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November 17, 2022 35 mins

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with Sammy Jaye on Let’s Be Real this week! They talk about his love of space and discovery, his new book ‘Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization’, the untold greatness of clouds and the science research he finds most interesting & much more!

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Speaker 1 (00:02):
Hey guys, it's Sammy Jay and welcome back to this
week's episode of The Left Bureau Podcast. I am so
thrilled you're here. This week's episode is so special. We've
never had an episode like this before, and we're probably
never going to have an episode like this again because
I got to chat with astrophysicists Neil de grass Tyson.
You heard that right, And I am so excited for

you to listen to this episode because I genuinely learned
so much and I know you will too. I hope
you guys enjoy it. Welcome to my podcast. I am
so honored that you're here. You're my first astrophysicist on
the show. And now I have to say, science is
something that I've always been super fascinated by, but it's
something I've always struggled with learning and understanding like many others.

And I just want to simply start with what do
you love about what you do? What do you love
about space in the universe? So much? Everything, And first
of all, for you to say i'm your astro physicists
on the show, there aren't many of us in the world, Okay,
So basically everything, I like the immensity of it, I

like that that the boundary between what is known and unknown,
and you put one foot in what is known and
one foot in the unknown, and you try to deduce
or invent or discover what lies beyond. And so so

I think that the takeaway is as a scientist, you
have to learn to love the questions themselves, because if
you if you only think of science the way the
media reports on it, because the media does a story
when there's a discovery, right, and you think their discoveries
are happening all the time. But you have to learn
to love the journey. And in your whole life you

might make only one discovery or no discoveries. So the
journey is what excites you every morning, the possibility of
reaching into the unknown and pulling something back in and say, WHOA,
I knew this before. Does that give you any comfort
in knowing everything you know? Or does it make you
a little bit more terrified of the beyond? I think

you have to train yourself. I don't think it's natural
to walk around in stupefied ignorance of what's going on.
You know, nobody wants that, all right, And I get it.
I have sympathy for people who feel that way. And
one way that that shows up is someone might ask
me what was around before the Big Bang, and I'll say,

I don't know. Go top people working on it, and
they say, that had to be something. It must have
been something, it must have been God, God did it. Yeah,
that was it. And so once they say God, they
have their answer. And then you know, if you wanted
to insert deity every place where we have yet to
tread scientifically, then that's that's kind of a slippery slope,

because science ever moves forward. So I empathize with the
need to have an explanation for everything. But if that's
how you are, you won't make a good scientist because
most of what we think about every day has no
answer yet yet, and we don't even know if we're

asking the right questions. Crazy, it's crazy, It's completely crazy. So,
Storry Messenger, A Cosmic Perspective on Civilization. You said, the
troll of insights, informed by the universe and brought to
you by methods and tools of science. I love that sentence,
and I was wondering if you can expand more upon that. Well,

thank you, thank you. So this book, Starry Messenger Cosmic
Perspectives on civilization. Each chapter has a different title, as
most chapters would, but in this case, the chapters address
different sectors of society that have historically been rather combative,

uh in social settings. So there's a chapter on truth
and beauty, All right, that that might be good sort
of bar conversations there, But let's get a little more
intense a conflict and resolution where I go into political
factions who are battling for who has access to, if

not control of the truth. Objective truths, which I'd like
to distinguish from other kinds of truths. There is an
objective truth, and there is opinion. Then those need to
be right right right, Or there's there's like political truths.
I'll call it that because the politicians think it's true,
but it's what becomes true simply by them repeating it

often and with intensity. And our brain has a weakness
in it where if you see something repeat he did it,
or here's something repeated, the urge to think that it
must be true, otherwise why would it be repeated so often? Exactly,
So I applaud the fact that we have that urge

to think that way, But that urge that evolutionary urs
can be and has been hijacked by people who would
want to exercise control over you and what you think.
In the old days they called it brainwashing. Yeah, so
that would be a political truth. And then there's a
personal truth, right. Personal truth is just stuff that you believe,
and they don't require that other people have to believe.

It is your own personal sense of the world. And
all religions come under personal truths. So that's why I
distinguish those truths from objective truths. And objective truths are
true whether or not you believe in them, and high science.
And so getting back to the sentence that you extracted, Um,

and thank you for looking for cool sentences, because I
do spend a lot of effort composing sentences that go
in the book, and if the fact that they sort
of rise up off the page or in your because
you listen to the audiobook, as you told me, I'd
want those sentences to to live within you. You're very powerful.

The methods and tools of science are exquisitely tuned to
find objective truths, and when you do, you then apply
them to these sectors of society that are famous for
not embracing objective truths. And because of such people, fight
and so so, and other chapters are a gender and identity,

race and color, risk and reward. People really don't understand
risk and probability and statistics, and I don't want to
blame people for that. Somehow, it's it's just not natural
to think statistically about the world, all right. I mean,
here's't just in an example. Let's say you're ready to
drive a car off the lot. You just it, and

someone is driving into the lot saying, wanting to return
the cars. There's the worst card had it broke the
wheel fell off. I hate it. And you're just watching
this and you begin questioning your decision. And it's amazing
how impactful the testimony of one person can land within

you relative to the statistics of thousands. You mentioned a
really interesting point in your book that scientists don't look
for other scientists opinions but their data, which I think
is a very important distinction. I don't care how you
feel or think. I don't care. That has nothing to
do with my research here, But I just have nothing
to do with the data less. How you feel biases

your data. So we have methods and tools to establish
objective truths, and it requires repeated, verified experiments on whatever
the first thing is you said was true. So we're
living in a world today where social media and misinformation
is traveling so fast. I feel like as soon as

you pull up a social media app, there's just new
information you don't and it's hard to verify whether it's
true or not. I mean, I want to take away
from this conversation is what advice do you have for
like a go to way to shut down a flat earther.
I'm not that aggressive. It may feel that way sometimes
if you read my tweets. Uh So, I just tweeted
yesterday last night there was a total lunar eclipse, and

I said, here's a lunar eclipse flat earthers have never seen.
It would be like the disc of Earth casting horizontal shadow,
which would just be a skinny, little thin thing. And
that it went almost viral. I mean it was, it
went pretty high up there. That's so good. Point is,

in a free country, I'm not going to beat you
on the head if you want to think Earth is flat.
There are plenty of jobs for you where you and
still think Earth is flight. Science isn't one of them.
Science is not one of them. Here's here's one thing
to do. You say, what would be the best evidence
you would need to show that Earth was a sphere

in space? What what evidence would you seek? If you
ask that of such people, typically there is none, There
is none. Well, sorry, I did that once with someone
who was sure we didn't go to the moon, okay, okay,
And I said, well, what evidence? I went through this exercise.

What evidence would you want? And he said, well, photographs
of the landing sites? That would that would work. So
I said, well, we do have photos of the landing site.
You said really, I said, because there are satellites that
were put in orbit around the Moon. That's close enough
and you could see the rover tracks. You can see
the landing site. And so go to this web page.

So he so the next day, but this is a
full grown adult human being with with kids, always concerning right.
So the next day, uh, he says, nil, I went
to that website and sure enough I saw the tracks
and I saw this. But then I looked at the

bottom and it said that the web page was sponsored
by NASA. So how am I going to know that
they didn't fake this? And I said, pause, hold up, rewind.
You asked me what would convince you, and I provided
that evidence, and now that evidence isn't working for you.

So this is the end of our conversation. But anyhow,
so a good test would be ask what would convince
you otherwise if you don't really have a good answer
for that then, or if your only answer is I
know the truth, it's just be hidden from us by
this organization. It's never going to be good enough, never

good enough. Correct. There's an old saying in the skeptics
community which I think is correct. It's you can't use
reason to argue someone out of a point of view
that they didn't use reason to get into. So true.
Something that I'm very interested in talking about is what

are your thoughts on managing space trash and programs like starlink,
especially with the impact of satellites in space imaging. Yeah,
so those are two separate issues. Starlink is you know,
how many elon how many satellites do you need in space?
How how many? How many do you need? And it
it becomes a form of light pollution, where especially we

have a telescope about to come online this coming year
that will be taking basically snapshots of the entire sky
every night and and stitching them together. It basedically in
a movie, which will allow you to watch asteroids that
might be headed towards Earth. But if while we're trying
to find an asteroid headed towards Earth, there's you know,

hundred seventy eleven Starlink satellites coming through your field. If
you I don't want to miss the asteroid, because you're
contaminating my data with things that otherwise look like asteroids
but they're not. So there's the how it will contaminate science,
but there's also how it will change what the night

sky will beat to you as you look up affect
the Earth. So there's fortunately, there are there's an organ
there are people today who are thinking about this and
trying to find ways to reduce the impact of this
technological progress on what is otherwise the sanctity of the
night sky. And as for trash, we've got nothing for you, okay.

And I think people say, where the aliens? How come
they haven't visited. I think they tried to visit and
they saw all the trash around the Earth. We're going
to pass on this one. Let's let's let's go to
the next planet. Okay. Yeah, these folks are just nasty.
It's the trash that's in the higher orbits that will
basically be there forever unless someone goes around and vacuums

it up. And we have no such plans nor such
ideas about how to make that happen. It's too trashy.
We need to fix it, too trashy. Give it up.
We have to take a quick break. But when we
come back, I'm going to talk about what types of
research and that's going on in the world of science
you're most excited about and what you love list about learning.
We'll be right back and we're back. Are there any

scientists work that you're really interested in that isn't very
well known or talked about. I generally look at sort
of consensus work. So uh, it's not whether one science
just did one particular thing, because that's not what makes
an objective truth. As I said earlier, it hasn't been
verified by someone else. So for me, one of the

more interesting sub branches of astrophysics is one where we
have people looking for bio markers in the atmospheres of
exo planets. Well, so, can you explain what bio markers
are for totally? Well, first, ex planet is so exo
planets are planets orbiting other stars, and the first of

these was discovered in all right, so what year were
you BORNO? Two two? So you count as someone who
has been born since and so I now I will
night you generation X planet. You've only known life in

a world where we've had exo planets to talk about,
all right, that is that is if you want to
attach a generation to a scientific result, there you have it,
all right. And when you were born, we might have
known maybe a few dozen exoplanets, and now we know
more than five thousand. That's how old you are. We're
up in the five thousands. A lot can happen in

twenty years. A lot can happen in twenty years. So
you're just an old fart now because we're up in
the thousands. But will we ever know if they have life? Well,
if the planet has an atmosphere, light from the star
will pass through the atmosphere on the edges and continue
on to us, so that whatever is the chemistry of

that atmosphere, it leaves its fingerprint on the starlight. Oh,
this is this opened up an entire new field in
the search for life in the universe, because if your
planet has life. Life has certain gaseous consequences. Alright, Oxygen
on Earth is only here because we have photosynthesizing life,

trees and plankton. That's the only reason why we have oxygen.
And so if you find an exo planet and you
let the light of the star pass through and you
see oxygen in that atmosphere, oh yeah, I put that
higher on your list of one of the first planets
you might want to visit. So what am I following.

I'm following the work of that group of researchers who
are searching for bio markers in the atmospheres of exoplanets,
and the James Web Space Telescope is helping with that.
By the way, Sorry, I'm just processing all that you said.
That's incredible. Yeah, No, I'm totally I'm all in on it.
Oh yeah, that's amazing. Yeah. So I'm assuming you love stars,

don't we all? Actually, I'm sure I'm not alone there.
You know, our star is pretty important. I think clouds
are also very underrated. I love seeing them. They're so
beautiful and I just see them. Gonna go shout out
clouds because they don't get enough appreciation out there. Okay,
So uh, in the book Starry Messenger. Um, I quote clouds.

I quote a line from Joni Mitchell her song both Sides. Now,
that's so good. Wait wait, wait, we have to be
very precise here. Okay, I just want to properly quote. Okay,
I'm gonna pull up this quote. The glasses are coming on.
That's when you know it's been serious. I've got to
go there. Okay. Yes, So clouds are one of the

things she looks at in one of the verses. But
I get that's not the verse I chose. I'm really
I'm remembering now, but I will get you that cloud
verse because you sound like a cloud person. I'm a
cloud person because they're just not appreciated and they do
so much. Okay, they make my day. So here we
go rose and flows of angel hair, and I scream

castles forgive Mike because I can't. I think you should
become a singer and a rare path for you. Everywhere
looked at clouds that way, but now they only block
the sun. They rain, and they snow on everyone. So
many things I would have done, but clouds got in

my way. I've looked at clouds from both sides, now
from up and down and still somehow it's clouds illusions.
I recall I really don't know cloud so any that
that's all those singing I'm going to give you here
because I was like, I do not expect a performance.

I feel like this is a new career path for you.
So here's the so for me, obviously, it's a song,
it's a poem. It's it's metaphorical of course, and so
um So she starts out by saying, clouds they rain
and snow on everyone. Yes, they do, but when they're not,
they're not right. And most of the time they're not,

They're just floating there. And if you look at it
from both sides. And I really don't know clouds, and
most people don't understand what clouds are. Why they up
there and they're not down here? Well, sometimes they are
down here. But we have a different word for them.
You know what we call them? Am I totally missing? Yes,
it's just it's a cloud that's in your face. So

so we just have a different word for it. But
it's a cloud, all right. So all air in most
parts of the Earth has some amount of moisture in it. Yeah, okay,
And if the air gets heated, and then it rises.
As you ascend, the temperature drops, so as you ascend
in the atmosphere, it gets colder and colder and colder.

You might notice that from the temperature if you see
it on the video monitor of airplanes outside, it's forty
degrees below zero outside the window. Okay, so it's because
the ground is what's heating the air. The sunda and
heat the air. The sun heats the ground and the
ground heats the air. So I watched it happens if
a pocket of air with a little bit of moisture,

as it ascends, it gets colder, and the colder is
the pocket of air, the less capable it is of
carrying that moisture. And so what happens is something called
the relative humidity goes up because the air can it's
becoming less and less able to hold the moisture. And

at a particular temperature at the dew point, which is
a combination of how much humidity is in it and
the temperature at that dew point, the the water molecules
they coalesce and they become basically droplets. Okay, it's no
longer water vapor, it's water droplets. And in that moment

that that pocket of air is high above your head
and bend, a cloud forms and there it is. You're
making me love clouds even more. Okay, No, it's a
beautiful thing. That's why the clouds are high up and
rarely on the ground. How do you know all this information?
Just off the bat? What about learning do you love?
I know that's a two parter, but you've just so

much information. Here's what I here's my normal and we
only just met, so I don't know, but it for
most people, for many people in the United States, here's
what I would tell them. They said, how does it
you know all of this? How do you have time
to write these books? And how does you do this?
And my answer is I bet I watched less football
than you do. That's a great answer. That's my simplest answer. Okay,

So whatever you do on the weekends or when you're
otherwise doing nothing, are you binging? You know the Bachelor?
Are you whatever else is going on or Jersey Shore
or whatever whatever people do. I'm not doing that, and
I'll do it a little bit just so I know

what interests people, because that I value that. But no,
I spend a lot of time a lot of time
that other people spend doing nothing, I spend learning. That's
so awesome and so cool. I have always loved learning,
but it's always been a struggle for me because I've
grown up with learning differences, so being able to understand

information has been a struggle. But when it's you're very
good at visualizing it and just explaining it very complicated topics.
Thank you, Thank you for that. And I try to
be a responsive to the what do they call it,
the neurodiversity of us all? Uh, some people think in pictures,
some in words, some in gestures, you know, hand gestures.

So I try to fold all of that in. So
thank you for noticing that. But what I would say
is with all the learning differences that exist out there,
and finally the education system is coming to terms with that,
figuring out slowly but surely slowly. Um My daughter was
a special ed teacher and people ask her what's different

about a special ed teacher? She said, She said, especially
teachers are simply better teachers. I went to a special
ed school, so I can vouch for that. Yeah, they're
just better teachers. They know more about they know how
to teach in different ways exactly exactly. Oh, I got

in big trouble one time. What happened? I should have
left it to my forbidden Twitter file. Um, so I tweeted.
I said, for the teachers who feel compelled to say,
these students just don't want to learn, And I said,
maybe they should consider the possibility that they suck at

their job. I believe you're not wrong, but you know,
I put it out there. I've had a maybe in
front of it. I said possibly, like a possible. You know,
people said, do you remember? Remember? And then of course
it's Twitter, so it's the cesspool of opinions. Yeah. So

not every teacher is sainted, okay, and we all had
bad teachers in our lives. Well maybe you didn't because
you had speciales. I did before I moved to special
at and then I went there. You go, and you know,
and you can you can list not here, don't do it,
but you can list bad teachers right who really should
have never entered the profession. All right, we have to

take one more quick break. But when we come back,
I want to talk about how you define success for yourself.
We'll be right back and we're back. You've accomplished so
many incredible things. Throughout your career, and everyone has a
different definition of what success means to them, and I
was wondering, how do you personally define success for yourself?

Thank you? That's an excellent question. It's excellent on many levels.
And I don't often get that because now it gives
me the opportunity to for me redefined success. All right,
uh so let me take a slightly windy route to

get there. So let's say you have someone who wants
to be an actor, and then you say what kind
of actor you want to be? Well, I want to
be a famous actor. Oh so they don't want to
be a good actor, they just want to be a
famous actor. So that's a different goal, always the same
thing as you want to be the best actor you
can be. Sometimes I would even say often being the

best actor you can be will lead to that. But
if your goal is simply to be famous, then all
the times you're not famous, you're miserable. Right. You put
so much like definition on one thing and you're not
that right, right, right, and so much emphasis, and you're miserable.
If you instead say I want to be the best
actor I can be, then every performance you give on

stage or in a uh, which is I'm from New York,
so we entirely value stage performances in New York. Okay,
at the end of that performance, how'd you do? What
would you have done differently? How can you And now
that you've given that and you deliver that line that way,
is there a better way to deliver that line? And
then this is you constantly and persistently focusing on how

much better you can be at your craft. The goal
here to be as good as you possibly could be.
And what I've done in my life is whatever I've attempted,
I tried to be as good at it as I
could possibly be without regard to how people see it
or receive it or value it. And well that that's

not entirely true. So for example, let's go back to
the first what was discovered? Shoot, what was discovered? A
nineteen oh the uh space um a planet thing with
my age twenty years Okay, you gotta be plus on that,

but you know is in it? Okay? Yeah, So the
first exo planet was discovered, Okay, generation X planet, and
so I was interviewed by I was then the interim
director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, This
was banner headlines that exo planet was discovered. So NBC

News sent one of their action cams, you know, up
to do an interview to air that evening. And they
sent them up and and they said, and they didn't
know me yet. I just they just wanted me for
my title. And I gave my best profess soil response.
I talked about the Doppler shift and the physics of
the movement of the stars and the center of mass

of the system. And I did all of this, and
I said, and once we discovered that there was the
Doppler shift on that star, and you can make it
very hard measurement. And because the star is kind of moving,
it's like jiggling. Uh, And so that's what you're going
to measure. And so I moved my body and in
the way the star would move. And all they used

from that interview was me jiggling my That was it, okay,
And maybe one sentence, you know, And so I said, oh, well,
they don't want to hear my professor reply. They want
to sound bite. So I went home and practiced sound bites,
and so the next time I got asked, I just

get handled them sound bites and they came back for more,
and then other people came back, and this just continued
to build. And I said, I'm a servant of their curiosity.
I want to be the best servant I can be.
And one other example I'll give is the first time
I was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, okay

before Trevor Noah. John Stewart hosted that. And he's sharp,
he's smart, and he's funny. And I've seen politicians deer
in the headlights as he's dancing circles around them because
they're trying to get their speech out and he's not
letting them, and it's a disaster. I said, that is
not going to happen to me. So I studied him,

and I said, with a stopwatch, and I said, how
many seconds does he give you on average to speak
before he comedically interrupts, Okay, it's like time back. He
really studied this. I forgot the number like between eight
and twelve seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but it's
actually you can say a lot in ten seconds. So
I got on the show. I also had to know

three days of current events, I judged, because he's blending
it's a new show. He's blending current events with whatever
he's talking about. Because I did this, and I get
on the show and I deliver the ten seconds and
he jokes and then I come back, so I complete
the idea. He completes the joke, we go on to
the next thing. So it's it's working like it's it's

But was your dance, thank you, beautiful reference. It's a dance.
It's a dance. So in dancing in the interview and
at the end of it, people came up to me
and said, Neil, you and Johnston would have such good chemistry.
That's it's so natural. Little do you know? You have

no freaking idea? What kind of homework went into this?
And that was trying to be the best I can be.
So for me, I am successful if whatever I did
it was the best I could do in that time
for the research I was able to conduct. That's that's
how I measure my success. And if that, if the

public happens to like that, that's just bonus. I'm glad.
And that's all you can do at the end of
the day is be the best version of yourself correct
And if you're not that I think you are, how
should I put this you. If you don't do that,
I think this one time you have on life is

under capitalized for all that you could do, think, accomplish, feel,
and why waste any of it. So if a day
goes by where I didn't learn something or improve something
about myself, that's a wasted day. And you can guarantee
unless you happen to be the generation that will live forever.

And I don't think they're born yet, that's another sort
of generation where we increase life expectancy. So right now,
increasing life expectancy by one year every five years something
like that, okay for of the general population. So but
what the day will come where we increase life expectancy
by one year for every year of research that we do,

that generation will live forever. I think that's younger than
you at this point, because we agreed you're an old part.
That is going to be my new bio on Instagram.
So I don't really want to live forever because I
like a motivation knowing that I'm going to die. Because guaranteed,
if a day goes by that you do not serve

your own curiosities and your own enlightenment in your own wisdom,
that's you've seen the calendars on the prison walls. It's
an X in a day that you're never getting back,
and so my motivation correlates with that. Okay, the fewer
days I have left, the more motivated I am to
get stuff done. And so I don't envy the first

generation who will live forever, because I wouldn't want to
live forever. That sounds exhausting, Yeah, it can be exhausted.
Why put why do today what you can put off
until tomorrow? Well, thank you so much. This conversation has
really been eye opening for me. I feel like I've
learned a lot today and I've been really inspired, and
I would now want to learn a lot more. So
I really appreciate why why not? Right? You know the

people who graduate from school and throw their books in
the air and say schools out? It's like, why are
you be about that? What I know isn't you should
always be curious and want to keep larring correct what
school should teach? I granted school is a pain, I
get that, But the least that should happen in school
is when you do graduate, you you your curiosity is

stoked to continue to learn on your own. So my
great regret in the system is that school doesn't teach
us all to continue to be curious. It's kind of
like you stop when it's done. If you stop it,
and then you get ossified, which is a great s
a t word. You get ossified in your thinking. Whatever
was your last thoughts the last time you were in

a classroom, that's it. And then you want to start life.
You get married, have kids, and that's how you're going
to think about the world. And do you see these
older folks that are just sort of crusty in their
ways because they didn't keep learning. They didn't they didn't
stay flexible, nimble, nimble in the mind. There's a quote
in the book, second to last page of the entire book,

which is from Horace and an educator, and there's school
is named after him. He's a brilliant educated in New
York City right in the Bronx, actually from two centuries ago.
And he was giving a commencement speech and he used
the word beseech in his Nobody uses that word anymore,
and it's very I feel like it's Shakespearean, but maybe

we should bring it back. He says, I beseech you
to treasure in your heart. These my parting words be
ashamed to die until you have scored some victority for
humanity that I want that on my tombstone and has
nothing to do with being famous or rich. And it

is the world a little better off for you having
lived in it. And here's what I'm gonna recommend. Because
I don't like telling people what to do. I like
compelling them to want to do something on their own,
but not going to tell people what to do. I
tell all your your viewers and listeners, I'm gonna say,
if you're gonna get this book at all, do it
be for Thanksgiving. So all of your arguments will be honed.

So that when the crazy and and the and the
weird uncle will all come over and they want to
talk about the flat earth they wanted to, you'll be equipped.
You have answers for everything, for every comeback, and ways
to help them think through what as they're thinking about,
because a cosmic perspective is and always is transformative of

whoever basks in its light. Well, thank you so much
for coming on my podcast. I am truly honored to
have had this conversation. It's truly also made my day.
I'm delighted sim Thanks for having me
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