Neil deGrasse Tyson’s questions for the future
From life on Mars to parallel universes, the curiosity of Neil deGrasse Tyson knows no bounds. Andrew Masterson reports.
Enjoying, as he does, a high profile as a science communicator, the go-to guy for US television shows from breakfast till way past bedtime, Neil deGrasse Tyson can be excused perhaps if lately he’s been neglecting his real work.
Not that he has been, necessarily. Given, however, the almost constant demand for his services to sink the slipper into Donald Trump’s anti-science policies, not to mention countering sudden outbreaks of flat-earth enthusiasm and anti-vax hysteria, it would not be surprising if his astrophysics day-job has been on the slide a bit.
Be that as it may, it certainly hasn’t stopped him, in his capacity as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, from compiling a wish-list of science questions he’d like to see resolved in the next decade. After all, he says, it’s not as if The Donald will be around forever.
“Here’s what I would hope,” he begins, but then corrects himself.
“I don’t like the word ‘hope’, because it means you have no control over the outcome. Here’s what I would be delighted to know in the next 10 years.
“There are experiments already in progress that could lead to these answers – that’s why I don’t have to hope, because I have good confidence that we will know for certain, one way or another.”
On an astrophysical scale, his first item of business is distinctly parochial.
“We have a probe set up such that if there’s life on Mars we should find it,” he says.
“And if there’s not, we’ll determine that as well. We’re looking at particular spots about which we have high expectations. If there was ever life, or life there now, you would find it in one spot versus another. That’s life, of course, as we understand it.”
His final comment segues into the next item on his list. Life, as far as science is concerned, is limited to a sample size of just one, which makes a poor basis for reason.
“I want to know how you make life in the first place,” he says. “How did nature go from inanimate organic molecules to self-replicating life? That’s a frontier of biology in which great progress has been made in recent decades. I’d like to think we can actually make that transition in the next 10 years.”
It is an astrophysicist’s primary task, of course, to look outwards, to stare into the distance: not just at the things that can be seen, but also at the things that can’t.
“We have experiments attempting to understand what dark matter is,” he says. “Dark matter is 85% of the gravity of the universe, the source of which is unknown to us. That’s the longest unsolved problem in astrophysics – it’s been around for 80 years!
“I think we may be able to solve that in the next 10 years. A new exotic form of subatomic particle may be responsible for it. We don’t know yet.”
He mentions dark energy, too. It’s another unknown, but it can be measured. Experiments are underway. Better understanding is coming down the pike.
And then there’s the big unknown: perhaps, for astrophysicists, the ultimate unknown.
“I’d like to know if there’s a parallel universe,” he says. “I mean, who wouldn’t? I really want to know. I don’t want to visit it or anything, because maybe the laws of physics are slightly different and I’d decompose into a pile of goo just by crossing the threshold.
“But if it’s there, I’d kinda like to know about it, and know about it in the next 10 years.”
There are, of course, many attractions to the idea of a parallel universe, and not the least of those is that Donald Trump wouldn’t be in it.
“Mind you,” says Tyson, “there could be a parallel Trump. You’d have to watch it.”
Some things, perhaps, are better left unknown.
Neil deGrasse Tyson will be in Australia between July 15 and 29, 2017. Tickets are available from April 4, here.