Neil deGrasse Tyson in Conversation with Robert Krulwich: Letters from an Astrophysicist

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, author, host of Cosmos and StarTalk, has spent his career exploring the universe, creating a popular audience for inquiries once left to scientists. Multi-award winning journalist Robert Krulwich, host of WNYC’s immensely popular Radiolab, regularly deep dives into a wide variety of (often scientific) subjects making them intelligible and entertaining to lay people.

Tyson’s latest book contains selected correspondence with the public over twenty years. Apparently he took the time to personally answer many inquiries sent when his email was still accessible. Some letters are scientific, some spiritual, others fearful, chiding, or asking for advice. Answering a father about his 10 year-old-on-the-spectrum son’s objection to Hebrew school since the boy doesn’t believe in God took Tyson a year to work out. The response is benevolent and paternal but doesn’t pander.

Determined to be abreast of those turning to him with questions, Tyson’s library now has sections on UFOs, aliens, varied parapsychology, conspiracy theories, and Big Foot as well as science and religion. Instead of being politic or limiting himself to facts, the respondent is thoughtful, humorous, and/or testy. Krulwich addresses his guest as both scientist and educator.

“Do you find working conditions are different now?” Krulwich asks. “It’s the duty of an educator to have a sense of the landscape in which he’s working…I actually have a way to track that,” Tyson answers. “I post a tweet. If I post something I think is funny and no one else does, it’s not funny. (Never trust atoms because they make up everything.) I have 13.5 million followers. Within three minutes of a post there are hundreds of floating replies…”

It occurs to me this is the second time this month I’ve listened to a successful communicator talk about researching the territory of exchange. First was Brian Grazer. While Tyson utilizes social media (or mail), Grazer insists on face to face interaction. Their premise is the same.

Tyson posts things that pop into his head, not questions/issues. An example: “If humans had copper instead of iron in hemoglobin turning our blood green, what color would stoplights be?” His supposition: red is bad and you stop. “Are people asking what do you mean?” Krulwich inquires, “or writing, that’s mind blowing, I should think about that?” Response is both, of course.

How a person uses words and where he/she comes from are clues to landscape parameters. When the scientist is to give a public talk, he looks around town and buys a local paper first. “I spend the first ten minutes on stage testing the crowd’s sense of humor and political leaning,” he says. By this method Tyson intuits the lay of the land and tailors his approach – not content.

One person had observed what she thought was a star emitting streaks of orange light. “My first ask was how long are your eyelashes?” Tyson only half quips. “When people see things they can’t fathom, there’s generally a mundane explanation.” That this statement comes from a man who has the ability to stretch his imagination across the universe is telling.

“How about this one,” Krulwich queries, referring to a letter in the book, “a person who loves astrology and wants to know why you don’t respect it, especially since the Egyptians did.” Tyson insists on reading his response. Krulwich has only notes. The author whips a volume out of his back pocket. All this time, he’s been sitting on the hardcover book just in case.

“As for ancient civilizations, if you wish to go back 5000 years to cite behavior you wish to emulate, then consider some other baggage that comes with it – the worship of cats, the divinity of the Pharaohs, the obsession with expensive, overbuilt, triangular tombstones,” Tyson wrote back. “It’s like time travel – you have to be a white man. If you’re a woman or black, it’s never gonna be good for you.”

A brilliant bull of a man, Tyson is prepared and controlling. Unable to find the passage, he grabs Krulwich’s notes moving the microphone from hand to hand as he gestures. He interrupts. Glasses advancing down his nose, Krullwich is like a favorite uncle. He laughs easily, observes with insight and says a great deal-on point with few words. If only he were given a bit more latitude.

Questions from the audience include, “If you were able to speak by phone to an alien in English, what three things would you ask?” Rejoinder: “1. Can you come visit? 2. I’m gonna show you what we know, what can you add to it? 3. I’d give him some of our problems to solve.” I’m surprise you don’t ask the last one first,” Krulwich comments. “What if you get disconnected?”

There’s talk of worm holes, black holes, and white holes – which spit out instead of suck in – “even though they’re mathematically legit, we can’t find any.” One man wrote a second letter to Tyson ten years after his first which found him, as a boy, upset that Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. “I called you a poo poo head,” the writer apologized.

A 14 year-old boy in the audience wants to know how he can engage in astrophysics at his age. “Start liking mathematics,” Tyson advises. “It’s the language of the universe.” Nuclear reactors, Space-X, and the colonization of Mars come up.

“At the end of the day, the scientist needs to be content with the questions themselves. You have to stare into the abyss of the unknown and smile.” Neil deGrasse Tyson

‘Entertaining and informative.

Photos Courtesy of the 92Y
Cover: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich

Recanti-Kaplan Talks present
Neil deGrasse Tyson in Conversation with Robert Krulwich: Letters from an Astrophysicist
92Y  at Lexington Avenue
October 11, 2019
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About Alix Cohen (680 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.