Neil deGrasse Tyson has a problem with NASA, though the issue is not really about science, but language. More specifically, it’s about acronyms and abbreviations, and the difference between them—a distinction he thinks NASA has made confusing for the general public. NASA maintains a list on its website of acronyms related to SCAN, or Space Communications and Navigation—but many of them aren’t really acronyms, Tyson points out. They’re abbreviations. Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words, meaning that NGLT (Next Generation Launch Technology), for instance, isn’t an acronym.
Tyson has become known for such quibbles; he often points out scientific errors in popular culture on his Twitter account and in interviews. The astrophysicist has held the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History’s Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City since 1996, and he skyrocketed to fame in 2014, when he hosted the TV show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a follow-up to Carl Sagan’s 1980 series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
Tyson has been writing for general audiences since at least 1995, when he began writing Natural History magazine’s monthly column “Universe.” He’s also written 14 books. But 2017 held a first for Tyson: he finally became a bestselling author. His Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (Norton) was one the biggest-selling books of 2017, and it has sold more than 650,000 print copies since its May 2017 release, according to NPD BookScan.
“I’m enchanted by the fact that the buoyant forces kept it on the list, surviving the constant influxes of political pundits’ books,” Tyson said of the success of Astrophysics. “Anytime any of us in the scientific community find any science book that lands anywhere on anybody’s list, we cheer.”
Tyson’s publisher, Norton, is cheering just as loudly, helped along by its acquisition of another of his books, Accessory to War, which will be published in September. Cowritten with Avis Lang, who has edited some of Tyson’s work going back to 2002, the new book is, the publisher said, “a sweeping, meticulously researched exploration of the often-uneasy alliance—dating back centuries—between science, in this case specifically astrophysics, and the military.” It will cover topics, Norton noted, that range “from the invention of the telescope, used to spy on marauding vessels from coastlines, to satellite-enabled warfare.”
The topic should come as no surprise to Tyson’s fans. Though astrophysics is the scientist’s bailiwick, his interests are staggeringly wide-ranging. Speaking with PW in his book- and swag-filled office above the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson talked at length about science, the book market, graphic design, animated television voice-over work, and more. As befits a science-minded individual, his language is often precise—to the point that, at one moment in the interview, he took a potshot at the publishing industry for what he sees as its less-than-ideal word choice for an entire category: nonfiction.
“There should never exist a word whose primary purpose is the negation of another word,” Tyson said. “Why is what I’ve written referenced for what it is not?” He added that he’s invented a couple of words of his own: photogeneity, which, he said, has made it into the Oxford English Dictionary, and the more pop-y portmanteau Manhattanhenge.
Tyson’s suggestion to replace nonfiction? Faction. “Publishers should take the word back and redefine it. Fiction and faction—that’s a perfect pair of words. That’ll win. You never hear anybody use the word faction anyway.”
Tyson works exclusively in “faction,” and he strives at all times to be pithy. In fact, when asked to blurb a book, he sets himself two challenges: that he expresses no opinion, and that his is the shortest blurb on the jacket. Perhaps his finest accomplishment in that vein was not a blurb but a review of the science fiction movie Serenity. The review was one word: “Plausible.”
“I like words,” Tyson said. “I like the power of words. I like thinking about how words can inform, also influence emotion. The last chapter in this book, ‘The Reflections on a Cosmic Perspective,’ is basically my cultural and scientific soul laid bare. My hope and expectation is that it touches you as well, from a cosmic perspective.”
Tyson’s goal, he said, is “to write the perfect sentence.” He added, “Why not? It’s everybody’s goal. The perfect sentence is uneditable, conveys important information, makes you smile, and has you sit forward a little because you can’t wait to get to the next sentence. That’s the perfect sentence.”
In his early books, Tyson said, he had “maybe two or three in the whole book.” In Astrophysics, he believes he had many more. And he attributes the book’s success not to his fame—he was a well-known scientist when he published his other books, none of which, he noted, performed as well in the market—but to the book’s writing, calling it “a science page-turner.” How does he know? Well, he’s a scientist. He has data.
“Three of my earlier books had similar media exposure—you know, The Daily Show or Colbert or James Corden,” Tyson said. “I’ve got parallel data to compare it with. I’m encouraged that the words on the page matter to the reader, because I invested a lot of effort in what words follow what other words, and how mellifluous is it, and what is the pace of information being delivered, and is it the right pace. Should I cool off? Should I give an anecdote? Should I try to make you smile? The book is infused with that.”
That said, Tyson stressed that the book is no Astrophysics for Dummies. “I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of dumbing things down,” he said. “You know when someone is trying to dumb things down for you. My attempt was to tell it like it is. What gave that a higher likelihood of success was I cherry-picked the universe for the coolest science.”
Tyson said he had to be very careful to ensure that no part of the book got too dry or dull; unlike with a movie, where “you’re eating your popcorn and you can survive 10 minutes of boredom,” Tyson knows that with a book, “all it takes is for you to put it down and not pick it up again.”
Tyson’s approach led to a book that doesn’t read exactly like any other science book. He said that was part of the plan. He certainly believes in the importance of science literacy, but he also understands the value of a “faction” book that can be something more than just a vehicle for information.
“Often in a science book, your goal is to teach,” Tyson said. “By the time the person is done, you want them to say, ‘I’ve learned a lot. I’m glad I read that book. Now onto the next book.’ That’s one way to write a science book. Another way might be, ‘Wow, this is one of my favorite books of the year, or favorite book ever.’ There’s a difference there. I’ve had eight favorite books in my life, and some of what incentivized me was a couple of books I read in middle and high school. I wanted to do for readers what those books did for me.”
Asked what one basic scientific fact most people don’t know that he wishes they would, Tyson answered, simply, “That the world is objectively knowable.” And for readers who are wondering where to turn to prove it? Boy, does Tyson have a book for you.