I didn’t plan on telling Neil deGrasse Tyson that I don’t believe in his dreams. But that’s what I did.
I told him, “You’re living a dream life.”
“I still have this fantasy,” he said. “It could be a fantasy but I’d rather it not be, but the fantasy is that one day, sooner rather than later, I give all of this up and go back to the lab and become a scientist again. And you never see me.”
“I kind of think you’re not going to do that because…”
He started laughing.
I told him “You won’t”. And he laughed.
But I guess that’s an easy response when you know so much more than the person sitting across from you.
I asked him every question I could think of. Because I’ve wanted to interview Neil for years now. I’ve read all his books. I loved Cosmos. And he works at my favorite childhood museum.
So here are 5 of my favorite lessons from this episode with Neil deGrasse Tyson:
1. Curiosity is Freedom
Physicists don’t think like other scientists.
Look at their vocabulary. “It’s quite transparent unlike chemistry and geology and biology.”
The official name for the start of the universe: “The Big Bang.” There’s a red spot on Jupiter. They named it “Jupiter’s red spot.”
“We focus on the idea we’re trying to communicate,” Neil said.
But look at biologists. What did they name the most important molecule in the human body? Deoxyribonucleic acid.
“The physicist will strip naked a problem down to its fundamental essence of matter, motion, energy forces, this sort of thing.”
He gave me an example.
And he first made this clear: physicists are trained to think. “It’s the rewiring of your brain,” he said.
“You look at a couch. To a physicist you’re not looking at the cushion or the color first. You’re looking at what’s supporting it. ‘Oh, there are four legs. So there are forces at each leg and the rear legs support a higher force because that’s the back of the chair.’ So you get the force diagram going in your head. Now you clad that with everything most people care about when buying the couch.”
It might seem like it doesn’t matter. But it does. Because Neil has more thing to be curious about. Just because of his study of physics.
More curiosity = more freedom.
2. Find Your Section
If I don’t know what I love anymore, I go to the library. Or a bookstore. I roam the eisles. And read the section names “Fiction.” “Non-fiction.” “Business.” “Poetry.” “Philosophy.” etc.
I try to find the section where I would want to read every book there. Every old book. Every new book. Every book that’s not written yet.
Neil found his section early.
He was born the same week as NASA. At age 9 he fell in love. And he’s never turned it off. I asked him if he ever felt like he made the wrong career choice.
He said, “What? I don’t understand the question.”
3. Don’t Be Intellectually Lazy
Neil told me about Richard Holbrooke. He was a diplomat who studied physics.
And it made him a better negotiator.
“Because as a physicist, when you walk into a room, you analyze what people are saying. You cut the fat and B.S. And you say, ‘This is what they actually mean and why.’ Because the laws of physics are operating the same room and they apply to everyone equally.”
“Ok, but how?”
He gave me two examples. And both are related to war. Because that’s what Neil’s new book is about. It’s called, “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”
- #1. Your enemy might threaten you with certain amount of firepower, but if you know their budget and how many scientists they have, then you might be able to determine they’re bluffing.
- #2. Your enemy might say they moved their troops from here to there. But you look at the measurement. And you evaluate their equipment. And come to the conclusion that they’re not telling the full truth.
“You analyze what people are saying and the likelihood of it being true. By the way, it’s equally intellectually lazy to accept what someone says as true as it is to reject what someone says as false.”
Then he told me how… in lesson #4
4. Ask Questions
“The real scientific inquiry is about probing the information, knowing how to ask questions, and learning the difference between what is the bologony and what is the truth.”
Not everyone feels like their in a position to ask questions. Because maybe you’ll look stupid. But I’ve learned the only way to get smart is to look stupid.
5. You Want To Go to Mars
I asked Neil, “Why would anyone want to go to Mars anyway?”
“Um, O.K. Here’s what you sound like… We’re in my office, huddled around the microphones. And I say, ‘Gee, I wonder what’s outside this cave?”
‘No! Let’s stay in the cave. There’s no real reason to leave the cave. We have cave problems we have to solve the cave problems first.”
I saw his point. But I countered.
“But what if we send robots to Mars and I can see Mars as if I’m the robot?”
“You can’t though,” Neil said.
“Oh, because of the speed of light?”
“Yeah, there’s a time delay that makes it nearly impossible to do any good work.”
Then he described the future of space tourism. And who the first trillionaires will be…
When I told Neil that he won’t go back to the lab, what I really meant is “I don’t want you to go back to the lab.”
But that doesn’t matter.
I don’t matter in the equation of Neil’s future. And that’s why laughed.
Because he knows deep down what he wants.
And he hopes to do it.
He even said, “I’m in control of it.”
And I don’t know if that’s the optimist in him speaking or the physicist who boils things down to its parts.