, and fortunately for me, see other things about a person that they care about.
Tim Ferriss: And it seems like your parents were also, and I’m kind of reading between the lines here, but supportive of you being ambitious and self motivated as an autodidact outside of the classroom, and not overly fixated on grades within the classroom. Is that a fair [inaudible 01:27:29].
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Since I wasn’t failing any classes, they were not concerned. I got As, Bs and Cs my whole life averaging a B basically. So it was not a problem. My brother and sister needed more sort of buoyant support from my parents academically than I did. So looking back, I think I was a pretty easy kid to raise, all things considered. Right. So for example, if I go out on a Friday night and I come back late, they can’t say, why did you come back late? You have to come back earlier. Well why? Well it’s because you could have been studying. No, my grades are okay. What I mean is my parents were not — if I got a B, they’re not asking how come it wasn’t an A. Or if I got an A minus, how come it wasn’t an A plus? That’s not what kind of parents they were. As long as I was progressing in school and moving through and doing okay, they were fine.
Tim Ferriss: You have an impressive memory for —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Wait, one last thing. Ask yourself, suppose they were high pressure parents with regard to grades. So there I am with my own sort of photography business, right? And I’m in the astronomy club, and this sort of thing. And they’re saying we don’t want Bs, we want As. Then I have to cut away those other activities to spend more time in the books to get As. Then I would have had As and then nothing else in my life would have developed. And that’s an interesting trade off one is making of their kids as a parent. If you’re going to require grades when their time they might’ve otherwise spent, they could have grown in other ways that are not measured by grades. But go on. That’s just a thought I just had.
Tim Ferriss: You might not have had time for developing your ankle pick in wrestling as another example. Which we won’t get into in this conversation because —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes, I used to wrestle.
Tim Ferriss: I’d be very self-indulgent. But those of you who are interested, you can follow up another time. Dr. Tyson was also a very successful wrestler. I was mentioning —
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, in high school, I was undefeated in high school. College was another matter. I sort of wrestling corn fed guys from the Midwest.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, tough breed, tough breed.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’m sure were hauling cows from childhood. And that was a whole other level of commitment. And so I had a losing record all my years of college. I think my senior year I might’ve been six and five or something, but I enjoyed the sport immensely whether or not I was winning.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to show some restraint in jumping into wrestling for the rest of this conversation. I’ll grab the lifeline back to my question about memory. Well, it’s indirectly about memory. You seem to really have a knack for remembering quotes, facts, figures, all sorts of data, and sayings. I’m curious if there are any particular quotes that you think of often or live your life by. Are there any favorite quotes that you come back to often?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah. One is by Ptolemy, Claudius Ptolemy. 2,000 years ago, he was an Alexandrian mathematician who wrote a book, which was the crowning achievement of a geocentric universe. Of course, the whole concept was wrong, but it was interestingly wrong, right? If you’re going to be wrong, at least be wrong in a way that stimulates further research, which is what that did. The translation, which went into Arabic a thousand years ago, was called Almagest, which when it was translated into Arabic. That title is now the title that we now use for it because that’s the form in which it was most remembered. In other words, it was the most widely distributed after it was preserved in Arabic and then re-translated back into Latin and English. “Almagest” just means “the greatest.”
So in there, in the margin of the manuscript, he writes — by the way, the planets were still not — the movement in the night sky was still not deeply understood. The planet would be moving sort of right to left against the background stars over the weeks, it would slow down and then go backwards. Oh my gosh, we have a word for that. It’s called retrograde. People actually thought the planets were actually going backwards. If the whole world revolved around Earth, yes, they would be going backwards. But since that’s not the case, this retrograde motion is just sort of an illusion of who is moving to the left or right as you go around one side of the sun versus the other. But here’s the quote, “When I trace at my pleasure, the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of Ambrosia.” That’s one of my favorite because I —
Tim Ferriss: [inaudible] beautiful.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: — feel that when I look up. And it borders on spiritual, right? He is invoking God, in this case Zeus, as someone who he’s hanging out with, enjoying the unfolding of cosmic events. And I don’t count myself among the ranks of the religious, but when I look up and I see mysterious things, there’s sort of a spiritual connectivity with the unknown that courses through me where I feel exactly that. I could just, while we’re on it, a couple more quotes. I happen to like wine. I’m a wine enthusiast. And so here’s a quote from Galileo, I have to paraphrase it, forgive me. It’s, “The sun can keep the planets in orbit on their appointed paths, yet somehow managed to ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the world to do.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s fantastic.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: While I’m on a roll, Dom Pérignon, the monk who has a very famous champagne named after him, stumbled on this double fermentation process where the first fermentation of the yeast gets you alcohol from sugar and then a second fermentation gives you carbon dioxide, which is the the bubblies. He does this by accident, and then he tastes it, and his first comment was, “I believe I am tasting the stars.”
Just one other quote. This is a quote where — this is why I know I’ll never be a novelist because this quote is just — oh, my gosh, I can’t do this. This is just too perfect. Okay. Here it is. It’s from F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby. And he’s a party guy, right? Okay, wealthy party guy. Here’s a quote, “In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths amid the whispers, the champagne, and the stars.” It’s like, whoa, okay, that is — I can’t do that. I’m sorry. I’ll never be a novelist. Not the whispers among the whisperings. Excuse me.
Tim Ferriss: Whisperings.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Whisperings.
Tim Ferriss: The theme and the takeaway that come to mind is that you and I have to have some wine or bubbly and talk about stars. I mean, that’s clearly the subtext here.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I don’t want credit for a good memory. I don’t know how it compares with the average person’s memory, but I like remembering things that matter to me, that have moved me. It takes nothing to remember a quote that moves you. In this moment I’m wearing a shirt with the entire tract of Desiderata printed on it. Old timers might remember it from back in the ’70s. It’s this manifesto for how you might live one’s life, written by Max Ehrmann. But that was only discovered later. It was originally attributed to some anonymous monk because they found it in a church, 1600s, in a desk drawer and they figured it was from when the church was founded. But no, it’s more modern. It’s from 1927. Max Ehrmann happens to be a rabbi, very different from a monk in the 1600s. But one of the lines is, “Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”
I take that to heart. I used to dance. I was a performing member of three dance companies. They are college troops. And people say, “We have Dances with Stars on TV. Why don’t you do that? Well don’t you want to do that again?” No, I’m done dancing. That’s a chapter of my life. I’m in a different chapter now. I don’t have chapters of the past that I then long to relive in the future. For every chapter you want to relive you have not done enough with your life in the present to continue to grow who and what you are and what you can be benefiting from the wisdom that you’ve accumulated over all the years you’ve been alive since then.
So this letters book is a summation of wisdom. A letter is wisdom. I could not have written the letters book when I was dancing. And when I was dancing no one was — would have wanted my books anyway, even if I did write one. And so I have no interest to do what I did in the past when I’m doing something different now.
Tim Ferriss: I’m really looking forward to Letters from an Astrophysicist. I recommend everybody check it out. I’ll certainly be linking to that and everything we’ve discussed in the show notes, including Ptolemy with a PT for those people who want to look him up. But that’ll be in the show notes.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Ptolemy.
Tim Ferriss: Ptolemy.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Ptolemy.
Tim Ferriss: People can say hello to you on Twitter @NeilTyson, Facebook, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Instagram, also @NeildeGrasseTyson. This has been so much fun. I really appreciate you making the time to have this conversation.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, thanks for your insightful and welcomed questions. I think they’re all the right questions in the right way. Giving me a chance to say fresh things to a listening audience. So thanks.
Tim Ferriss: My pleasure. As is there anything else you’d like to say, ask, suggest? Any parting comments before we wrap up?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: No, I’d see myself as a servant of the public’s curiosity. So the fact that you had interest in interviewing me meant that you felt that your fan base, your following, would have an interest in me. And so I’m flattered by that consideration. And I just hope I served their curiosity or stochastic curiosity in whatever ways that that are within my abilities.
Tim Ferriss: Well, you certainly stoked my curiosity. I have pages of notes, and that gives me certainly hope that that’s the case for a lot of people who will have listened to this. It would be fun to see you again in person sometime.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Excellent. Look forward to that.
Tim Ferriss: And very much appreciate it. Thanks again.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
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