In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson chats with Robert and Julie about his new book "Space Chronicles" as well as mad science, philosophy, dark matter and humanity's future amid the stars.
Unknown Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from howstuffworks.com.
Robert Lamb: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.
Julie Douglas: My name is Julie Douglas.
Robert Lamb: And we have a guest for today's episode. As you probably gathered from the title, we're talking once again with Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Julie Douglas: That's right, via the phone. We have a bunch of questions that we [inaudible] out him mainly having to do with his wonderful book which is called Space Chronicles and it really is a retrospective of NASA and space exploration and it is so fascinating. It has every single aspect of space that you would ever want to cram into your brain including killer asteroids and whether or not aliens might exist. So, we had a chance to read that and then to ask some questions and then we also had a chance to give Dr. Tyson some of your questions that you provided on Facebook.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, you might remember about a month back, maybe a little longer when we first learned that we were gonna do this interview, I put the call out on Facebook. Our Facebook address by the way, it's stuff to blow your mind, just type that in Facebook and you'll find us. I put the call out for questions that you guys had for Dr. Tyson and we received a whole list of them. So we went in and we picked like the five best and then ask as many of those as we could during the time that we had him and really I think some of the answers to your questions were the best as you'll discover in this episode.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, I think you guys are excited to his imagination.
Robert Lamb: But first of all, I do need to mention again this is a great book. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for those of you who are not familiar with him, there's and really you have no excuse to be not familiar with Neil deGrasse Tyson because he's everywhere. He is a mass communicator. He is out there as a spokesman for science, for our understanding of the cosmos, for our continued exploration of the cosmos and for just science literacy in our culture and this book is just another great example of that. It's very readable. It's not a heavy hard to read science book. It's a very readable text that is, I mean it even has his tweets in there which I thought was a nice touch because he's a big time Twitter user. You can find him on Twitter @neiltyson, following there, he's always throwing out some neat little tidbits about the scientific world or he's questioning the science of a major motion picture. He's always a lot of fun.
Julie Douglas: That's right. I think I had mentioned it but he really does lay out some of the mysteries of the universe in a very elegant way and of course with his signature humor which is pretty awesome.
Robert Lamb: All right, well, that being said, let's break into the interview itself.
First of all, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind.
Dr. Tyson: Well, thank you.
Robert Lamb: On our podcast, we're all trying to communicate science and mind blowing topics with our listeners and so you are of course one of our heroes so it's always a pleasure to have you on the show.
Dr. Tyson: Well, thank you. Now I have to live up to that.
Julie Douglas: Well, we thought we just go ahead and start talking a little bit about Space Chronicles facing the ultimate frontier, the collection of essays that you have and really addressing, I think from suit to nuts space exploration. I wanted to talk about the political parties, partisanship that you talked about in the book and I wanted to sort of ask you if you thought that showing the sausage making part of that would kind of help the public to better understand some of the challenges that face NASA in terms of budget constraints.
Dr. Tyson: Well, almost everything is partisan today except for maybe veteran's benefits. Some things are sacred in the budget and I think the more people see the sausage making, the more they might become disgusted with the fact that there's sausage making at all for the things that are fundamentally bi-partisan or better yet, fundamentally non-partisan. So, to expose it I think is a good thing not that I had any secret access to what's going on in Washington but I offered an analysis of how progress on NASA's budget and progress in space had been, had fallen victim to partisan grandstanding.
Space historically has never been partisan at all. In other words, if you like space or you didn't like space, it was uncorrelated whether you were left or right or Democrat or Republican or anything. It was just simply because you had an opinion and that's a good thing about topics I think and it means you don't sort of ascribe to how other people want you to think about something. You can come up with your own view and NASA in a way has transcended that and I think it's been one of the good strong points and in fact, most people took particularly in the past 40 years or so, most people who think of America and lifted things about America that they fight most people that is around the world. NASA would be number one on that list, number one. It's not the president and it's not the FBI or the CIA or the military or anything, it's NASA.
So, what a point of diplomacy that represents when you think about it in the geopolitical way. So, I think it's high time that people just sat down and recognized the value of projects that allow you dream empower you to dream about tomorrow, the value that those projects have on our ambitions, on our culture, on our educational pipeline and the urge to get people interested in this STEM field, for the science, technology, engineering, and math.
Robert Lamb: Excellent. Well, Dr. Tyson, in your book you pointed out that half a penny on the tax dollar is the total cost of all space born telescopes, planetary probes, the rover in Mars, the international space station, space shuttle, and telescopes in orbit. You also point out the space exploration has yielded a myriad of indirect benefits, everything from cordless tools [inaudible] braces and long distance telecommunications to water filter. So, if you [inaudible], how much more would you allocate to NASA on the tax dollar and what might that yield in terms of direct and indirect returns?
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, so this is an important and excellent question but I wanna unpack it into sort of multiple variables that are contained within it. So for example, we could list spin-offs from NASA, direct spinoffs and I gave a list in the book although I don't dwell on that list. I just offer the list and then I keep going because if you went to the list of direct spinoffs which would include temper foam and cordless power tools, high torque battery operated tools, that all came from pioneering efforts to enable space walking astronauts to repair things while they're in space. You can't just look for the nearest 110 volt plug to plug in your tool and you know, things like the inexpensive and accurate lasik surgery, the list is long and it's impressive right on back to the original urge to miniaturize electronics in the first place.
So that was not an interest of industry or the public, it was the interest of NASA to reduce the weight of anything you'd be launching from the earth's surface to orbit or anywhere else and if you ask your grandparents what their radio looked like, they'll say it was a piece of furniture in their living room. At that time, no one was thinking gee, I wanna carry that on my hip pocket. It's just not a thought. It never occurred to anybody that that's what you might do with a radio one day. So, yes, there's all these spinoffs, no doubt about it but if you look at the value of those spinoffs compared with in other words the net sales let's say of all those spinoffs and compare it to NASA's annual budget, it doesn't compare. It's smaller than NASA's annual budget so you can't justify NASA's budget based on the economic value of spinoffs. It just doesn't work.
The only time we ever talk about it is when someone else brings it up. It is only in the book because I have some obligations just to show all the force that NASA represents. The real impact of NASA has to do with its influence on a culture and the urge to embrace innovations in science and technology because the discoveries of science and technology are written large daily in the papers when that's the activity you're engaged in. Ask anyone who has wanted to become a scientist or an engineer, just ask them.
Occasionally if the great science or engineering teacher of a school, you know, K2 to 12 would be because you had a great science teacher. That's not the majority. The majority of the cases is a kid saw something in life. They were exposed to some grand vision statement that something bigger than themselves was undertaking. It wasn't just some science class. It wasn't just some science kit that, whose experiments they performed at home or school. It was bigger than that.
Essentially 100 percent of my generation who entered science entered science because they saw that we were going to the moon. That's how old I am by the way. So, they would not sign a science teacher. Go sign a science teacher for helping them get along or making them appreciated all the more but you can't undervalue how much of a force of nature NASA is on the hearts and minds and the dreams of the culture and to excel in NASA, you have to innovate and when you do that in a big way, the country becomes an innovation nation and that's the real return. So the return is you wanna assure your economic survival in the future because you are stimulating people to innovate and innovation in science and technology in the 21st century are the engines of tomorrow's economy. Well, there you have it. There it is.
You don't have to beat people over the head to try to make them interested in this stuff. You get that for free. You don't have to worry about keeping your factories here because we'll be making things that no one knows how to make yet because we'll be innovating. You don't have to worry about keeping kids interested in science because the headlines will do that and everybody looks at these challenges of America falling behind as a series of band aids that they need to apply and then everything is somehow fixed without looking at the root cause of all the loss, vision statements that the citizenry has been, that's evaporated from our culture over the past 10 and 20 years.
Robert Lamb: In your book, you speak about the three factors capable of stirring human cultures to engage in mega projects. Talk about war, economics and less common these days obedience to a God or some royal figure. Does it really boil down to negative motivations for cultures as a whole? Does it have to be fear or greed to really get mega projects such as space exploration out there?
Dr. Tyson: Depends on how you use the word negative because that would how you judge it. I mean, try not to value judge things. I just put it out there and I leave the value judging to others. I would say that the greatest driver of human expenditure of capital, the financial capital or human capital is war. Now you can interpret that as defense and that's the Great Wall of China for example that clearly was not a military project for offense. It was a defensive military project and that was constructed in the interest on the safety and security of its citizens. So, I wouldn't, you'd think of it as negative because it's in response to a threat. Then you have economic return. That's only negative if it's, so the badly exploiting people but in its purest form, economic growth is a good thing for the world. Those nice nations that are wealthier, they live longer and happier lives with less disease.
So economic wealth, while not as powerful a driver as war comes in a very close second and you just look at, you know there's Queen Isabela, she didn't say to Columbus go to the New World and come back and tell us about the botanical explorations you did and show us the maps and we can put it up in a library. No, it was here are some flags, wherever you go, put the flag, put the Spanish flag down and it'll declare these lands for the Spanish empire and by the way, try to exploit as much as you can the natural resources so that we can have trade partners or we can become wealthier. And so yes, there's some sort of hegemonistic motive there but the end of the day, Spain got wealthy because they valued exploration as an economic activity.
Columbus, I never met the guy, but surely he did this because he in his heart was an explorer and so the explorer explores but somebody's got to write a check and the history of this activity has demonstrated that the check writers are governments whether you're exploring where no one has gone before and private enterprise comes in later and exploit those activities in the financial interest of the nations. Yeah, so in America, as financial incentive to go into space not because you're going to reap the benefits of spinoffs but because an innovation nation competes economically in the 21st century. If exploration is not a good enough reason for you to do it then do it because you don't wanna die poor. You don't wanna see a future of America where we are economically weak or powerless on the world stage.
Robert Lamb: I am reminded that in 2011, economist Paul Krugman speculated that the discovery of an impending alien attack would fix all of America's economic woes in about 18 months. So if Paul Krugman were to approach you about faking such a threat, what would you say?
Dr. Tyson: I would say that there's no doubt of America's resolve when we feel threatened. I think there's just no question about it and because a threat transcends politics, if everyone feels threatened, then you're not gonna have one person say well, we're not threatened. If everybody feels threatened then you have all pistons running aligned in congress and moneys get, the budgets get passed and military investments flow like river. This is a major thesis of the book based on my read of the history of human conduct. All I would say is, the value of these investments not only would return in your security because you want to deflect the asteroid rather than go extinct but also you become the kind of economy that thrives on innovation and that's my only point. It becomes an investment at that point and the very question oh, can we really afford it? Of course you can afford it because you're investing. You're expecting a return on that investment in the form of a wealthier nation in the decades to come.
By the way, that transcends time scales of quarterly reports, annual reports, and congressional re-election times. So, somebody needs the foresight necessary to put this into motion to assure future stability of our nation's economy.
Julie Douglas: You know, you're talking about taking the long view and I can't help but think about the long view in asteroids near earth objects.
Dr. Tyson: Oh, you can huh?
Julie Douglas: It can help because it's not even really the long view.
Dr. Tyson: For decades, any astrophysicist in arm's reach could have told you all about the asteroid threat and apparently, we are as a culture, as a world, we are feebleminded such that we don't believe it until it happens and then it's kind of too late. It's a little, excuse me, somehow the threat isn't real unless it's staring you in the face. The good thing about science is that you can predict the coming of a threat yet that's apparently not enough to trigger people's actions. The good thing, the silver lining of the Euro's meteor in Russia is that nobody died, many people injured but nobody died and so therefore, if we had to be slammed by something and learn a lesson from it, it was an ideal sort of lesson because everybody just needed to get a little patched up and go on about their way, fix a few walls and windows.
What a blessing that is, what a shot across the bow that was but again if we were already into space, this would be a trivial extension of activities we were already engaged in. If all you're going to say now let's go into space so that we can stop an asteroid, you're missing the point. You're missing the point. That's like saying I try to - now as I enter the building of the interstate system in the country, let's build the interstate to connect New York and Los Angeles. Oh, that's useful for sure but how about all the rest of the country? How about that? How about the other cities? Are you only going to do it to bring people one place to another because that's all you can think of doing when there's all the rest of the country that is waiting to be explored?
So, I do think it's higher solar system as our backyard and when you do, maybe there's some asteroid miners one day and we showed them our latest telescope data and they said an asteroid headed our way. Could you guys spare at what puts us at risk and they'll go ahead and spare it because they know how to manipulate and maneuver and mine asteroids. The government would pay for that but they wouldn't have to like launch it themselves.
Robert Lamb: All right, we're just gonna take one quick break and when we come back, more questions with Neil deGrasse Tyson including your questions. You know Julie, meetings are the lifeblood of human civilization. They are essential to the way we work. They're an opportunity to share ideas, to solve problems, to develop creative solutions but if your team is spread out all over the place, coming together can be an impossible task. I mean look at our workforce. We have people located in the city. We have people located in other cities, other time zones. You can't just fly everybody into the same location and even when everyone is in the same city, some people are teleworking. Some people have different schedules and it's nice to be able to work around those and that's where GoToMeeting with HD faces become so important. It's a fast simple way to meet and collaborate online.
Julie Douglas: Indeed because with GoToMeeting it's easy to stay connected from wherever you are whenever you need to. You just click on a link, you turn on your webcam, and you're instantly connected to the people you want to connect with. You can share the same screen to collaborate on document which is really cool and you can see each other's face and it's HD video conferencing and it's really easy to launch or join a meeting from anywhere using your computer, your phone or your tablet. You can even present it from an iPad.
Robert Lamb: So we love GoToMeeting and we are pretty sure that if you try it out, you'll see the business value for you as well. So, here's what's gonna happen. You're gonna try GoToMeeting free for 30 days. You're gonna use this special offer by visiting GoToMeeting.com, clicking the try it for free button and then using our promo code stuff that's S T U F F. So remember, promo code is stuff. The website is GoToMeeting.com and virtual meetings are in your future.
All right we're back. Let's jump right back into the interview with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Julie Douglas: You have a very elegant explanation of asteroids in long period comments in your book Space Chronicles and I thought it just really laid out the reasons why we can detect some and the reasons why we can't detect others. In particular, you talk about a [inaudible] which I knew you talked about before in the media and how this is actually something that's very serious that we need to focus on and I thought that maybe you could talk a little bit about that in practical terms how we confront a problem like this asteroid that's in our view and then a second part to that I thought maybe we could talk a little bit about the role of privatization of asteroid mining and how that may or may not affect asteroids.
Dr. Tyson: You know, if you're macho, you might say let's blow the sucker out of this guy. You know, you got nukes in the silos left over from the cold war, put it into good use. What I say often and all that I know of the American armed forces tells me this is true that we're really good at blowing stuff up and less good at knowing where the pieces will fall and that seems to have applied literally and metaphorically to our military policy. If we are [inaudible] to be to blow up an asteroid, I'll be concerned that the one spot there was originally targeted by this asteroid is now headed to two places instead of one. So what have you done? Now you have to evacuate both coasts.
So there are some emerging consensus among those who have studied the problem, myself included that the soundest way to approach this problem is to an asteroid deflection scenario. The asteroid will continue to live another day and possibly harm you in another day but the advantage of it is you get to nudge it slowly and you get to watch how effective you've been and you keep doing it until you're not as effective as you needed to be.
Julie Douglas: And so with the POFUS the idea of this is that when it comes very close to the earth in 2029 that you alter its course so that in its return orbit, it doesn't slam into the earth.
Dr. Tyson: Precisely because the later you hit, you get to the problem, all your capacity to solve that problem drops.
Julie Douglas: Got you and I was just looking into the crystal ball but you know, there's been talk about asteroid mining and private companies taking that on because at some point it might yield some profits, certainly not right away. The question I think for us is if you have so much space junk, if you have near earth objects in orbit and you have private companies up there now with their equipment, do they then have an obligation to help clean up space junk to help deflect near earth objects?
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, I wouldn't call it an obligation. I would just call it know-how. You know, who you do - I mean, forgive me for referencing the movie Armageddon but they have a task set out in front of them in the film to bury a nuke in an asteroid because otherwise it won't blow it apart. So, in the ranks of NASA, there was no one who had any experience drilling into solid rock or something hard to penetrate and so they got Bruce Willis and his crack team of, I guess they're oil rig drillers or something. And so they have a very specific talent set unique to the task.
So, if we are busy turning the solar system into our backyard, then there will be a mining company of exploiting asteroids. So we would presume that if asteroid mining was an activity, an economic activity, then we would know how to get to asteroids, how to mine them, how to turn them around, how to tow them from one location to another to be better suited for access. If you have that capability, then why wouldn't they be the ones who are tasked to deflect an asteroid? It becomes their asteroid right? There's one coming our way, we'll just take it, and mine it for all its worth and be done with it. That would be kind of cool. If every asteroid that would end life on earth simply became a source of natural resources to help life on earth.
That's the kind of thinking that goes on when you're in an innovation nation. A storm is ready to hit the coast. Do you run away from it and buy up all the water from the shelves or do you say how can I mitigate that storm? How can I deflect that storm? How can I tap the cyclonic energy contained within it and drive the energy needs of the city that it's about to destroy? So I wouldn't call it an obligation. I would just call it yeah, of course we'll do it, of course and they'll know how to. Other people will have money but not the know-how so you pay them. I mean it's a company, you use their resources, you pay them to use their resources. The post office doesn't fly their airplane. They pay commercial carriers to fly mail, US mail in the belly. The government has had this kind of relationship with business forever.
How do we make the jeep in World War II? Government gave money to Chrysler. Chrysler had a good design. They built the jeep. They still make jeeps and they make money off of it. In a capitalist society, that's how it's supposed to work.
Robert Lamb: Obviously the way the public and political support for space exploration has been [inaudible] over the years but what if we had somehow maintained it at its 1969 level, how far would we be today?
Dr. Tyson: Oh, so at its certain level, you're talking about would be the 1966 level. That's where NASA's funding had peaked as a percentage of the federal budget, peaked at about 4 percent. In fact there's a huge set of appendices in Space Chronicles where I thought that NASA's budget over 50 years and in the original founding document of NASA, NASA was founded the same week I was born so I feel NASA's pains and joys and challenges. So, you can see the plot of the budget and it's stunning difference between the commitment that we made as a nation over that period and the commitment we're making now. Now, you don't have to always keep the commitments that high if the nation gets wealthier.
If the nation gets wealthier, which it has done over the decades, then your percentage could go down yet your net money could go up. I mean that's how that works. If you're always referencing your budget as a percentage of the federal budget but to put some numbers on this, it was 4 percent in 1966 going into 1967. Also the peak buildup of the Apollo program and if we had that money now, NASA's budget would be eight times a factor of eight larger than its current value if NASA were appreciated at the same percent of the federal budget that it was back then. I would claim that at a much lower price tag than that, you can turn the entire solar system into your backyard. You can reach a space frontier and these are stories that the press would write about.
Julie Douglas: I wanted to ask if you thought that an earth-like planet might be discovered, I don't know, in 50 years, 100 years, do you think that it's something like Citizen Science that'll be a part of it in the absence of Sputnik moment or an alien attack?
Dr. Tyson: The Sputnik moments and the alien attacks are the kind of forces that galvanize an entire society but in any society, there are always people, in any wealthy society, there are always people who will spend their mental and emotional energies thinking about discovery. People have been doing that ever since the beginning. Who's the first one to leave the cave? That's somebody who wants to discover. It's an urge within us that I don't think we should stand in denial of although many people had forgotten what it is or what felt like to explore. Every child knows what it's like to explore. They turn over rocks and climb trees, and pluck, suburban you climb trees, pluck petals off roses, jump 2 feet in puddles. This is what kids do. They catch snowflakes in their mouths and the adults somehow lose this playful curiosity about the world around them and all you need to do is keep it. You don't have to create it from scratch. It was already there. Just find ways to foster it and nurture it and you're coming along nicely.
Now, the crux of your question was?
Julie Douglas: I just wondered of you thought that an earth-like planet might be discovered in the next 50 years. Do you think that Citizen Science would be a part of that since we're somewhat hamstrung in terms of budgets to really look very hard for an earth-like planet.
Dr. Tyson: Sure but we already have earth-like planets in the catalog so the challenges of earth-like planet in the habitable zone, the Goldilock zone of its host star, not too close otherwise if it had liquid water, it would evaporate and not too far because if it had liquid water it would freeze and that's not useful to life as we know it which requires liquid water. So we have planets that have been discovered. There are just not many of them, just a handful. A few of them were rising out of a thousand exo-planets that are in the catalogs today. Citizen Science is a wonderful exploitation of the internet and we should have more of it especially since in the astrophysics community we are overrun with data, the scales of data that we simply can't analyze ourselves and I think that's a good thing. I think there should be more of it especially for the data heavy field such as my own. But that itself is not gonna transform a culture. That's a side activity for people who already know they like science.
Robert Lamb: Okay, how are we doing on time? You have time for a few of the listeners' questions or do you need?
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, sure I have about 15 more minutes. We're good.
Robert Lamb: Well, I'm gonna go through these. If you don't like the question -
Dr. Tyson: I'll take any question you give me.
Robert Lamb: Okay, all right. Well, this first question comes from a listener named Mike. Mike asked can you expound in a simple way on how dark matter and energy seemed to bind and expand the matter we see as the visible universe?
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, so if you think of mass, mass can be manifested in two ways. In one form, it is energy. In another form, it's matter, okay? Just think of it that way and each of those contain mass where or mass equivalent and our understanding of the universe since the beginning, its evolution, its end so that flows through that understanding. You can look at how much mass there is in the universe and what that's doing in the universe. Over the years, beginning 1936, we learned that there's more going on in the universe than just what our mass is doing so in 1937, we discovered this gravity out there that is now known point of origin and then two decades ago, in late '90s that is, we found that there's a pressure in the vacuum of space that's forcing the universe to expand and those are huge fractions of all that is driving the universe.
If you add up the extra gravity which we call dark matter with the extra pressure in the vacuum of space which we call dark energy, it's 96 percent of everything we know, 96 percent. So, you could say we're just completely stupid about how the universe works although the part we do know works really, really well. So that's a good thing but the rest if you could combine them, so there's our sort of mass which is matter and energy and then the dark matter and dark energy, all this which is driving the universe and the total sort of energy concept of the universe contained in some of those three and we don't know what's causing the dark matter and we don't know what's causing the dark energy.
Robert Lamb: Okay, our next question comes from a listener named Jerry. Jerry asked how do we communicate science effectively and what other science communicators do you admire other than the great Sagans or Attenboroughs?
Dr. Tyson: So, in America, we do a few things very well or at least we do a few things famously. One of them is we make jets. Another one is our entertainment industry. America entertains the world with our movies, our TV shows, our podcasts, our broadcast content is an extraordinary gift to the world. Any of us remember when we visited other countries when you were a kind, you put on a TV and there's your favorite TV show dubbed in the local language. We don't have any of their TV shows dubbed in English. So there's clearly a one way street going on here where we're entertaining the world. It would be irresponsible of anyone who is trying to teach an electorate, it would be irresponsible if they didn't exploit the power of media, entertaining media in delivering the messages. So, that's just an important fact.
Robert Lamb: Okay, we have another question that comes to us from a listener, Cody. Cody asked what's your view on the connection between science and philosophy?
Dr. Tyson: There's a very long tradition of a marriage between science and philosophy that goes back forever and if you look at what a philosopher does, the philosopher assesses the landscape and then sits in the chair and things about it, deep thoughts, and then comes up with some new understanding or some new outlook on that landscape. Philosophers at their best, that's what they do. The scientist at their best will assess the landscape, propose an idea for how or why that landscape should be something else or something different or something more nuanced and then they'll devise an experiment to test the idea. If the idea is not supported by experiment, they discard the idea and then move on to a next one. So the difference between the philosopher and the scientist is that the philosopher has no laboratory. A philosopher has no telescope. A philosopher has no particle accelerator.
When physics which using sort of as lead science in my answer to your question, when physics left the table top which is basically 120 years ago, left the table top and entered the realm of the quantum which lives wholly outside of human experience and human common sense and it looked at the large scale structure of the universe, these two extremes falls so far away from your life experience that you can't sit on a couch and deduce the nature of the world from your own life experience because your life experience doesn't contain that which the experiments are demonstrating how the actual world behaves.
Now of course Einstein conjured up relativity though not quite out of the blue but there were some puzzling things that could not be understood and he wrote mathematical formulas for theory and then came up with predictions so then we tested the predictions and these turned out to be true. So that's a good thing. Philosophers don't tend to bring math to the problem in the way actual scientists do. They're more sort of idea driven than calculation driven. Historically, that's how, that's been the case. So, could a philosopher have come up with relativity? I suppose but they didn't. A philosopher surely could've come up with evolution because the data were available although Darwin had some extra data to really drive it home but that one didn't require fancy equipment to have resolved. Biology philosopher in principle could've come up with a solution by natural selection but they didn't. It was a scientist.
So you look at progress and our understanding of the natural world. In the last 100 years, last 150 years, that progress has primarily been by the thinking of scientists, not of philosophers. You can say some scientists are thinking philosophically. I don't have a problem with that but to say let us train people in philosophy so they can become better scientists, I don't approve of that at all, that my read of how that has gone in the past century tells me that you are removing yourself from the frontier of cosmic discovery.
Now, there are some branches of science that are brand new like spanking brand new like neuroscience. It's only been on the map 10 years tops. Before then, there are people poking around the brain but it hadn't really taken off as its own field where you can get degrees in it and that's early enough that and plus the mind is so fascinating, so complex and there's so many ways that you can think about how it works and how it doesn't work. It might benefit from the efforts of philosophers and I know there are a bunch of sort of neuro philosophers who were orbiting the field in an effort to contribute and my hope is that they can and set things in directions that they need to be in the way early philosophers with regard to physics did for physicists.
The other branches, this philosophy of ethics, this religious philosophy, the other kinds of philosophy out there, how you would specifically, I presume you refer to philosophers in ways that they might contribute to the advancing frontier of science and there are questions that philosophers ask that are just simply not useful to a scientist like how do you really know the moon is there? They all have light - well, that's just the light of the moon. How about the moon itself? Well, I can measure - well, that's just a measurement of the light and you could down many pints of beer discussing those.
There's a chunk of philosophers who are asking the question is the molecule H2O water? If you isolate a single molecule, is that water or is water the macroscopic properties we give when you have countless numbers of these and then it flows and it's liquidy, you know, it's not a liquid, it's not a solid. It's not anything so it's a molecule. There are philosophers arguing this. They're publishing papers on it and the scientist just doesn't have time, the luxury of time to, I call them beer conversations, conversations where you just sort of question, the existential conversations about knowledge and life and mind and matter. Okay but it's not useful in the laboratory.
Julie Douglas: Let me just follow up on that to, I was thinking about ethics in terms of philosophy and many times, it comes up so if you're talking about for instance bringing back the wooly mammoth or if you're talking about artificial intelligence, you're talking about ethics there making certain that some sort of piece of technology isn't gonna show up on the black market. How much of that should science be concerned with before or after the creation of the possibility?
Dr. Tyson: So, I'm curious whether there's a negative argument to cloning a mammoth other than no, it's extinct so leave it extinct. Someone's gonna clone a mammoth. You get the tissue out of the glacier, the glacier melts because a lot of glaciers are melting so all kinds of ice age creatures are gonna be spilling out of that glacier, glacier probably a few cavemen while we're at it. And so, yeah, we have the power to clone it. Somebody's gonna clone it. Now, to ask what the ethics of that is, I think there are more interesting ethical questions that are in front of us than whether we clone a mammoth like cloning people or cloning or creating deadly viruses that could be used genocidally. I mean so if you would rank the topics top to bottom, what we do with the mammoth, I don't think people are gonna protest.
Julie Douglas: No, I agree. I'm thinking about is how much does the scientist concern him or herself when they are going through the motions of what is possible, what can be created, is this out of the realm of scientists, should they concentrate on what is possible and does society create the ethics, should there be any sort of overlapping there? Is that a job that the scientist thinks about ethics?
Dr. Tyson: Yeah, that's an excellent point. I think it's the job of the scientist as a citizen to think about it. All citizens should be thinking about the ethical conduct of the species and fortunately, there's been some good investment in this along these lines over the decades and over the centuries so that there's actually been ethical shifts in our conduct over the years, right? There are books written on how to treat your slave ethically and they don't address the question of why you would have a slave in the first place, right? So fortunately, there's a collective sense of what is good and what is right that is not anchored in some time past where the needs and the conduct of what was considered reprehensible behavior in the past defended by whatever documents people had or whatever their upbringing was that does not carry into the future. I'm glad for that.
I am free because of that so that's why. So I think the ethics can be an evolving conversation. I'm old enough to remember all this conversation about in vitro fertilization, the first test tube baby. Should we? Now, it doesn't even make a news story if someone's born from a test tube. It's a non-story and so, but at the time people were oh, the ethics of this and it's like chill out. Just try to think it through and you know, look at the benefits and is there a downside that is religion? Religion is always telling you what you shouldn't do and so if your only rebuttal is religion and you haven't really thought it through rationally then you're missing some further conversation that should be had about what goes on.
There's something else that's true that needs to be on the table that science fiction writers are awesome at depicting futures with science goes bad and they create terrifying images of the nuclear energy going bad, cloning gone bad, viruses gone bad and I'm happy to report that there has never been science gone bad by the efforts of mad scientist who wants to take over the world. What we really have to watch out for are mad politicians. Even the atom bomb, that was a whole set of complicit physicists who made that bomb. There's no doubt about it but somebody paid their way. Somebody wrote their paycheck. Somebody funded that entire enterprise and those are governments. Those are congress. That is [inaudible] electorate. That is a president. That is a president's cabinet. Somebody else by geopolitical forces are deciding what they wanna do with the science.
You will never find scientists leading armies to invade other countries. It's just not what we do. So, the ethical conduct is not so much of what a scientist does but how does the society react to the discoveries of science and that needs to be, and there's some overlap there of course between the two but ethics is a cultural problem, not simply that of what a scientist does. Almost every scientific discovery that we've ever found has extraordinary benefit to humankind, extraordinary.
The early days of nuclear physics where we found radioactive materials and Marie Curie died of some kind of cancer, I think it was leukemia, surely as a result of her playing around with Radium, named maybe because of its radioactive properties, there's an entire branch of medicine called radiology which is the benefits of the investments of physicists which understand nature at its most basic level. So, extraordinary benefits to society await us by every scientific discovery that is to come. History tells us.
Julie Douglas: Okay, well that concludes the interview. I hope that you guys have enjoyed that. Again, thank you guys for giving us great questions for him to answer and I think we have time for a bit of mail here.
Robert Lamb: Let's see. Let's call the robot over. Okay, we heard from listener Adam and Adam writes in with an email entitled Discovering Nutmeg in India, of course responding to our episode that we did on the science and history of nutmeg. He says hey guys, I went on a tour of Kerala's backwaters, basically huge waterways that people live alongside and we went to a spice farm. Guess what was there? Nutmeg. My first thought was your podcast about nutmeg last year. As the guide explained it, he went part by part. The red part inside is called mace in the local language and is extremely expensive. It's used in Indian dishes like Biryani. The best part however was when he described how you can get a kick from eating too much nutmeg. I don't think the other understood but thanks to your podcast, I knew exactly what he meant. Thanks again and keep up the great work.
Some pictures from the tour attached with the nutmeg at the bottom and Adam of course is the chief happiness officer who has been traveling around the world and regularly writes in to our podcast and a few other How Stuff Works podcasts as well and you can find more about what he's up to at happinessplunge.com but yeah, he sent us a number of these pictures and is always just fascinating going into his travels.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, I love that the tour guide had a little wink wink nudge nudge because he's referring to the hallucinogenic properties of nutmeg which we've probably said this a million times by now not worth it if anybody's sort of like wow, that has hallucinatory properties, that is not the stuff that anybody really wants to play with, I should say.
Robert Lamb: We also heard from a couple of listeners out there who were really taken by our episodes that dealt with the shadow self as it relates to in one episode of Pro Wrestling and the other episode we talked about undercover cops who have a false identity that they're using and also actors, method or otherwise that have to put, cloak themselves in some level of fiction in order to do their thing.
So we heard from Josephine. Josephine writes in and says hi Robert and Julie. I really enjoyed your last episode on the self and the roles we play. I really enjoy your other podcasts as well of course. I have a couple of things to contribute to the discussion. First, I went and listened to Fandy Newton's Ted Talk and at one point she mentions feeling that she didn't have a self since she was able to play other people so well. That reminded me of another actor who supposedly felt the same way, Peter Sellers. On the subject of playing characters as an actor myself, I find it best to take some method-y step to get to the right place emotionally but I find the strangest thing in my case is that though I always have my home self, whatever character I'm playing at the time usually rubs off of me a bit. It's sort of like who I normally am is being shown to the lens of another personality.
I remember one character I played, Charles II of England's minister Nell Gwyn who was very happy and positive had a particular effect on me and my mom's always said that she can come back anytime she likes. Can't wait to hear your next podcast, sincerely, Josephine in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Julie Douglas: Very interesting. I can't help but think of personality as sort of like a prism. It kind of depends on which direction the light is hitting it and which you exhibit whatever feelings or personality at that time and we've talked about this before, about how it's related to consciousness and the unconscious so again, it's very interesting to me to know that personality isn't something that is always a stable thing. You really have to work at it because it's part of that construction of our reality.
Robert Lamb: We also heard from a listener by the name of Stephanie. Stephanie writes in and says hello Robert and Julie, greetings from Toronto. Another one, and she's responding to the same episode. So there you go, I wonder if they knew each other. She says I recently enjoyed listening to your episode on undercover actors and the shadow self. You invited undercover agents and actors to write in and share their experiences of identity and roleplaying. While I don't fit either of those descriptions, I thought you'd be interested in my perspective on the issue since I suffer from what might be diagnosed as a particularly acute form of impostor syndrome as a result of the way people respond to my outer self. Yes, it's much different from my inner self.
I'm 30 with a PhD and a tenure track appointment at a major Canadian research university but I look like I'm about 17 with wide blue eyes and a small stature at 5'2" and about 100 pounds. While the situation is well situated for winning the biggest stuffed animal prize at the age [inaudible] and convincing a class of undergraduates that you're a child genius, a real life Doogie Howser, it often just makes me feel claustrophobic in my own body. The way I'm treated by others never seems to match my sense of self.
Since starting as faculty at the university this past summer, the situation has become its most intense. Each new person I meet, student, staff or fellow faculty member, treats me like a first year student unless I correct them which for the most part I've given up doing. After encountering this response multiple times a day from a range of people for the past several months, I'm beginning to feel like a young actor playing a grown-up role. I'm not sure if this is just a serious case of impostor syndrome or whether a more fundamental shift in my sense of self is happening. Your discussion made me wonder what I'd be like, who I'd be if the way others respond to me had always aligned with my age and general intelligence level. I've attached a picture of me on my honeymoon that illustrates this issue, more evidence available here and then she sent us a Flickr page. Love the podcast, Stephanie.
Julie Douglas: And I've just seen that picture and yes, she does come across as very young and I have to say that I understand what she's saying because to a certain age, I had the same problem and it is a little bit odd because people don't expect to you to sort of come out as the person that you are, not that I'm petite and I look like I'm 18 because certainly neither one of these is true but people don't always expect this certain personality to come out.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, it was a really fascinating email to read to think about what happens when who we feel we are inside is out of step with our outer self because of our physical appearance or because the way we end up carrying ourselves in the world or even just how we are in first impressions versus how we really are. You do get into his complex question of who are we really, you know?
Julie Douglas: Well, and especially if you look at those studies that say that, in particular men who are taller tend to have more responsibilities put upon them and tend to get promoted more and so on and so forth. Now that's a huge generalization but actually, I should dig up that study so I can talk about it a little more in detail but things like that that you know colors people's perception and then the way that you get to operate in the world. So if you are that person or if you're not that person or if you're blonde or so on and so forth, how does that affect the way that you accept certain responsibilities in the world or don't accept them?
Robert Lamb: Yeah, I mean I'm 6'2" or 6'3", depending on how I wanna measure myself I guess. I guess I'm 6'3" because sometimes I hold the 6'2" because it feels like a good cutting off point but -
Julie Douglas: You were just promoted to like president of the universe.
Robert Lamb: No, I think now I'd grow my sideburns long so that like, people might see me and like who's that tall guy? We should promote him to a level of incompetence and then I do my sideburns, maybe not.
Julie Douglas: You just cited the Peter principle.
Robert Lamb: Did I? Oh, yeah of course.
Julie Douglas: Yeah.
Robert Lamb: Well, I mean I have been there to varying degrees in the past before I wound up here and grew my sideburns out so yeah.
Julie Douglas: You've been to the Peter principle?
Robert Lamb: Well, I have found myself being, when I was in newspapers, I found myself gaining more and more responsibilities I didn't really want or enjoy or even was necessarily that good at them but -
Julie Douglas: Yeah, no, I think everybody has stepped into Peter's suit at one time or another.
Robert Lamb: Yeah, so my advice is grow your sideburns out, everyone, ladies, too.
Julie Douglas: Yeah, I was just saying [inaudible].
Robert Lamb: All right well, if you have anything you would like to share with us, be it about this whole conundrum we were just talking about related to self, about the shadow self, and if you have any feedback or anything to add regarding the Neil deGrasse Tyson interview, we'd love to hear from you. Again, it was a tremendous treat to speak with Dr. Tyson. I really enjoyed getting to share your questions with him. So, I really think from now on, whenever it's possible, I will reach out to people on Facebook and let you guys contribute at least some questions for our interviews.
So, if you want to do that, if you want to find us on Facebook and follow us so that you can be on top of that, again, Facebook, we are Stuff to Blow Your Mind. We're also Stuff to Blow Your Mind on Tumblr and in Twitter we go by the handle blowthemind.
Julie Douglas: And you can always drop us a line at email@example.com.
Unknown Female Speaker: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com. [End of Audio]
Duration: 55 minutes