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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on policy, the public and Pluto

Ian Brooks 22 February 2009

www.lablit.com/article/473

Neil deGrasse Tyson (photo credit: Howard Lipan)

When the universe flinches, they send a camera

Editor’s note: LabLit’s Commissioning Editor, Ian Brooks, recently spoke with Professor Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium, about his new book, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet from his offices at the Rose Center in the American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

In 2001, American astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson started a firestorm that would rage for half a decade. A new display at the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History had grouped Pluto with the expanding Kuiper Belt objects, an asteroidal debris cloud at the edges of our solar system. As director of the Planetarium, Tyson was held personally responsible for this “demotion” of beloved Pluto to dwarf planet status. The furor led to public lambast from colleagues and strangers alike, and even hate mail from school children. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union finally stepped in and made Pluto’s new status official and the storm gradually subsided.

Enough time had then elapsed for Tyson, a prolific science communicator, to have the space and perspective to write The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (reviewed in this issue of LabLit).

“Writing the book was a catharsis for me,” he says.

It all started in 1997, when the museum took its first steps to create a new exhibit portraying our solar system. The Frederic Phinneas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space would contain the newly remodeled Hayden Planetarium. As inaugural holder of the newly endowed Rose Chair, and director of the planetarium, Tyson was de facto project scientist with oversight of the overhaul of the planetarium. He put together a panel of experts to help with the design; after all, he says, with a running cost of $230 million, “we didn’t want the exhibit going out of date”. With increasing numbers of large icy objects being discovered in the far outer reaches of our solar system, there was accumulating proof of the existence of the proposed “Kuiper Belt”, a vast swath of debris left over from the creation of the planets 10 billion years ago. This was something to pay attention to, according to Tyson. No matter what we might have been taught in high school, the direction of the research was clear – things were getting more interesting in our solar system. So, after much debate, Pluto was quietly grouped with these new objects, and life went on as usual.

“No one got upset until a year later,” he explained, a bit sharply, when I asked over the phone about the beginning of the Pluto Issue. Tyson, instantly recognizable to those of us who have seen him on The Discovery Channel, or The History Channel, is a larger-than-life figure, with a bristling moustache and animated hands punctuating every point with apparent abandon. (I’d love to go for a beer with him and watch him knock pint glasses all over the bar with each gesticulated comment.) This seems to be the one point that Tyson still gets frustrated about. The planetarium display opened in February 2000, and the only heat Tyson drew at the time was a note from a Mr. Will Galmot, in March, pointing out that Pluto was missing, and including a helpful drawing for the modelers to use. Mr. Galmot was seven years old. It wasn’t until January 2001 that an “observant” journalist overheard a child asking its parent where Pluto was that the news suddenly broke, making front page headlines in the New York Times: “Pluto’s Not a Planet? Only in New York!”

Tyson points out the positive side: “This was something to pay attention to. We’re not losing Pluto, we’re gaining a swathe of real estate!” Unfortunately not everyone agreed. Soon colleagues were taking Tyson to task in the media, and the hate mail started pouring in. Pluto is America’s planet, as Tyson explains in his book, and America was not happy with the demotion. Teachers used the case as a teaching tool, leading Tyson to receive “gigabytes of email from third-graders”, most of which was “playfully hateful – there were no death threats.” He was deeply intrigued that people chose side: “It was fascinating to watch the depth of emotion layered onto pure scientific arguments.”

The point, according to Tyson, is that “you shouldn’t care about the number of planets, you should care about the type of object.” In other words, what is important isn’t that we have eight or nine planets; by some (loose) definitions, for example size, we could have dozens: some planets’ moons are larger than Pluto, including our own. What matters when it comes to categorizing our solar neighborhood is that we have four small, inner rocky planets, and four larger outer gas giants. Such pedagogy reaches to the core of Tyson as a scientist. However he is disappointed that few have followed the example set by the Rose Center. “Instead of taking the high road and dropping the idea of the number of planets, it’s been business as usual,” he laments. If one thing is for certain though, Tyson isn’t giving up on the fight yet.

Given his media exposure, one could be forgiven for thinking he seeks out this limelight. “No, “ he says, “it completely evolved. I’d be happy to stay in my office doing astrophysics research.” However, living in the media hub that is NYC, and being a director within a prominent museum (and a previously published author of popular and children’s science), he says, “when the universe flinches, they send a camera.” Not that it was easy at first. In an atypically understated way, he explains, “I had to practice my sound bites, but they kept coming back.”

Tyson estimates that around 85% of his media exposure is like this. So, where does he stand in the debate that because scientists aren’t trained as generalist communicators, they have no direct responsibility to communicate their results to the public? His message to the community is clear, concise and to the point: “Bullshit,” he says. “As an academic you have a prime directive: if you’re terrible at something, work to get better at it.” He firmly believes that scientists have a moral obligation to “communicate with the people who are paying for [their] research.”

With a new administration running strong on the back of the refrain Yes we can, maybe it’s time more scientists said Yes we should. Tyson says he was glad to hear about science funding in the Presidential address. Regarding the proposed increase in funding to the National Science Foundation, he explains, “America is investing in its own future. We need to or the world passes us by. We’re wealthy enough to value R&D.” President Obama shows “the far-sight of a good leader; he understands a long-term investment.” Perhaps the investment will help the Nation’s struggling museums. “We’ve been affected badly,” Tyson says. Although the Rose Center is coming off the back of a year of record attendance (“maybe it’s because we’re cheaper than the cinema?” he suggests), the museum relies on endowments, which don’t fare well in times of recession. Of course, there are always the winter crowds: “there’s an inverse correlation with attendance and barometric pressure.”

After all the real-world discussion we have to end on LabLit’s traditional interview question, “Who’s your favorite fictional scientist?” Tyson doesn’t hesitate: “Doc, from back to the future. He’s fun, has a sense of humor…he’s smart but he doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable.” When asked to elaborate on this last, Tyson says, “Doc’s just doing his experiments. He’s zany enough to have great ideas, which is exactly what you need or nothing ever gets discovered.”