What example did your parents set?
My parents were always investing energy to help others less fortunate. They made careers of worrying about the plights of others. They would help the elderly, the poor, and the homeless. You help people. It doesn’t mean you derail your life to help others, but any one of us is in a position to lessen the suffering of others in some small way every day.
What advice would you give the younger you?
There’s no time I would go back and say, “Do this differently.” Experiencing mistakes has been devalued in our culture. They want people to make the right decisions at all times. Well, there’s a saying in research science: If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not on the frontier of discovery. I’m the sum of the correct decisions I’ve made and the incorrect decisions I’ve made; each one of those shapes the wisdom that I carry today.
Did you mean to cause a stir by tweeting “happy birthday” to Isaac Newton on Christmas last year?
No, not in the least. It’s somebody’s birthday, so you wish them a happy birthday. I hardly ever express opinions publicly. I don’t care a rat’s ass if you share my opinion on anything. I don’t see it as my duty to convert you to my view. So here’s a tweet about Isaac Newton, which has the benefit of being correct; meanwhile, no one actually knows when Jesus was born, but what is certain is that he was not born on December 25.
What’s your role as an educator?
One of my quotes to live by was uttered by Horace Mann: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” I see being a scientist and an educator as fulfilling part of that statement. By the way, I learned of that quote from an episode of The Twilight Zone, and I want it on my tombstone.
Why do people try to draw you out on your religious beliefs?
I never volunteer any comments about religion or God ever because I don’t pontificate. If you ask, I’ll tell you. We live in an hour of pundits, where their opinion is what they want you to adopt. They will take some opinion I have, lead with some clickbait headline, and say, “If Tyson has his way, he would have you doing this.” No! I don’t care! Apparently, this is what’s become of the contest of ideas. They think any opinion of a famous person is something worth imposing upon other people.
How do you engage with people who deny scientific evidence?
I don’t engage them. There are several reasons: A debate implies that you could win or lose. Science has nothing to do with anybody’s charisma or even how well they argue; it has to do with how good the data are. I’ve prioritized education so that you don’t have to attend a debate to learn what is true and what is not about this world.
Are you optimistic about where we’re headed on race in this country?
Take Ferguson, for example. There was a day when that shooting wouldn’t have risen past the local news, but now a police officer shoots an unarmed person and it is in headlines across the country — that’s progress, in its own perverse way. I’ll paraphrase Churchill here: “Whether or not it’s the beginning of the end, it’s certainly the end of the beginning.”
When is it appropriate for someone to moonwalk?
It is way harder than it looks, so I think anyone who can moonwalk should moonwalk as often as they can, because it looks great and it’s an homage to Michael Jackson. And it’s named after another cosmic object, and I’m a fan of anything named after cosmic objects.
How can America become a leader in science again?
I’m working on that.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, host of StarTalk on National Geographic Channel, and director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City.