Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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Tyson (center) enlightens his fellow earthlings at the Hayden Planetarium. / Photo: Jenica MillerCode Red

As Orson Welles portrayed it in his 1938 radio play, Mars wasn’t named after the Roman god of war for nothing. The War of the Worlds set back attitudes toward Martians by light years. Today, as the rovers Spirit and Opportunity explore the red planet, with its dried riverbeds and intriguing evidence of methane gas, Neil Tyson, filling Leno’s guest chair in a brown suit and galaxy-spattered tie, offers a twist on the Martian narrative. It’s possible, he says, that before life evolved on Earth, an asteroid slammed into a fertile Mars, flinging hunks of microbe-harboring rock into space. Some of those rocks could have landed on ourcooling planet, seeding it with life in a process called panspermia. “Maybe,” he says, “we’re all descended from Martians.”

“I’d like to get drunk with you,” says the guest to Tyson’s right, comedian Jimmy Fallon, who later, when told of Apophis’s grim approach, slumps in his seat, toking an imaginary joint. “You’re freaking me out, man!”

We can laugh, but Tyson is serious about the threats to Earth from “up there,” and sadistic space aliens don’t top the list. “Mars once had running water, and today it’s bone dry,” he says. “Something bad happened on Mars.” With Venus and Mars as our shining examples of planetary catastrophe, we ought to be on a technological war footing, Tyson believes. He points out that the moon landing in 1969 was the product not of a pure thirst for discovery, but of Cold War gamesmanship; that the species is driven less by curiosity than by survival in the face of existential threats. And as someone who survived an attack we didn’t see coming — Tyson was living a few blocks from the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and saw the laws of physics play out in the collision of objects and in human bodies falling as his binoculars darkened with the powder that blanketed downtown, gray and barren as lunar dust — his call for action against the Apophises of the world carries extra weight.

“I don’t want to be the laughingstock of the galaxy,” he says, “when they find out that a species that had the intelligence to stop an asteroid impact simply went extinct.”

Ice Fishing on Europa

In January 1610, Galileo Galilei, a 46-year old professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, aimed his newly made spyglass at the night sky. He saw awesome, astonishing things that he supposed might be best kept from an uneducated public. The moon was not a perfect sphere, as church doctrine taught, but had craters and mountains. Venus went through phases like the moon. The sun had spots. Saturn looked — peculiar. And Jupiter had four satellites of its own that wandered around it as the moon circles Earth — hardly a blessing for the geocentrists in Rome.

When Neil Tyson, on a Bronx rooftop, first gazed into the mists of the Milky Way, he “communed with Galileo across time and space,” as he recounts in his memoir, marveling that his own discoveries of the craggy lunar surface and of Jupiter’s smaller pirouetting partners were “as fresh for me in the Bronx, New York, as they must have been for Galileo in Florence, Italy, four centuries ago.” Galileo would be famously persecuted out of the human frailties of fear, ignorance, and vanity, and Tyson, traveling his “path of most resistance,” as he has described his life’s journey, knows as well as any astronomer that humans still have some distance to go. In his 100th essay for Natural History, in 2007, Tyson called for the embrace of “the cosmic perspective” — a humble, spiritual, nonreligious, open-minded consciousness gained from the study of the universe, one that exalts us and lifts us above our egos and lowly prejudices. “Imagine a world in which everyone, but especially people with power and influence, holds an expanded view of our place in the cosmos,” he wrote. “With that perspective, our problems would shrink — or never arise at all."

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