PW met with Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, in his office at the planetarium, a comfortable space stocked with telescopes, models of planets and many books.
PW: There are plenty of books on cosmology. So why did you write Origins?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: If you go back 300, 400 years, the scientists of the day were not called "scientists." They were called "natural philosophers"—because science had not broken up into its bins of chemists and biologists and geologists and physicists. As biologists began to use the microscope, and astronomers the telescope, and physicists the laboratories, vocabularies, techniques and tools began to split, and you no longer had these branches of science contained in the same person, or even talking to each other—for hundreds of years. Only in the last 20 years, and especially in the last five, has there been an intersection of these fields.
Now you have professions like biogeologist, astrobiologist, astro-particle-physicist. So you look at these emergent, cross-disciplinary fields and realize that to answer the questions of the origins of things is impossible unless this camp talks to that camp. This book attempts to assemble, for the first time, a cross-disciplinary tapestry of the continuous story thread from the birth of the universe, through the emergence of life, right on to humans.
How are you able to encompass the cross-disciplinary knowledge needed to write the book?
I have three answers. The most relevant is, monthly I write a column for Natural History magazine that has opened up the palette of my scientific interests and the palette of my pedagogical offerings, to tap the sciences that plug into astrophysics in every different direction. Second, for me writing is like giving birth. And I've got a day job, so I don't have the luxury of sitting in a beach house and writing while looking at the waves. So I took on the task of writing the book, carefully monitoring the rate of time at which we were approaching the on-air date of the [PBS] series. And I realized I was not going to make it. I got about two-thirds of the book done. That's when I knocked on the door of Don Goldsmith, who has just finished the third edition of a widely used textbook, The Search for Life in the Universe. I said, "I can't finish this book unless I get help. But I'm not prepared to forfeit how I want this book to read and feel." He knew enough of my writings and said, "It's not a stretch."
What's the relationship of the book to the PBS series?
There is the concept called "Origins," this bedrock. From that issue forth the series and the book. That being said, you will see very strong overlap. There are certain themes that you can't escape, like the origin of the elements. The highest compliment I've received in my life was when Jerry Seinfield moved in across the street. We make nice to all the neighbors, so I gave him a tour of the place, and I get to the part where I'm describing the formation of heavy elements, and he says, "Sounds like you were there!" [Laughter] As you know, more people watch TV than read books. So what I want to happen is, they're so titillated by the series that they want more, and they run out and buy the book.
Why do so many people take an interest in cosmology?
Every civilization we know of has stopped and paused and looked up and wondered about our place is in the cosmos. I defy anyone to stand on their back porch or wherever they have access to the sky, and look up, and not wonder. And so I submit that perhaps that curiosity is genetically encoded into what it is to be human—to look beyond ourselves and ask what it means to be human in the bigger picture. How else can you explain how many astronomy books are published? No other science comes close!
Another reason: There aren't many happy stories in the news today. And then there's the practical side of this story line we now have, from the Big Bang to today: the more we learn about it, the more we'll understand what we came out of and where we're headed. Look at Mars. It was once a wet place. It's bone dry today. Something bad happened on Mars. Nobody knows what. Some knob got turned that completely altered the ecosystem. Who knows what knobs we are cavalierly now turning on Earth, so that we might one day end up looking like Mars, or worse, like Venus, which has a runaway greenhouse effect? It's 900 degrees Fahrenheit on Venus. You could cook a pizza in nine seconds just by putting it out on the windowsill. There's nothing like the cosmic perspective to humble the soul. What we try to do in the book and series is to make it so that you can never walk out under the stars again in the same way.