Stargazing with Neil deGrasse Tyson
Yes, the plan was a tad optimistic. The month of December and the city of London are far from ideal choices for stargazing. That’s the diplomatic way of putting it. Neil deGrasse Tyson is more blunt. “This is London. I can’t believe you guys said, ‘Let’s go outside and we’ll film the night sky,’” he tells me and his publicist. “You guys are delusional.”
We are at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, south-east London. The weather is painfully overcast and clouds have scuppered our chances of viewing the stars through the observatory’s 28in Great Equatorial Telescope, the largest refracting telescope in the UK. In the past, Tyson has schooled the likes of Michael Bloomberg and David Koch on the ins and outs of stargazing by telescope. Sadly, I will have to settle for the artificial sky of Greenwich’s planetarium.
Tyson is America’s most famous living astrophysicist and something of an internet celebrity. A graduate of Harvard with a PhD from Columbia, the 58-year-old has used his extraordinary gifts of communication to bring the wonder of the cosmos to the masses — first through television, writing, and radio; now through social media, podcasts and video. He has more than six million followers on Twitter, and three and a half million likes on Facebook.
In one YouTube video, he discusses the “most astounding fact” in the universe — that the elements that make up our bodies were created by exploding stars. The clip has been watched more than 10 million times. As an evangelist for science and astronomy, he is the digital heir to Carl Sagan, the astronomer, author and broadcaster who captured the imagination of the American public during the cold war.
We enter the observatory at about 8.30pm and Tyson, who carries a backpack and is wearing a brown fedora, approaches the security desk and throws a joke at the guards. “Is the universe safe, security of the universe? Are you normally open this late?”
As we walk towards the planetarium, he is briefly distracted by the large astrophotography prints on display. “You tell me you’re getting Earth shine?” he exclaims, pointing to a picture of the Moon (Earth shine is when light reflects from the Earth on to the Moon, and then back again, allowing us to glimpse the dark parts of the Moon).
Hours later, with the clock approaching midnight and my neck aching from leaning back to stare at the planetarium’s dome, Tyson will be no less energised by the observatory’s photographs, stopping repeatedly to explain how they were created.
I confess to him that, at the age of 27, this is my first time at a planetarium. “In your whole life? What the hell is wrong with you?” he asks. I add to my embarrassment by admitting I had studied physics at university before I switched and took up journalism, for reasons I still think are good reasons, I explain. “You won’t get me to agree with that,” he says. “Keep telling yourself that you had good reasons.”
Tonight, Tyson has promised a whistle-stop tour of the constellations. But he has requested that the planetarium staff beam up the classical illustrations of the star groupings — not just the stick figures that most of us are familiar with. He is interested in the imaginations of the ancients, who gazed up at the stars and planets journeying across the inky black sky, and noticed when certain configurations of planets aligned with the seasons or the flooding of rivers.
“Consider that, in modern times in the evening, you’re working late, you have Netflix movies you want to watch,” he says. “We don’t have a relationship with the night sky the way that our ancestors did. What else are they doing at night? There’s no evening movies, there’s no coffee shops. They’re out looking up at the night sky. So their relationship to it was so much more significant than it is for anybody today.
“Think of the urge to imagine that the sky is controlling Earth. Think about that. You’re in the centre of all this movement, and the Moon does one thing and the Sun does another thing and it corresponds with when it’s time to harvest your crops. This is the origins of why people are sure, to themselves, that the universe is somehow affecting their lives. The birth of astrology, basically.”
In the evening, we’re working late, we have Netflix. We don’t have a relationship with the night sky the way our ancestors did
Tyson’s own fascination with the universe began, aged nine, with a visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He grew up in Riverdale, an affluent part of the Bronx, and in his 2000 autobiography, The Sky Is Not the Limit, he recalled thinking that the star-filled night sky he saw at the planetarium could be some sort of hoax — such is the poor astronomical diet available to those living among the bright lights of a city.
He studied physics at Harvard, choosing it over Cornell, where Carl Sagan worked, because his analysis revealed that more writers in the magazine Scientific American had studied there. He received his PhD in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991 and worked as a research associate at Princeton. In 1996, he became director of the Hayden Planetarium, where he still works today. He takes particular pride in his institution’s research into planets orbiting other stars, a field that has been filled with discoveries in recent years. “There’s like a million of those now,” I comment. “I know,” he replies. “Three thousand, but close.”
Greenwich’s planetarium has little more than a quarter of the Hayden’s seating capacity. This evening, though, it is empty for us. Tyson is wearing a flannel shirt, untucked and with three buttons undone, his slight paunch belying the once-athletic physique he had as a wrestler at high school and university. As we take our seats, he sets the mood by reminding me that there is little science to be found in joining the dots between stars. “There’s nothing astrophysical about the night sky. Constellations have no meaning. No scientific meaning. Any more than the borders of the state of Colorado have any geologic meaning. They’re just straight lines.”
With that caveat in mind, we start with the Big Dipper (better known to UK readers as the Plough), a group of seven stars that form a handle connected to a sort of bucket on the right. The name derives from the way it dips down towards the horizon as the Earth rotates, Tyson explains, placing his hand on my arm to ensure he’s got my full attention.
The two stars on the very right of the Big Dipper are particularly useful as they point upwards towards the north star, Polaris, which is not, as some may think, the brightest star in the sky. “It’s the 49th brightest star,” says Tyson. That said, “there’s no other star in a large swatch of the sky that rivals the brightness of Polaris, so it should be pretty easy to find.”
Polaris has two important uses. For navigators, it is vital as a tool for measuring their current latitude — the Earth’s axis points to it. “So that means, as we rotate, all the stars will appear to revolve around Polaris like some kind of a pinwheel. [If you] trudge north, then Polaris would get higher and higher in the sky until we met Santa Claus and then Polaris would be straight overhead,” he explains. The upshot for those sailing the seas is that the elevation of Polaris above the horizon is the same as your latitude.
The other use is less grand: Polaris lets us identify the Little Dipper, appearing on the end of its handle. So far I’ve managed to keep up, aided by Tyson’s laser pointer. But the two dippers are fairly easy fodder — they are not even constellations, they are called asterisms, groups of interesting stars within larger constellations.
Big Dipper and Little Dipper are part of the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, respectively; the big and little bear. The constellations were catalogued in the second century by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy but had been known for centuries even then. It’s here that my pattern-spotting abilities start to fail me, though Tyson is sympathetic.
“You need huge imagination to see these things. These are two furry bears in the sky. Do you really see that or do you just see stars? If you really see that, I would ask what you were smoking. It requires extreme imagination to come up with everything that the history of civilisation has placed upon the sky.”
The task is not made easier by the fact that most of the constellations look nothing like the things they are supposed to. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor are far from the worst offenders — although their particular crime is having tails, a characteristic no real bear shares. “So we have two bears in the sky that are not even anatomically accurate,” Tyson says.
It gets worse as we move on to the Zodiac, the 12 constellations that sit along the path of the Sun, Moon and planets against the sky. “Some of these are complete stretches of the imagination. Like, do you really get a crab here? Do you really get twins here?” he says, pointing at the constellations Cancer and Gemini.
Today, most people know these constellations as their star sign, despite the fact that they have shifted as the Earth wobbles on its axis. “The correspondence is off by an entire constellation. So what that means is you thought you were Taurus, you’re actually an Aries.”
Next, Tyson whisks us to the southern hemisphere. Here, the constellations have a mechanistic flavour. There is a microscope, a blast furnace, an air pump. Europeans became acquainted with much of the southern night sky far later than the northern, and their choice of imagery reflected this, Tyson explains.
“I took you here to impress upon you that later in time, after the industrial revolution, other things mattered more to people. And since this is generally a European map of the night sky, we get to see what the Europeans were thinking of at the time.”
The heavens were entertainment in a time when our heads were pulled up to the stars rather than down to our screens, he says. Today, we have other forms of diversion, among them the great cacophony of distractions provided by Twitter, where Tyson is spending increasingly less of his time. “I found that people will go out of their way [there] to say that I’m wrong,” he says.
One of his tweets that caused particular controversy came in June: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” He tells me: “I was impressed how many people just thought the idea was bad. It was like, ‘How could you say that governance by evidence is bad?’ I just could not embrace the nature of the criticism of that idea.”
It requires imagination to come up with everything civilisation has placed upon the sky
In the 2000s, Tyson was appointed by then-US president George W Bush to two White House commissions, one looking into the US aerospace industry, the other charged with laying out a plan for space exploration. I can’t help but wonder whether he would consider a similar role under the new president-elect. The day after Donald Trump’s victory, he tweeted: “FYI: Manhattan, where people know Trump best (he’s lived, worked, & played there most of his life), gave him 10% of the vote.”
To my surprise, he says he wouldn’t be averse in principle. “You’re being a servant of the needs of the country,” he says, though he distinguishes between joining an independent commission and direct, paid roles: “If you are in a direct report to the president, then you work for the president. Whereas if I don’t work for the president, then the president works for me. Because I’m a voter.”
He won’t comment on potential changes to space policy under Trump. “I’m not going to chase the phantom phrasings that have shown up, stapled together from 10 different speeches he’s given. I’m going to wait for something meaningful to manifest.”
The dream in Rationalia is that the scientific method will become ingrained in policymaking. “Generations of people will grow up with the fundamental expectation that you’ve got to do an experiment or you have to take the measurements,” he says. “The notion of acquiring evidence will become fundamental to everyone.” In our Trumpian world, this vision seems somehow more distant — and more important — than ever.
Kadhim Shubber is an FT Alphaville reporter.
“Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour”, by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A Strauss and J Richard Gott, is published by Princeton University Press
Photographs: Marco Kesseler