Neil deGrasse Tyson is not a rock star, he’s a star star. In advance of his appearances at Sony Centre, the best-selling author and host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey spoke to The Globe from Hayden Planetarium in New York, about kids, curiosity and the cosmic perspective.
Everybody’s over the moon about the recently announced discovery of gravitational waves that confirm Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Where were you when you heard the news?
Over the moon? As we all should be. The news was rumoured for some time, so the press conference just confirmed what we suspected was true. A 100-year-old scientific prediction is confirmed. This may have been the oldest unverified idea in modern science.
In the briefest way possible, can you explain why the discovery is so important?
As Marcia Bartusiak notes in the title of her 2000 book, Einstein’s Unfinished Symphony, gravity waves are the last remaining prediction made by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And he’s been right on every count.
Personally, I never doubted Einstein for a second. Can we overestimate his role in understanding the universe?
No. And perhaps my tweet of recent days captures this fact. I tweeted that in 1916, Einstein predicted gravity waves. In 1917, he laid the foundation for lasers. And in 2016, gravity waves were discovered, using lasers.
As an astrophysicist, do you turn your nose up at garden variety physicists?
No, because we are deeply humbled every day we look up into the night sky. Generally, people feel smug when they possess a body of knowledge that they know others don’t have. But there’s so much we don’t know.
But, in your essay The Cosmic Perspective, you quote the 18th-century Scottish astronomer James Ferguson, who wrote, “of all the sciences cultivated by mankind, astronomy is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the most sublime, the most interesting, and the most useful.” That sounds pretty smug.
Well, don’t take my word for it. Take his. [Laughs.]
Okay, but what’s your interpretation of that quote?
He’s asserting not that the people who study astronomy are sublime, it’s that the field has the capacity to influence people in ways other fields perhaps don’t. That it influences you spiritually, emotionally and intellectually, and that it’s about the power it has over people.
Getting back to feeling humbled. What are some other words you might use to explain your feelings about being an astrophysicist? It keeps you busy, keeps you wondering, keeps you young?
You can say it keeps you young. That’s generally not how I think about it, but it’s accurate. Children have a deep sense of wonder about their environment, no matter what environment you put them in. They’ll start poking things and turning things over. Usually something ends up breaking. So, in that sense, adult scientists are kids, with a little more tools to help them decode what they do not understand around them.
Kids with no rules too, right?
When rules are set that’s the end of curiosity, right there.
An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Feb. 24 and 25, 7:30 p.m., $73.45 to $96.05, Sony Centre, 1 Front St. E., 1-855-872-7669 or sonycentre.ca.Report Typo/Error