"I cannot look at a fruit bowl without thinking of the universe"
If anyone can draw a connection the wonders of the universe to breakfast, it’s America’s most famous astrophysicist. With his new book, the slim Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Neil deGrasse Tyson—director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of StarTalk and the rebooted Cosmos, and the dis-track dropping defender of the oblate spheroid that is planet Earth—presents a pocket-sized guide to space and time. Extra Crispy talked with Tyson about breakfast and the rules of the universe (and the human body) that put it all into perspective.
Extra Crispy: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: This morning I had quesadillas using whole wheat tortilla with melted cheddar cheese—cheddar cheese from Australia—and I had a small bowl of diced fruit, which included pineapple and strawberries. And I then had a few glasses of water. That’s it. Later I went to Starbucks and had a hot chocolate. I’m a big fan of hot chocolate. I have no caffeine addiction; caffeine has no attraction to me whatsoever. But every now and then when other people are having coffee, I’ll have a hot chocolate. And that happened this morning.
Is that a normal breakfast for you?
Sure. On the weekends I’ll typically have a bigger breakfast with French toast, pancakes, that sort of thing, but during the week I keep the breakfast simple.
Astrophysics in many ways is about the big picture: literally universal stuff. But are there any laws, or maybe just interesting phenomena, that may be observed from the breakfast table?
Any table that has a fruit bowl. I cannot look at a fruit bowl without thinking of the universe. Minus the bananas, there aren’t many banana-shaped things in the universe. (laughs) Apples, grapes, plums, the relative sizes of these to one another…I spend a lot of brain energy passively imagining these as orbs in the universe. For example: an apple to a cherry tomato is about the same size as Earth is to the moon. And a honeydew to a pomegranate seed is very close to the size of the sun relative to the Earth. If you hollow out the sun, you can pour more than a million Earths into it and still have room left over. Volume goes very large very quickly.
So, orbs on a table. I think about the universe all the time.
Why is it important that everyone—even people in a hurry—have a basic grasp of astrophysics?
I won’t require that you care about astrophysics. I won’t even say that it’s important. Because that implies that I know what’s important about your life and you don’t. I think you know best what’s most important in your life.
Astrophysics can serve the curiosity of anyone who has ever looked up. It’s a reminder that we don’t know everything. But what we do know can be transformative in our understanding of our place in this world. Because we’ve all looked up, I’ve never had to twist anybody’s arm to wonder [about the universe]. It has this unique capacity to trigger a sense of mystery, because you know the universe is bigger than you are, it’s older than you are. Yet somehow it has succumbed to our inquiry. It’s about the triumph of the human intellect with [the awareness of] things we don’t yet understand. That, to the scientists, is what attracts us to this frontier.
If you don’t want to be a scientist, I bet you still wonder what our place is in our universe. That’s why I write these books, to serve that curiosity, to serve your wonder. Does it improve your life? Will it put food on your table? No, probably not. But it might give you something different to talk about in the bar, rather than who won last night’s sports game.
What does a “cosmic perspective” tell us?
A cosmic perspective is a view brought to you by research and modern astrophysics, but you could actually have a cosmic perspective brought to you from other branches of science. For example: there are more microbes living and working in one centimeter of your lower colon than there are humans who have ever been born. We like to think of ourselves in charge, at the top of some control system in the world. Whereas to microbes, we are simply an anaerobic, dark vessel of fecal matter. (laughs) That’s all we are to a microbe. And if you get them upset, they’re in charge of you! They take control of you. That, in a way, is a cosmic perspective, brought to you by biology and human physiology.
Most of the time when we think of a “cosmic perspective” we think of it as an outlook on Earth and our place within life on Earth. Often that comes to us by looking at it from afar. When we look at Earth from space, there are no color-coded countries. From space, there’s just oceans and land and clouds. Color-coded countries are political constructs humans have created that divide us. If you happen to have this privileged view from space, and you watch how people behave on Earth, they can only behave the way they do because they have an ego that has not been checked at the door. They, as individuals, think their cultures are more important—or their economies are more important, or their militaries are more important, or their philosophies are more important—than yours. And then of course, in many such occasions, war unfolds. I’m pretty sure you’ll never see astrophysicists leading nations into battle. The cosmic perspective would prevent it.