It’s an historic day for universe lovers the world over. And, on a day like today, there are few people more fitting to talk to than the nation’s most popular and celebrated astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
I caught up with Tyson via phone on Tuesday — hours before the historic transit of Venus, a period during which Venus will travel between the Earth and the sun, appearing as a small black dot on the sun’s surface. The alignment is one of the rarest witnessed on Earth, since Venus transits happen in pairs, with each pair of transits happening roughly 105 years apart. The transits have been used to calculate the Earth’s distance from the sun.
Asked where he would be, Tysaon said, “I haven’t figured out where I will be for that.” The Hayden Planetarium, where Tyson serves as director, will be piping an image of the Sun from Hawaii, where the skies are expected to be clear. At the time of the call, Tyson was in cloudy New York. But, he said he anticipated attending the planetarium’s event if his schedule allowed.
When will we go to Venus?
Not anytime soon, according to Tyson. The United States has never successfully reached Venus with a landing vehicle, although the U.S. has sent probes to and near Venus and the Russians have successfully sent multiple probes and landing vehicles there. “Venus has been the object of affection of the Russians and Mars has been the object of affection for the Americans,” said Tyson. “They’re both hard (to get to), but Venus is harder.”
As for a mission to Venus today, Tyson says, “Right now Venus just isn’t on the table.”
“So, if you really like Venus and you want to go,” he continued, “It could happen in decades to come, but not in the next decade for sure.”
What might the casual observer miss about the significance of the Venus transit?
In terms of the bigger picture, and what viewers may miss, Tyson says, don’t concentrate on the potential for a “spectacle.”
“The Venus transit is not a spectacle the way a total solar eclipse is a spectacle,” said Tyson, describing the long anticipation that eclipse witnesses have with the transition from light to dark being “in itself, something interesting.”
“In the era of the telescope, there have been 258 total solar eclipses,” said Tyson, “but there have only been 8 Venus transits. So, the interest in Venus transit is not because it’s a spectacle, but because it’s extremely rare.”
But the transit’s rarity doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to perceive it if you’re not prepared.
“Just because something is rare doesn’t mean it’s interesting to look at, in all candor,” continued Tyson, “There are people who like participating in things because they are rare.”
And the transit is also significant in terms of helping us better understand and measure our universe.
“It’s important for our knowledge of the scale of the solar system,” said Tyson. Not all places around the world will see the transit, since it has to be daylight (of course) and the skies have to be clear.
What message do you plan to convey to those gathered for the Clinton Global Initiative on June 7-8?
“I’m relatively new to that community,” said Tyson, citing that he was not a member of the traditional circle of entrepreneurs, lawyers and business executives who populate such gatherings. “This will be new for me to share a scientific perspective in this audience, and I’ve always respected Bill — we go way back.” Tyson was invited to the White House during the Clinton Administration to give a presentation on the nation’s future in space.
“I hope to offer perspectives that they might not have had the occasion to think about,” said Tyson, “So, I ‘m going to really say that space as a frontier.” He went on:
I know of no force of nature as great as what happens when people look up and imagine what’s out there and recognize that the science and technology that enables the solar system to become our backyard can actually transform the world in which we live — not only intellectually and culturally and emotionally and spiritually, but it will also pump our economy in ways that I don’t know any other force can accomplish. Because it will stimulate innovations in science and technology and engineering and math...innovations that are the drivers of 21st century economies.
Tyson went on to highlight the parallel in the decline in the interest in and spending on space exploration and the nation’s declining GDP per capita from the 60s on.
“You add all of this up, and it’s time to go back into space,” he said. “Space is not some charity for smart people and engineers, it’s an investment in the economic strength of your country even if you’re not interested in exploration — even if you’re not interested in discovery.”
“Think of it as an investment in tomorrow’s economic security.”
How significant was the successful SpaceX mission?
“It was certainly a success, but I think we should have been doing that decades ago,” said Tyson of SpaceX’s recently concluded mission, in conjunction with NASA, to send the first commercial spacecraft to dock with the international space station and have it return to Earth.
“It’s a benchmark success, it’s not a technological success,” said Tyson. “We’ve known how to dock in space for decades.” The real challenge was creating a system where commercial spaceflight could be fully incorporated into the nation’s space program. “It was a political achievement, a business achievement,” said Tyson.
As for his own plans to go into space, Tyson said he would need more than just a trip into orbit.
“Space, to me, is going to a destination, not simply going into lower Earth orbit,” said Tyson. “You want to put me in space, take me somewhere. I’ll wait around for that trip, instead of boldly going where hundreds have gone before.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson on genius and hard work:
I turned the conversation to the question of “genius,” a word that has been used to describe Tyson on more than one occasion. When I mentioned this, he laughed.
“We live in the kind of society where, in almost all cases, hard work is rewarded,” said Tyson, going on to mention how much time the average person spends watching TV and commuting instead of pursuing solutions to seemingly intractable problems. “What I’ve tried to do is fill that time with things that further enlighten my understanding of the world, or my knowledge base or my perspectives.”From Tyson’s perspective, genius is the pursuit of what’s hard — those things that people do not have the incentive to pursue.
Asked if he had a mentor that guided him — Tyson said, “no.” While he had tutors and fellow students who helped him figure out difficult problems, he was adamant that he did not have a mentor. “Normally when we think of a mentor we think of someone who was always there. ... But in my case, that wasn’t the case.”
How does America’s education system need to change?
Stop celebrating good teachers, and start pointing out the bad ones.
“I know that seems like it’s not the nice thing to do. But I would say that bad teachers do more harm than the absence of good teachers,” he said, expressing frustration over a recent request that he received to highlight his favorite teacher.
“I can’t tell you how many people say they were turned off from science because of a science teacher that completely sucked out all the inspiration and enthusiasm they had for the course.”
Asked how he would change the system, Tyson said he is currently researching the topic and for an upcoming book. He anticipates it will be out in four years.
As for students struggling with the STEM subject, Tyson says the key is passion and hard work.
“They should think to themselves that just because they don’t find it easy, doesn’t mean that’s a reason to not do it. Just work harder. Work harder.”
“I remember the first time I looked at a calculus class: What are these squiggly lines?” he remembered asking himself. But then he thought that if others understood it and someone invented it, he could understand it. So he kept at it, chipping away over time. “All that matters at the end is if you learn it.”
“That’s why passion matters,” said Tyson. “Passion is what gets you through the hardest times that might otherwise make strong men weak, or make you give up. So, my passion was not knocked out of me by school.”
My interview with one of the nation’s most celebrated astrophysicists on one of the most historic days in astrophysics was cut short, however.
Tyson had to interview the astronauts on the international space station.
Not a bad excuse.
This post has been corrected. The U.S. has sent probes to Venus, but has not achieved a soft landing. Thanks to commenter “Uncle_Billa” for the catch.
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