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From black holes to black history

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson may well be one of the world’s best-known black scientists. But don’t invite him to speak at a Black History Month celebration.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the author of "Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Conundrums)."
Neil deGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the author of "Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Conundrums)."David Britt-Friedman / file

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson — director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, host of “Nova ScienceNow” on public television and author of the newly published book “Death by Black Hole (and Other Cosmic Quandaries)” — may well be one of the world’s best-known black scientists.

But don’t invite him to speak at a Black History Month celebration. Tyson is likely to turn you down.

It’s not that the 48-year-old Bronx native has anything against the idea of celebrating notable blacks in American history every February. It’s just that race doesn’t play any part in his line of work — and that’s why he deflects speaking requests that are specifically tied to the monthlong event.

“If the only time you think of me as a scientist is during Black History Month, then I must not be doing my job as a scientist,” he told “All I tell them is, invite me some other month and I’ll be happy to give a talk.”

Tyson is more eager to talk about his scientific duties, which include doing research on the scientific frontier; exposing the public to scientific issues through his books, lectures and TV gigs; and speaking out on scientific policy matters great and small:

  • Years ago, he changed the displays at the Hayden Planetarium to take Pluto out of the lineup of the solar system’s major planet — a decision that sparked an outcry from legions of schoolchildren but was backed up by a controversial vote last year by the International Astronomical Union.
  • He helped shape NASA’s new vision for space exploration in the wake of the 2003 Columbia tragedy, as a member of the President’s Commission on the Moon, Mars and Beyond.
  • In addition to his planetarium post, he serves as chairman of the board for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit space advocacy group. In that role, he fills the shoes of the late astronomer Carl Sagan — a telegenic scientist to whom Tyson is often compared.

In a wide-ranging interview with, Tyson started out by discussing “Death by Black Hole,” a collection of essays drawn from his long-running column in Natural History magazine. But he branched out to discuss how Hollywood and the news media get science wrong, what frustrates him about his role as celebrity astronomer, and yes, his perspective on being a scientist who also happens to be black. Here's an edited version of the Q&A:

MSNBC: How did you select the title “Death by Black Hole”?

Tyson: Well, the title selects itself. If you had an essay called “Death by Black Hole,” wouldn’t you call the book “Death by Black Hole”? And the subtitle is, of course, “... and Other Cosmic Quandaries.” The essays are chosen primarily for their discussion of things that can go wrong in the universe — either in the actual universe, or things that can go astray in our understanding of the universe.

So let’s start with how to die by black hole. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the scenario derives from the simple fact that if you take a feet-first dive to a black hole, at all times the force of gravity at your feet will be greater than the force of gravity at your head — because your feet are closer to the black hole than your head is.

By the way, that’s true even if you’re just standing on Earth. Earth’s gravity is stronger at your feet than it is at your head. But you don’t notice this because all that matters to you is the difference in that strength of gravity. And when you’re standing on Earth, it’s so small as to go unnoticed.

Q: Right, because it’s proportional to the difference in the distance to the center of the earth.

A: Exactly. You’re not very tall compared with the radius of the earth where you’re standing, so that radius shows up to be minuscule. But as you descend toward a black hole, the gravity just keeps growing and growing and growing. And the difference in gravity between your head and feet keeps growing and growing and growing.

So this is fine and well and good, until you compare the difference in force in gravity between your head and feet and the ability of the molecules of your body to hold your flesh together. Now, people who are in good shape can stretch. Your body has some flexibility to it. So initially you might just feel good: “Oh, this is a nice stretch!” But then the stretch becomes unrelenting. There will come a point when the force of gravity exceeds the forces of the molecules in your flesh that keep them together. And at that moment you snap into two pieces, top and bottom.

As you continue to descend, each of those two pieces snaps into two pieces. And you go from one to two to four to eight to 16 to 32, and it just continues. Meanwhile, as if that’s not bad enough, the fabric of space-time narrows as you approach the center of the black hole. So you’re becoming funneled, extruded, like toothpaste through a tube. You’re being stretched and squeezed simultaneously.

There’s a word for this. We call it spaghettification. You will reach the center of the black hole as this stream of atoms, having been stretched and extruded through the fabric of space-time. Of course, this would be the envy of the Spanish Inquisition, which had those machines to stretch people on the rack.

Q: Are there other essays that readers particularly clamored for?

A: Yes, another one is an essay called “Hollywood Nights,” which is my tirade about the failure of Hollywood movies to represent the science accurately. My lead example there is the night sky over Kate Winslet as she’s on this wooden flotsam from the Titanic. We know what time the Titanic sank, we know the longitude, the latitude, the day of the month, the year. She’s looking straight up. There is only one star field that she should have seen.

But the star field that was used in the movie “Titanic” was not only wrong — the left side of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right side. So the sky was not only wrong, but lazy.

Now, normally I wouldn’t care – except that the movie’s marketing angle was on how authentic everything was, from the wall sconces to the pattern on the china to the grand staircase to the gilded ornaments. We have to assume that the film’s director, James Cameron, got all that right, when you otherwise have no way to know. Meanwhile, anybody with a $50 computer program of the night sky could check what that night sky was, and assert without hesitation that he got lazy or he ran out of money. One or the other, or both!

Q: There are people who make a study out of all the impossible physics of the movies.…

A: Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not obnoxious to bring to a movie. I will only comment on a movie if there’s some pretense that they’re doing something accurately. For example, in Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story,” he had an interesting device to capture the passage of time. A month goes by, and rather than seeing a calendar and having the dates flash by, there’s a moon in the sky that runs through its phases. I applaud that. He’s tapping the universe to help him tell a story. I’ve got no problem with that. Except that the phases of the moon were growing in the wrong direction.

Now he could have called the local planetarium. This is not some obscure knowledge that only the high priests of science would know. Anybody who knows the night sky knows this. It would not have messed up his plot or the theme of the movie. It would have been a simple correction.

Another one: Hollywood aliens are pretty bad. They all have faces.

Q: Right, plastic prosthetics over human-looking faces.

A: So they’ve got eyes and a nose and a mouth and a head and a neck and shoulders and arms and fingers. OK, they might have three fingers instead of five fingers. But consider how many other creatures on Earth, with whom we have DNA in common, look nothing like us. Jellyfish have no faces. Trees have no faces. Earthworms have no faces. So what it tells me is that there are more exotic creatures among our genetic brethren than there are in the imaginations of Hollywood alien designers.

Q: Unless this is an example of convergent evolution.

A: It could be, but of course, they’re not saying that. If they said that, I’d give it to them. I’d say, “Boy, they’re good.”

Q: That’s the fun part about science. On one level, you’re being a movie critic, but on another level, it deepens your appreciation of natural phenomena.

A: Yes, exactly. I also talk about the original movie “The Black Hole” from the 1970s, one of my 10 worst films of all time. Then there are the two asteroid catastrophe movies, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” “Armageddon” is the one where Bruce Willis saves the world. “Armageddon” didn’t care anything about the laws of physics — that was a secondary concern compared to the one-liners and the hunky men in the movie. Whereas for “Deep Impact,” they had science advisers.

One of the asteroids in “Armageddon” decapitated the Chrysler Building, and another hit a dam — and I’m thinking, these asteroids had amazingly good aim. Whereas the comet in “Deep Impact” hit the ocean, which takes up most of the world’s surface. You still get to destroy cities for cinematic purposes, but now you destroy them with a tsunami rather than with asteroid fragments that have good aim.

Q: All right, as long as we’re on the subject, what movie do you think does the best job of portraying the science involved.

A: I think “Deep Impact” was a fine example, and so too was Carl Sagan’s “Contact.” I would list those two movies as the best movies of the 1990s — and I’m still waiting for one for the 2000s. It just takes some intelligent, scientifically literate, creative people. Maybe you don’t often get all three of those qualities in the same person at the same time, but that’s what you need.

Q: They need to employ more astrophysicists.

A: Or film schools should have mandatory Astronomy 101. I’m a fan of what Mark Twain said: “First get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure.” So once they understand the facts, then they can take their creativity and do interesting things with it. I’d be the first to sign up to teach that class, because I’d be doing a greater societal good for having done so.

Q: Speaking of societal good, you get into the social side of science in a number of essays.

A: There’s a whole essay on the reporting of science to the public, and how the press generally does not convey the uncertainty in the information provided by the scientists. This is rampant in medical circles, where people are waiting for that next cure for some ailment — so they wait by the office doors of the people doing the research, and then they have a limited study, and in some of the cases there’s an effect.

So what’s the headline? “New cure for cancer,” or “New cure for the common cold” — without saying, “Oh, this is medicine that helped 10 percent of a sampling of people get better, and the placebo helped 11 percent.” So there’s not enough conversation about the trials, the integrity of the result as it flows out of the number of trials that were conducted, the uncertainties of the analysis. These are not part of the communication toolbox of the science journalist.

Here’s another one: There’s this widespread expectation that scientists sit there in blissful confidence that they’re lords of the universe because they understand what’s going on. And then, all of a sudden, some new theory comes along and everybody has to go back to the drawing board. If only I had a nickel for every time that picture was played out in the first sentence of an article.

If a scientist is not befuddled by what they’re looking at, then they’re not a research scientist.

Q: It’s always more newsworthy if a scientist is puzzled by something.

A: But we’re always puzzled by something. And that fact is never conveyed. People think we have some kind of easy-chair arrogance, where someone says, “Oh, this will force everyone to forfeit their cherished theories.” Excuse me, but if you have something that works better than my theory, I’ll throw mine out in a minute. What we’re trying to do here is get closer to nature. The caricature of science is that we hold tight to the theories we have, and shun challenges to them. That’s just not true. In fact, we hold our highest rewards for those scientists who can prove others wrong. And by the way, they are famous in their own lifetimes. We don’t wait until they’re dead.

Q: In the course of your own career, what has puzzled you, or what sorts of scientific theories have you come to reconsider?

A: Well, I’m with everybody else — just dumb, stupid and ignorant about the nature of dark matter and dark energy. Those are problems for the ages right now. Our ignorance of what dark matter is has been with us since the 1930s, and our ignorance of dark energy has been around since the 1990s. It’s remarkable that we can measure the existence of something, and yet otherwise know nothing about it.

Q: A lot of people may see you on TV and read your books and not realize that you’re still involved in research as well. I believe I saw your name listed among the researchers behind the recent COSMOS Collaboration findings about dark matter…

A: Yeah, talk about the challenge to playing both of those worlds! I try to eke out a third of my total time devoted to frontier research problems. But in practice, a lot of these other projects rise up – media, writing, speech-giving, that sort of thing. So then it ends up shrinking down to no more than a day a week, and many weeks it’s just half a day a week. That’s 10 or 20 percent of my time.

Q: How do you feel about that?

A: It’s frustrating, because my source of energy for bringing science to the public derives entirely from my access to the frontier of research. I have this fuel supply that’s replenished by every paper that I publish, every computer program that I write, every quantity of data that I reduce. That fills up the fuel tank, and then I run out to the street and grab people and say, “Did you know that the universe is expanding?!” I have energy to attack people on the street and bring the universe down to earth for them, whether asked for or not. So it’s hard.

Q: On one hand I can see that’s a frustration, but on the other hand somebody’s got to do that job of science communication, and a lot of scientists shy away from that.

A: The reason why somebody’s got to do it, is that most of the science that we do is completely taxpayer-funded — the National Science Foundation or NASA, for instance — so to suggest that the work we do is off-limits from the public is to create a priesthood. And that’s not what science is. One of the greatest features of science is that it doesn’t matter where you were born, and it doesn’t matter what the belief systems of your parents might have been: If you perform the same experiment that someone else did, at a different time and place, you’ll get the same result.

Q: Since this is Black History Month, and since you mentioned that concept that it doesn’t matter where you were born, I’ve got to note that you must be one of the most prominent black astronomers, or indeed black scientists, in the world. Can you reflect on how that has figured into your personal approach to science, and how you’ve been received by the scientific community?

A: I’m happy to say that in this, the 21st century, we have highly visible black leaders in many different branches of our culture, beyond entertainers and athletes. There’s enough of that that I’m happy to report that whatever people may be thinking when they see me, my skin color no longer draws comment.

Ten years ago, it would. There might be comments that people would utter in an attempt to sound complimentary — they would say, “Oh, you’re so articulate” — implying that others they’ve spoken to were not. Of course, I’m college-educated, so there’s no other way I can be but what a person might call articulate.

Or they would say, “Oh, I want you to come and speak to these black children.” It might be a white person making this request, without thinking that actually the people who hold opportunities in society are predominantly white. So if you want to open opportunities, maybe it’s the white people who should see what I’m doing — as much as, if not more than people in the black community, who see me anyway when I’m on TV. I’m not invisible, I’m there.

Also, 10 years ago, there would be taxis that wouldn’t pick me up in the street. But that’s basically not true anymore. Back then, it was one in five taxis that would pass me by – empty taxis that were ready for a fare. Nowadays that number might be one in 50. It still happens, but it’s rare. It’s rare enough to chalk it up as “maybe they just missed me.”

Q: Obviously, when it comes to the science itself, there’s no skin color attached to that at all.

A: That’s correct. Now, there’s science, and then there’s the politics of science. … I don’t mean to denigrate what is a very important and fundamental part of modern society, the role of politics in decision-making. But when politics shows up in science, in almost every case, it gets in the way. It is a barrier between where you are and where you want to take your experiment. To the extent that it’s a barrier, it can show an ugly head, and express itself in the form of sexism, racism, creedism. And this can affect employment opportunities, salaries, office space, this sort of thing.

Now for what it’s worth, I’m happy to say that from what I know of the business world, the politics of science is demonstrably less in its magnitude, in terms of how much you have to think about it to conduct your everyday affairs. In other words, if you work in an office or in a cubicle, and you ask, “Between now and the end of the day, how much politics will I have to engage in?” In the science world, whatever that answer might be, it would be a fraction of what it would be in the business world. That’s just a fact.

So I think we’ve made great strides. Back when I got my Ph.D., there weren’t many more than maybe 10 black astrophysicists. Now that number is in the mid-30s, rapidly approaching 40. Of course, there are four times as many total astrophysicists, so we haven’t lost ground proportionally, which is a backhanded way of saying that we’re not making things worse. And there’s the hope that we can make it better.

When I think of who and what I am … I’m an American, I eat hot dogs, I’m a male in society. I did male things growing up, I was on the wrestling team. These are things that shape who and what you are in society. I’m also a scientist. That’s a fundamental part of how I think about the world, and how I make decisions within the world. Then I go out in society, and I see that a security guard follows me as I go through the department store, and I’m reminded that, oh, I’m also a black scientist — because that’s how society sees me.

Q: That’s interesting that the reminders don’t come in the lab so much.

A: That’s correct. They come when I step outside, and a person crosses the street at night rather than passing me on the sidewalk. Now, all these things I’m describing to you were common 10 years ago or earlier, and decidedly less common today. So while many will complain about the status of race relations, I have direct, empirical evidence that it is vastly better today than it was 10 years ago — and my worst stories don’t compare to those which my parents could tell when they were growing up.

Q: Do you have a hypothesis for the reasons behind the improvement of race relations?

A: I think it’s that the more you expose those people in power to talented members who are not part of that community who holds the power — it could be women, it could be blacks, it could be whomever and whatever — if they’re exposed to them, then it makes it harder to hold a stereotype.

So if you see me explaining whether a blob of plasma from the sun is going to influence life on Earth, and you’re soliciting my comments on this, and then you see a homeless person on the street who is black, you have to confront that.  Perhaps for the first time, you’re going to have to ask yourself, what opportunities has this nation foregone by not providing access to opportunity for everyone?

It’s not that everybody is equal. That’s why we take exams. Some people do better than others, and some people get lax, and other surpass them. Not everyone is equal in everything. That’s not the point here. The point is, what is your access to opportunity? In a free, democratic society, you don’t want to be disenfranchised simply because of the color of your skin. As I see the kids hanging out on the street corner without jobs, without opportunity, without someone to see that they could be somebody — all I can think is, “What new scientific frontier will go unexplored because there are kids in the street who, but for the lack of opportunity, would have been the next Nobel laureate?”

That’s a real travesty in a nation that is wealthy. It becomes a squandering of a nation’s resources — in this case, the resource is the human capital represented in the next generation.

I was sensitized to this by the profile of my father, who was active in the civil rights program in the 1960s, under New York Mayor John Lindsay. He was the commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, and another department called the Manpower and Career Development Agency. These are branches of city government that were created to empower those who were not in a previous generation empowered.

The unwritten story is that amid all the challenges of the 1960s, and the riots that took place in the urban ghettos, New York City did not have a riot at any time during that turbulent era. That’s a story that’s unwritten because you only wrote about it when bad things happened. So there’s no one to talk about what steps were taken in the city at the time to defuse what otherwise might have been a powderkeg of frustrations.

The community has to believe, not only because they were told but because the opportunities are real, that they are true participants in the politics of their times. You have to feel represented. You have to feel like someone cares for you. So I grew up with that exposure, and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s kept me grounded in a certain kind of reality — without which I might have just simply floated away into the universe, without any knowledge or care or understanding of the human condition.

Q: When you get down to it, that’s the most amazing cosmic quandary of them all — dealing with the human factor.

A: People sometimes say, “Physics is hard ... I’ll go major in psychology.” No. Humans are much harder. If you look at the size of the physics book that contains all that we know about gravity, it’s one book. It’s a few hundred pages. Then you look at books that try to understand people … I don’t think we’re even close. The book has not even been written yet.

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses his personal story in more depth in his autobiography, “The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.”