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Neil deGrasse Tyson On Childhood Curiosity, Simulation Theory And His Visit To Pittsburgh

Chris Cassidy
Courtesy Bill Blumenreich Presents

Neil deGrasse Tyson is perhaps the most famous living astrophysicist. He’s got a popular podcast called “StarTalk Radio,” which regularly ranks among the top science podcasts on iTunes. In 2014, he hosted the sequel to Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking TV series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”

He’ll be in Pittsburgh on November 29th for a lecture titled “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.” 90.5 WESA’s Liz Reid spoke with him about what got him interested outer space as a kid and the possibility that what we call reality is just a simulation.

On why he calls himself “your personal astrophysicist” on his podcast

I’m going to take a bet that … I might the only astrophysicist that most people know. So, yes, it might be audacious to say I’m your personal astrophysicist. But it’s an attempt, however successful or not, to encourage people to be comfortable with what they’re about to learn that we draw from the universe. The format of Star Talk is conceived to be kind of like we’re all sitting around the living room and just a subject comes up, and we find all the ways that it touches us, not only as sort of citizens of the planet, but many aspects of science plug into the pop culture that you already bring to the conversation. And so you find out all the ways that science matters in your life. And in that way I think of myself as your personal astrophysicist. 

On what got him interested in science as a kid

I think all kids are born scientists in the sense that they’re all curious … we are curious as children to the point of risking our survival and our health. Most of what you do … as a parent is to prevent kids from fully manifesting the curiosity that courses within them. “Stay away from that edge! Put that fragile thing down! Don’t get yourself dirty!” All of this, all these commands we place upon our growing children, nearly all of them, are designed to constrict their native attempt to be curious about their environment.

When I was 9 is when that curiosity focused onto the universe itself. It was a family trip to the local planetarium. I grew up in New York City so that would be the Hayden Planetarium, where I now serve as director. We went into the dome, and the lights went out and the stars came out and I was hooked. I would say star-struck is the only way I could describe it.

On whether our reality is really a simulation

I think the argument is persuasive. There’s a philosopher*, I forgot his name, in the 1990s who advanced this idea, upon seeing how powerful computing was coming along. He was imagining there would come a day where you could simulate an entire universe on your computer, and that would include life forms and neuro-synapses of minds operating, and you could even give them free will, perhaps. You program this in, and then at what point is the life form that you created, at what point are you going to say it’s not real? Well, yes, you’ve simulated it, but the life form doesn’t know it’s simulated. It’s living in a world that you created for it.

Well, that world that you create, may on its own initiative, decide that it wants to simulate a universe within it. And if this continues, it would mean most universes that exist are simulated rather than real. Now, if that’s the case, and we are in a universe, we are more likely, then, to be in a simulated universe than a real one.

It’s a fascinating bit of logic. And you can’t really deny that plausibility, given how powerful computers are, what direction they’re headed and how powerful they may one day become. So I say, yeah, let it be so. 

On what to expect from his Nov. 29 talk

You experience movie clips as I experienced them when I first saw those clips in their full films. You’ll get to see what I think … was it a good portrayal of science or a bad portrayal of science? Did they miss an opportunity because the producer or the director of the writer didn’t know as much biology or physics or chemistry as they could have or should have? It is a full, total indulgence of what it is to see and appreciate a film if you do it through the lens of science literacy. 

*The philosopher to whom Tyson is referring is Nick Bostrom, who published a paper titled "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?" in 2003. In a follow-up e-mail, Dr. Tyson wrote, "There were fragments of the idea in the 1990s, but we can comfortably declare that 2003 was the beginning of the question as we now think of it."