Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of Nova Science Now. Here he talks about the universe for Time Magazine.
Watch the video and answer the questions below. The activity is suitable for Advanced students.
1 What should be done about the fact that US kids are behind
children in other countries in physics and mathematics?
2 How old are Tyson's children?
3 What do most people do when faced with an impending disaster?
4 What does a scientist do in the same situation?
5 Why does he feel big when he looks up at the sky?
6 What kind of question is 'What’s the square root of a pork chop?'
7 How did Newton discover calculus?
8 What does '26' refer to?
We’re here with Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History and host of PBS’s Nova Science Now for Time’s 10 Questions. Neil, thanks for being with us today.
I’m ready for you.
What should be done about the fact that our kids lag lowfully far behind children in other countries in the areas of physics and mathematics?
You know, my first reply is, as a parent, (1) get out of the way. When you’re a kid, you’re born a scientist. What does a scientist do? We look up and say, I wonder what that is. Let me go find out.
Let me poke it. Let me break it. Let me turn it around. This is what kids do. You can’t let a kid alone for a minute without them laying waste to your couch, okay? Because they’re grabbing stuff off the shelters, what do we do? We prevent that. We prevent these depths of curiosity from revealing themselves, even within our own residences. And so, I swore that when I had kids, and I do have kids, (2) I got an 11-year-old and a 7, but when they were young, and still today,… if they see something they wanna experiment with, even if they might break it, I just let it go, let the experiment run its course., because therein are the souls of… is the soul of curiosity that leads to the kind of mind you would want as a scientist.
So you talk about events that can cause the end of the world. Does this knowledge keep you awake at night?
Yes, yes. It might keep me awake in a different way than others. There are many people who, when faced with disaster, impending disaster, they say to themselves, okay, (3) let me buy emergency food, let me find a shelter to go to, let me alert the authorities, let me… Okay, when you’re trained as a scientist or an engineer, that’s not the first thing you think of. (4) First thing you think of is, how can I prevent the disaster? Here comes the asteroid. You’re gonna, right, run away from it or you’re gonna say, how can I figure out how to deflect it? That’s why you want scientists and engineers in your myths. Otherwise, you’re just running away from every possible disaster that could affect life on earth. And what kind of life is that?
What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the universe?
The most astounding fact…
The most astounding fact.
… is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to a crucible that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high-massed ones among them, when unstable in their later years, they collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems, stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself so that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up, many people feel small because they’re small and the universe is big. (5) But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.
If you could meet and talk with any scientist who’s ever lived, who would it be and why?
Isaac Newton. Isaac Newton.
No question about it. Isaac Newton. The smartest person ever, ever to talk the face of this earth. You read his writings, the man was connected to the universe in spooky ways. The most successful scientists in the history of the world are those who pose the right questions. If I ask you, at what temperature does the number 7 melt? What’s the square root of a pork chop? (6) These are meaningless questions. Maybe philosophers would deal with them, but scientific, they’re scientifically meaningless. Abandon and go on to the next problem. Newton, his questions reached into the soul of the universe. And he pulled out insights and wisdom that transformed our understanding of our place and the cosmos. (7) Somebody said, Ike, why is it that planets orbit in the shape you call ellipsis rather than circles? Why that shape? And he says, you know, I’ll get back to you on that. I’ll get back to you. Goes away for a few months, comes back, here’s the answer, here’s the answer. Here’s why gravity produces ellipsis for orbits. The guy said, well, how did you finally figure it out? Well, I had to invent this new kind of mathematics to do it. (8) He invented calculus. Most of us sweat through it for multiple years in school just to learn it. He invented it practically on a dare. He discovered the laws of motion, the laws of gravity, the laws of optics. Then he turned 26. Okay?
I’m with you.
And I own everything he’s ever written, most of which written in his day. I commune through time as I read Isaac Newton transporting me into a time and a place where people were just figuring out how this universe worked. And for me, that’s thrilling and humbling.