Patrick Ecclesine / Fox / Joshua Moore
Patrick Ecclesine / Fox / Joshua Moore

Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Patrick Ecclesine / Fox / Joshua Moore
Patrick Ecclesine / Fox / Joshua Moore

For the record, we're HUGE fans of Neil deGrasse Tyson. (You don't put someone on the cover of your magazine if you don't love him!) In our excitement, we dreamed up lots of cover executions, but ultimately, we decided the most fitting treatment would be to have him beaming from the center of the solar system. Here's hoping you like the interview as much as we do!

When he was 17, Neil deGrasse Tyson got a letter from Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer and popular science luminary. Tyson was a Bronx High School of Science student applying to colleges, and Sagan invited him for a tour of the lab at Cornell. It was “an act of generosity that has affected me my entire life,” Tyson says. A few years later, in 1980, Sagan launched Cosmos: A Personal Journey, a 13-part television series that explored heady subjects like black holes, extraterrestrial life, and the beginning of the universe. Sagan passed away in 1996, but the Cosmos project was intentionally left open-ended. Now Tyson, an astrophysicist who directs the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, is set to pick up where Sagan left off with a new iteration of the series, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. Tyson recently spoke with mental_floss about his personal relationship with Sagan, time travel, and the theoretical possibility of an evil, mustache-less twin living in an alternate universe.

Not long ago, you tweeted that if we imagined our planet’s history as a football field, human existence would fit on a blade of grass.
Yes. If the 14-billion-year history of Earth went from end zone to end zone, then the width across one blade of grass is about the time that has elapsed since the paintings of cavemen to this conversation. That’s a cosmic perspective.

How has the cosmic perspective shifted since the original Cosmos aired? What advances in science or new issues have you had to incorporate?
If you go back 40 years, [the thinking about] the environment was “don’t pollute the lake because then you’ll kill the fish, and it will mess up our little water hole.” No one was thinking that what they did locally would affect everybody else globally. The local–global connection has emerged in the last couple of decades.

Some of that came about because of our understanding of how the dinosaurs went extinct. How could an asteroid hit one part of Earth and make something extinct on the opposite side?

The only way that can happen is if you catastrophically affect the climate. So climate change as a local force driving a global phenomenon has become a topic of discussion since the original Cosmos.

[At the time of] the original Cosmos, we knew of no planets beyond our solar system. We could hypothesize they’d be there, but now the list [of planets we know about] is rising. One thousand exoplanets! But Cosmos is not simply about “let’s teach you the latest science discoveries.” Then it would be just any other documentary. Its real contribution is that it shows how and why science matters.

I was reading a collection of Sagan’s Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and he really did have a way with words. He was talking about our sun going supernova, and he said, “Some five or six or seven billion years from now, the sun will become a red giant star and will engulf the orbits of Mercury and Venus and probably Earth. Earth, then, would be inside the sun, and some of the problems that face us on this particular day will appear, by comparison, modest.” He has this implicit humor.
There are plenty of smart people out there who don’t know science, and plenty of socialized people who might not be smart. He had all of that in the same package.

What was your relationship with Sagan like?
We met only four times. So he was never a mentor. People think that, but that was not the case. But those four times were significant, so I think of him often, and they serve as a source of inspiration. The fact that he took the time for me [as a high school student] has shaped how I take time for students who reach out to me.

How did the new Cosmos come about?
After he died, I got a phone call from the board at the Planetary Society, an organization that he cofounded, asking me to join the board. That was a little bittersweet, because clearly the spot was vacated because of Sagan’s death. It was that acceptance that got me closer to his widow, Ann Druyan, who was a cowriter of the original series and is the writer of the current series. This is 1997, I think, and the conversation about doing Cosmos and continuing the Cosmos legacy had always been there. The question was, “How would we do it? Who would write? Who would be in it?” And Ann might have had other people in mind, I don’t know, but I knew it was something I could do, possibly uniquely, given my sentiment for Carl and the impact he had on science literacy in the country. And given the rising impact that I was having at the time, I felt, yeah, I can do this.

So are there going to be shots of you walking by the beach with the breeze blowing through your hair?
Afros don’t respond to breezes. [Like Sagan] I embrace any occasion to address a camera lens to tell people what’s going on. [But] the fact is, we have stunning visuals knitted into stories of how and why science matters. So I’m on camera only if it’s really adding to that delivery.

Somebody has to man the helm of the spaceship of the imagination.
Yes. Those are some of the most fun scenes I filmed. The spaceship looks to the past, the present, and the future through portals in the ship. Of course, it’s all done with a green screen. But because I feel very close to the universe, when I’m describing what you’re seeing, even though I can’t see it, I can see it. In my head, it’s there. As we descend toward the sun’s surface, as we descend into strands of a DNA molecule, as we go to the limits of telescopic regions of the universe, I am there.

Seth MacFarlane, who is one of the producers of Cosmos, recently did an episode of his show Family Guy, where the dog, Brian, died but came back in some kind of time travel twist in space time. Were you consulted on that?
When Brian died, it was tragic, and I thought, “Well it would be sad if he’s not there because he’s a unique voice in the program.” Stewie had the time machine already, right? So the show had already involved time travel, so [I thought] if they bring him back, they would probably just pull something out of the walls like that. There is one episode I was consulted on, unknown to me at the time. [Seth and I] had lunch, and he asked me 20 questions on the space-time continuum and multiverses. Six months later, there’s a show. Stewie takes the time machine, goes back to before the big bang, in fact goes outside of the big bang, where he is neither in a time nor a place, and it’s out of that fluctuation in his time machine that the universe gets started. And at the end, an entire title card says: science consultant, neil degrasse tyson. Anytime I’m with Seth, he’s asking me questions about science and the universe. He’s just a curious guy.

On the issue of parallel universes, do you think there is an evil mustache-less Neil deGrasse Tyson out there?
No. I think you need more than an infinite number of universes in the multiverse to have a universe that has someone who is exactly like me but is evil.

And without a mustache.
Usually, the evil person has a mustache. But my evil twin would have to be mustache-less, I suppose. When everything else is identical except that Neil is evil, I think we need more than an infinite number of universes for that. There are orders of infinity. Most people don’t know this. Some infinities are larger than others, so you can show mathematically that that’s the case. So I just think if you had infinite universes, that order of infinity is not high enough to create an Earth that has everything else exactly like it except that there’s an evil version of me.

So is space a human abstraction or a physical entity in your opinion?
It’s our perception of reality limited to how our senses deliver it to us. It’s only in the era of science that we can decode the operations of nature outside of those five senses. And we’ve come to learn—since the era of quantum physics in the 1920s—that the results of your experiments are to be trusted above whatever your senses are telling you. Your senses are actually quite useless in this regard. They’re not only useless—they are actively misleading. So you design your experiments, and you trust the results of your experiments. I’m still going to operate based on the reality that my senses give me in my day-to-day life.

In 34 more years, if there was another installment of Cosmos, what questions would it address?
Part of the mystery of science is not even knowing yet what question to ask. For example, in the year 1799, the question, “I wonder if an asteroid will ever strike us and render us extinct” could not have existed because we hadn’t discovered asteroids yet. And even after we did discover asteroids, the idea that maybe one would hit us was not a thought for another century and a half, until we figured out that the crater in Arizona, which then was known as Barringer Crater, is now known to be the product of an asteroid impact and quickly renamed it Meteor Crater. The fun part about the future is not even knowing what questions to ask.

Right, because five years from now, some alien empire could invade and change our understanding of everything. There’s no way to predict that.
Exactly. And it will re-shift, and it will readjust how we pose questions. And what we pose questions about.

A few years ago, I sent 10 dollars into something called the Time Travel Fund, with the idea being that the interest accrues, and far into the future, they take that money and come back in time and save you before death. What do you think of that as a retirement plan?
I think it’s great if it only costs you 10 dollars. Think of all the stuff you might spend 10 dollars on that wouldn’t be nearly as fun to think about as that. If anything, you get novelty value from it. Not enough of us embrace the value of novelty.

Cosmos premieres on Fox on March 9 and on The National Geographic Channel on March 10.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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