Neil deGrasse Tyson's Secret to Everyday Joy and Purpose in Life | E205 | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Neil deGrasse Tyson's Secret to Everyday Joy and Purpose in Life | E205".
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We just spent half hour talking about this, and I hardly ever talk about it. Why is it not wrong? I didn't say it was wrong. Okay, I'm with you. World renowned astrophysicist turned TV host. He's a man with the answers to the toughest questions on the planet. And of course, best-selling author. In the last 50 years, we've increased life expectancy one to years. There will be a time where homo sapiens have achieved escape velocity from death. That generation will never die unless you're hit by a bus. That brings you the question. If you could live forever, would you? How different the world would be? One of the things that you are most concerned about when the direction of travel of the human race... A lot of things. So, there's some delusional force operating on people's understanding of the world in which they live. If you post an opinion on anything, it gets attacked. Did you see what happened with Neil deGrasse Tyson? He tweeted something that many people took great offense to. Part of what it is to be a scientist is figure out all the ways you could buy us yourself and remove them as far as possible. Don't let it interfere with objective truths. But what's the personal toll on you? I don't know why he tweeted that. Stupid and awful. He's just a weird Twitter lunatic. Is it... How long can I keep talking about? Before this episode starts, I have a small favor to ask from you. Two months ago, 74% of people that watched this channel didn't subscribe. We're now down to 69%. My goal is 50%. So, if you've ever liked any of the videos we've posted, if you liked this channel, can you do me a quick favor and hit the subscribe button? It helps this channel more than you know and the bigger the channel gets, as you've seen, the bigger the guests get. Thank you and enjoy this episode. Neil. I have always believed that to fully understand a person, you have to understand their origin story.
Life Reflections And Philosophical Questions
Early context (02:02)
Maybe that's a similar sort of analogy for the universe. So, the place I wanted to start with you is by understanding the most important context from your earliest years that are responsible for the person that is sat in front of me today. Wow, this is very marvel comics of you. What's the origin story of Superman, Batman, Spiderman? Your question is very well placed because everyone has been touched by some series of events. Unfortunately, for some people, traumatic events, but for all people, some series of events that shaped who they are. And I'd like to say that there was a series of events that planted the seeds of who I would become. But I wouldn't say that they were responsible. I mean, it requires a lot of continual investment of time, energy, and focus to shape a career. Rather than say, "Oh, it happened then and I just been coasting ever since." No, that's not how that works. So, I grew up in the Bronx. And in New York City, surely as is true in London, you don't have a relationship with the night sky. In a busy city, you, at least certainly in New York City, there were tall buildings. If you look up to see the sky, there's a building in the way. There's light pollution. There's, and back then there was air pollution. So, since no one has a relationship with the night sky, then one can ask, "What is your access to it?" Of course, it's our local planetarium, the Hayden planetarium. And my family, my parents, my brother and sister, there was a tactical, strategic thing my parents did. I didn't know it at the time. But every weekend or every other weekend, we went places. We were exposed to all manner of things that talented adults do beyond just the doctor, lawyer, engineer, beyond those standard professions. So, first it was entertaining, but it also meant we had exposure to other ways of thinking about what you might do with your life. One of those trips when I was nine years old was to the Hayden planetarium. And I was star struck. You sit in a big chair and the lights dim and the stars come out, more stars than you can count. And I thought it was a hoax. I said, "There aren't that many stars." I've seen the night sky from the Bronx. You're lying to me. And only later what I learned upon going deep into the rural areas of the country. We have relatives in the Caribbean. We visited there. I'd see the night sky as nature intended. And to this day, when I've accessed two great telescopes on mountaintops, and I look up at this crystalline clear night skies, I still say to myself, "Oh, that is so beautiful." It reminds me of the Hayden planetarium. So it's a sad commentary on what it is to grow up in a city. But it's, I feel like the universe chose me. And since I was nine years old onward, I have committed my life to learning more and more about the universe. And that's the most important seed that was planted. Cyril and Suncheetah, is that your parents name?
Your parents direct influence (05:47)
Cyril is my father and Suncheetah is my mother, correct? What was the influence that they individually had on you? From almost vicariously learning from them, but also the direct influence they had on you? They were a moral influence, a cultural influence. And I will add, not that you explicitly ask this, but I think it fits right in this moment. Consider the period, the 1960s. You could go one of two ways, if you're an angry black man. It's like you can raise your fist and threaten violence as a retaliation of the violence against you. Or you can find some other way that doesn't involve violence, that involves some kind of peace, some kind of understanding. And my father, and while he grew up in the 30s and 40s, he served in a segregated army, okay? So the stuff he lived through. And while I have my own stories, none of them compare to his average story. Yet at the end of the day, he was never bitter. I remembered him saying, when you look at the images of angry white people screaming at black children entering a school who are protected by the National Guard, because an edict had to be delivered to grant them access to education, he would say, they simply don't know any better. They were raised that way. You want to hate them. And my father never hated it. Never. Never. So I go through life and at least several times a week, every week of my life, growing up, I have stories. Today, they would call them microaggressions, but then it was just same shit different day. But I never got bitter because you asked, what influence did they have on me? It was the non-bitter influence. You say, that's, they don't know any better. They think they're doing the right thing. Maybe we can make a difference going forward. I saw the emotion in your face when you talked about your father. Yeah. It's, I think we need that today. The world, I reached a point where, okay, how long can I keep talking about the universe and not bring it down to earth, not bring some science principles to people's thinking? They want to tribalize. They want to hate. They want to choose. They want to create laws to restrict your freedoms just because of who you worship or don't worship or who you sleep with or what you look like or what, you know, have reflective to light your skin color is, all right? What side of a line in the sand you were born on? I like invoking an alien trope. Aliens, they don't know anything about us. They just see this beautiful planet with water on it and continents and clouds and they visit and they say, oh, this is one species that's everywhere. Oh, they're very successful. They're humans and homo sapiens and then heck that's cool. And then they get a little closer look and they say, oh my gosh, what are they? There's a war over here. Why? Oh, because there's some resource on this side that's not over there and they want it. There's a coastline. There's oil. There's this. There's elements in a mine. They worship a different God. They look at the violence and hatred that we commit upon each other and they'll run back home and tell their fellow alien brethren, there's no sign of intelligent life on earth. Anyhow, so I've, yeah, my head has been in the stars, but my feet have been on earth my entire life. Why does that connect so deep? Because it's so obvious it connects so deeply with you. Is that linked to what the resilience to bitterness that your father demonstrated when he was abused and was attacked with racial abuse? Is that the reason why it's so linked so closely to your heart? I don't know. He didn't burden us with his stories unless we asked or unless it came up in a moment. It wasn't that way. It was, I saw his integrity in the face of what was going on in the world and it's, you can, a person could be a mentor even if they don't say anything, because you can observe them, observe their conduct. Their behavior, their, how they respond to adversity. Do they fight back? Do they want to commit violence? Do they want to have a conversation to explore the differences? You know, I am, I'm my mother's from Nigeria, my dad's from England, so I'm of, I guess, dual ethnicity or whatever the correctly correct term is now. It's called human. Okay, I'm human. You can just say it, repeat after me. I am human. What race are you? You're the human race. I'm human race. You, you just spent 10 seconds telling me how anthropologists liked to divide up the world and force us to then agree with their categories. Line everybody up from ghost white to cold black and you will have a human being of every single skin color in between. Okay. Well, did you happen to be born over there? So you're a human. I'm human. Tell me which mixture you are. That'll give her rats ass. Okay. You're a human being sitting across the table from me. Now, continue. Sorry. It's your podcast. That's fine. I don't mean to jump all in my face. It's fine. I'm fine with it. Okay. And I've, I've come to learn about what it was to be black in the 1960s, 70s from my guest and it's helped me to understand my mother better.
Your father being racially abused (12:39)
Because I have to have my mother didn't react like your father did. And you talked about. Mother was like Nigerian. Nigerian. She came to the UK, we lived in an all white area. She didn't react like your father did. And so it skewed my perspective on, on race relations, but then from doing this podcast and meeting people like you, hearing some of those very specific stories of abuse. I almost can't believe it. And I have this huge amount of empathy for my mother because I've sat here with the guests. And one of the stories I heard you tell was about your father competing in athletics and how people would scream the N word at him while he was running. Oh, yeah. So that this was for me, one of the most insightful lessons that I got from all the stories from him. Yeah. So he, he was an athlete, actually world class track. That's its own story because he, he was kind of muscular. All right. Certainly in his day. Not Charles Atlas muscular, but relative to other kids in his class in high school, he was muscular. And they were in their gym class and you line up and getting ready for the next unit. All right. There was gymnastics and then there was like track and field. So they had a track unit and the gym teacher pointed to my father on the line and said, we're about to do the running unit. And just so you know, do you see Cyril Tyson over there? There would turn. He said, he has the kind of body that would not make a good runner. And he said to himself, no one is going to tell me what I can't do in this world. And he started running and he became world class. And at one point, he had the fifth fastest time in the world in his special event. So that was, that's an important lesson, career lesson. Why are there people running around telling you what you can't accomplish in a free society? I can get it if we're not a free society, but why should anyone tell you what you can't or shouldn't do? So that was lesson number one for me. But then his best friend, also a runner, Johnny Johnson, his name. There's a race. Johnny Johnson is running around on the last turn of the track. And there's a runner from the New York Athletic Club, several paces behind him. The coach of that runner goes up the side of the track and screams to his runner as he points to Johnny Johnson ahead of him. Catch that. Johnny Johnson overheard this. An old Johnny Johnson said to himself was, this is one he ain't going to catch. Increase the distance. Okay. So, so that comment from the coach could have done one of two things. It could have demotivated you because then you wallow in the racism of the world or it could motivate you to succeed. Ever since I heard that story, every racist encounter I have ever had simply motivates me to succeed all the more. Period. And I see that throughout your story as you go through college university and you go into your post-grad, there's moments over and over again where people or circumstance encourage you away from what's clearly your passion, the thing you're clearly pursuing. Yeah. People didn't. Yeah. And again, this is not the kind of racism that the 1950s or 40s, you know, I wasn't lynched. Yeah. You know, so, so again, I don't want to claim equal I'm trauma to what earlier generations had experience, but you can get, let's call it institutional racism. Where you don't even racism. I'm talking about people trying to put you off your passion telling you it's not. That's all I call it. That racist, what I'm saying is they see that I'm athletic. I'm athletic most of my life and they can't wrap their head around me being something other than an athlete that they watch on television. When I say, well, I actually like astrophysics, but you're so good at this other sport. No, I want to be in the physics club. No, we need you on the basketball team. And they think they're doing me a favor. They think they're saying nice things to me. But every one of those is a force operating against my ambitions. And so in a way, just that my skin color in my life's arc was a path of most resistance compared to where I wanted to land. And by the way, I don't you're weird. We're, we just spent a half hour talking about this. And I hardly ever talk about it. I don't talk about it because I don't, you know, I don't need to. Maybe if it's a counseling session, but I'm perfectly fine. I'm a happy guy, happily married, got two kids, and I hardly ever talk about skin color because I want to make it irrelevant as quickly as I possibly can in every context I'm possibly in. So if you're going to invite me to give a public talk in February, Black History Month, I will decline that invitation. If you only think of me as a black scientist, then I have failed as a scientist. Period. Period. You want me to, oh, what you know how I realized this? Okay. So I will tell you the moment after which I was a different person interacting with the public. Okay, I'm in graduate school. There's an explosion on the sun and the press, it's over the wires press here's about this. So they want to get a comment on it, an explosion on the sun. So they called Columbia the Department of Astronomy. And they're looking for some, it was lunchtime. They were all out to lunch. I'm a grad, I'm a doctorate candidate, I'm there for my PhD. And so the department admin is going through the roster and they get to me and say, Neil, no one is here. Can you take this call? So I said, sure. And they said, Oh, hello. Who are you on Neil deGrasse Tyson, doctoral candidate in astrophysics? They say, you know, there's an explosion on the sun. Should we be worried? I said, oh, it's a solar flare. They happen with some frequency. It's a wave of particles coming towards Earth. And they said, you mean the Earth is fine? I said, the Earth is fine. And they said, can you tell us that on camera? I sure. Okay, we'll send up a limo to pick you up in a half hour. And so the whole conversation there was, and it was pre-taped. I get home, I put on the TV, and I watched this interview. And I had an out of body experience. I just witnessed something I've never seen before in my life. You know what that was? It was the news interviewing a black person, me, who was not an entertainer or athlete. Okay. Interviewing a black person for expertise that had nothing to do with being black. The interview didn't say at the end, well, how do black people feel about solar flares? Oh, does this affect dark skin differently? None of that. It was, will Earth be safe? And he's getting that expertise from a black person. I had never seen that. And then I thought, well, is it just because I'm on TV and I'm a little more aware? So I watched for the next two years. Every time there was a black person brought onto the news for expertise. It was someone who's a member of Congress representing a community and they want enterprise zones for the economics. There was someone who was worried about the poverty in the inner city that never had an audience seen a black person as an expert. Oh, they would have attorneys, but it's talking about a court case about a black person. Would they ever be a black attorney to talk about a court case about a white person? No. And I said to myself, that's is the answer. That's how we turn an entire world of people who think black people are just dumb and stupid, lazy, shiftless, and all they can do is shine my shoes and entertain me in saying and be the athlete on the field if there was an ever a force to change that. It's not people telling them they should think differently. It's me being visible in a way where they have no other choice but to say, oh my gosh, this person knows more about this subject than I do and he has dark skin. So the next time they see a homeless black person, they're not saying, oh, black people are just like, they have to confront the fact that they just saw a black person tell them that Earth was safe. So it's just quite simple. The next time you're driving your car and somebody comes up with a squeegee to wash your window at the red light and begs for money and if that person is black, maybe you'll think twice about the causes and effects of poverty, of the forces that operate that discriminate against one community of people versus another. So ever since that moment, I have declined interviews that want me because I'm black. And even in this interview, I'm not entirely comfortable spending a half hour talking about it because it turns this interview into something about me being black, which then is someone hears or hears me for the first time, oh, let's get him. He has all these stories about being black. Let's get him to talk to this group about in this racial, in this race conference. No, I will decline that invitation. So let's talk about a separate point. What advice would you give me on how you pursue the thing that sets your heart on fire, your passion, whatever you want to call it, without falling into the or conforming to the like external pressure to become a doctor or lawyer.
How to decide what I want to do with my life (23:36)
Like, I'm thinking about the people that are watching this that have a passion, but they don't consider it to be a job as many people didn't consider what you do now to be a job back then. And they're being forced by the external words, parents, expectations, social media, to go and do something else they don't want to do. What would you say to those people? I can tell you this, that if you don't have a, I didn't realize when I was nine, how unusual it was to be that passionate, that young. Not until I got to college, half the people, my freshman year didn't yet know what they wanted to major in. And I said, I'm majoring in astrophysics. I say it was that because it was early in the catalog alphabetically of things you might major. No, I felt this and known this half my life. And so I, in college, I was sensitized to people who are still looking, still searching. Well, we have the benefit of longer life expectancy today than 50 years ago. I mentioned this only because if you don't know what you want to be when you grow up and you're 30, that's just fine. But I don't want to have to blame you for not exposing yourself to what you can be when you grow up. If you're sitting home watching football and say, I don't know what I want to do with my life, once you do what my parents did, visit a new thing every weekend, go on a trip, talk to experts in all manner of tasks and visit a chef school, visit a geology expedition, do things. And if you like it, you'll probably be better at that than anything else you choose to do. Because you you will invest even your downtime doing it. And as the saying goes, but pick something you would do for free and make that your career and you'll never live a sad day in your life. So that's one variant on a pick something that you love. And all the time when other people say, you know, I need a vacation from this job, you're gonna say vacation, what's that? People say that to me. Do you want a vacation from from what? From the astrophysics you're doing, but I like what I'm doing. If I'm on vacation, I'll buy by love being on the beach. But if I'm the beach, I'm thinking about the universe. It's not to get away from the universe. All right, not that that could literally happen anyway. So that's what I would say. You want to be independent minded. Listen to people's comments. People have life experience. Don't ignore it. But what you want to do is fold it in to your own sensibilities, provided you have sensibilities to begin with. Otherwise, you become this ping pong ball, a batted back and forth between one person's suggestion and another. In the cover of your book, it talks about the polarization that we're seeing in the world at the moment.
What are you concerned about with the human race (26:52)
What is, you know, what is the, what are the things that you are most concerned about when you think about the direction of travel of the human race and life you're on Earth and what's going on? What are the things that trouble you at a very deep level in terms of our direction of travel? A lot of things. So let me put this in context. In science, if I put a conclusion forward, it's not, you're not going to ask me, did you look at both sides of that? No, that's not the question is, did you look at all sides of it? We have this binarity mind where we think, are you a former, are you a foreign sir against us? Is it black or white? Are you a boy? Are you a girl? Is it upper? Is it down? This is intellectually lazy, because practically everything that exists in this universe manifests on a spectrum. So here's a, here's a thought and you're going to say, well, did you look at both sides? No, I looked at all sides. Did you realize that if this changes, that could change this? And did you, did you figure out how sensitive it is to that? If I didn't, I'm not doing my job as a scientist. Okay. So we live in a time, especially fractured by the forces of social media. I say this only because if you post an opinion on anything in social media, it gets attacked. You have to be people who agree with it. Fine. But the noise and the fireworks are when you get attacked. I don't think it used to be that way. I think there was a time when I would express an opinion and you said, oh, that's interesting. Here's my opinion. So why do you think that way? And here's why I think that that's interesting. I never thought about it that way. Cool. You spend 15 minutes comparing and contrasting opinions, then you go out for a beer at the pub. This is how I remembered it. Am I misremembering? I don't think so. Do you give me a tact? Now, what are the consequences? But what are you actually after by attacking someone with a different opinion? Oh, I know what it is. You want everyone to have exactly the same opinion you do. Well, that's not this country either. No, you know what's on our currency? On our currency, E pluribus unum. Okay. Out of the many we have one, not out of the one we have one. It is the many. It is the plurality, pluribus, it's Latin. Okay. A plurality means people coexist who think differently about the world. And we celebrate that, or at least we ought to. Otherwise, we're all the same. And we can make a country where everybody's the same. And that's called a dictatorship. Is that really, really? Think through fully the consequences of that. Now, let me get back to the violence part. I want to jump on the point of social media. You had a, you had a tweet that you did that went viral that got attacked, right?
Social media polarisation (30:05)
I mean, there was one in particular that I think was attacked more than the others. I can't even remember it off the top of my head. It's never my intent to post a tweet that gets attacked. Of course. If it gets attacked, it's like, I didn't see that coming. I count myself as an educator among the ranks of educators. And my goal is to enlighten and educate, not to anger people. So I still maintain a forbidden Twitter file on my computer. These are tweets that no, I'm not going to post it. Even though it's true, objectively true, there would be two upsetting to people. Is there another way? So anytime that happens, like, Oh my gosh, okay, let me see if I can tune that differently next time. But if you know it's true, and you believe it's important, you still might not post it because it might upset people in ways that are not productive. Give me an example. No, no, I will quote my father. Okay. It's not good enough to be right. You also have to be effective. If you're not effective, go home. It doesn't matter if you are in the right. So if I post something that just creates more divisiveness, I need to find another way to achieve the same goal without the conflict. So no, I'm not just about put the truth out there. And if it triggers landmines, so what is the truth? No, that's not being an educator. I'm really, there's a point here. I really want to answer for my own. I've been thinking a lot about as we see this polarization in every facet of conversation and public discourse, I've started to think that maybe the antidote is the very few amongst us that have the guts to stand by the truth, regardless of the errors they take. And I'm seeing that a little bit with some big commentators. I shout name names because that'll be a headline. But I'm thinking actually, they're like their, their bravery, I guess, and they're courage to say the truth, regardless of the fact they're going to get piled on because it doesn't fit the narrative is actually helping us. It's helping us almost. Yeah, it's helping. It moves the needle. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So I see that. I'm just saying, I believe, however, delusionally that you can achieve the same goal without angering people. And part of the goal of that book is to offer ways to think about points of conflict in fresh ways that do not trigger people to dig their heels in and fight more ferociously to defend their opinions. Now, I want to put this in context, because I started out by describing an idea, and you're going to say, did you consider both sides? No, I considered all sides. People want to think we're in the most violent times. Can we look at the violence against trans the trans community? First, there was always violence against trans people. Nobody was talking about it. Because there was violence against other people, there were violence against black people, there's violence against women. There's a whole list of people who were more represented statistically in the world than trans people, where we went through periods of our social justice arc to try to rectify those problems. And so the fact that trans rights are on the table now is itself a measure of progress. Because we're not talking about gay marriage anymore. We're not talking under President Clinton, one of our more progressive liberal presidents. Do you know what the thing was? It was gays in the military. Don't ask, don't tell. That was considered a progressive stance. In the 1990s, under a liberal president, don't ask, don't tell. Now in Qatar, with the, with the, they say, we will welcome gay people, but don't exhibit the gayness in the stands. And everyone is jumping all over them for that regressive posture. It's exactly what we were 30 years ago. Don't ask, don't tell. I don't mind if you're gay, just don't kiss another man in front of me. If you're a man, otherwise okay with it. All right. So what I'm saying is, look at the other things that preceded it, and you can declare progress having led up to it. That's my point. Not that it's still, you know, still have to worry about it, and it still needs solutions. And you still have to somehow change people's sense of what equality is, and equal access, and opportunity, and equity, and inclusion. That all still needs to happen. But that is not happening now, or less so, with black people. So there are measures of progress that are kind of perverse, but real. And you know what my father used to say? He said, I'll know we've achieved equality. When a black person can be indicted for embezzled when a black person can be sent to jail for embezzling $500 million, I know we've made it. Okay. Okay. Like I said, it's a perverse measure, but it's another way to think about the progress that has actually happened in this world. All I'm saying is, we may be living in some of the safest times there ever was in the history of civilization. I don't think we should lose sight of that. People are afraid to say it, I think, because the worry, and it's an illegitimate worry, that you might just get complacent and sit back and say, see, everything is fine. It requires no more work and no more effort. I'm saying, maybe we should pick, in addition to worrying about the violence that persists to this day, we should look at the successes and say, well, what did we do right? Let's do more of that. And there's not much of people saying, look how far we've come. Let's list how we achieve this. Why don't people do that? Well, I was sort of poll on Twitter two days ago, and the question was, do you essentially do feel optimistic about the future? I clicked. Yes. And I was in the tiny minority in 78, roughly 70% of people, I think it was slightly more felt pessimistic about the future. I though were worried and fearful about the future. Right. And there's here's another statistic, which is in the spirit of that, but it's a little more thorough. It was Gallup poll, one of the, I forgot which one, it might have been a different one, but one of the official polling agencies for the past 30 years have asked people each year in the United States, are things more dangerous for you, just in your community, in your this year than last year. 27 of those years, people said it's more dangerous this year than last year. I don't feel as safe as I did last year. Okay. Now let's plot the crime rate over the past 30 years. It has been a precipitous drop. Just drop. There's some bumps in there, but basically it has dropped for 30 years since the basically the 1980s, 90s up until today. So there's some delusional force operating on people's understanding of the world in which they live. And then people wanted to blame it, I think in part correctly on local news. What's the first thing you see? You put up not the national, the local news. There's a crime committed and now we have video. So you know, we didn't used to have surveillance video. Now you see the person beating up on the old person with a person breaking into the jewelry. Now you see it. You say, Oh my gosh, you know, clutch your loved ones and your valuables. Our ability to show you violence is greater than ever before. And it affects us emotionally. Part of what it is to be a scientist is to figure out all the ways you could bias yourself and remove them as far as possible as much as you can. What is the scientific method? If not, I give my own wording of the scientific method, it simply do whatever it takes to not fool yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is. So I, so that poll, what it told me, I'm going to look at the actual data. And I'm going to look at the end, and I'm going to react to the actual data, not to my feelings about an objective truth. Another one with feelings is the source of the greatest art in the world. And it's our emotions, how we feel for people. But if you're going to make legislation, if you're going to act on your feelings, and there's an objective truth that informs those feelings, that's the path you should take. Otherwise, we're a house of cards that could collapse at any moment, because somebody feels like you're going to harm them, or they feel like it's dangerous, or they feel like you're, excuse me, I love human feelings. But don't let it interfere with objective truths. Don't let it interfere with legislation, laws that would have to affect us all. Quick one from our longest standing sponsor, Hjor. I can't tell you over the last, and say over the last really, it's been about two and a half years. It was really post pandemic, how much my health has become such a huge priority in my life. Hjor has been probably the most important partner in my health journey, because I've been in the boardrooms, I've been to their offices, tens and tens and tens and tens of times. I've seen how they make their decisions on nutrition. And that's why it's such such a wonderful thing to be able to talk to this audience about a brand and a product that is so unbelievably linked to my values and the place I am in my life, of valuing the gym, exercise, movement, my mind, my breathing and all of those things, and most importantly, my nutrition. That is the role Hjor plays. And so every time I get to read these ads out, I do it with such passion, because I really, really believe everywhere I'm saying, and I absolutely love the brand. So if you haven't already tried Hjor and you've been resistant to my, my pestering, then give it a go and let me know how you get on. We're lucky enough to have Intel sponsoring this podcast and Intel Evo is essentially their badge of excellence that determines whether a laptop is high spec or not. So it's going to save you a load of time researching and comparing models, because if you see the Intel Evo badge, you know it's passed Intel's own strict requirements for laptops that prioritize on-the-go productivity. One of those requirements for Intel Evo is the real world battery life and fast charging when you're in a rush. Intel Evo laptops have long lasting fast charging batteries, which ticks a lot of boxes for me. You'll get at least four hours worth of charge in under 30 minutes of being plugged in. And a battery life design to last at least nine or more hours, even if you're like me and have multiple tabs open. The laptop was also really responsive with the Intel Evo platform it wakes up in less than a second and comes with 12th generation Intel core processors built into the laptop. So it's ready to go instantly. As someone who spends a lot of my time out and about between podcast recordings, talks, meetings, business meetings, events, etc, etc, being able to rely on a laptop to keep going at the pace I do is critical. And with the Intel Evo platform, you get the performance and battery life you need to do just that head to intel.co.uk Evo to find out more about the Intel Evo platform. Your documentary cosmos. I don't know if I'm saying that right cosmos cosmos.
Do we matter (42:40)
I think it's a might be an English. You were a Brit. I don't know how you pronounce anything. It's all. You will never find an American correcting British pronunciation. We just don't know. Okay. So objective truth and reality and feelings. One of the things I learned from that documentary, which was honestly, I remember the day I found it. I shouldn't say this, but I didn't have a lot of money. So I found it on some like dodgy, like pirated website and I just I watched I think it was eight episodes security. Yeah. I watched them all that night and I and then I went back and watched the previous one with Carl Sagan. It just captivated me. And it has ever since I actually would cite that as my as the start of my fascination with the universe. And one of the really profound things I took from it when we're talking about objective truth and feelings is there's a scene in the documentary where you kind of like zoom out and it keeps going and going and going and going and going and going and it made me talking about objective truth and feelings. It made me feel so insignificant. I realized that I am objectively irrelevant. And that was a wonderful feeling because with that it strips away the burden of your own self importance and ego. Do we matter? So the cosmic perspective is incompatible with your ego. Okay. I should say your ego is incompatible with a cosmic perspective. That's the proper way to order that sentence. The cosmic perspective shows you how small we are in size in time in space. And if you go in with a high ego, you might resist that. You might say, no, I'm important. But I think of it differently. The we know one of the greatest gifts of modern astrophysics to civilization, dare I call it a gift, is the knowledge that the atoms of your body are traceable, not only to the big bang origin of the universe itself, but especially to stars that have manufactured those elements and later in their lives on death, exploded, scattering that enrichment across gas clouds so that their next generation of stars would have planets and on at least one of those planets life. So we are not just figuratively, we are literally stardust. So when you go out and look up at the night sky, yeah, your urge is I'm small in that large. And yes, you're alive in this universe, but there's another way to look at it. The universe is alive within you. You have kinship with the cosmos. That feeling to me is greater than any ego you could have possibly walked into the room with. First, that feeling borders on spiritual second. Third, we have trained ourselves to equate being special with being different. You're special. You do something thinks some way that no one else does, so I'm special. Well, let me turn that on its head and say, maybe we're special not because we're different, but because we're the same. All humans are stardust. All humans share a chemistry with all a biology, with all other life on earth. There's one genesis on this earth. We have DNA in common with a banana. I think you'll pardon. You can ask, well, where are the arms and legs? No, DNA goes deeper than that. DNA controls chemistry, it controls metabolism, it controls all kinds of things that are prescribed in the DNA, and that's where we have commonality with other life forms on earth. So why not look around and say, I'm not special because I'm a different, I'm special because I'm the same as you, as others, as the tree, as the brook, as the animals, the woodland creatures, and we can all sit here and look up at the night sky and say, yes, we have kinship with the cosmos. I feel large because of that, not small. You mentioned the pursuit of happiness earlier when you're talking about one of the central sort of like doctrines of the American dream, that pursuit of happiness.
Where does happiness and meaning come from? (47:48)
And in what you've just said about the universe, I was pondering when meaning is derived from. So I kind of ask the question at the same time, this happiness and meaning, where does that come from in your perspective? What I have found is, as an urge people have to search for meaning, is it under this rock metaphorically? Is it under a rock? Is there meaning there? Is it behind a tree? If I join this group, will I find meaning with them? And I think, okay, go ahead. But what you're doing is relegating meaning in your life to a search. And suppose you don't find meaning. That'd be a force of disappointment in your life. You're setting yourself up to be disappointed if you don't find meaning. So I have another idea. I use this for myself. It may or may not work for others. I recognize long ago that in a free society, where I'm not enslaved and I'm not an indentured servant, and I have some freedom of choice, that I have the power to manufacture meaning in my life. I can make decisions about my own life that create the meaning. For me, a meaningful life is learning something new tomorrow that I didn't know yesterday. Otherwise, it's a wasted day. You know, the prisoner who puts Xs in the boxes on the wall for the day they get out? I have that in my head, and the day that I get out is the day I die. All right? And what these boxes remind you of is every day you're alive, you're one day closer to death. So there's one fewer days in there to accomplish something that you might have wanted to accomplish. So I want to keep learning about our world, about each other, about things I don't otherwise know about. And there are people who only read things that they agree with, or that they already know about, or that it's their feeding some urge to be, what's the word, to be validated. I have books on my shelf at my bedside. Every book is a subject that I either know nothing about or I completely disagree with going into the book. I said, well, maybe it'll change my mind. Learn new ideas. Okay. I once presented that list to the New York Times when they said, because my book was doing well at one point, and they try to get authors to talk about other books to keep the book wheel turning, because fewer people are reading today. So what books are you reading? So on your shelves, I've listed the books. One of them was a book in his 30th printing or something was originally written back in the early 60s, I think, maybe even the 50s, a book by Barry Goldwater. It's called The Conscious of a Conservative. And so I'm reading this and people wrote to me after they saw this list, I said, I didn't know you're a closet conservative. I didn't know you're really a Republican. Did you vote for Trump? And all of a sudden people were presuming that if I'm reading a book on something, that book must be what my whole life is about. Rather than it's a portal to another place of how people think and what people do. So that shocked me, actually, because that tells me that most people must have just books that continue to feed their own interests. And that is the best way to not grow in this world. So one of my measures of meaning is how much more do I know about the world tomorrow than I did yesterday? Because almost any path you take will make you wiser as a person. So I value wisdom that gives meaning to my life. A new perspective. It's not just knowledge. No. What is the arc? There's data. Data can become information. Information on further study becomes knowledge. And after enough time, when you see how the knowledge plugs in and applies, it can become wisdom. Wisdom is the distilled essence of all the details. The wisest statements ever spoken to you generally have no detail in them at all, do they? It's I've heard it said this way, wisdom is what's left over after you've forgotten all the details. It's the distilled essence of it all. So I want to be wiser on the porch, on my rocking chair. I don't want to be the old curmudgeon. In my day, we did it best. No, I don't want to be that guy. No. So that's one source of meaning. Another, and it's directly traceable to my parents. But I'd like to also think it's traceable to common sense is spend a little bit of your life lessening the suffering of others. I don't mean redirect your life. Some people do. They work in soup kitchens and start not for profits to serve. Yes. I'm not that person. No, because my universe is what calls me. But in my day, in a week, do something that lessens the suffering of someone else. However, trifling that gesture is. And that's an infusion of good value judging it. I'm saying, yes, it is a good thing to lessen the suffering of others. Yeah, I'm declaring that. I try not to ever put opinions out there, but it's my opinion that if you lessen the suffering of others, you make a better world. And don't we all want to live in a better world? If your happiness were a recipe, right, consisting of various ingredients that needed to be present in certain quantities for you to be a happy person.
Whats required for a happy life for you? (54:46)
And under the assumption that no one is perfectly happy under any kind of vague sense of the word, what is missing from your list of ingredients at the moment? Or what could you have more of that? I don't think of life that way. Okay. How do you think of life? Why is that wrong? That question. I didn't say it was wrong. I don't value judge. Okay, it's not what's right or wrong. It's, I don't live life that way because it means you carry with you the emotions. I could be happier if I were doing this and how come I'm not? And all of a sudden, well, then I must be miserable if I'm not as happy as I could be. No, I don't measure day to day. Am I happy or not? It's not the measure. Yes, it's in there, but that's not the metric. The metric is, am I successful at what I'm doing? Am I no, no, it's not even that. It's, am I as good at this as I can be? If you're not going to try to improve, go home, find something else. So I remember in my first interview on national television, a new planet had just been discovered around another star, an exoplanet. It was Banner Headline. We now have 5,000 in the catalog, but back then 1995, it was Banner Headline, another planet. And we kind of always knew they'd be out there. We just didn't have the tools to figure it out. NBC News sent an action cam up to the planetarium. I was freshly appointed as director. They didn't know me as a person, but I carry title. And so the chiron on the TV image gets to say Neil Grass-Tyson, director, Hayden Planetarium. Okay. They came up and interviewed me. Tell us about this new planet. How was it discovered? So I gave my best professorial reply. Best. Oh my gosh. It was, it's a Doppler shift. The orbiting planet influences the position of the star in space. It's not just the star sits there fixed in the universe and planets orbit it. They both orbit their common center of gravity. And so this is, you can't see the planet. It's too dim, but you look at the star and the star is jiggling back and forth and I motion that with my body. And I said, and you measure this moving back and forth with the Doppler shift, you calculate it and you can infer the existence of this planet and body being, it's a planet. And I went on, I went on for like probably four times that length with my pro, and then I go home. It's national news. I get to call everybody. Hey, everybody, my friends in California, I'll go be on TV and check it out. And so when the segment aired, all they showed was me jiggling my hips like this and saying it's a planet. And I said, oh, they don't want my professor reply. They want to reply that fits in their medium, a sound bite medium. So let me practice that. So I went home and stared in the mirror and had people just shout out objects, names, places, people, things. And I assembled sound bites for each one of them. It's like three sentences. It's got to be informative, makes you smile a little bit. And the information has to be tasty that you want to tell someone else. That's a sound bite. Okay, we could do that now. Mention anything in the universe. Just not a question, just a word, just anything. Mars. Mars. Ooh. Do you know Mars is red because it's rust? It's a rusted planet. And rust has the color of red. The whole planet causes a lot of iron on Mars. And red is the color of blood. Hence, Mars, the God of war. It might have life there. We're still looking. Bob sound bite Venus. Okay. Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. And Venus as an object in the night sky is stupefyingly brilliant. Until you learn it has a runaway greenhouse effect and it's 900 degrees Fahrenheit, 500 degrees Celsius on its surface. It would vaporize you so much for the love and beauty and Venus. So it's the least explored planet because of how hostile it is to our space probes. But we got this. I'm not giving you a 10 minute lecture on the thermodynamics of Venus. So my point is when I saw that what I did did not serve the needs, I invested a lot of energy so that I could be exactly what they needed. So that their task is simplified and I could get better at something that could serve a greater good. I'm not, I don't want to say that's happiness. I'm going to say that's fulfillment of an objective where I improved in what it is I was doing. I have to say when I knew I was going to meet you, this question which was so front of mind for me is there are so many people that talk about the stars in the universe, but there's only one you.
The perfect way to tell stories (01:00:17)
And what I mean by that is. Yeah, I don't know what you mean by that. So what I have had anyone else on this podcast that talks about the stars in the universe. No. The reason why you are a dream guest is because you create a bridge through exactly what you've described, making it engaging and interesting and fun and exciting because of the way that you communicate. And like people don't often think about this whether they're computer programmers or they are archaeologists or whatever that it's great to know stuff. But like I think Ricky Gervais makes the joke with a daddy long legs where he says you can have all the venom in the world. But if you don't have the teeth to inject the venom, if you don't have the skill of communication and storytelling and engagement, the venom is pointless. So what I will say is I will give one other example and I'll tie a bow on it. The first time I was invited to appear on The Daily Show, which is a very popular comedic news program in the United States, hosted by John Stewart. Justin was a comedian. He's brilliant. He's very into current events. We will know him. He's sharp. And I've seen politicians get interviewed by him and they want to deliver their stump speech and they're a deer in the headlights because he's just dancing circles around them. And on my first interview, I said, I am not going to be the deer in the headlights. Okay. So I studied his show with a stopwatch and I said, how many seconds does he on average, does he give his guests to speak before he comedically interrupts them? Okay, write that down. It was anywhere between nine and 12 seconds, which doesn't sound like much, but it works comedically. All right. Then I said, how far back in time does he reference a current event to put in a joke that he might give? Because he can't go too far back because no one remembers it. The joke has to work without you reminding people what they're supposed to know. So very intensely, the previous day, a little less the second day, by the time of the third day in the past, there's hardly any reference to it. Okay. So I studied the last two or three days of current events. I practiced my sound bites even more to fit them into this time frame. And I get on the show and I deliver the lines that mean the sound bites. Oh, but I come preloaded with anything he could possibly ask me. So I'm like, I'm, I'm, I waddle into the studio with a utility belt's worth of thoughts and ideas that he could be asking me. Okay. So I'm there. And if you see me on these shows, I'm a little manic because the it's coursing through me, all this knowledge and information that I need a response to just in case he asked me. So we do this and I get the point and he makes the comedic point. And now my thought is not dangling in the middle of a joke because I completed the thought. The joke tightens that up and then we move on. Right. So we go through this whole interview, and he mentions the current event and I have a little soundbighty thing about that. After the interview, people come up to me and you know what they said? They said, Neil, you're such a natural and you have such good chemistry with John Stewart. My, they have no fucking idea how much time I invested to look natural. It's a part of my expletive there. But we swear all the time. Yeah. What I'm saying is I want it to be as good as I possibly could have been in that interview knowing his audience because each host has their own audience. You want to serve their audience. I don't want to just give the stump speech. So everything that I imagined for myself was for him and his audience. I would communicate differently on a different talk date time talk shows are different than the evening comedic news on a documentary. It's different. So my only point of this with these examples are I pay attention to whether people are paying attention to me. If I'm giving you an explanation and you're drifting, that's not working. Let me pull that out of the utility belt. Let me try something else. If I talk about black holes in a particular way, oh, you're leaning in the conversation in eyebrows or right that worked. So I have a database of people's expressions while I'm talking to them. And I sift that so that I pick and choose what is most impactful in the few minutes we have together. Otherwise, I'm dragging you through a syllabus that who to hell cares. What are the devices that you, you probably don't do it even do it intentionally. You're saying it's natural. Watch yourself. I didn't say I'm going to edit it out. You know, don't edit that out. Okay. But okay. So what are the devices that you intentionally work very, very hard on to implore that I might take from you and become as good a speaker as you are, as engaging and as like captivating despite the fact that you're delivering such complex subject matter at times. But it still seems accessible to someone like me that is just simply a chimp. Not everything that excites me as a professional in the field will excite you. You need to know, you need to sort them into those categories. And maybe there's something that will excite me and you'll see me get all excited and you'll get giddy because you like watching me get excited. That's a different dynamic in that moment. All right. This is kind of fun. I like watching, you know, I have a colleague who's like all into leeches, right, he specializes in invertebrates and leeches among them just to hear him talk about I don't care about leeches, but he does. He's like, wow, I didn't know anyone could care that much about a blood sucking invertebrate, but it was just I'm delighted to watch that. All right. But so you sort things that excite you from things that could excite someone else. Well, how do you know you have to practice that? Okay. Strike up conversations. Watch if people care about what you say. Is there some other conversation that distracts them from your conversation with them? Well, go back to the drawing board. Okay. And I also be a good listener. Watch what excites other people when they're in conversations with other people. And that's what I've done. So in that way, I'm fully socialized. My parents were social creatures and we held dinner parties often, hosting conversations. And I'd watch that. I'm a kid, so I'm not for their dinner parties. I didn't have a seat at the table. But the idea of being able to communicate and my father's a sociologist that's all he ever did that I think mattered within me. And you have to be able to read people's facial, you know, we did with my kids. It was first evidence that they were not autistic, but also I think it's good practice. Get a when they're old enough to start thinking about human emotion, maybe eight, nine, early between years between eight and 12, where they can actively think about what someone else thinks and feels. Okay. Is the person angry? Is a person happy? Is they sad? Are they jealous? Are they whatever? Okay. So what I did was, or what you can do is find a romantic comedy that is well acted. All right. Where you have stars that really do it right and sit down and watch the movie with the sound off. And have your kids ask them, what do you think they're thinking now? What do you think she's feeling? What do you think she's saying? What do you think she's going to do next? And you just watch it. And the actors are not only delivering lines, they're feeling their roles. And you might have to wait if your kid is a little slower that way, maybe they have to be 13 or 14 middle school, where your social standing begins matters more than in elementary school, we're not even feeling the care, right? So maybe it's a middle school thing more than an elementary school thing. In that way, you thought she said, well, let's check. And you go back and it turns out, yes, she was jealous in that moment. And so it trains you to read a facial expression. And a good actor will do this. That's what makes them good actors. And you don't rely on the sound, just the visual. And it's an exercise in reading faces, reading people, reading emotions. And so you want to do this. And in the limit, you become in full up empath, right? I think that's a noun. And empath. That has shaped some people's careers. This is real. We're human, we're social creatures. So yeah, I fold that in because I want to reach you. Oh, and what things do you care about? In my podcast, it's called Star Talk. I have a co host who's a comedian, a professional standup comedian. And the anatomy of the podcast is there's sort of the trinity. There's the science content. There's the humor. And his pop culture. Why do I care about pop culture? Because you walk into the room already framed in a scaffold of pop culture. If I know that in advance, I don't have to start from scratch. When I'm teaching you something, I'm going to say, Oh, I have a bit of science that I can clad onto this part of your scaffold, your pop culture scaffold. And you know, something it fits, it sticks. And you say, whoa, I never knew that about this. There's an American football game that ended in a tie. And but we don't end in ties, right? So there's an overtime. And you reach a point where it's sudden death over time, sudden death, where the next person that scores wins the game. So this person was, was ready to kick for a, it's called a field goal. And it's 50 yards out, 50 yards. Oh my gosh. Okay. That's hard. So they kick it. And no one breathes for the three or four seconds, the ball is so the ball tumbles in the air. And there it goes. And everybody just follows it. And look it up. And the ball hit the left upright and careened in for the wind. And I said, whoa, wait a minute. What's the orientation of the stadium? It's north south. This is a round ball hitting a round post and going in. Do you realize round things hitting other round things? Fractions of an inch make a difference. So I did a fast calculation. And then I tweeted the Cincinnati Bengals for the, for the sudden death field goal was that careened off the upright was aided by a one centimeter shift to the right, given to it by the rotation of the earth. People lost their minds. Okay. Okay. The Cincinnati Bengals, the local newspapers said, God help them win the game. And so everybody. So I didn't have to say what football is, who the Cincinnati Bengals are, what a sudden death goal is, what a field goal is, or explain that the goalposts have a left and a right goal post. I didn't have to introduce any of that. That's an example of the pop culture that someone walks into the room with. And I found a bit of science that I know they're going to care about because it touches something that's pop culture that they already care about. And I would follow that up with it's a Coriolis force and it's why storms rotate clockwise, counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere. I'd followed up with the lesson plan, but I got your interest. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I just start out that way. There's such a thing as a Coriolis for no, no, go where they care. Go where they care. That's and that's what I do professionally. If I spoke to Alice and I said your wife and I said, Alice, what does Neil struggle with?
What do you struggle with (01:13:39)
What would she say to me? Struggle with? Oh, personally. Well, I don't know entirely. But I know I like to eat more than I like to exercise. And I used to be very high, highly tuned athlete. So I remember what it was like to be in complete shape. I also used to dance so I could do a full split. I was doing, you know, I could, I was like totally in shape. So I have that memory, which in a way is worse than never having been in shape. So she'll say, I wouldn't call it struggling, but I would say she would say that I need to carve out more time to exercise just to stay healthy, I think is so that that's one of them. Another thing we talk a lot. We've been married 34 years and you said, well, what's the secret? You know, anytime someone asks you what the secret is, they're being lazy because it assumes just know this one thing and everything will be better. How much of life actually works that way? When someone said, what's your secret to knowing astrophysics is like, you know, working at it 60 hours a week. That's the secret. Somebody asked a chef, what's your secret in this recipe? It's because I went to chef school for six years. That's the secret. So I've never asked someone what's your secret because I, that's disrespect for the actual work that could go into what it is to gain the expertise or the state of existence that someone has achieved. I think in a marriage, it's, you know, most or half end in divorce within some number of years. So what's what's going on with the institution? And I think we're not trained how to communicate. You're living with a person every day of your life. It's really easy to take that person for granted. It's really easy to, to, to enter states of boredom because you've already talked about. So what you do, you do new things with each other as often as you can. You go on a trip, explore new hobbies, you go, you know, you take up a new sport, you play tennis or whatever, just do something new as you would with any other new person. Right? Why does the other new person look really good? Because they're new. Okay. So you could, you can always be new in your marriage if you do new things. Why not travel? Travel together. Then every day is a new experience you both share. So when you get back home, you have something new to talk about, new to share, new to places to grow. And this thing where I want to go in a dating app where I can find someone who's just like me, I don't want anyone just like me. I already have me. I want someone different. I want someone I can learn from, someone with different interests that I could grow into. So not that I've ever used a dating app, but if I had a dating app, that's, I would look for someone who is just really different. It's odd because so many of the apps are finding someone just like you. All right. There's now like a Christian app and a Jewish app and a this app and a find someone who has this category. It's like, wow, why not just have some fun, but somebody who's just different. One of the themes we talk about a lot in this podcast is mental health. And the conversation around mental health is really developed over the last 10 years from a time when we didn't complete.
Mental health (01:17:32)
Oh my gosh. Yeah. It's a, it's the perception of it has completely changed in terms of being dis-digmatized, but then our awareness and our understanding of concept of physical health and mental health is now more present than ever. Was there an event that put your mental health in focus for you? Like really made you cognizant of the fact that you have mental health and it's something that you have to, I was going to say protect, but just yeah, keep healthy, I guess. It often says, you know, okay, I don't have a simple, I have an answer, but it's not simple. How much time you got left here? What? A couple minutes. There's a friend, I told you this is a long story, but you asked it. There was someone my age, maybe one year older, when I was in high school who died, who was the son of a very close family friend of my parents. We might have played together as very small children, but I didn't know him as a teenager. Okay. You died of a brain cancer. Get very tragic. You're 17 years old and you died brain cancer. Ready to go off to college and all the rest. They bust in school kids from the school. Okay. And they unloaded and they filled this chapel and there's a closed casket because it was brain cancer. So, you know, there's a picture of them on the casket. And I'm watching this and the, you know, the classmates are like holding each other as they walk up the aisle and there's the organ playing. No, it's not a New Orleans song where you sort of celebrate the life of the person who just died. It was the kind of organ music where you want to be sad that the person died and I'm watching this. Then I start getting emotional and like a tear shows up in my eye and I said, wait a minute. I don't know this kid. I don't even remember him. I'd be crying because the organ is making me cry. I'd be crying because I'm seeing other people who didn't know him cry and I did a fast calculation. How many people are dying in this hour in the city or in the country or in the world? Am I crying for them? Who I equally don't know? I rationalized an emotional state out of this pain and misery and I said, if I'm not tearing for everybody else who dies who I don't know, I should not be tearing for this person. And so I sucked the tears back up and just observed it anthropologically that there's a funeral going on right in front of me. That was an expression of control over my emotions that is basically how I live for the first 19 years of my life. What was the cost? The cost? No cost. Why would there be a cost? Why should there be a cost to not having forced emotions by other to... No, there's... What cost? I'm a geek kid. Okay? And emotions are something that interfere with rational thought. But this changed. So what I could say to you is you're emotional. What's the cost for not being rational? Okay? I could totally put the question back on you. What's the cost? You slammed the door. You hung up the phone back when we had phones to hung up. You slammed it down. You cried when you didn't even know the person. Okay? That's your cost. So we... Maybe we're simply different people. I'm not saying they shouldn't have cried. They knew them. Of course they're going to cry. I didn't. Organists stop making me cry. And so I didn't. Okay? So how did that change? My freshman year college, it all changed. It all changed. First semester. I take a class in art and design. They play music and they say, "draw the music." It's like... I don't know what you're talking about. What do you mean? Feel the music and draw how it makes you feel. I say, "It's just music I'm listening to." I'm like... It's like two shifts passing in the night. I don't know what the hell this person is talking about. I don't know what he means. I don't know. Should I still stay in this class? Is it a waste of time? What's going on here? And he says, "Okay, here's what you do. Draw the energy in the music." And excuse me, I'm a physicist. Energy is equals MC squared. There's kinetic energy. There's mechanical energy. There's chemical energy. Energy is not what you draw out of music. Okay? Okay. So I said, "All right, I don't know what he's saying, but I'll try something." And then he criticizes it. Okay? So, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing. Why am I in this class? Should I drop the class?" Okay. Then they roll in the pumpkins. They say, "draw the pumpkins." Okay. Now I can do this. It's a task. There's a pumpkin in front of me. I'm going to draw it. So I draw pumpkins. And it takes me a few tries to get the hang of it. But I'm one of the world's best pumpkin drawers to the state because of that. We spent weeks drawing pumpkins. And they're also leaning on each other. And they have these sort of seams in them. And not all of them have the same size handle, the neck that comes out. And they have some had bruises. And there's like 30 of them up in the front of them. So I'm drawing them. I said, "Okay. Is this all we're going to do with this?" Okay. After pumpkins became the entire meaning of my life for two or three weeks, we returned to the studio. The pumpkins are still there. And then they said, "Now, draw the space between the pumpkins." And I just snapped. It was like, "Wait a minute. You're telling me that I give objective meaning to these things that we call pumpkins. And now these pumpkins are just the boundaries to something else that I'm giving meaning to. And that's the space between the pumpkins." And it was like, "Whoa." So I started drawing the space between the pumpkins. And the pumpkins were now the edges of things, not the object of what I'm drawing. And my brain turned inside out. And I started looking around. I say, "Are these lights? Or is it a shadow that makes the shape? Am I in a space? Is the space what's real? Or is it the boundary of the space? If the boundary weren't there, would I still be in this space? I'd still be breathing this air, but we wouldn't call it a space because that boundary isn't there. So the boundary... So my eye... Everything looked different after then. Everything. And from that moment onward, I could talk to artists with abstract vocabulary. How does this painting feel? What does it do for you? What are your emotions? It opened up a box, an emotional state that was previously non-communicative with the rest of my mind. It was kept there. It's not that I didn't know how to cry. It's not that the crying had nothing to do with anything else that was objectively real. So what they did, it found the place where pride had opened and there was spillage. There was cross- spillage. So I can tell you this now, there's no way this sentence could have come out of my head. On my iPhone, I have skin. It's not a casing. It's just what's called a skin. And it is a section of Van Gogh's Starry Night. The actual name of the painting is the Starry Night. Okay? It's got these swirly, beautiful colors. And all right, it's my favorite painting. Why? Because it's certainly not what he saw. The sky has never looked this way. But it's definitely what he felt. And for me, an artist's task, their duty in this world, not to prescribe this, but for me, their duty is to show me the world as I do not see it. Take me someplace. Give me a perspective that will broaden my interpretation of reality. That is a thought and idea, a sentence that could have never come out of my mouth until that moment where I drew the space between the pumpkins. And that access to abstract thinking to now, in the early days, I'd watch a Broadway musical, and two people walk up to each other speaking, "Uh-oh, a song is about to happen." And then they'd sing about their love for each other. I say, "Why don't you just cut the song, just say you love each other and move on to the next scene." That's how I felt as a child after college, after that course. I see the two people walk up to each other and they're speaking their emotions. And I'm saying, you know, when you sing your emotions, it reaches a deeper part not only within yourself, but within the listeners, because there's more of your emotion expressed when you sing. And so now I long for the song in a Broadway musical, the simplicity of expressed emotion. So I don't want to quite say I'm the opposite of what I was when I sucked back the tears in that funeral. But I'm going to say that dare I suggest a well-developed access to both your emotions and your rational self. With some control over the two, you don't want rampant contamination, but just be able to close the door every now and then between the two and then open it. I think can serve us greatly as a civilization if I were to offer perspective and advice. There are times where you need your rational self. Otherwise, you will not make a decision that's in the best interest of your health, your wealth, or your security. But don't let that hide what emotions you might have. Because the world's greatest art, as far as I can tell, issues forth from rampant emotion that we're capable of as human beings. Neil, thank you. We have a closing tradition on this podcast where the last guest asks a question for the next guest without knowing who they're going to ask it for.
Previous Guest Question
The last guest’s question (01:30:04)
And they write it in this book. I didn't get to sit to open it, which is fun. Once you get to see it now, I get to sit now. Okay. Jack always looks, but I never look. When was the last time you cried and why? I cry often now that the door to my emotions has been found and pride open. So I cry often. I cry at very simple things. I cry at simple emotional moments in a play, a resident of New York City. So we consume, as many Londoners surely you consume, the theater scene. I'll cry even in a moment in a musical. The musical is supposed to make you happy, but there might be a tender moment. I tear up if I see acts of sensitivity and kindness in a situation where you would not expect it. Okay. If you see a war-torn scene and a soldier picks up a doll and hands it to a child. There's a soldier who's brandishing a weapon for killing people and they take a moment to do that. I'll tear up. I'm tearing up now just thinking of such a scene when that happens. So I tear up in unexpected acts of kindness because it's hope for the world. I'll tear up in a movie. Usually in a theater because it's a big immersive experience, less so at home on a TV, even the same movie. I might feel a little more in a theater. Immersiveness matters because it's coming at you for more ways. With greater strength. The sound is greater. The visual effects are greater. You're there as a participant in the film. So I probably will tear up once or twice a week for those reasons and more. But those are the more common sort of reasons that arise. Neil, thank you. Thank you for the inspiration over the last decade. Thank you for being the starry messenger in my life, which is the name of your new book because you are. It's funny. I was thinking about it as we started this conversation that that was actually the moment that I became obsessed with the universe when I first watched you present cosmos all those years ago. And this book is just a continuation of that, but it's a very current book in the sense that it speaks to some of the profound issues that are happening in the world. The inside cover, I think presents a really great explanation of that in a time when our political and cultural views feel more polarized than ever, Tyson provides a much needed antidote to so much of what divides us while making a passionate case for the twin chariots of enlightenment, a cosmic perspective and the rationality of science. And that's exactly what this book is. It's a necessary antidote to the modern times we're living in. Well, thank you for your support of that. I will say that starry messenger comes from Galileo where he first perfects the telescope after only just having heard that a telescope was invented in the Netherlands. He said, oh my gosh, that's good. Let me make my own version of it. He makes the best version that exists in the world, observes the night sky. Notice is that Venus goes through phases, which can only happen if Venus is going around the sun and not around Earth. It could, he notices that the sun has spots, the moon has craters, the Jupiter has moons that orbit it. He didn't call them moons. They're called Jupiter stars because why would you think they were moons? Who knows? And he reports this with the first evidence that Earth is not the center of all emotion. And he called it sidereous nuncious starry messenger. The starry messenger wasn't him. The starry messenger was these messages themselves from the sky that are conflicting with prevailing belief systems about humans and about Earth. And he got into big trouble with the church. So what I as an astrophysicist, I found all the starry messages I could and applied them to our plight here on Earth. And that's the summary of what's going on in that book. Death is a topic you mentioned in this book. Yes, life and death. Life and death. I'm more compelled by death. As should we all be. Yeah, I was a Christian growing up until the age of about 18. And then when I discovered atheism or agnosticism or whatever they want to call it, my perspective of death changed and I actually became really comfortable with death, the prospect of death. Where do you think and where are you at in your perspective and thoughts on death? For myself or just in general? In general, and yourself. Probably quite inseparable. I imagine. Death. Death comes up as a topic of conversation commonly when we talk about prolonging life. And now that we're into the genome and into human physiology, might there be a day where you can live forever? Okay. And there's something called the generation that will have escape velocity. Do you know what that is? Okay, I'll tell you what it is. So in the last 50 years, we've increased life expectancy 20 years. In the last 10 years, we've increased life expectancy by five years. So there will be a time where in the last year, we increased life expectancy by a year. At that moment, homo sapiens have achieved escape velocity from death. Okay. That generation will never die unless you're hit by a bus. Okay. So that brings to you the question, if you could live forever, would you? And my reply to that, and I don't want to answer for other people. So this is my, I want to be very clear that yes, I have my opinions, but I don't care if you share my opinions. Should have your own opinions. Okay. My outlook on this is, well, let's take, for example, a bouquet of flowers. If you buy a bouquet of flowers and hand them to your loved one, and the bouquet, the flowers are made of plastic, how would your loved one reply to that? They, they probably think you don't love them, but you say, but darling, they'll last forever. Okay. No, that's not variable here. That's not what matters. The fact that flowers die is the very reason why they have meaning as a gift. Your handed flowers, they're going to be dead in seven days. That means, you know, you better pay attention to them. You're going to smell them. You're going to take care of them. You're going to make sure you change the water and trim the stems and you're going to put it in a central place so that not only you see them, but so does everybody else. You're going to celebrate those flowers while they are alive, because the day is going to come very quickly where they're going to die. And in their senescence, you're going to nurse them through as the neck gets a little weak on the stem. You might try to prop them up until they're gone. It is the fact that they're going to die that gives them meaning as a gift. And dare I say that my knowledge that I'm going to die gives not only meaning to my being alive, it gives urgency to it. On my deathbed, I do not want to regret having the interest and ability to have solved the problem that I did not solve. To have an experience that I could have had, but then I did not. Knowing I'm going to die means I'm going to wake up in the morning and I'm going to be all about action. Action. I will tell people I love them if I love them. I will accomplish things. I will learn this thing I wanted to learn. I will do all I can. Because you know what I want in my tombstone? It's a quote from a famous American educator of two centuries ago. His name is Horace Mann, who's also a university president, I think it was. He gave a commencement speech, one of his last, and he says to the graduates, "I beseech you." Love that word. Nobody uses that word anymore. "Beseesh." Shakespeare loved it. "I beseech you to treasure up in your hearts these my parting words. Be ashamed to die until you have scored some victory for humanity." I want that on my tombstone. I don't want any other monument, but that on my tombstone. If everyone lived to that goal, how different the world would be, how enriched it would be, with people's energy to improve the lot, not only of others as individuals, but of your neighborhood, your society, civilization itself. So that's what I think of when I think of death. By the way, in there I've referenced dogs. There's a dog over there called Lyka. In the corner of this room. Lyka, where have I heard that name? Like 65 years ago, like an orbit's earth. The first dog to orbit earth? The first animal to orbit earth. Then there's some guinea pigs, and then there were some chimps, and then Yuri Gagarin orbits the earth. The first human. I think he was the seventh mammal to orbit earth. I had to check my notes on this, but there was the ed up mammals, where humans were very late in the space achievement scale. So when you come home for having been away, if you own a dog, you will know exactly what I'm describing. By the way, this does not happen with cats. So with a dog, the dog is happy to see you. Not just happy. Hey, glad you're home. They jump up and down, and they want to lick your face, and they want to jump into your lap if it's a lap dog. And if it's an Irish wolfhound, they'll want to knock you over and lick you in the face. They're excited. By you. First, I would ask, did you do anything that day that deserved that praise? All right. So one famous quote is, "Be the person your dog thinks you are." Okay. That's a high bar, let me say. But there's the, by the way, if you go out to just check the mail and come back, the dog is happy to see you. So now, wait a minute. Why? Let me just make up a reason. Okay? I'm just pulling this out of my ass. You ready? Okay. Dogs don't live as long as we do. The famous dog year calculation, there's some nuances to it, but the blunt calculation is, one dog year is seven human years. Okay? So when a dog is 10, they're like 70. All right? When a dog is 12, they're 84. They're getting ready to die. Okay? Dogs die between basically 12 and 16. Okay? All right. Wait a minute. If it's a factor of seven difference, it means we live an entire week of our lives for every single day a dog lives. So maybe the dog knows it won't live as long as we will. Maybe it knows it's got a truncated life expectancy relative to humans. Maybe it knows it's got to make every day count. We could languish away five days out of the week. You still have the other two days to watch football with your friends. The dog doesn't have that luxury. So I'm making this up. I'm going to declare that dogs know that every day of their lives matter. And therefore they're going to make it count and they're going to be happy every day. You ever wake up to a dog that's depressed? Never. Oh, no. You know, I walk myself today. Don't worry about it. I'll feed myself. I don't want to eat. No, they've been sick. All right. That's how you know they're sick. They're not licking you in the face. That's a sad day for the dog. But then they pop back. Dogs don't stay sick for long because they live seven times faster than we do. Have you ever taken a dog to the vet and they perform surgery on the dog? Okay. You don't want going here? They perform surgery the next day. The dog is out running around in the park. I've seen dog with the leg amputated amputated leg. And the next day they're a little slower, but they're kind of walking around and they still want to lick you in the face. And there's good as new after three days. If we had one of our legs amputated, oh my gosh, I'm still in the hospital a month later. Dogs live in the fast lane and maybe they know it. And so I want to think to myself, no, I'm not licking people in the face, but I want to experience the joy and the urgency that dogs do simply by being alive. Neil, thank you. Thank you for the generosity of your time. Thank you for all the inspiration. Thank you for schooling me in the most unintentional way on how to be a wonderful, engaging communicator and how to make very complex subject matter fun and accessible for every bit. Well, thank you. And can I end with the beginning quote of the book, please, may I? At the beginning of the book, I want to set the mood because Earth from space is very different than Earth from Earth's surface. Oh, dedicated to the memory of Cyril de Grasse Tyson and all others who want to see the world as it could be rather than as it is. That was my father. Okay. So here's the quote Apollo astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, Paul 14, he went to the moon and saw Earth because that's kind of what happened. We went to the moon to discover the moon to explore the moon and we look back over our shoulders and we kind of discovered Earth for the first time. The birth of the modern conservation and environmental movement began while we were walking on the moon because there was Earth adrift alone in the darkness of space with no hint that help would come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. That very line is in Carl Sagan pen in his book A Pale Blue Dot. So here's Edgar Mitchell. You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics looks so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter million miles out and say, look at that, you son of a bitch. We're done. Quick word from one of our sponsors, I've got a tip for all of you that will make your virtual meeting experiences I think 10 times better. As some of you may know, by now Blue Jeans by Verizon offers seamless high quality video conferencing. 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