Neil deGrasse Tyson – By the Book

The Hayden Planetarium director and author, most recently, of “Space Chronicles,” would love to have met Oscar Wilde: “Anyone who could pen the phrase ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ gets…

The Hayden Planetarium director and author, most recently, of “Space Chronicles,” would love to have met Oscar Wilde: “Anyone who could pen the phrase ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ gets a seat at my dinner table.”

Who are your favorite science writers? Anyone new and good we should be paying attention to?

In no particular order: Dava Sobel, Timothy Ferris, Cornelia Dean, Bill Bryson and Michael Lemonick. And I just recently discovered the delightfully irreverent books of Mary Roach. I take this occasion to note that Agnes M. Clerke, writing in the late 19th century and the turn of the 20th, was one of the most prolific science writers in any field, although her specialty was astrophysics, then a male-dominated area. Her titles include “The Concise Knowledge Library: Astronomy” (1898), “Problems in Astrophysics” (1903) and “Modern Cosmologies” (1905).

If a parent asked you for book recommendations to get a child interested in science, what would be on your list? 

Kids are naturally interested in science. The task is to maintain that innate interest, and not get in their way as they express it. Early on, my favorite children’s book is “On the Day You Were Born” (1991), written and illustrated by Debra Frasier. I’m often asked by publishers whether I will ever write a science-based children’s book. My answer will remain no until I believe I can write one better than Frasier’s. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t see it happening in the foreseeable future. Also, I remain impressed how fast the Dr. Seuss “Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library” series updated Tish Rabe’s book “There’s No Place Like Space: All About Our Solar System” (1999, 2009) to reflect the official 2006 demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet” status.

What are the greatest books ever written about astronomy?

Because the field of study changes so rapidly, any book that’s great in one decade becomes hopelessly obsolete by the next. But if I am forced to pick one, it would be Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” (1980). Not for the science it taught, but for how effectively the book shared why science matters — or should matter — to every citizen of the world.

And your favorite novels of all time?

Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726). I often find myself reflecting on the odd assortment of characters that Lemuel Gulliver met during his travels. We’re all familiar with the tiny Lilliputians, but during his voyages he also met the giant Brobdingnagians. And elsewhere he met the savage humanoid Yahoos and the breed of rational horses — the Houyhnhnms — who shunned them. And I will not soon forget the misguided scientists of the Grand Academy of Lagado beneath the levitated Island of Laputa, who invested great resources posing and answering the wrong questions about nature.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?

Not enough books focus on how a culture responds to radically new ideas or discovery. Especially in the biography genre, they tend to focus on all the sordid details in the life of the person who made the discovery. I find this path to be voyeuristic but not enlightening. Instead, I ask, After evolution was discovered, how did religion and society respond? After cities were electrified, how did daily life change? After the airplane could fly from one country to another, how did commerce or warfare change? After we walked on the Moon, how differently did we view Earth? My larger understanding of people, places and things derives primarily from stories surrounding questions such as those.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have multiple shelves of books and tracts on religion and religious philosophy, as well as on pseudoscience and general fringe thinking. I’m perennially intrigued how people who lead largely evidence-based lives can, in a belief-based part of their mind, be certain that an invisible, divine entity created an entire universe just for us, or that the government is stockpiling space aliens in a secret desert location. I find this reading to be invaluable in my efforts to communicate with all those who, while invoking these views, might fear or reject the methods, tools and tenets of science.

What book has had the greatest impact on you? 

George Gamow’s “One, Two, Three . . . Infinity” (1947) and Edward Kasner and James Newman’s “Mathematics and the Imagination” (1940) are both still in print. I have aspired to write a book as influential to others as these books have been influential to me. The closest I have come is “Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries” (2007), but while I think it succeeds on many educational levels, I’m quite sure it falls short of what these authors accomplished. For me, at middle-school age, they turned math and science into an intellectual playground that I never wanted to leave. It’s where I first learned about the numbers googol and googolplex (a googolplex is so large, you cannot fully write it, for it contains more zeros than the number of particles in the universe). It’s also where I learned about higher dimensions and the general power of mathematics to decode the universe.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I’d like to believe that the president of the United States, the most powerful person in the world, has time to read more than one book. But picking just one book reveals my bias: “Physics for Future Presidents,” by Richard A. Muller (2009) is, of course, already conceived for this purpose. The president’s science adviser has traditionally been a physicist. Parting the layered curtains of science reveals that there’s no understanding of biology without chemistry, and there is no understanding of chemistry without physics. Informed people in government have known this from the beginning. And all of engineering derives from the laws of physics themselves. So the physics literacy of a president is a good thing, especially since innovations in science and technology will drive the engines of 21st-century economies. Failure to understand or invest wisely here will doom a nation to economic irrelevance.

What books have you most enjoyed sharing with your children?

The last book that I read to both of my kids, at the same time, was Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” (1883). At the time, they were both old enough to read on their own, but I nonetheless invited them to hear my recitation, in four or five sittings. Only when you read the original book do you realize how much of an undisciplined, stubborn, troublemaking truant Pinocchio actually was — complete with him squashing Jiminy Cricket, reducing him to a mere smudge on the wall, killing his short-lived spiritual adviser early in the story. The book served as an excellent example of how not to behave as a child. And it further served as a reminder of how Hollywood, or Disney in particular, can denude fairy tales of their strongest messages.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? 

Oscar Wilde. Anyone who could pen the phrase “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” gets a seat at my dinner table. Also, I’ve been intrigued by the breadth of topics that interested Edgar Allan Poe. In particular, his prose poem of speculative science called “Eureka” (1848), which lays out basic tenets of modern cosmology, 70 years before cosmology even existed as a subject of study. For all we know, their best-known works are only the tip of an iceberg of mental processing and thoughts that engaged them daily. These would surely be thoughts that would emerge during a nice meal I might have with them, over a good bottle of wine.

If you could be any character from literature, who would you be?

I’d be Thomas Stockmann, the medical doctor in the 1882 Henrik Ibsen play “An Enemy of the People.” And I’d handle the situation a bit differently. I’d alert the townspeople of the problem with their public baths in such a way that they would welcome the news rather than reject it. This requires sensitivity to how people think, and an awareness of what they value in life and why. The town might then have been compelled to fix the problem rather than view the messenger and his message as their enemy. When I first read the story, I was astonished that educated adults would behave in such a manner, and was prepared to discount the whole story as a work of unrealistic fiction. I would later see actual people — including those in power — behave in just this way on all manner of scientific topics, instilling within me the urge to become the doctor’s character and make everything O.K.

What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read?

Although I’m not actually embarrassed by this, I tend not to read books that have awesome movies made from them, regardless of how well or badly the movie represented the actual written story. Instead, at cocktail parties, I’ve always found it a bit awkward when I’m not up-to-date on all the latest novels and other written works that get reviewed in The New York Review of Books. That means I’m not only not reading the hottest novels, I’m not even reading the reviews of the novels themselves.

What do you plan to read next?

Four books that I just acquired from an antiquarian bookseller — short monographs by the philosopher, mathematician and social activist Bertrand Russell: “Justice in War-Time” (the 1924 printing), “Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays” (1932 edition), “Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare” (1959) and “Has Man a Future?” (1961). It’s always refreshing to see what a deep-thinking, smart and worldly person (who is not a politician) has to say about the social and geopolitical challenges of the day.