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Podcast: Neil DeGrasse Tyson On Big Data, Race, And Why Work-Life Balance Is Overrated

“We’ve been into big data from the beginning, long before anybody knew the term ‘big data.’ We have the universe we’re measuring here. So that, in principle, is the biggest data set of them all.”


Go down the list of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s titles — author, TV host, meme-spawner — and you eventually get to Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. In other words, he’s still a working astrophysicist.

Tyson recently visited FiveThirtyEight’s studios to talk about his work and how big data is changing the field of astronomy. Advances in telescope and computing technology mean that the amount of information we can collect about our universe grows enormously every year.

Press play above to stream the full episode of What’s The Point with Tyson, where he also discussed why he hates work-life “balance” and why his being black often leads people to confuse him for a sportscaster. Below, some highlights and a partial transcript of the interview.

‘Are You Wired For Doubt?’

(at 9 minutes)

TYSON: Don’t confuse science literacy with possessing a body of knowledge. Science literacy — it’s an aspect of it, of course. Science literacy is more, how is your brain wired for thought? Are you wired for curiosity? Are you wired for doubt — in search of evidence, in search of data to arrive at a conclusion rather than start your day with preexisting conclusion and cherry-picking data to fit it? And so the more examples I can put on the table about how science moves through our culture, the more people will feel comfortable about it and not walk away guilty that maybe they didn’t do well in science class or they didn’t take enough science. I can tell you curiosity matters more than your body of knowledge.

Manager Of The Digital Universe

(at 14 minutes)

TYSON: At the museum we have a — at the American Museum of Natural History — that’s my day job. Someone on my staff is Manager Of The Digital Universe.

JODY AVIRGAN: That’s their title? That’s on their card?

TYSON: That’s on his card. And I thought, “That’s the coolest. Whip that out at the bar.”

We gather data from around the world from telescopes and make them coherent with one another. … Now when we write space shows and when I take you through the galaxy or out to the universe, we use real data for that. The Hayden planetarium used to have an artist’s studio where pictures were drawn and painted and collaged. Now it’s all on the computer. We’re using real data for that.

On Race

(at 23 minutes)

AVIRGAN: Are people surprised when they hear that you were so into sports?

TYSON: I’m not a small person. We’re so trained in our society, if you see sort of a black person with some of body size — oh, must’ve been an athlete. There are people who don’t remember that I do science but they recognize me in some way. “Haven’t I seen you on TV?” I say, maybe, I don’t know. “Aren’t you a sportscaster?”

The stereotype kicks in. So people — no, they’re not surprised

AVIRGAN: But why is it hard for people — I think it’s hard for people to have it in their head that you can be really nerdy and a really good athlete at the same time.

TYSON: There was a day when that was the case, but [now] they delight in the fact that that exists. It’s not hard. I think they delight. They like knowing there’s something else you might do well, and I’m honored by that curiosity. … There’s one video of me dancing that was smuggled out of the Christmas party in my department.

AVIRGAN: You know i’m gonna Google that right now.

TYSON: And it’s filmed vertically.

AVIRGAN: Oh that’s the worst.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jody Avirgan in the FiveThirtyEight studios.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Jody Avirgan in the FiveThirtyEight studios.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.