Look up the stars tonight. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the difference between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, or if you can’t see Venus. Maybe you’re not even sure where the moon is.
Doesn’t matter, says renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As long as you understand that when you look into the sky, you’re essentially looking into a cosmic mirror.
Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t exactly grow up with a boyhood fascination with the stars:
“I grew up in the city, and my first ‘night sky’ was the Hayden Planetarium. In fact, I thought it was a hoax. ‘I know how many stars there are, I saw them from the roof of my apartment in the Bronx!’ But I later learned, of course, that it was conveyed accurately. Thousands, countless thousands of stars in the sky.”
And it was when he realized how connected everything in the universe is that Tyson knew his life’s work.
“I’d like to believe that the universe is actually accessible at almost any level. There are things to know and understand that no matter your background, no matter your age, there are elements of it that you can extract and carry with you through the day and become enlightened for having done so.
“I’ll give you a perfect example: in the universe there are stars that forge heavy elements in in their core, elements such as carbon and nitrogen an d oxygen. These same stars blow up spread their guts first through interstellar space and occasionally through intergalactic space. But these guts, these enriched elements, enriched gas clouds, then make next-generation solar systems. Our solar system is just such a place, where we are enriched in these heavy elements — carbon, nitrogen, oxygen — and this is the stuff of life.
“In fact, we are not only of the universe, the universe is in us and you could justifiably declare us to be stardust. So the next time you’re walking your dog, you can tell your dog, or whoever might listen to you in the middle of the night, we are of the stars.”
I said, “It seems to confirm what all the touchy-feely New Age people have told us, that we are connected to everything.”
“Yeah, it does sound a little New Age-y, doesn’t it? I’ll concede that,”
As he told me nearly two decades ago, the universe is actually all around us. even in your home
“Remember when you’re sitting around the fireplace in the cold, and you look at the embers at the base of the flames and they’re glowing red hot? Well, they’re glowing for the same reason that ‘red super-giant’ stars glow red,
“And by the way, in the field of astronomy, of astrophysics, our whole vocabulary is quite transparent compared with other disciplines. For example, big red stars are ‘Red Giants.’ Little white stars are ‘White Dwarves.’ There are regions of space where, if you fall in, you don’t come out, and light doesn’t .. ‘black holes.’ Beginning of the universe? ‘Big Bang.’ This is official nomenclature. So I’d like to believe that to get close to the universe, at least the nomenclature’s not in your way. In fact, it’s even kind of fun.”
“There’s nothing, surprisingly, Latin there,” I suggested.
“Exactly! We didn’t go out of our way to put extras Latin roots to say something that could have been said in fewer syllables.”
But whether you think about it or not, says Neil deGrasse Tyson, science and the universe are, indeed, all around you.
“Every day that you’re alive, when you wake up and look at the world around you, there are reminders of how the universe works. If it’s not the fireplace poker poking at the red embers, it’s the bubbling oatmeal in your morning pot, that resembles the surface of the sun. The surface of the sun boils, just the same way oatmeal does — without the oatmeal.”
“It’d be a little overdone by now,” I said.
“Yeah, it’d be vaporized, actually. But there are so many common phenomena between what you experience in everyday life and the universe.”
If only we take the time to understand it, he says. Even then, back in 2000, Tyson was worried about Americans’ scientific literacy.
“Science literacy, in the era in which we live,the last thing we need is a scientifically illiterate public. There are too many issues, too many problems, too many things you’re going to have to vote on that relate to science and technology a d how it affects our lives.”
Oh, and today, Neil deGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York where his first exposure to the stars took place all those years ago.