Neil deGrasse Tyson is okay with ignorance.
"I enjoy being awestruck at how much we still don't know about the universe," he told me.
This is a man who knows a thing or two about awe. The host of National Geographic Channel's Cosmos, founder of the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, will bring his new live show, An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, to the Keller this Monday and Tuesday, September 19-20.
We lay people know and love Dr. Tyson for introducing us to the wonders of the cosmos. But the things that amaze him most are the ones he can't explain, like dark matter and dark energy. "If you combine those two forces it represents 96 percent of all that happens in the universe." Tyson said. "We have a measure of our ignorance, and that intrigues me."
The nice thing about ignorance, of course, is that it can be dissolved by curiosity. When I asked Dr. Tyson if he'd learned anything new lately, he had a ready example.
"The dragon legends,” he said. “Many countries around the world have dragons in their legends, especially traceable from 600, 700 yeas ago. Those are largely based on the fossil of an extinct animal called the dire wolf. These are skulls that emerged from an eroding cliff face that don't correspond to any animal you've ever seen. So they presumed it was the skeleton of a real animal that lived in their times, and if you put a body around that skull you get something fantastic like a dragon. I learned that yesterday.
“Back then they were not comfortable with uncertainty, so they invented stories, and there it was."
"Back then," indeed.
We may have debunked dragons, but we're still living in a time when a nominee for president can bring down the house at a convention with the revolutionary declaration "I believe in science." More shocking is the alternate proposition: that the other candidate doesn’t.
"What I’ve found is, often, more often than should be the case, people who are engaged in policy decisions that involve science don't know as much science as I think they should," Tyson said. He added that he generally avoids politics.
"If you have politicians who either don't trust science, or fear it, or science gives them results they're not happy with, then there's some thinking out there where people feel like they have the freedom to deny an emerging scientific truth simply because it conflicts with their politics, their religion, their social sensibilities," he said.
That's not just frustrating—it's potentially disastrous. Dr. Tyson received a lesson in the perils of ignorance at an early age, when he read the Henrik Ibsen play An Enemy of the People. In the play, a scientist named Dr. Stockmann had determined that a resort town's water is contaminated; but when he presents his findings, the mayor brands him an enemy of the people for imperiling the local tourist trade, and he becomes a pariah. (You may recognize this plot from movie Jaws, in which the contaminant was a great white shark.)
"When I read that story in middle school, I thought it was not really believable, because why would anyone react that way?" he recalled. "How would an educated adult ignore the health concerns and brand him as the enemy of the people when he's using his mind to save the people? I thought it was a non-believable work of fiction until I got older and met adults who behave in exactly that way. Who stand in denial of science because they don't want the results they're getting."
What’s the equivalent danger being ignored by today’s leaders? "Climate, environment, food supplies," Tyson said without a pause. "Things that involve the stability of human life on this planet. The fact that people will debate whether humans are influencing the climate, it's like, 'what? WHAT?’ No, this is an emerging truth from multiple branches of science. The question should be how do we deal with that truth? Not should you stand in denial of it. I remain shocked by this."
One of the primary challenges to communicating the importance of science to politicians, he said, is the lag between the initial investment in "frontier science" and the payoff. In the 1920s, a congressman might have asked ask, why we should spend money on researching the atom, a thing so small you couldn’t even see it.
But today, quantum physics is the foundation of the information technology revolution. "You can say 'I don't need science,'" Tyson said. "But you could be living healthier, you could be living longer, you could be communicating more efficiently. You could be doing things that could improve the health of the Earth."
These days, he speculated, neurobiology could be the next frontier science to change everything. "We're going to learn exactly what every neuron in the brain is doing, what's driving it and why," he said. "I foresee a day where we know what makes you a criminal, we know what makes you altruistic. We know where your hunger center is. And you have the power to go in and make changes there."
Provided our leaders can be persuaded to care about science, that is.
Dr. Tyson remains optimistic. "If someone in Congress is sure that the universe is 6,000 years old, it's because the people who voted that person into office think that. And as an educator, I'm doing my duty to educate the electorate to understand what science is and how and why it works. Then they can't possibly elect someone who thinks the universe is 6,000 years old."
And the electorate may even be listening. Americans under 30 have an unprecedented interest in science, Dr. Tyson said, which validates much of his work to inspire the general public.
"They had science in high school or college and they liked it," he said. "But if you're under 30, you're not old enough to run for Congress yet. You're not old enough to be president yet. You're not old enough to run corporations. So I think it's a matter of time before the entire field of influential politicians will be filled with people who do understand science. They understand what role scientific technology has played in their own lives more acutely than any other age group I have seen. So I have high expectations that when they take charge, it'll be a very different world. A world where scientific technology is not a debate."
That reminded me of Seattle drag superstar Ben DeLaCreme, whose show Cosmos (pronounced like the drink) is jam-packed with actual science, from a natural-selection striptease to puns about constellations. When I described Ben's show to Dr. Tyson, he lit up: "That next generation is folding science into their lives, into their art, into their storytelling," he said. "There's somebody who has performance talent, and now science is serving as the artist's muse. And that's a sign of what I'm telling you: It's more evidence."
He took a long pause, then added, "evidence matters."