Neil deGrasse Tyson may not quite be a household name, but among those interested in modern space exploration, he’s basically Beyoncé. The astrophysicist and bestselling author (his most recent book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, was released in May) heads up the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, which he also founded; hosts a podcast called StarTalk Radio; and occasionally graces a theater stage to riff on everything from life on Mars to The Matrix. On June 15 he’ll appear at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre to discuss the “Cosmic Perspective.”
We recently chatted with Tyson about what attendees can expect from his talk, what he thinks of NASA’s latest big discovery, and how shifting our perspective on space can improve our relationships with others here on Earth.
What exactly is “the cosmic perspective?”
“Cosmic Perspective,” for me, is perhaps the most important outlook anybody can have in life. If you look at Earth from space, that Earth doesn’t resemble the Earth that we’re trained to think about in our social studies class. That globe has color-coded countries. From childhood, we are forced to think of earth as a divided place—divided by geography, divided by language, skin color, religion. That is the context in which we come to reflect on who and what we are. When you go into space you realize we are humans on this planet called Earth. If you’ve never thought about it that way, it can influence your behavior, how you treat other people. You see them not as somebody different from you, but as someone who is exactly the same as you because you’re both human.
You also say it can put our problems in perspective. How?
Humans want to think that they’re the center of the world. Children think this way. Then you come into adulthood and it’s a little disappointing to learn that’s not the case. We still think events happening locally, in our lifetimes as significant in a way that is out of proportion with reality. This can be depressing to some people, if you come into it with a high ego. If you go into it with no ego at all, you realize that you can be special not for being different, but for being a participant in life on Earth. That participation, if you’re open to it, can be quite illuminating, even sort of spiritually uplifting. You’re a part of all of life on Earth. Earth is part of all the planets that exist in the galaxy. The galaxy is part of an entire system of the universe.
I have to ask you about TRAPPIST-1 (a dwarf star that NASA recently discovered is orbited by seven Earth-like planets). What most excites you about it?
It’s great. Seven planets? Come on now—all Earth-like and it’s relatively nearby [at] 40 light years. You’re not going to go there overnight. Of the seven planets, three are in the Goldilocks zone where the temperature’s just right for liquid water. These planets are very close to their host star, and their orbit is just five or 10 days, depending which you’re identifying. It doesn’t take months, it takes days. The system is different from what we’re familiar with. Regardless, just the fact that seven are in one system not all that far away—it’s just a reminder of how prevalent planets are in the galaxy.
Tell me about your new book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.
It’s a very short book, but it touches on all the key things that can make you fluent in the headlines that are coming down the pipe. People want to know: Is there life on a planet? Your telescope isn’t good enough to see anything crawling around on the surface, but you can study the atmosphere of the planet and look for gasses that are the influencers of life itself. It’s the kind of book where, the next time someone discovers a bunch of planets, I can say, “Just read the book,” and go home. [Laughs.]
You’ve performed in Atlanta several times. What’s your impression of the city?
I’m always enchanted by the depth and breadth of interest that people express in the universe as I go around the country. Atlanta’s been sort of a regular in this annual [tour] thing, so I look forward to it. I do have one sad bit of news to report. While the universe is indeed expanding, unfortunately that has no impact on Atlanta traffic.
June 15, 7:30 p.m., tickets $49-$99, Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, 770-916-2800, cobbenergycentre.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in our June 2017 issue.