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Letters to Tyson: Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks New Book, Twitter and Society’s Hunger for Science

“Do people write letters anymore? Not much.”

I’m sitting in an office phonebooth talking with arguably the most famous living scientist. At 60 years old, Neil deGrasse Tyson remembers the days when email and social media weren’t the most obvious vehicles for thoughtful discourse with people who followed his work. Instead, the best method was sitting in a room and typing or writing a letter.

“With letters, you get to pause and sit back and think about when someone sits down and composes a question, and they think that my life experience and expertise might illuminate a path they need to choose.”

Some letters required more from Tyson than others, forcing him to learn contextual foundations for which he’d root his answers in or making him dig deep into his own personal background to deliver a well-thought-out opinion, complete with humor and a personal vignette.

He’s been receiving letters for the better part of 30 years, keeping copies of ones he deems entertaining, thoughtful and worth revisiting. His latest book Letters from an Astrophysicist, hitting shelves on October 8, features 100 of his favorite letters – yet another opportunity to learn from one of the most renowned educators on the planet and perhaps in the universe.

With a book release comes a book tour, including a stop at Warner Theatre on October 23. Before reading Tyson’s collection of letters or hearing him speak live, read our conversation with the brilliant scientist.

On Tap: Do people still write letters? I feel like you could have just as easily made a book of your Twitter responses.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Do people write letters anymore? Not much. The communication channel tends to be Twitter and I’ve considered a Twitter book, but there’s no hurry for that. I put a lot of effort into my tweets, more than people think. I think long and hard to tweet, and it’s a big responsibility because I communicate with a lot of people – nearly 14 million people directly. A tweet triggers a neuron synapses snapshot of the collective brain, because I see people respond. If I say something funny and people laugh, then that works. And if they don’t, then I have to figure out why.

OT: How would you describe the book’s format?
NDT: The letters span a range of 30 years and most of them are from a specific 10-year span, and another set of letters are more open. For example, I wrote an open letter to my extended family and colleagues after I escaped lower Manhattan on 9/11 and was home and witnessed everything that had happened. I wrote a letter to NASA when I turned 60, and I compared and contrasted NASA and my own 60 years of life – that’s the opening of the book. I end the book with a letter to my father, but it’s a eulogy in the form of a letter. So, the book is bookended by letters – not individuals’ letters, but open letters. It’s a combination of all of the above.

OT: What about these letters stood out to you enough that you’d want to print them for readers?
NDT: This book is not, “Let me learn astrophysics,” and that’s not why these people have written to me. You get to share in their angst and see how a scientist and educator replies. Nearly every one of these letters probe people’s attitudes and beliefs and fears. Often scientists are associated with cold, meticulous content. You have to do that in the lab. But when you’re not in the lab, you have these human feelings too.

OT: What kind of letters made the cut? What about this selection proved to create a special narrative?
NDT: What I noticed was, some letters I invested more in my answers than others and it was because the person was coming from a place that deserved more attention than “Yes,” “No” or “Check out this website.” If it was more personal, more introspective, I would devote more energy to my replies. Then I’d finish and say, “You know, this has some good stuff in it.” So I kept a copy. I did that for about 15 or 20 years. There was 500 total that I kept in a folder. These are letters that had a little extra creative dimension to the replies. Culling those to the best 100 of them, that became the book.

OT: When you were looking back on all these letters and personal messages, did you think about how much different it would be if you received or composed these letters as you are now?
NDT: That happens on several levels. The first is, I could compose that sentence better than I could 10 or 20 years ago, so I reserve the right to clarify the sentences [laughs]. My letters are edited for clarity and the people’s letters are edited for length. Generally, I don’t reply to something unless I have researched the subject thoroughly. Often, they’re so well-researched that it’s not likely to be improved later on. I did a lot of research on religion. Why? Because people asked me about it, so I said I couldn’t reply unless I had some foundational knowledge on what the hell I’m talking about. If someone asks me about how God relates to science, I can’t just answer it from a scientific point of view. When you [ask], “Have I grown or evolved?” [the answer is], I evolve in the moment before I reply.

OT: You’re doing the book tour in a ton of places. Does it mean more to you to have these kinds of discussions in DC where national decisions get made by politicians?
NDT: Most public talks I give are not book-based. This little stretch is specific to the book. Generally, when I give talks in DC, my commentary that frames the content or the humor that I lean toward tends to be more DC-oriented. The flavor is definitely a DC flavor, knowing there will be movers and shakers there or an article could be written that could be read by a mover or shaker. Talks are not cookie-cutter in that sense. For example, one of the letters in the book rails against me for advocating for tax funding going toward NASA, so I might bring that up in DC. I might select letters more befitting to that region in the country.

OT: You’ve written several books in the past few years, and you’ve obviously had success with “Star Talk,” your visits on the longform “Joe Rogan Experience,” etc. Have you noticed an uptick in the hunger people have for science, and specifically astrophysics and theoretical physics?
NDT: I wonder if it’s not that the hunger is up, but it’s the ability to reveal that they’re hungry. How could The Big Bang Theory sitcom have been number one for so long? If you look at the list of long-running number one shows, it’s in the top few of that list. So, how did that happen? Where did that come from? I think I am on that landscape as someone who is sharing the joys of science with the public, and I’m delighted to recognize and report that there is a hunger out there. There’s a lot of ways to do it: videos, podcasts, etc.

OT: You’ve had a tremendous amount of success blending your knowledge with pop culture. Do you sometimes feel like you’re one of the first stops people make on their journey to looking into science?
NDT: That’s true, however, I would worry about it if I was the sole driver of this. Look at how many Twitter followers NASA has, or the Instagram followers Nat Geo has. Go look at the Facebook page I f–king love science [Ed. Note: we did, and over 25 million people like it]. Whatever role I’m playing in this landscape, no matter how large it is, there are larger things at play. It would be weird if I was the driving force. My goal is always to get people interested in science, and I’m happy to be a guide to the cosmos. But it’s the science, not the person.

See Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at Warner Theatre on October 23.
Discussion begins at 7:30 p.m., tickets $67.50.

For more about Letters from an Astrophysicist, visit www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson or follow him on Twitter @neiltyson

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.warnertheatredc.com

Photo: Erin Brethauer

Behind The Audio: NPR’s Yowei Shaw Brings Mystery to Pop-Up Stage

When Yowei Shaw attended her first Pop-Up Magazine show, she was so intrigued by the unique storytelling platform she knew immediately that she wanted in. The current NPR producer for Invisibilia was a freelancer at the time, so she was well versed in the act of pitching proper stories for the right outlets, but after proposing nonfiction after nonfiction stories, Pop-Up proved to be incredibly selective about its performers. Though Shaw is still figuring out the perfect pitching formula, a story based on her personal experience was approved for the fall 2018 issue and is on its way to Warner Theatre in DC on September 25 (she’s also performing in Portland and Toronto for Pop-Up’s international debut).

“I think it was a little bit of a fluke that I got through,” Shaw jokes, but as she describes her upcoming performance, it has all the traits to captivate a listener and keep them tuned in until the end.

The story is based on, “something strange [that] happened to me years ago when I used to run a tiny DIY youth radio project in Philadelphia,” Shaw says. During a workshop she taught to young people about creating radio stories for their communities, “something went totally haywire with one of my students and I haven’t ever been able to get it out of my head.”

Shaw was able to track down her former student who inspired the story, but that’s all she could share with me. Staying true to her background in long form audio content, the story involves an abridged investigation packaged for her live set. Through collaboration with Pop-Up’s team of the artistic and visually-minded, her story will feature animations and documentary photos.

At the time of our interview, Shaw hadn’t seen all the visual elements to her own story but is excited to see what the team comes up with. “Each story presents different opportunities and I feel like they’re always trying to maximize potential and try different things,” Shaw says.

Pop-Up ensures a diverse lineup, starting with shorter, comedic stories followed by heavier, longer stories toward the end. Shaw’s somewhere in the middle.

Shaw’s seen at least four or five Pop-Up shows now, explaining, “it’s really a magical experience. Every time it comes to town I have to go.” She adds that the Pop-Up team are masters of this new medium of storytelling and she’s very excited to meet her fellow performers and watch their own stories come to life.

“I’m a huge fangirl of [Ann] Friedman (Call Your Girlfriend podcast). I subscribe to her weekly newsletter, so that will be personally gratifying to meet her and see her story. I’m really excited to see what Albert Samaha (BuzzFeed) comes up with, Ed Yong (The Atlantic), really all of them. Almost all the rest of the lineup, these are people I admire and respect very much. It’s very strange to see my name [alongside their’s]!”

The storytelling performances are made up of avid note takers by profession – journalists from all media platforms. But what happens at Pop-Up Magazine’s live shows stays at Pop-Up: with its no-recording policy, audiences are left to sit through these performances and leave with just the memory of a night that draws from all bases of the human experience.

Working mostly in the radio world, Shaw was eager to collaborate with other types of journalists, making her both thrilled and nervous to perform a story live instead of producing it in a studio.

“Listening to the audio is a pretty solitary experience so I don’t know what people think really or how they experience it. I don’t know where people laugh, I don’t know where people sigh… I have performed before just a few times, and there’s a high you get from that kind of audience participation and reaction that you don’t get from putting out a podcast or radio show.”

As for what Shaw has planned next, she will produce a longer version of her performance for NPR’s Invisibilia, returning for its next season in spring 2019. “Imagining the audience and how they react in a much more intentional way, that is something I will be bringing back to my work with Invisibilia. Just the thrill of taking people by the hand and in the story and just giving them a ride and an experience.”

Pop-Up Magazine is coming to DC’s Warner Theatre on September 25. Find ticket information and see who’s performing here.

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.popupmagazine.com