Q&A – Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks Space Conflict, Colorado and Life In The Universe

There’s truly no more than a two or three living household names from the scientific universe. Neil deGrasse Tyson is top two on that list — and he’s probably not two. From his narrative work on the earth on the shatteringly popular Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to his overwhelmingly large and active Twitter presence, the countless podcast appearances and a voice like no other, no matter how many accolades you rattle off, it’ll never quite do the decade-spanning intergalactic rockstar justice. This weekend, he’s heading our way for the most compelling of reasons.

Science and pop culture fiends rejoice —  Neil deGrasse Tyson will be stopping through downtown Denver for a special presentation this Sunday at the Paramount Theatre. Tyson will be following the topic, “The Search For Life In The Universe” and its many nooks and crannies. Before his rocket ship touches down on Glenarm Place, Tyson sat down with 303 Magazine to discuss a multitude of topics — what to expect from the show, Colorado’s fascinating qualities, altitude and elevation, baseballs, music, space conflict and whatever else could possibly fit into our time with “Your Personal Astrophysicist.”

303: How do you decide what cities you’ll be performing in? 

Neil deGrasse Tyson: What I do when I’m invited to a town to give a talk is I offer the host, or promoter or whomever a list of talks from which they can choose a topic. If it’s the second or third time I’ve been to that particular venue, they’re actually working their way down the list, which I’m charmed that they’re interested enough to have me return. So in that sense, this is not a tour, where people have a book or an album that they’re trying to sell. This is just local people — wherever they are — who have an interest in the universe, and they send out the bat signal — like, “we need some astrophysics learning in Denver or San Fransisco or wherever.”

303: What will the show at the Paramount on Sunday be predicated around?

NDT: So I come when called, and in this case, they’ve expressed interest in “The Search For Life In The Universe.” It’s a fun discussion about what it means to search for life — the successful attempts, the unsuccessful attempts, and what it means to think about the search for life, and how biased are we. Are we looking for life as we know it? How about life as we don’t know it? Could we be missing life as we don’t know it because we’re asking the wrong questions? All of this will be addressed in this talk. A talk on the search for life in the universe would not be complete without some commentary on UFO sightings. There’s been so much on this in the news this past year — especially the government and it is tasked with rebranding them as “unidentified aerial phenomena,” or UAPs — who are they fooling? They’re talking about UFOs. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson courtesy of Dr. Tyson’s website

303: When I hear that topic, “The Search For Life In The Universe,” my thoughts go in so many directions. What seems to be the most common misconception that you hear associated with extraterrestrial life?

NDT: There’s an innocent misconception, and that is that when we look for life in the universe, people think we’re looking for — as they used to call it — “little green men.” But the biologists among us, and in this case, the astrobiologists would be content with finding any life at all. Microbial would be just fine. If microbial life is found, we get to study it. It would be Genesis on a whole other planet, other than Earth, and we could begin asking questions — Does it have DNA? If it does, is the DNA coil in the opposite direction? If it doesn’t have DNA, how does it encode information? Is life even made of matter, or is it an energy field that’s alive? The idea that we’re looking for these aliens with ray guns and big eyes — this is what people’s first thought when you mention aliens. It’s a misconception, but an innocent one. 

Here’s another example of a misconception: say there’s a newspaper headline that would say, “UFOs ARE REAL…” — the headline makes no sense.

303: How come?

NDT: Because of course UFOs are real! If you see something in the sky, and you don’t know what it is… then it’s unidentified, and it’s flying, and it’s an object, Back to that headline — it leaves you thinking that UFOs are aliens, but if a thousand people saw something they can’t identify in the sky, we all saw a UFO, period.  Do you want to believe that it’s an intelligent alien from another planet coming to visit us? That’s just different. In the updated moniker as well as the old moniker, the “U” stands for “unidentified.” The moment you say you don’t know what it is, we’re done there. “I don’t know what it is, therefore it’s aliens” isn’t a logical statement. 

303: Ok, so, since the word “unidentified” is so vastly generalized, labeling something as such makes the conversation go endless ways?

NDT: No — it can’t go anyway. That’s my point. If you don’t know what it is, you can’t simply presume you know what it is. That’s using ignorance to support an argument for your certainty. That’s not how arguments work. We’re really going to go to all these different places in this talk. It’s a very fertile subject. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

photo Neil deGrasse Tyson courtesy of Atlanta Magazine

303: I’d like to hop into a couple of questions about Colorado — given its role as an epicenter for numerous forms of explorations. Considering your field of expertise, what about The Rocky Mountain State fascinates you the most?

NDT: I’m firstly intrigued by the fact that there’s a lot of National Security based in Colorado, not the least the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and Cheyenne Mountain, but also the Air Force bases that have now become a Space Force base. For a while, I was on the board of a space foundation that is based in Colorado Springs. I’m just curious about how much national security ended up getting concentrated in the state. One thing that is for certain — Colorado is immune to — apart from the skiing industry — getting coastally flooded by melting ice caps. All the large, great cities of the world were mostly formed on the water’s edge to serve commerce, transportation and irrigation. Civilization owes its existence to the relationship between we living on land and our access to the adjacent waterways. If you start melting Greenland and Antarctic ice caps, the water levels rise an unbelievable amount. As a matter of fact, imagine this: the water would reach the Statue of Liberty’s right elbow. That would completely flood New York City and Boston. Think about that. No flooding here, but winters would look very different. Perhaps Colorado would have to completely give up ski season for good.

303: That would be a tough pill for us to swallow. Speaking of skiing, two words that are thrown around a lot by Colorado natives are elevation and altitude. Oftentimes, they seem to be used with pride. How exactly does living in a state whose average elevation is 6800 feet affect day-to-day life?

NDT: So a few things. You can hit a baseball farther [laughs]. But seriously, if the Colorado Rockies don’t lead the league every year in home runs, they can’t blame the air because that’s what is allowing the ball to travel farther. Also, gravity is slightly less. The Rockies should be leading every year’s worth of Home runs, but they don’t. So they’re not choosing the right players.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

photo courtesy of Bob Karp/AZCentral

303: Anything else off the top of your head worth noting about Colorado?

NDT: I’ve got another — oftentimes I use Colorado as a reference point when I talk about constellations in the night sky. The constellations have boundaries, there’s eighty-eight of them in the night sky with boundaries that are rigidly established, done just so that you can talk about if a planet is moving from one constellation to another. And there are people — almost all “astrology” people — who believe that said boundaries are something cosmic and significant. Then I say, “no, no… we drew a line.” That’s all we did. They try and think of something — but it’s not. You’re probably wondering what I’m getting at here. Think of Colorado. What shape is it? On a curved surface, Colorado is a square. You’re not going to go to geologists and ask, “could you explain the border of Colorado —what does the surface of the earth have to say about this?” Nothing. Somebody drew four straight lines and carved out Colorado. End of discussion. It doesn’t follow a mountain range or a river bed. It’s as artificial as that.

303: A couple of days ago, I threw on one of your most recent StarTalk episodes on my way home from work. There was one segment that caught my attention most — you spoke with a Lordship of the United States Space Force  (still can’t believe that’s a real title). Anyways, you discussed space conflict. As honestly as you can — is full-blown warfare extending into space truly something that we could see happen in our lifetime?

NDT: We’ve already seen it. The second Gulf War was almost entirely fought using military space assets. So when people think of Star Wars, they think of ships shooting each other out of orbit. That’s not what this space, our space, would be contested for. Instead, it would be contested as a foundational source of information and guidance for what’s happening on the ground. We’ve been doing this since the first spy satellite was launched. It’s been a military venue operation. Everything is the same, just in ways you didn’t know. Also, I’d like everyone to consider the unprecedented valuation of assets occupying space right now. You’d want a military to protect your water or your borders or whatever else. Billion-dollar industries rely on these assets, like Uber, which relies heavily on GPS systems. They’re there to protect space assets.

photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls

303: As a music writer, I want to leave you with one in my wheelhouse. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, Dr. Tyson, but there’s been a new process of post-cremation recently developed where you can have your ashes sealed into a linoleum vinyl record. My question to you is this: if you could pick two songs, one on side A and one on side B, what songs would you put on your “Final Vinyl?”

NDT: “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. You cannot hear those songs and not tear up. The story behind it as well is beautiful. It makes me think so much about human progressive advances in our society, and how people in power have such a transition.

  1. “Come Sail Away” by Styx. The latter uses sailing as a metaphor for seeking answers in life. And if you’ve ever listened to the lyrics closely and carefully, it ends in an alien abduction. I always wanted to be abducted by aliens. It’s got great guitar riffing and lived in the classic rock era.
  1. “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel. It’s such an expression of emotion. And no I’m not religious, and I know “Messiah” is religiously inspired. For me, it’s the things you can do when you are inspired. He put it together within thirty days, and rumor has it he was hospitalized shortly thereafter. I want to be that committed and devoted to creating something that’s never been done before. And yes, hospitalize me at the end of it.

Catch Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Paramount Theatre this Sunday, October 3 at the Paramount Theatre (1621 Glenarm Pl, Denver, 80202) Tickets are available here