Saturday, January 30, 2010

Stephen Colbert Interviews Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberly Academy, January 29, 2010

Around Christmastime, my friend Ann dropped me a note asking if I wanted to hear Stephen Colbert (amazing comedian and host of the Colbert Report) interview Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Director of NYC's Hayden Planetarium, highly influential in American science--best known as the guy who "demoted" Pluto as a planet, though it wasn't just him) at the Montclair Kimberly Academy. The event was free, Montclair is the town of my undergrad alma mater, Montclair State University (where I sometimes teach), and I'm a fan of both Colbert and Tyson, so I was game. The event was actually held yesterday (January 29).

On Wednesday, Ann e-mailed to ask if I was still going. I had totally forgotten about it; fortunately, I was off on Friday and had made no other plans yet. The only difficulty was the weather--it was bone-chilling cold outside (about 18 degrees Fahrenheit, not including wind chill--that's about -9 or -10 degrees Celsius). I ended up wearing 4 layers of woolen clothes to the event, and probably needed 5. After having dinner at a nearby Irish pub, we lined up to get into the event. The doors weren't supposed to open until 7, but fortunately they took pity on us and let us in about 15 minutes earlier. Ann and I had excellent seats. The event itself was amazing--Colbert is a very funny and engaging interviewer, and Dr. Tyson is impassioned about his answers. Stephen's questions to Dr. Tyson revolved around philosophy, science, Tyson's own background, and scientific literacy.

My friend Ann writes for the Colbert fan site, The No Fact Zone. You can read her excellent take on this interview here. What follows is my own memory of the event. It's not very chronological, as I got home from the event and jotted down what I could remember in the order I remembered it. For what it's worth, here is my take:

Stephen asks--is it better to know or not know? Tyson says yes, always. Stephen brings up Oedipus Rex--was it better for Oedipus to know the truth? The guy put his eyes out when he found out the truth. Tyson continues to insist that it is better to have the information. People can choose ignorance, but then they give up the chance to participate in new discoveries.

Scientists make discoveries by taking what has already been learned to apply it to new things or (in the case of Newton) invent a whole system (differential and integral calculus) to explain what they discover.

One should not accept something at face value or reject it out of hand--both are equally lazy. One should ask questions, get particulars about how something works. This is what keeps us from becoming victims of charlatans. It also allows voters to make informed decisions about science policy. He gave the example of someone handing you 2 crystals and saying they will cure you. He said it is equally lazy to accept that they will cure you and to reject it as nonsense without any inquiry. You need to ask questions, at which point the claim is likely to break down. Stephen replied, "Look Neil, if you don't like the crystals I gave you, just say so."

Colbert asked about the notion of beauty in truth, and what beauty Tyson saw in science--what was the most beautiful scientific concept? He said without hesitation, "E=mc2", because it explained so many complexities of the universe, and yet was so simple. Tyson's definition of beauty in science had to do with simplicity--anything overly complicated, so complicated that he couldn't explain it to you--was a problem. The idea that we are made up of the same stuff as the stars is another simple idea that is staggering to think about.

Tyson talked about the notion that physics, especially particle physics and quantum mechanics, are questioned for their relevance to things that are important now--why are we looking out there rather than right here? He points out that things that don't look so important now can have a huge impact later. He gives the example of Farraday, and how he could pass his hand over a wire and move the needle on a meter (electrical response). When asked by Parliament what use this toy could possibly have for the British Empire, he said, "I don't know yet. But in 50 years, the government will tax it." Of course, Farraday pioneered our modern use of electricity.

Colbert questioned the Higgs Boson, and asked why it even had to exist--if you have 2 houses built side by side, why do you need to join them? Tyson replied that historically the link has always proven to be there. He gave the example of neutrinos and electromagnetism (electricity and magnetism used to be considered separate things).

Stephen asked about how Tyson got interested in astrophysics. He mentioned being a kid in the Bronx, where one could see about twelve stars at night, and then taking a trip to the Hayden Planetarium. He thought the vision of the sky was pure fiction, until he looked at the sky in Western Pennsylvania. And, in true city-kid fashion, he thought, "Wow, that looks just like the Hayden Planetarium." He felt destined to work in astrophysics after that, once he realized there was such a thing.

Colbert asked about science fiction, and whether or not Tyson enjoyed it, or was too busy poking holes in the science to enjoy it. Tyson replied that he could enjoy science fiction as long as it didn't claim to be "scientifically accurate". As long as it had some basis in science, he didn't care if they made up the rest. The movie Titanic really pissed him off, because it claimed to be scientifically accurate. The layout of the ship and the details involved couldn't be proven by anyone but those who had seen the submerged ship through a camera. But when Kate Winslet is on the plank looking at the night sky--not only is it the wrong sky, but it's actually a mirror image of the same sky. This annoyed Tyson, because it was a simple thing to verify in a movie that claimed to be accurate. He brought it up to James Cameron twice--the first time he mentioned it as a "post-production" thing, the second time he mentioned how much the movie grossed, and said, "Think how much more it would have grossed if I had the right sky." Nonetheless, when an anniversary edition of Titanic was being put together with new footage, Tyson got a call from Cameron's post-production manager, saying, "I hear you have a sky for me." He then stood up and did a victory dance.

One girl asked in the Q&A if it was possible to tunnel through a black hole via quantum mechanics. Tyson replied he that he needed to know if she planned to get somewhere or was satisfied being dead. When she said the latter was fine, he spoke about the memory of black holes--they retain the memory of everything they've ingested. Using Stephen as an example--if a black hole swallowed up Stephen and nothing else, if two particles came together out of that black hole (via E=mc2), they could pull out and reconstruct correctly every particle that was Stephen--and the black hole would evaporate. Tyson found that to be "spooky."

He was asked about recent scientific discoveries that he thought were important, and he mentioned finding water on the moon, and finding methane on Mars. The latter was more important because it suggested the presence of bacteria that didn't rely on oxygen, and hence, some kind of life. Methane, other than laboratory production, can only be produced under very special circumstances (usually in the guts of farm animals). This prompted Stephen's remark, "So you're saying that there are farts happening on Mars? Isn't that what you really want to say?"

He was asked about what he felt needed to be done to promote scientific literacy, specifically with an eye to policy making. He mentioned a two-fold approach. The first was at home--allowing kids to be curious and messy. His remark, "you had the kids, now clean up after them!" was well received by the audience. Keeping them from certain kinds of play because they might make a mess was hindering their curiosity. He felt that schools needed to encourage this as well, and not measure achievement so much in terms of rote facts--while memorizing facts can be important, it is more important to know how to figure things out. From a policy standpoint--he felt that NASA should not have to go to the government with its hat in its hand. Using the example of Farraday speaking to Parliament, he pointed out that much that can be gained from scientific study will be in the future, not in the next economic quarter or election cycle, and we needed to think beyond that when considering funding. He also pointed out that we are not throwing all our tax money into the space program--only 6/10 of a penny of every tax dollar goes into space exploration and related ventures.

Someone asked about the notion of a "brown dwarf" headed towards the Earth, alluding to one of the 2012 catastrophe theories about a "Planet X" heading for collision with the Earth. His response was that no such planet existed--all gravitational sources in the solar system were known and accounted for.

Stephen had asked about negative perceptions of science--creating the atom bomb, or, in fiction, creating viruses or making bizarre mutations of creatures--the notion of the "evil" scientist "tampering in God's domain" in popular culture. Tyson replied that behind every scientist creating something harmful is a politician funding that project. Science is neither good nor evil--how it's applied depends on the society. He drew a parallel to the iron age--should men of that time NOT forged iron into weapons and other things just because one might get cut with the weapon?

A woman in the audience asked about Tyson's "demotion" of Pluto as a planet, and whether or not, as an ice planet, it would eventually evaporate out of existence. Tyson pointed out that he wasn' t the only one who made the decision on Pluto, and to "not shoot the messenger" (though it was mildly amusing that Tyson once referred to 9 planets, and then quickly retracted and said 8)--and that Pluto was not demoted per se, but merely reclassified--it fit in better with other ice planets like itself. Stephen made a remark I didn't entirely catch about him sending Pluto "upstate to the farm, so you can be with others like you". Tyson then said, in answer to the question, that no, Pluto would not disappear, as it was much too far from the Sun to ever have its icy surface melt away.

He spoke about things in science, particularly quantum mechanics, that are hard to swallow because they don't "make sense". He pointed out that they don't make sense because we're not living in that quantum world on those terms--if we were, it would make sense, and the world we live in now wouldn't. Nature "is under no obligation" to follow our laws of logic. They only refer to the world we experience.

Someone asked about parallel universes. He said probably not, as the idea of the multiverse was gaining prevalence. He noted that it was another step away from the notion that "we are the only ones" or are the center of things--first realized we're not the only planet in the solar system, then we discovered we weren't the only galaxy--so why should we be in the only universe? However, in different multiverses, the laws of physics work differently, so if you were to enter one, you don't know how your atoms, attuned to the laws of physics in this universe, would behave--you might implode or grow three heads, for instance.

Stephen's last question to Tyson was the old Modern Philosophy exam question, "How do you make something out of nothing?" and asked him to respond in 10 words or less. Tyson managed to do it--I don't remember the exact words--but it was something to the effect of, "Some questions contain words but are not questions at all."

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