Transcript for Space and Wonder - Neil deGrasse Tyson


Jim Fleming: For all of recorded human history, we've looked up to the Heavens in awe. So, let's begin by turning our eyes skyward with astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson, as he tells Steve Paulson about his first visit to New York City's Hayden Planetarium. And how it led him to wonder. And to science.


Neil Degrasse Tyson: There's this, odd room that's round with a hemispherical sealing and this creature-looking piece of hardware in the middle of the room, and the lights dim. And you don't know what that thing is gonna do (laughs). Is it gonna come out and attack you? But then, the splendorous night sky appears above your head. And, I was born in the Bronx, New York, where I pretty much thought thought I'd seen all the stars visible, there was about 11 stars at night. And here were thousands. And in effect, I thought it was a hoax at first. I would later recognize that of course that was the real sky, and I was struck- starstruck really by it. And I would say that my path to become an astrophysicist wasn't even my choice. I was called by the universe and that was my first true encounter with what I would call wonder.


Steve Paulson: Ah. How old were you, when that happened?


Tyson: I was nine.


Paulson: That's astonishing. I mean, you now run the Hayden Planetarium.




Tyson: Yeah.


Paulson: But I mean the fact that that would stay with- that that was such a powerful, primal experience. And to some degree, I mean, yours suggesting that your life kind of laid out in from of you from that moment on.


Tyson: Yeah, I mean, had I not gone until 11, It probably would have still played out the same way. Here's what I wonder though. Suppose I grew up on a farm? And the actual night sky was there from birth. Would I ever have taken it for granted. I'd never seen the night sky and, there it was. It slapped me in the face. And, had I been born with it, it would have never slapped me. It would have just been the wallpaper.


Paulson: What do you think happened, during that experience when you were in high- Was it just how overwhelming it all was? How surprising-


Tyson: Exactly. I think, and I've later done some research on this, as director of the planetarium, and because we redesigned the entire facility a decade ago. And we thought long and hard about what kinds of exhibits are most influential on the visitor. And, we leaned away from boxes that you walk up to and there's a handle and a lever and a button, and what we found. In order for an exhibit to make a completely indelible mark, it's gotta be bigger than you are. You have to turn your head up and down, left and right, to see what's going on. And there's sounds and smells, and, and you're transported.


Paulson: Well, it takes us back then to your original question, which is suppose you'd grown up on a farm, and the night sky was all around you without the city lights around. I mean, that is the experience of nature, isn't it? I mean, sort of feeling overwhelmed by it.


Tyson: Yeah, I agree, but I probably, what would have happened is I would notice things that would change in the night sky, and that's, of course what preoccupied the ancients. I probably still would have been enticed, but it would have happened in a different way. And it wouldn't have been a slap. It would have been a lure. A slow seduction.




Paulson: Well, all these years later, you are now a very prominent astrophysicist.


Tyson: Well, let me add, it took a couple of years between age 9 and 11 before I'd figured out that you could make a career out of that. Because at nine, you're not thinking, 'Gee, I'll have a career.'You know, it just- You just do it because it feels good. And by age 11, if you were one of the adults who asked that annoying question, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?', I had the answer. It was astrophysicist. And I give that answer, and it usually just ended the conversation right there. There was no comeback on that, but that was fine.




Paulson: I mean, that really is amazing, because, I mean, most eleven year olds if they do give an answer, they hardly are still doing that however many years later.


Tyson: Yeah. I think the, what we don't appreciate as adults regarding kids is that they are, persistently and perennially curious. And it's really forces of, of society that kind of squash that curiosity. I think it's primarily because that curiosity and wonder often ends in the destruction of something, if you're a kid. What I try to do, raising my kids, is recognize that a consequence of your curiosity is, the increase in disorder in the household. And provided that the disorder is done in the act of exploration, then, I would be cleaning up after them. And I'd do that willingly and lovingly. Rather than telling them to stop.


Paulson: So, how do you think we can inspire that sense of wonder in kids. Specifically through science.


Tyson: They already have the wonder. My worry is how do we get that sense of wonder back in the adults. (laughs) The kids are not the problem here. It's that, adults run everything. The kids are already curious about the natural world. And left to themselves, they will explore it. Period. So the real task of the adult is to get out of their way. You allow some level of disorder to descent, provided it is the consequence of the curiosity and wonder expressed by the child


Paulson: So, what happens in school then. Because so many kids are turned off of science in elementary school.


Tyson: The whole aside that they might simply have had a bad teacher, the good student in class is the one who obeys the teacher. Who is not disrupting. And, that is like the opposite of, curiosity and wonder. Curiosity and wonder is, 'I have this energy. It's gurgling within me. Ive gotta express it somehow'. And, I think this sit down shut up learn and take an exam, is incommensurate with cosmic discovery.


Paulson: So, do you think this experience of wonder is above all an emotional response, or is something else?


Tyson: No, it's completely emotional in my opinion. And, it is the emotion that drives the inquiry. Is is natural to wonder what's up in the sky. Take a look at what religions do. Typically, they put their gods in the sky.


Paulson: Right.


Tyson: They're in places where you look up in wonder. I used to think I was biased, that, like, the universe was cool. But, no, I'm not biased. (laughs) It's fundamentally cool, So, I think I'm in the right business for wonder. (laughs)


Paulson: So, I mean, you just talked about how various civilizations have seen gods in the sky. I mean, do you think you're sense of wonder through science is comparable to the religious experience of wonder.


Tyson: Well that's an excellent question. In fact, I'm on some Youtube video making exactly that analogy in the following way. Back in the old days, we would, there'd be pilgrimages to mountaintops. Be cause that's where the telescope was. It's a moving experienced. Just you. The telescope. It's dark. The stars are there. It is eerily quiet. The emotions that come over me, and the words that I use to describe it, have a quite a bit of resonance with the words I've seen deeply religious people invoke when they've had religious experience. I speak of, the majesty of the universe. And the being overrun with emotion. Just basking in the cosmic glory. There's vocabulary overlap there.


Paulson: Well, one final question. You are now director of the  Hayden Planetarium, not just the nine year old boy who went to his first planetarium show. What inspires wonder in you now?


Tyson: I don't think about it that way. The way you ask that question implies that there's something I must appeal to to continue to stoke the wonder that exists within me. And all I can say is that I don't think it's every left. You know, I still catch snowflakes in my mouth as I walk down the street. I still see a puddle and ask myself, 'How high can I jump before I splash into it to see how much of a mess I can make'. (laughs). I still do this. And I don't think I've ever grown up, really. Which makes me annoying in some really grown-up  meetings (laughs) that happen, in Washington or anywhere else. Because, I'm just really still having fun with the cosmos, and the certain agencies that say, 'Well this is serious. We have to have a serious conversation.'  Well, I'm sorry, I think the universe is hilarious. (laughs). So, no, I don't need anything to continue to stimulate it within me. There must be something in the chemistry of my blood that, as it coursed through me every waking moment.


Jim Fleming: That's astrophysicist Neil Degrasee Tyson, talking with Steve Paulson. You can hear the uncut interview on our website,


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