How to share information like an astrophysicist.

By Elizabeth Diane

Image by the Hayden Planetarium

Sometimes the universe just drops something in my lap, something that speeds up my work and also makes it exciting, like a new discovery. The other day in my car I happened to hear astrophysicist Neil deDegrasse Tyson on National Public Radio (NPR). His name caught my attention because just the night before, I saw an episode of The Big Bang Theorywhere he was a target of the show’s humor. I didn’t know I needed a real-life, human example of a scientist who is comfortable and natural in his professional skin, yet there he was, making jokes on a sitcom and laughing about science on the radio. The universe put him right in my path and I could not miss its point.

While the interview was interesting, what really got me going were Tyson’s offhand comments at the end of the interview. He said there are not enough people talking about what’s going on in the universe, based on science. “For me, the questions I care most about are the ones I do not know yet to ask because they will only arise after future discoveries have been made,” he said.

Neil is called a “science communicator” because he can talk about science with simplicity and humor, the way the rest of us talk about normal things. He says he can’t speak to questions from people who don’t believe in science, and encourages dialogue based on fact, on the known nature of physical things.

NPR’s Fresh Airinterview focuses on Neil deDegrasse Tyson’s new book, “Accessory To War,” about the unspoken alliance between astrophysicists and the military. Even with the differences in how each approaches space exploration, there’s a kind of symbiosis going on. Usually, exploration is not about the science, Tyson said. “Science happens because governments care about other things that need the science.” Like Darwin’s voyage with Captain Cook. “The Beagledidn’t go to the Galapagos Islands for him… (Cook) had his own agenda, and (Darwin) hitched a ride, practically was a stowaway on the boat. So science happens not because governments care about science – only in a small way. Science happens because governments care about other things that need the science.”

The best of what we laypeople can gather from a scientist like Neil deDegrasse Tyson is in the way he thinks—not so different from us—and the way he naturally investigates. The current discussions about a “Space Force” provides a platform for us to enjoy Tyson’s conversational style.

From the insider’s view, Tyson tells how science and the military each pick up on the other’s discoveries and might borrow something that helps with their own projects. We can almost imagine scientists and governments talking like neighboring farmers. “(E)very now and then, we look over and say, hey, that’s a cool thing you guys just did…I want to use that to help me understand the universe.” And the military might pick up on some serious intellectual work in science that would help them solve a military problem. This kind of spontaneous, neighborly collaboration—at least the way Tyson tells it—sounds and feels very natural, something the non-science audience can relate to and emulate.

Neil deDegrasse Tyson is my kind of scientist, and hearing him talk fortifies the credibility of natural discoverers. He lived out an early inspiration. The first time his parents took him to the Hayden Planetarium, “I looked up, the lights dimmed and stars came out, and I was called by the universe. I had no choice in the matter”(from the website American Physical Society). Since 1996, he has been the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

That statement—I had no choice in the matter—has a familiar ring for many whose lives are built around the thing in our hearts that will not leave us alone. We work it in whatever way we can, happy with the way it moves forward, almost on its own. We pick up pieces that feel right and try to see how they might fit in our perspective of the life puzzle. Progress is intuitive. To openly make exchanges like scientists and the military to bolster independent amateur studies, feels right to me.

Everyday people have always made discoveries on their own, following natural curiosity. Now, with access to any information we need and the ability use technology in new ways, we have only begun to see what free people will come up with. What started as business startup madness has slowed to the pace scientists know very well: We can advance only as fast as natural forces allow, the main one being the human capacity to observe, learn, and innovate.

We can follow Tyson’s example of free trade between scientists and governments and apply what we learn to our so-called amateur studies. Our credibility is in our unsullied desire and is proven by our devotion to mastering the physics of a thing, to make a physical reality out of a dream. Absent degrees, professional work, or big salaries, we are nevertheless pioneers, rebels and underdogs; explorers who are making the first steps onto the new world. We can look across the fence and connect where there is common ground between separate disciplines. We can share distinct advances and private discoveries to make better progress for ourselves.

Our understanding of human capability is changing everyday life, one person at a time. Part sci-fi, part social science, we have moved beyond the work itself to wonder, Whydo we work? And what kind of work is “assigned” by the universe rather than chosen? In other words, What can Ido?

Individually we are responding to the unfolding of an unprecedented future. We must address the human distress caused by the impact of wholesale change in society. We can respond in a way that ensures there is progress toward increasingly better outcomes. Let’s share the unique discoveries as Neil deDegrasse Tyson does: naturally, with the hope of improving the “science” in our own explorations. The reward is in doingsomething toward our private dreams. Anything.


Elizabeth Diane is the author of “The Heart’s Mind: How Unconscious Responses in Life and Work Naturally Improve Our Lives While We Make Other Plans,” available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.


[Footnote: The recording and transcript of the interview with Neil deDegrasse Tyson, “Neil DeGrasse Tyson Examines The ‘Unspoken Alliance Between Science And War,” is available on NPR’s website. Unfortunately, his candid comments about his popularity and the call-in Q&A afterward are not included.]