Caught in the Act gets astrophysical with Neil deGrasse Tyson in this pre-show interview about dancing, dealing with Twitter haters and why Neil won’t ever be “on brand.”
Early in October, we grabbed almost an hour of time with the fun, funny and brilliant Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson over the phone (for the record, he asked that we call him Neil). He appears at The Straz Oct. 19, this Thursday, for his talk An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper. We’re huge NdGT fans, but instead of talking all things science, we wanted to get into the general relativity of the man himself. He surprised us.
CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re so excited you’re coming back to The Straz for another lecture.
NEIL TYSON: I’m flattered that you didn’t get enough last time.
CITA: We’re excited you’re bringing a new show, but what we really want to talk about is you as a performer.
NT: I’m a servant of your questions.
CITA: Great! Preparing for this interview, we watched you and Chuck Nice on Cosmic Gumbo, then watched your interview with Katy Perry. You seem to be able to adjust quickly as an educator to whomever your audience is, so we wanted you to talk about how you find teaching itself to be a type of performing art.
NT: When you’re on stage, you have to keep people’s attention for however long you’re there. And people are paying money to hear you, so there’s some expectation and obligation that you’ve got to be entertaining or educating or some combination of both. Whereas, in an interview, I feel some obligation to match rhythms with the other person … to match outlook … no, to match rhythms. Otherwise, it’s a mismatch to the viewer. Every time you have a mismatch, not as much information or insight will come across in that conversation. There’s nothing more awkward or unsmooth than two people who have two different ways of communicating trying to communicate with one another. You’re wasting each other’s time, and you’re wasting our time. So, I see teaching as having to have a metaphorical tool kit. People have different literacies, different backgrounds, different energy levels, and I try to find what that is. Upon finding it, I think it’s my duty as an educator to interact in a way where the widest possible communication channels are open to that person. If it means referencing sports, if that’s a point of reference for that person, if it means referencing pop culture or TV shows or movies, that’s what I do. So, I spend some fair amount—maybe 15 percent—of my time learning what other people care about and that’s what’s it in my tool belt.
CITA: How do you go about doing this? What is it that you do to spend time learning what other people care about?
NT: I think it’s a matter of paying attention. So, if I see someone speaking to other people and trying to make an impression or teach them and I see people getting bored, I wonder: why do I see that? Was it the delivery? Was it the jargon? Was it the personality of the person delivering the information? I pay attention to that. It takes a level of socialization that most people have, but beyond that it’s just energy to think about what’s going on. If I’m being called upon to serve the interest of the public in any way at all, I might as well put in some effort to do the best job that I can in that capacity. If I do not, then I’m just being lazy. Or, I’m asking people to meet me at the chalkboard rather than have it be I who meets them on the living room couch. So, it’s simply a matter of paying attention: What is the number one show on television? Oh, I’d like to know about that. I don’t have to know every show, but I should know two or three—the characters, the plot lines, what are the other defining elements of the show. Then I have some fluency in that subject. Anyone who walks in the room walks in with a scaffolding of pop culture. If I’m talking about science and I can clad that scaffold with science, then science applied to the thing they already care about opens a communication channel like none other.
CITA: Then did you study education as well?
NT: No, it’s just that an astrophysicist spends so much energy contemplating the universe, the least I can do is spend some of that brain effort contemplating how people communicate with each other. So, I read people’s speeches, how they put their words together to create impact, to create emotion as distinct from content. So, no, I never took an education class.
CITA: What about performing arts classes? Did you ever study music, theater, dance?
NT: I was a performing member of three dance companies over the years in college.
CITA: Get out of town. Are you serious?
NT: It’s not like it was the Bolshoi. These were just college troupes, but it was done in leotards and legwarmers and this sort of thing. And so I greatly valued and continue to value the juxtaposition of strength and agility. With dance, there’s also the additional element of grace. So, dance is strength, agility and grace in this harmony like no other challenge. I did that on the side. I also wrestled. I was captain of my high school wrestling team. I continued to wrestle in college and graduate school although I wasn’t as good relative to other people—it was a whole other scale of people’s advancement and commitment. But, I enjoyed the sport immensely, the one-on-one the purity of it. I persisted through senior year. I also wrote.
Tyson, during his dancing days.
CITA: Let’s go back to these dance companies you were in. Where these modern dance companies? Were these college ballet companies …?
NT: So, one of them was Afro-Caribbean style. One of them was competitive international Latin ballroom. I wasn’t good enough to be a soloist but definitely good enough to be on the team performance. We were eight couples performing, 16 of us on the floor performing choreographed routines in competition. The third was just called the Dance Team, and it was a combination of show tunes, ballet, modern, that sort of thing. It was more broadly conceived and executed.
CITA: We hardly ever, ever hear of anybody who has performed Afro-Caribbean style even though we have a strong Afro-Cuban culture in Tampa. So, what were you studying? Was this Afro-Cuban, was it a Chuck Davis style, was it Afro-Brazilian?
NT: It was mostly sort of basic things you would do with your body. I don’t know if was a culture specifically. When I visited South Africa early on—I’ve been there several times—I was more of a pure tourist, and we went to an indigenous culture dance day. I’m watching everyone dance and thinking, “that’s exactly what we did in Afro-Caribbean class.” A lot of that midsection undulating, and the hips and arms and shoulders, and how it comes together in a performance. So that’s what it was. My body would hurt tomorrow if I did that now.
Tyson, during his wrestling days.
CITA: That’s fantastic. It made our entire life to know that Neil deGrasse Tyson did Afro-Caribbean dance.
NT: When I am onstage, I’m self-aware, and there’s so much more I can communicate with an audience than just my voice in the microphone. There is tonality in my voice, there is my body gestures, there is my gesticulations with my arms … all of this comes together … I’d say by the end of a talk, 2/3 came through the words I spoke and the rest is me I guess the word would be “performing” it. My words are communicating, but so is my body.
CITA: Yes. Watching your facility in conversation is really starting to make sense now that we have this information. Body awareness is not something people think about or are conscientious of or study the way dancers do. But, when you see someone who has a conscientious level of body awareness …
NT: Oh, I’m intently aware. Especially since I wrestled. You know, the body of the person you’re wrestling is everything. The bicep, the triceps … it’s sweeping a different muscle to get them to their backs. It’s a whole intense pathway of thought to reconcile what your body is relative to what you can do in a competition. So, yes, I have an acute awareness. I might have a fascination with bodies that have taken shape by the things that are unique to the performance in which they have excelled. So, the body of a football linebacker, or a prima ballerina, or the body of a marathon runner, the body of a Sumo wrestler. I’m intrigued by any and all humans with bodies that have reached the extremes of expression—all in the service of our entertainment.
CITA: Human bodies morph into expressions in which they excel. You are an astrophysicist so obsessed with and acutely aware of celestial bodies as well. Do you ever spend time in contemplation of the connection between the concept of “body,” the human body in motion, the human body comprised of motion it expels and absorbs and how that relates to astrophysics?
NT: Ah, no. Because the human body, we’re a life form on earth like all other life forms—plants, the cheetah that runs faster than any other animal, the condor whose wingspan is the largest of any bird—if you look at features of animals in the world, of plants in the world, if you take in the totality of the tree of life in the world, it’s quite a fascinating place to visit, delightfully. But, that has no direct relationship to astrophysics.
I’ve spoken metaphorically of it, recently: “when I close my eyes, I imagine the solar system with its pirouetting planets as a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity.” That is a figurative sentence of having the benefit of being literally true. Motions of the planets are induced by the forces of gravity, and all objects do pirouette. We call it rotate, but they pirouette.
CITA: We have ardent Neil deGrasse Tyson fans in Tampa. When you started out your career, did you have this end game in mind that you were going to get your degree in astrophysics and become the heartthrob celebrity that you are today?
NT: No, no not at all! It’s still not! Every day when I wake up—it might be 9.4 million Twitter followers [I have] at this moment—it’s like, do they know I’m an astrophysicist? I keep wondering “what’s going on here?” Eighty-five percent of the time you see me in public or I’m anywhere in the public eye, it’s in the service of the cosmic curiosity of an organization or individual that has asked questions. About 15% of the time it’s because I’ve written a book, and the book has marketing people attached to it and they’ll install me on a newscast or a talk show. People come up to me and say “I see you all over the place, you must have a good agent.” I say, “my agent is the Universe itself.” And then they want me to come [on their show or outlet] and comment. So, I’d be irresponsible if I did not comment. But I’m commenting as a servant of the curiosity, not because I wake up in the morning and say “how many outlets can I put my face on today?” That is not a thought that I ever have.
CITA: Right. You don’t wake up in the morning and worry about your “brand.”
NT: No, I am not a brand. [I’ll make comments and] people say to me, “I’ve told you that’s off brand,” and [I think] “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I’ve never tried to build it; I don’t even care. I’ve never even met my brand. Call it what you want, but I’m not going to constrain what I feel is what people want to hear because someone thinks it’s on or off-brand. I don’t think at all about brands. I don’t care. As I said, I’m a servant. Because I’m a servant, it’s not about brands. The only thing I push on the public, if you want to call it that, is a book I might have written.
CITA: Well, you say that, but we saw you in your interview with Chuck Nice, and he was trying so hard to get you to push your book and you wouldn’t do it.
NT: We’re using “push” in two different ways. For me, “push” means to publish it. I wrote it on my own, and now it’s an offering out there. You were thinking “push” as pushing to buy the book, when—in fact—I never tweeted about my book.
CITA: Right, right. That’s what you and Chuck were discussing. That you don’t promote your own books on your Twitter account.
NT: Right. It’s just an offering. So, I will actively write a book for the public for publication. I will actively do that, yes. But the only tweets are thoughts I’m having anyway, so I think I might as well share this; people might be interested. No point in keeping it to myself. So, then I share it. I don’t think “what am I going to tweet today,” no. It’s a thought I’m having anyway, so there it goes. Right. I don’t … I think I used a photo of my latest book in a tweet because it has a really pretty illustration.
CITA: It’s a nice cover.
NT: But most people put all this stuff on their social media, right? Okay, all these pundits. Of course, you already know what they’re tweeting because they’re going to be telling you stuff you already know they’re going to tell you. But there are others, like comedians, who have strong followings and they’ll say “I’m going to be in St. Louis tomorrow!” I don’t tweet where I am or what I’m going to be doing. Much to the disappointment of, you know … many people [laughs]. That’s not how I use my Twitter stream. I don’t need to tell 9 million people around the world that I’m in Tampa, Florida.
CITA: So, while doing research for this interview, we got kind of angry coming across articles by people accusing you of having this sanctimonious, liberal, left-wing, “sage-on-the-stage” way of delivering information. Like you treat people as though they’re not smart enough to know what you know. But, for anyone who’s paid attention to you, and even in the course of this conversation, it’s obvious you are easy to talk to, that your desire to be a public servant is apparent. Do you care about having haters and people trolling your Twitter feed?
NT: So, there are occasional people who, um, so here’s something that happened. For a couple of years, I would tweet the kind of posts where I thought it was like a clever observation of something that I would like to share with people. There was a subset of people who reacted negatively to it, like “oh, he’s just showing off how smart he is and he’s alienating people.” And I said, “wow”—because that was not my intent, of course—and so the reactions on Twitter to things I post are highly useful swaths of information for me about how effectively I’m communicating. Or not communicating. And second, it’s not just what I get across, but what I think they’ll think if I post this; but, do they actually think this? And if they do not, I’ve failed.
CITA: You conduct it almost like a social science experiment.
NT: It’s not that that’s being done on purpose, but it is a consequence of the medium that is Twitter. I get an instantaneous, neuro-synaptic snapshot of people’s reactions to words I use, to phrases I turn. If I think something is funny and nobody gets it, I will not tweet that way anymore. This is part of the larger story of “are you really communicating with someone or are you giving a lecture.” If you’re giving a lecture, then you don’t care how they think; it’s their job to come to you at the chalkboard or whatever they use today in the classroom. If you’re communicating, then you have to cover most of the distance yourself until you are sitting next to them in their own living room and you’re talking to them like you’re right there. I don’t mind doing this when I’m called to do so.
Here’s another thing. It’s trivial, but it’s real: I used to tweet frequently about the science in movies that I saw. Some of them got famous, like newscasters would report on it, but there was a subset of people—by the way, my goal was to enhance your appreciation of the film, to see things a little more deeply; you know, they got the physics of this wrong, but they got the physics of that right—I view it as no different than if you were a costume designer, and you were like, “no, they missed the period of that costume of that Jane Austen story. That gown was designed in the 1920s not in the 1890s, so they messed that one up.” I’d be thrilled to know that! Or, if you know about cars, and there’s some movie that is set in 1955 and there’s a 1957 Chevy parked on the street, oh my gosh! You’ll never hear the end of it. So, I thought if I could bring science to that same level of analysis, people would embrace it. Most did. But, the subset that did not painted me as a killjoy, as a buzzkill, as ruining the movie for them. I thought “wow, these were thoughts I was having anyway and I don’t need to share them with you anymore.” I don’t have to do it; these are thoughts that will stay in my head. I had some with Game of Thrones, and I thought people would be really intrigued by that. You know, blue breath versus red breath in the dragons, and you have to watch the show to be able to comment on it.
I was intrigued to learn that people thought that all I wanted to do was attack films for getting things wrong. I started to get calls from talk shows that were like “we want you to come on and talk about this movie and tell us everything that’s wrong about it.” That wasn’t my intent. They wanted to create a segment called “Tyson the Buzzkill.” So, obviously, I wasn’t communicating correctly, so I just stopped. And I don’t know how to resurrect that in a way [that would work]. But anyhow, getting back to the naysayers you’re talking about: it’s interesting to know that they’re out there. I’d say the big fraction of the cases just don’t know what they’re talking about and have a kneejerk, negative reaction. And, oh, they’re accusing me of being liberal which I think is hilarious. Holding aside the fact that I was three-times appointed by George W. Bush to serve on White House commissions in the service of that White House—holding that aside—nothing I ever post is political. Nothing. It’s factual. And if you have a political leaning that either rejects it or accepts it, you are putting a political layer on the facts that I post. I have strong political views, but I don’t publicize them. I care that you think rationally, that you’re an informed citizen—in particular, an informed voter. Quick example: a few years ago, after one of the horrific shootings, I think this one was in Connecticut—after that, I wondered if I should post something, so I did. Here’s the post: “In Wal-Mart, the world’s largest gun seller, you can buy an assault rifle, but company policy bans the sale of rock albums with curse words.”
That tweet was informationally accurate and politically neutral. But, what happened was there were people who viewed it as “he wants to take our guns away! How dare he do that!” so it became this second amendment thing. Other people said “they have the right to do that, to not put curse words in things!” And everybody chose sides, thinking I was trying to get them to do one thing or the other when it’s just contrasting policy within the same company. People think I’m being political when I simply want them to know more about what it is they’re thinking. That intrigues me, too, to realize that they’re out there. I’m just fascinated by this, this de facto sociological experiment.
This one guy, a journalist for a newspaper in Idaho, he had a column. The column was called “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Horse’s Astrophysicist.”
NT: The column gave all these reasons for why I was a horse’s astrophysicist: “liberal scientist blah blah blah blah blah, and he wants us to believe this, and Neil Tyson that.” And, he’s sort of trying to appeal to all his conservative, Trump [followers] …
CITA: Of course, staying “on message.”
NT: On yeah, staying on point, right, exactly. So I was like, “should I reply to this guy?” But it’s a newspaper, right? Not some solo blogger, so, alright, I’ll reply. So, I wrote back, line by line. And I said, “you say I’m liberal, but I actually worked for George W. Bush and he was pretty happy with what I contributed. Plus, there’s no evidence anywhere that I’m liberal, so I just don’t know where you got this information. Second, by the way, I practically said I’m not an atheist. Here’s a video of me saying that. I think of myself more of an agnostic. I don’t know where you got that [idea I’m atheist]—what are your sources?” He also said, “I don’t know if Tyson is a good scientist or not. I don’t think he is.” I said, “Google Scholar: you can learn about this. There’s a whole branch of Google where, if you type in search, it goes to peer reviewed articles. Here’s a link to all my research there.” I was very polite and kind about it. His last comment was that I treated a 9-year-old girl badly when she asked if there would ever be life on Jupiter: “the real reason you’re an ass is because you tweeted back disrespectfully to her,” and he points to a tweet with my name on it responding “how can you think anyone can live in a gas cloud? Go back to school.” And I said, “you know, I looked back on the date on that tweet, and here’s what I actually tweeted that day. It was some stupid comment about a movie that I’d seen. So, I have no idea where you got that tweet. It seems to me you didn’t double check your sources. By doing so, you abrogated your journalistic integrity.” And it turns out he got the tweet from Clickhole, which is a joke site akin to The Onion. So, I wrote this whole rebuttal and posted it. Even his conservative friends said [to him], “you asshole, don’t you know Clickhole is a joke site? How could you possibly cite that?” And everybody jumped all over him. He resigned his position from the newspaper. It’s an interesting story. He resigned his position but he still has his conservative talk show on radio, but he resigned his position because the forces against him … people who had respect for him previously just lost all respect for him.
CITA: Did you title your rebuttal “So-and-So is a Real Horse’s Clickhole”?
NT: No … when I’m being right, I don’t need to name-call. I just said “oh, by the way, you said I’m a real horse’s astrophysicist—I see what you did there!” complimenting him for his wordplay. I don’t mind being called a horse’s ass if I actually did something to justify it. But everything he listed, I never did. I don’t mind being somebody’s horse’s ass, but let it be based in reality and not something you’ve invented. That was the thrust of my reply.
CITA: For a talk like An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, how do you prepare with such a chaotic, revolving news cycle like the one happening now?
NT: Oh, so I will go back. It’s not like this week’s news. More broadly, it’s news stories that triggered thoughts I have that I thought you might be interested in and my reaction to it. I go back several years for some of these news stories, but if I came back and did the talk again I’d have fresh news. I will go back maybe three or four years and have stories that you probably missed, but I dug them out and kept them. They’ll have something to do with science literacy or the absence of science literacy in the world. So, it will sensitize you about what it is like to read the paper through the lens of an astrophysicist and an educator.
CITA: Great, that clears that up. Look, we can’t wait to see you soon.
NT: Tell everybody thanks for having me back again.
Neil deGrasse Tyson appears Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Morsani Hall. Need tickets? Get them while you can.