Neil deGrasse Tyson, STARRY MESSENGER (Part One)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, STARRY MESSENGER (Part One)

**This is part one of a double episode.** Neil deGrasse Tyson is a genius. Truly. An astrophysicist whose family pushed him to follow his dreams of being an athlete when really he wanted to study the universe, Dr. Tyson has become a cult celebrity, regularly stopped on the street to talk selfies with his adoring fans. You know how some people just get it?! You know they hold all the secrets as if carrying around a fragile tray across a room that the rest of us have to stand on tiptoes to see. Dr. Tyson literally knows the meaning of life and translates everything from race and disability to dogs and daytime in his show-stopping, must-read book.

That’s why Zibby spent two episodes with Dr. Tyson. This is the first of the series discussing his new book, Starry Messenger.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Dr. Tyson, AKA Neil, if I feel comfortable enough.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Please call me Neil.

Zibby: Okay. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.

Neil: By the way, I don’t think anybody has time to read books, not just moms.

Zibby: I know.

Neil: I’m delighted about the concept.

Zibby: I also am looking for someone at some point to host “Dads Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Neil: What I wonder is, do publishers like what you’re doing? If you don’t have time to read the book, they’ll just listen to the podcast, and then they never have to buy the book.

Zibby: They do buy the book, though.

Neil: Oh, they do.

Zibby: Because once all of the authors come on, they get to know the authors. They’re like, oh, my gosh, that does sound really good. I really love that guy. I promise.

Neil: All right, so there’s the other side of that coin.

Zibby: It’s helping. I did originally try to sell a book called Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, and nobody found that funny. I think I could try it now. It might go over better. Tell everyone about your book. What is this about? Why did you write this now? You’re so accomplished. Why do this?

Neil: Forgive me for making mom references.

Zibby: You can do it.

Neil: This book was gestating within me.

Zibby: Are we going to do this the whole time?

Neil: Please forgive me. Do forgive me.

Zibby: I can do this too.

Neil: It was actually gestating within me my entire scientific life. I was an early science-thinking kid from middle school, even a little earlier, just coming out of elementary school. That’s when I knew I wanted to study the universe and be an astrophysicist. I had a response as early as age eleven to that annoying question that adults always ask kids, which is…?

Zibby: What do you want to be when you grow up?

Neil: What do you want to be when you grow up? I would say astrophysicist. Normally, you say, I want to be an engineer or lawyer. Oh, Aunt Betty is a lawyer. Uncle Joe is a doctor. No one knew any astrophysicists, so those were pretty short conversations.

Zibby: I think you’re my first astrophysicist.

Neil: That’s not unlikely because there aren’t many of us in the world. Actually, numerically, there’s maybe eight to ten thousand astrophysicists in the world. We’re passing through eight billion people. If you do the math, that’s one in a million. If you’re in the same room with an astrophysicist ever at all, that’s your chance to ask all the questions because you never know when that occasion will ever repeat. Early on, even as a kid, I just look around, and I’d see full-grown people saying things and doing things that made no sense. It’s like, don’t you know how the earth works or how the sun — haven’t you thought about the statistics of this or the probability of this? Don’t you know? Then I’d get older. It got worse and worse. I’d visit Las Vegas. There are people at the roulette table. There hasn’t been a seven in a while. It’s due. No, it’s not. No, it’s not. Then I said, how come nobody knows this? A big part of it is just we’re not taught probability and statistics. It’s offered, maybe, as an elective. So much of our lives are guided by what we think is true, what we want to be true, what we desire to be true. You buy a lottery ticket expecting to win. There’s only one legitimate reason for buying a lottery ticket. Who am I to judge other people’s motives? Let me take a half step back from that and say, you know you’re not likely going to win. You understand this. Maybe they do understand it, but then there’s the hope. I met someone who, each week, she would go through those brochures of real estate. They have beautiful homes on beaches.

Zibby: I love those.

Neil: You got to love them. You got to love those. She said she buys one lottery ticket each week. As she looks through the brochure, she imagines what home she would buy if she won the lottery. This brings her some psychological, not so much comfort, but joy just thinking about that. I can’t take that away from her. Fine. We’ll go with that. You start taking a third of your paycheck and putting it in lottery tickets, it’s like, no. That’s just the probability and statistic side of it. Once I gathered all of this throughout my life, it was gestating, and then I became fully pregnant with it. Again, forgive the uterine analogies here, but that’s exactly what it felt like. There I was sort of pregnant with this book. I said, okay, it’s got to come out. When it’s got to come out, it’s got to come out. The entire book just came out of me written. I’ve been asked the question, in writing the book, what did you do when you had writer’s block or when you stumbled? No. No. The whole book came out. I would make fine-tuning edits after, but the whole book came out all at once. It’s what civilization looks like when you’re scientifically literate, especially when you have a cosmic perspective on it.

It breaks out into chapters rather naturally. They’re subjects that we’ve all thought about and fought over, especially during Thanksgiving dinner, where people think they’re saying the right thing. It’s authentic. It’s justified. Have you thought about it this other way? Have you seen your arguments and what they look like if you knew this other thing that’s true? Often, people are arguing when they’re arguing over nothing, but they don’t know it. They’re arguing what they believe is real rather than on what is real. There are chapters in there. There’s one on Truth & Beauty. There’s one on Risk & Reward. That’s the one where we talk about probability. Here’s one, Meat Eaters & Vegetarians, they’re always fighting with each other. I said, let me just jump in there, have a few things to say, and then get out. I’ll go in the octagon, see if I can say some things to the warring parties. I’ll give examples, if you’re interested, in a moment. I’m just giving the overview here. There’s a chapter on Gender & Identity, what that looks like when you’re scientifically literate. Color & Race, yeah, I went there. Truth & Beauty. Did I say Truth & Beauty?

Zibby: You said it.

Neil: Yeah, I did say it. Life & Death. Another one, Body & Mind. These are topics you don’t think of as astrophysics topics, but you may be interested to know what they look like if you are an astrophysicist. That’s what this book is. It’s a portal. It’s a portal of understanding.

Zibby: What would an astrophysicist like you say about death? What’s the party line? What should we know about death?

Neil: It’s Life & Death. Life & Death is the chapter.

Zibby: I don’t know why I have to jump to the most —

Neil: — You can jump. That’s the final chapter too, Life & Death. You can’t begin with that. You got to end. I’ll go there now.

Zibby: I can warm you up.

Neil: No, no, let’s go. This is your show. You ready?

Zibby: Yes.

Neil: Are you seated?

Zibby: I’m ready.

Neil: If you look at the human genome and look at how many possible unique humans can be created from the genome, it’s staggeringly large. I put in there, one with thirty zeros, but it’s even bigger than that. There’s a calculation where you get thirty zeros, but most attempts to calculate this number are much larger than that. How many humans have ever been born? We know that number. It’s about a hundred billion. A hundred billion is a staggeringly small fraction of the total humans who could ever be born. For people out there, no matter your struggles, no matter your illnesses, no matter what hand the genetic lotto delivered to you, you’re alive against all odds. This is a point made, really brought home by Richard Dawkins, but I had to take it to another cosmic notch. You will die one day. That death will conclude your life. Unless you’re of some religions who are certain — most religions are certain of everything the religion says.

This is an interesting other fact. You can put all the religions in the world, and they don’t really say the same thing about what is true. That’s an awkward situation if you want to be religious in multiple ways. You can’t really. You have to sort of pick one and just ascribe to that. Your few years on earth are precious for that reason. Most people who could ever exist will never even be born. Your existence, no matter the state of your existence, you’re among the lucky ones, extraordinarily lucky. People say, I want to live forever. Really? Have you thought that through? Holding aside that if everyone lived forever, we’d actually have to stop the birth rate or find another planet to move to — there are issues there. Let’s assume that’s resolved in whatever way. Consider that if you live forever, then you always have tomorrow. Then what is your motivation for doing anything today? I assert that there’s nothing more motivating to what you can and should do in life than the certain knowledge that you’re going to die one day. People think of death as a morbid subject. Let’s look at a couple of examples. If your loved one brought you flowers and they were plastic, what would you think?

Zibby: I would think, go back to the store.

Neil: Go back to the store. Wait a minute. Wait, the plastic flowers will last forever. They won’t die. Deep down, you know that you value the flowers not only because they’re beautiful, but also because they die. You value the early before they open up. Then they do open. Then they have a fragrance. Yes, you have to care for them. You have to change the water and snip the stems. They’re not care-free. You will hold them and watch them through their, if I can use this word for flowers, senescence where they start turning. Then they die. They have ran the natural course of their lives after having been cut. That fact makes you appreciate them all the more. In a sense, then it is death itself that gives meaning to life. Think of if you’ve owned a dog. It might be true for cats. I just know less about cats. If you have dogs, you are the hero in the dog’s life. You come home from getting the mail, and the dog is jumping all over you and licking you in the face. The dog is excited to just be around you, no matter the time of day. They’re not saying, I’m too sleepy. Come back later. Let’s go out. That sound of the leash, the dog is on top of that. For how long? The dog might live twelve, thirteen, fourteen years, fifteen tops. If you multiply that by seven, you get a human age for when we die. Hence, that famous formula, dog years/human years. That got me thinking. Maybe a dog knows this. A dog is alive for only one out of seven days that you’re alive. You live an entire week. That equals a day in the life of a dog. Maybe the dog knows this, so the dog makes every day count. We might squander days in our weeks and in our months. For me, the dog is a reminder of how precious life is because no moment goes by without a dog just celebrating the fact that they’re alive and not among those who have never been born. That’s only part of the Life & Death chapter.

Zibby: How does that motivate you?

Neil: Every day. I was thinking less about death when I was a child. Children hardly ever think about death unless they see some scary program. By the way, children don’t so much fear death as much as they fear getting eaten.

Zibby: Really?

Neil: Think about this. Look at every fairy tale where the life of the child was put at risk. The risk was getting eaten by the witch or by the fox or the wolves, the big bad wolf, Little Red Riding Hood. It’s always getting eaten. In the early Star Wars films, almost everyone who died — the second film, I think it was, second of the ones that were made — they were eaten. There were these creatures that just would eat you. Kids fear being eaten. What’s their favorite scary dinosaur? You’ve had kids. What’s their favorite dinosaur?

Zibby: T. rex?

Neil: Of course.

Zibby: Don’t put me on the spot here.

Neil: I’m totally putting you on the spot because I know there’s a commonality to this human perspective. A T. rex will eat you, so kids respect T. rex all the way. What’s their favorite object in the universe? Black holes. They’ll eat you. My point is, I didn’t think of death as a child. I thought, the universe is so vast. I’m going to live eighty years, perhaps. Back then, I was thinking maybe only seventy, seventy-five. We’ve all gotten healthier since then. I’m that old to remember when I used to think that way. There was so much to learn. I didn’t want to delay the time I could take to learn about how the universe worked and the math necessary to speak in the language of the universe, to commune with the cosmos, as was my desire and ambition. Then I get older. Then I have kids. For me, the greatest kid wisdom was, especially when they’re younger and infants, basically through toddlerhood while you have to prevent them from killing themselves, so basically zero through three or four, that is, watch at every second — five, they can run up and down the house. You know they’re not going to do something completely stupid if your house is generally childproof. Over those early years, it’s like, this is never going to end. You don’t get any sleep. You realize the days go by slowly, but the years go by quickly. That’s a peculiar concept to embrace.

In terms of one’s sense of time and how you use it, I want to make sure that — maybe this is because I’m an academic fundamentally, but no reason why other people couldn’t feel this way. If there’s a day where you don’t learn something, you kind of wasted that day a little bit. There’s a finite number of days you have left alive. Even though you don’t know how many days there are, you know it’s finite. Every day, every next sunset, sunrise — I don’t want to use this analogy in this case, but it comes to mind. The prisoner in the jail cell, you put an X on the day. That’s one less day for you. There’s a quote from Horace Mann, the educator. It was around early 1800s, actually. We all know there’s a Horace Mann school. We’ve heard the name even if you don’t know fully about the guy. He was an educator; at one point, I think head of a university. One of his last speeches to the students, he said, “I beseech you to treasure this up in your hearts. Be ashamed to die until you’ve scored some victory for humanity.” In a free society, there’s no obligation to do that. You can just live your own life and not help anyone. I grew up in a pretty progressive household. You’re always thinking about the plight of others, who could benefit from you, your time, your energy, your resources, and so folded into, learn something every day. Why not spend a little bit of your life lessening the suffering of others? Then the whole world is a little better off.

Another piece of that is, I don’t ever want anyone to return a favor. If I do you a favor — I’ll return the favor one day. No. Pass it forward. I don’t need your favor back. Just do a favor for someone else. Think about it. If someone returns the favor, it closes off. It stops the exchange of goodness that could be moving through the world. If everyone passed it forward, then it spreads in a good way. It spreads virally in a good way. Life and death, when you think of it scientifically, biologically, I think it brings focus to our lives. On your deathbed, I don’t want to regret not having learned more or not having loved more or not having cared more. I want to be content and say, my time has come. My life is done. You can ask, what happens after death? You didn’t ask that, or maybe you kind of asked it. What happens after death? We know scientifically you have a certain energy in your body that’s accumulated from the consumption of plants and animals throughout your life. If you’re vegetarian, then it would be plants and possibly animal products like milk and this sort of thing. In any event, no matter whether you’re a meat eater or a vegetarian, you killed life-forms to survive. Every life-form on earth does that except plants because they get their energy from the sun. Everybody else is killing something in order to — okay, we get that. That’s the great circle of life. We know the song from The Lion King. Why do we do that? There’s a calorie content of the food we eat. Calories is the exact word for energy. We use the word calorie, but it is energy. How many calories does it have? is the same question as, how much energy does it have? You consume this. This builds your muscles and bones and tissues and enables you to move.

Most importantly, it maintains your body temperature at 98.6 degrees, thirty-seven degrees Celsius. It maintains that no matter what the temperature is outside. We’re in a very comfortable room right now. It’s maybe seventy-two degrees. You’re ninety-eight degrees. Why don’t you just cool down to the — if you brought food in here and it’s ninety-eight degrees, it’ll cool to seventy-two degrees within an hour. You don’t cool down. You have a furnace burning within you, a furnace generating that energy so that your whole body can function in an environment that pleases it, which is a ninety-eight-degree vessel. Most energy you consume is in the service of maintaining your body temperature. That’s why we eat constantly, morning, noon, and night. You know who doesn’t eat constantly? Our cold-blooded animals. They don’t eat constantly. We like to think they do because when we show crocodiles, they’re always ravenously hungry, and snakes always trying to take down a thing. A snake eats once a week. Crocodile, depending on how much, once a month. They’re the same temperature as their environment. That’s what cold-blooded is, the same temperature. They don’t have to constantly consume energy to maintain their temperature. The point of all of this is, the day you die, you no longer have a metabolism, so your body cools. It drops to what temperature?

Zibby: The temperature of the surroundings.

Neil: The temperature of the surroundings. It drops to room temperature. If you touch my hand right now, you know what touching another human being feels like. You ever touch the hand in the casket?

Zibby: Mm-mm.

Neil: Oh, you don’t touch dead bodies?

Zibby: I haven’t.

Neil: Usually, the hand is there because the hands are wrapped across the chest. Try it one day. The first thing people notice, the body’s cold. Maybe the body just came out of the fridge. Usually if it’s lying there for viewing, it’s been there for at least a day or so. What you’re noticing is not that it’s cold. It’s just not as warm as anybody you normally touch. It’s room temperature. That’s what you’re noticing. In the act of death, what happens, we know — let’s say you go out through a series of strokes, little strokes that become bigger strokes. You can do MRIs on — not MRI. Neuro scans. You see a part of the brain drops out that lost oxygen. It’s dead, basically. The person doesn’t know language anymore. The person doesn’t know who you are anymore. The aspects of that person just begin to go away. Everyone who wants to believe that you are something more than what’s going on electrochemically in your brain, okay, but it’s pretty convincing evidence that your brain is everything that you are because as we see the brain disconnect, you start disappearing, everything we know about you. It could happen another way. Maybe you can lose your personality, your charm. All these pieces of you are happening electrochemically in your brain.

On death, scientifically — again, if you believe in souls and reincarnation and all this, in a free society, no one is going to take that from you. If you ask me as a scientist, I can tell you that on death, you and everything we think of as you no longer exists. We know that intuitively when you go into a funeral parlor. You don’t say, what room is Freddy in? You say, what room is Fred’s body? You’ve already given up on the idea that someone named Freddy exists. You go into a state of nonexistence. You say, do I see my ancestors? Do I go to heaven? I guess Jews don’t have a hell. Do I go somewhere where there’s a — again, okay, but the evidence looks like you just simply don’t exist. Is that weird? No, it’s not. There’s no reason to think that your state of nonexistence after death is any different from your state of nonexistence before you were born. Before you were born, you weren’t saying, where am I? How come I’m not — you’re not having a conversation about not existing because you don’t exist yet. Most of the history of civilization, you didn’t exist. You exist now for however many years we have left. Then you enter another state of nonexistence. This is our portal into the reality of this universe. Don’t waste a single moment of it. That’s just one chapter. I’m sorry.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I think our time is over. That’s it.

Neil: I’m sorry. You went straight there, life and death.

Zibby: I’m like, how can I not ask about the meaning of life? It’s so funny. I do a lot of things. I do —

Neil: — By the way, I didn’t specifically mention meaning of life. I want to spend a minute on that.

Zibby: Great.

Neil: People ask, what is the meaning of life? Occasionally, people ask. I’ve been asked, what is the meaning of life? First, I don’t think that question is as deep as people think it is or want it to be. That’s just an opinion. Often, they search for meaning in life. Typically, religions might offer pathways to give you meaning in life. I’ve come to realize that maybe meaning in life is not something to be found because the question is asked as though it’s behind a tree or under a rock or in the seat cushion in the couch. Dig it out of the cushions. Maybe instead, meaning is something you create. You have more power over meaning than you’ve admitted to yourself. Clearly, if an organization says, “We have meaning in life. Come to us,” they’re preventing you from the creating the meaning on your own. I think on some level, that’s a little bit unfair because we do have this power. You ask yourself, what do you value? Do you value happiness? Do you value tranquility? Do you value people? Do you value pets, animals? Do something for them that creates meaning so that the next day you said, this world is better off. That dovetails to the point of lessening the suffering of others. In that case, that could be how meaning comes to you, because you bring meaning to others. I’ve stopped looking for meaning in life. I spend portions of my day reflecting on how I can bring meaning to others because bringing meaning to others brings meaning to me.

If I can give a quick example — well, a medium example. I heard an interview on, I think it was NPR. It’s one of these interviews that took place in a restaurant. It’s just hanging out. You can hear the noise in the background. It’s, of course, all audio. They were interviewing a hockey star. I don’t really know hockey. Apparently, this was a big star. While they’re talking, someone would walk by and ask for his autograph. The interviewer said, “Does that get old? Is that annoying to you?” His answer, I’ve never forgotten. He said, “If my God-given gifts as a hockey player are on a level where I can spend ten seconds of my life to give an autograph to someone and it makes their day, it’s ten seconds versus someone’s happiness for a day or more.” Who is he to deny that infusion of happiness into the world? I said, whoa. At that time, I was hardly known by anybody, so no one was asking me for autographs. When that started — it began with autographs. Now, of course, it’s all selfies. They don’t even know what an autograph is. You can post the selfie. Then it gives you social media status. The point is, it’s a trifling investment of my time. To the extent that it brings joy, pleasure, enlightenment — ideally, they’d ask me a question about the universe and I’d answer so that I can be an educator for the moment rather than just target of celebrity. I’ve never forgotten that. I will humbly accommodate such request if I’m spotted in the street or wherever, whenever that happens. Now there’s eleven more chapters.

Zibby: I had all these questions I was going to ask you.

Neil: I’m sorry. Go, go.

Zibby: Our time is already up. I’m serious. It’s amazing.

Neil: You could edit and take out other stuff.

Zibby: I know. No, it’s amazing. My one question at the end — I had all this stuff on disability and race and all this stuff. There’s so much in here.

Neil: Oh, my gosh, we can go there.

Zibby: No, it’s okay.

Neil: We can go there. We’ll spend a minute on disability.

Zibby: Let’s spend a minute on disability because it’s so important. You really question, what does it mean to be disabled? You give so many examples, and even on what it means to be racist and skin color and who even —

Neil: — And gender.

Zibby: And gender and all of this. You were like, is Jim Abbott disabled? Are all these people disabled? Perhaps they all achieved not despite their disability, but because of it.

Neil: Right, and so that forces you to question — Jim Abbott, for those who don’t know, he was a pitcher in the major leagues and pitched for the Yankees for a couple of seasons. Yankees is a very storied franchise, of course. I happened to be born in the Bronx. It’s the Bronx Bombers, the Yankees. I have authentic, justifiable interest in the Yankees. He goes to pitch for the Yankees, and he pitches a no-hitter. A no-hitter, there are not many. This is where you get up, and no one gets a hit to make it to first base. There’s about — I forgot the number — about three hundred of those pitched out of the tens of thousands of games ever pitched. He was born without a hand. He has only one hand. One hand. Imagine growing up. I want to be a baseball pitcher. No, you don’t. Imagine what people would be telling him. No, you don’t. You have one hand. You got to be able to field. You got to wear a glove. How are you going to do this? You can’t do this. Look at the forces operating on people who do not match the norms set by others. Those forces are huge. They don’t stop whether or not you don’t have a hand. Are you female? No, you can’t. I’m old enough to remember, no one will listen to a female voice for the evening news. They’re not authoritative enough. To hear what the disenfranchised of society had to go through just to break through these social expectations of what you can or can’t be or what you should or shouldn’t be if you’re female, if you’re dark-skinned — I was growing up, I knew early I wanted to be an astrophysicist, but I was also athletic.

They say, why don’t you be an athlete? No one said, why don’t you be an astrophysicist? Even though my evidence was there. I had a telescope. They don’t even see that. They saw me run, and they saw my skin color. Jim Abbott doesn’t have a hand. I give a whole list of people who, some of them, movies have been made from them. I think we need to diversify what we embrace as what it is to be human. It involves the autism spectrum as well. There’s a term for this now today. It’s a great term. It’s neurodiverse. If you think it through — let’s say the day comes we have genetic engineering. You can engineer your children to be whatever you want. What might happen, I want a perfect child, and design their height, their weight, their temperament, whatever. What are you going to base that on? Is there some model human like you have model homes? Go to this model home, and you see how you’re supposed to do it. This is where the couch would go, and the bed and the bedrooms and everything. Oh, is that how you’re designing your human? If you did that, what would that world be? The Stepford Wives comes to mind, where everyone is engineered to be the same when so much of what makes life and civilization interesting is that we’re different. It’s the different people that are responsible for most of what is interesting in this world, different in every metric, in every way. This is just a taste of the mind/body chapter there. We’re short on time, so that’s all I’m going to say about that chapter.

Zibby: My last question, I want to go back to playing the lottery.

Neil: Play the lottery.

Zibby: Writing a book and hoping for its success, I feel, is like playing the lottery. Yet everybody keeps writing books. It’s impossible. There aren’t enough readers. There isn’t enough time for all the readers to read all the books. Yet there’s this deep compulsion to keep writing and fabulous books that keep coming out. Having a book reach that level of success is like winning the lottery. Yet everybody keeps trying. What do you make of that?

Neil: I think there are people who write, especially novels — see, I have the advantage that I write nonfiction. By the way, I hate the term nonfiction. I don’t like what I do to be referenced as the negative of something else. Give me a word —

Zibby: — Reality.

Neil: Reality, thank you. Fiction and reality, how about that? Don’t make the existence of what I do the negation of something else.

Zibby: Love it.

Neil: I write reality. The difference is — unfortunate fact here for novelists is I can write a nonfiction book, and if it’s published, it’s probably because somebody sees that it’s adding information to the world in some way that’s worth preserving. Whereas a novel, if no one reads your novel or no one is interested in it, I don’t know that it’s going to be researched later for information in the body of knowledge that makes up civilization. Whereas, in principle, every nonfiction book is some contribution to our knowledge and understanding of how the world works. Even if it’s political that’s rife with opinions, someone will go back and say, oh, this is what people thought. Even if not everyone reads the book and even if it does not make the best-seller list, it’s still a cog in the wheel that turns and moves civilization forward. There are people who write because they can’t not write. There are people who write because maybe they don’t have other platforms.

I don’t need to write. I can just get on one of my platforms and talk. I could do that, but here’s something that hardly anyone knows. Practically every sentence I ever utter in public I’ve previously written down so that I’ve thought about what words to use in that sentence. I’ve thought about how you think about the flow of that information. I’ve thought about the timbre and the rhythm and the phrasing and how the words work together in sequence, which is a higher level of communication, I think, than just speaking. You know this because you can look at an exactly transcribed conversation, and it’s like, what was going on? There’s a lot of words that are just there to fill space. It’s not what you would write. When I get a chance to write, there’s precision, accuracy, and tone that I can set. It’s that from which I draw the words that I speak. For me, writing has that value even if no one ever read anything I wrote. I get to think about a perfect sentence that is uneditable by editors. Can I tell you one of my perfect sentences?

Zibby: I would love to hear your perfect sentence.

Neil: By the way, my idea of perfect sentences began when I was walking down the street and I saw this billboard. It quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read the sentence, and I said, oh, my gosh, I will never be a novelist. This sentence was so — oh, my gosh. It’s from The Great Gatsby. Here’s the sentence. It’s describing one of his parties on his Long Island residence. “In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moths amid the champagne, the whispers, and the stars.” It was like, whoa. It’s all there. It’s got the man and the girls. Girls would just be younger versions of the men. This is the language of the 1920s. It’s all there. You don’t need any other thing to help you picture what’s going on. What’s different about the movie that had Leonardo DiCaprio is they made the party very noisy with a lot of loud music. In the original novel, the champagne, the whispers, and the stars, there it is. I said, damn, I’ll never be a novelist. If that’s the kind of sentences you’ve got to write when you write a novel, count me out because I don’t have that in me. Here’s my best sentence ever. You ready?

Zibby: I’m ready.

Neil: “The spinning planets orbit the sun along their appointed paths like pirouetting dancers in a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity.” That sentence, for me, it’s got the metaphor, but the metaphor’s precise. I used to dance, so a little bit of dance vocabulary came in there. It’s a rotating planet, pirouetting dancer. Someone choreographed it. Why are planets moving at all? Gravity is doing everything. I’m very proud of that. That’s my one perfect sentence.

Zibby: I love it.

Neil: Now I’m going to try for a second perfect sentence. Then we’ll be good.

Zibby: What about the poor novelists whose books will never be referenced again?

Neil: I don’t know what to say. I remember when I was in college. I looked at the library. The library had three million books in it, or something. I just did the math. I said, okay, I’m eighteen. I have this many years left. How fast would I have to read a book to get through all three million books before I die? That’s a book every three seconds or something. Then I realized, I have to rely on others to guide me to what books to read who are wiser than I am, who live longer. You don’t want it to be a crapshoot. You want to have some guidance in it. You’re right, some works of literature are objectively better and objectively more important and significant than others. There is no doubt about it. I don’t have problems using other people’s lists. There are great places online, Goodreads, for example. You track what other people are reading. They comment on it. There’s some focusing there. You don’t have to go at it cold.

Zibby: This podcast, perhaps.

Neil: This podcast. I should’ve listed that first. You are a filter in the medium. I think a filter is good. A filter is good. I guess award ceremonies are also a kind of filter, the Pulitzer Prizes, the Booker Award, this sort of thing. You can’t do it yourself, unfortunately. There was a date where any learned, educated person could have, in principle, read every book that was ever published, but that was some time ago. It was the early 1700s. Then it rapidly got out of hand. I think either no one will read this book or everyone will read this book. I don’t think it’ll land in the middle.

Zibby: Everyone’s going to read this book.

Neil: I don’t know.

Zibby: Everyone’s going to read this book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. This is everything you ever need to know about life itself. What else is there? Come on.

Neil: The life and death part kind of brings it home.

Zibby: There’s so much in there. It’s amazing. It’s a reframing of everything. It’s a new lens through which — it’s the telescope through which you —

Neil: — The telescope. The conduit to the cosmos to look back. One quick thing if I could steal another minute from you.

Zibby: Yes.

Neil: One of the things I’m proudest of in the book in the Color & Race chapter, I thought to myself, hmm, suppose nineteenth-century anthropologists were racist Black people instead of racist white people. What might they say? I have three pages of what a racist —

Zibby: — I know. I dogeared all of them. Skin cancer, itchy scales, facial acne, suicide rates.

Neil: You’ve never seen a Black kid with pizza-face acne.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, no. You have so much here.

Neil: You go through the list of things that were just simply ignored by — if you’re racist, you have to be at the top. Your race, your color has to be at the top. Everybody else is below you. Otherwise, why go through the exercise? I said, let’s make some racist Black people and then see. There’s another one in it too. All you have to do is say why white people are closer to chimpanzees that Black people are. There are little things like, other than the hands and the face of a chimp, if you part their hair, their skin is white. It’s completely white. Chimps are white. Also, they prune each other for lice. You’ve seen this. Lice outbreaks among Black people is extremely rare. Lice just doesn’t like the hair of Black people. Loves the hair of white people.

Zibby: I’ve never had lice. Just saying.

Neil: I bet you’ve had friends who’ve had lice.

Zibby: Yes.

Neil: Of course. Other things, their suicide rate is a fraction, that of white people for Black. If you cherry-pick the data, that’s what you get. My favorite stupid one was, you’ve never ever seen Black children walk by a tree and say, gee, I want to live in that tree. That has never happened.

Zibby: That was hilarious.

Neil: White kids will say, I want to build a treehouse. The anthropologists would say, these are the white people wanting to get closer to their roots as chimpanzees, returning to the trees. It’s an attempt to just show you the absurdity of it all and what science can tell you when you look at it, especially with a cosmic perspective. Anyhow, the book was birthed. There it is in your hand.

Zibby: Here we are. We’re in the delivery room. I’m holding it. I caught it.

Neil: At this moment, it’s not yet released, so I guess it’s still in the — what do you call it in the room?

Zibby: Delivery room?

Neil: No, the incubation room.

Zibby: The NICU?

Neil: The neonatal room.

Zibby: We’re in the NICU? I’m honored to talk to you about it.

Neil: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I’m like, you know what, maybe I’ll just make it a double episode. We’ll launch it in two episodes. Why not?

Neil: Is that allowed?

Zibby: I’ve never done it before, but I didn’t want you to stop talking.

Neil: Because we went too long.

Zibby: It’s fine. I love it. I don’t think I’ll ever be next to such a genius again the rest of my life. I’m soaking it up, selfishly. Thank you so much. Thanks for writing it. I’m so glad it came out fully formed and I could read it and shift my perspective. All your thoughts today, how motivating is that? Just so intensely, fundamentally motivating. Amazing.

Neil: Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on.

STARRY MESSENGER by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, STARRY MESSENGER

STARRY MESSENGER by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts