Earth wants to kill you.
According to famed astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, that cryptic teaser is one of the “Ten Things You Should Know About The Universe.” Tyson will explain the murderous motives of our planet — along with the other nine things we need to know — during a talk at the Orpheum Theatre next Tuesday, Feb. 6.
Over the years, Tyson has evolved into something of an “everyman scientist” – a true astrophysicist who can translate huge scientific concepts into common language, making it interesting and even fun. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Emmy-winning 2014 docuseries, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” in which Tyson boards the “Ship of the Imagination” to explore the Universe – much like his mentor and predecessor Carl Sagan did back in the 1970s.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The New Tri-State Defender, Tyson talked about his role models, overcoming obstacles and the “rise of the black nerd.” He even acknowledges that some of his responses are “unorthodox” — which made the conversation all the more interesting. The below is edited for publication — enjoy the full interview above.
Lee Eric Smith: Thanks for being with us, Dr. Tyson. Looking at your bio, I imagine a small kid in the 1960s, when a lot was going on in our country. Of course, this year in Memphis, we’re commemorating the assassination of Dr. King. What memories do you have of Dr. King growing up?
Dr. Tyson: I was an observer of the 1960s. You know, old enough to see it, but not really old enough to completely process it. In the 70s, I was sort of a more of an aware participant, newspaper-reading person.
I did a book report on him in fifth grade and we had a full supply of Look Magazine. They had a whole issue just on Martin Luther King. I used that as a source for my book report and I still have it. I cut out the cover picture of him and I glued that with school paste to the cover of my construction paper. That was my book report on him. It was a fast, fast baptism into who he was and what he stood for.
By the way, my father was active in the Civil Rights Movement in New York City where he was a Commissioner under Mayor Lindsay in turbulent times. What doesn’t get written in the news are things that don’t happen. There were cities where there were riots — in Detroit and Watts. If you look at the late 60s where urban centers were total hotbeds — but there were no riots in New York City over that time.
Of course, no one writes about that because there was not an event to talk about. But major effort was put in so that the sort of inner city, then ghetto, teens and others would feel enfranchised and that there were job opportunities. What is a riot but the very last act of desperation of any community? If you’re not at your last point of desperation, you’re less likely to react in that way.
My father, in that role, kept me grounded. I mean, I was very plugged in to the human condition, if you will, relative to my interests that were already being expressed in the universe itself.
LES: It’s African American history month. People from all backgrounds look up to you as an African American scientist. Who were your inspirations?
Dr. Tyson: I have an unorthodox answer to your question and it’s unexpected in other ways as well. First, there were no singular influences on me and there’s always an assumption that there is. For me, that was not the case.
My interest in the universe was purely formed by a visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, where I now happen to serve as director. Just to experience that space show, I was hooked. In fact, I think the universe called me, if I can speak on those terms. I had no exposure to science, I had no exposure to math. I would learn that these are things you need to learn about if you wanted to become an expert in the universe, but in terms of the initial inspiration, that was not the case.
Personally, I feel the concept of role models is overrated in the following way: Should you tell yourself you can’t do certain things because no one (who looks like you) came before? I knew enough at age 11 that I would be shortchanging myself if I required a black astrophysicist from the Bronx to have preceded me. That’s not what I was looking for.
Instead, I constructed my role models a la carte. I met educators who were brilliant in their capacity to communicate enthusiasm and ideas. Then, I met scientists who just knew so much about the universe that I said, “Wow, that’s the kind of scientist I want to be.” Then, my parents were a source of sort of moral centering for me and for caring about others.
Then, I stitch all this together and I say, “This is the arc of life that I want coming out of the Bronx into my adulthood.” There’s no single person there at all. In fact, the only people of color in that whole group were my parents. The rest were not, so for me, it was not a prerequisite that the person be of color for me to want to do what that person did. That’s just me.
LES: You bring me to an interesting question. There are many African American youth, males in particular, who may have an interest in science and yet forces are steering them in a certain direction. What might you say to that kid who is struggling with peer pressure for wanting to pick up a book?
Dr. Tyson: Well, I would wonder how significant that peer pressure is relative to decades ago. Peer pressure to not be smart has less currency today than it once did. The nerd culture is rising. How do you think we got the word “blerd?” That stands for “black nerd.” That’s a word today. And how do you get that unless there’s a critical mass of black folk who are interested in Star Wars and having arguments over the physics of light sabers and all this geeky stuff? That’s an emergent culture.
I think the real question that would matter here is if someone wants to be a scientist or physicist and is struggling with the math or the science. I can say that, for me, the workload was never the issue because I knew where I wanted to land. If the coursework got harder, I worked harder. The moment you view obstacles as obstacles, you’ve lost that encounter with that obstacle.
LES: The rapper Future has a song that goes, “Try to bring me down, I’mma go harder . . .”
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, exactly. I think of Michael Jordan when he was coming down the court and the opposing team is set up. He wouldn’t care. What’s in his head is, “That’s the basket, I have the ball, and you’re all just in the way because that’s where I’m going no matter what.” For me, the goal was a Ph.D in Astrophysics and that served as a fuel tank for any interference with my ambitions.
Now, if someone with power stands between you and your goal, then you’ve got a problem — you have to think much more strategically about how to move forward. But all the rest of the crap that goes on in a day, it’s just crap. It may be that successful people in this world are not successful because they’re smart or because they’re born into it. They’re successful because they have survived forces that have pushed back on them and they’ve gone forward even more strongly.
LES: I understand there are “Ten Things Everyone Should Know About The Universe.” I don’t expect you to run them all down now . . .
Dr. Tyson: No, I’m not! (laughing) You think I’m going to just give that away? No. (laughs) Well, one of them. I’ll give you one of them: Earth wants to kill you. That’s one of the things you need to know. That’s like No. 7.
LES: I love it! I love it already! Dr. Tyson, it’s been a privilege speaking with you and I look forward to seeing you here in Memphis!