There is an underlying current among scientists studying the cosmos — a concept woven into the fabric of their every word, every discovery, every thought.
And it is one that has gone unsaid for the last 100 years.
In 1919, a total solar eclipse helped confirm Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which states that the perception of gravity actually arises from the curvature of space and time — commonly referred to as “space-time,” and widely regarded as the fourth spatial dimension, not a parallel universe.
The theory’s impact on the science world is immeasurable — just as it is on astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who will be recording an episode of his podcast, focusing on the subject, at The Spur East in East Hampton on Friday.
Since reading Einstein’s revelation as a child, it has stirred up endless unanswered questions, shaping the problems and mysteries he regularly considers — dizzying dilemmas surrounding dark matter, dark energy and what came before the Big Bang — and his contemplation of the ideas that have yet to surface.
As for the brilliant minds that will eventually answer them, Mr. Tyson regularly wonders if they simply haven’t been born, or if they have been silenced. And it is a thought that keeps him up at night.
“Historically, it was women who were the largest demographic that were just completely removed from access to these fields and these paths of academic pursuit,” he said in a telephone interview on Monday. “That’s half the population of the world. And then you look at other populations that are otherwise oppressed or enslaved, and you say, ‘Could the next Einstein have been enslaved, or killed?’
“You just don’t know,” he continued. “I lose sleep over the lost opportunity of human ingenuity among people who, just by circumstance, bad circumstance, are not in a position to contribute.”
And so, Mr. Tyson — arguably regarded as the most influential, acclaimed scientist on the planet — does the best he can. The Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium is the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. He has served on two presidential commissions, authored 25 books and hosts both the “Cosmos” television series and “StarTalk,” the first-ever science-based talk show and podcast.
“There is no typical day,” he said. “It is life out of balance, and every day is a juggling act to see which balls will fall to the floor, which I can keep juggling and reach back down to the floor to pull it back up when its needs rise higher than the needs of the other balls I’m juggling. And it doesn’t always go well.”
Mr. Tyson is optimistic about his upcoming “StarTalk” podcast recording, “Celebrating a Century of Einstein’s Relativity,” on Friday night, alongside theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin and comedian co-host Chuck Nice, at The Spur East in East Hampton. Sponsored by the science festival SciHamptons, the evening will explore why Einstein’s idea was so radical and how it became integral to the understanding of the universe, according to “StarTalk” Executive Producer Helen Matsos.
“It’s hard to say the direction the conversation will go, because it can be very, very free-flowing. I don’t have a talkback piece in Neil’s ear, so I can’t be in his ear telling him to move on or to change the subject,” Ms. Matsos said with a laugh. “I have to use hand signals from the audience.
“But, really, he’s great and so adept at commanding and directing a conversation. He’s the expert at this, and his genius lies in being able to take conversations and let them unfold, and make them accessible to everybody in the audience.”
Using that skill set, Mr. Tyson will help the audience understand Einstein’s general theory of relativity, one of the towering achievements of the human mind and 20th century physics. Published in 1916, it proposed that massive objects, such as the sun and the Earth, change the geometry of space-time — evolving, stretching and warping the universe by forming ridges, mountains and valleys that cause objects moving through it to curve.
“As much as people wanted to resist it, if you look at the calculations that he made and the foundations of those calculations, it was unassailable,” Mr. Tyson said. “It was like, ‘Gosh, if the universe is actually this way, it would be amazing and mind-blowing.’”
The theory explains that gravity is not so much a force but rather a consequence of the curvature of space-time, caused by the uneven distribution of mass. The geometry of space-time around the sun tells Earth how to move — which not only explains why Earth and other planets appear to be pulled to the sun, but also the history and expansion of the universe, the physics of black holes, and the bending of light from distant galaxies and stars.
When Mr. Tyson first read the general theory of relativity, he was a 12-year-old kid growing up in The Bronx, fanning a restless curiosity sparked by his first visit to the very same Hayden Planetarium he oversees today.
“I said, ‘That’s cool — let me read some more,’ so I got systematically harder and harder books on it,” he said. “You don’t really get into it until graduate school, where you do full calculations about what it means, what the consequences are.”
The realizations that followed plunged him deeper and deeper into astrophysics, he said, “and you’re not freaked out by the fact that we’re curving space-time continuum in four dimensions.
“It’s more of an, ‘Oh my gosh, my frontier of ignorance is greater than I ever dreamed it was. I must become a scientist so I can work to advance our frontier of knowledge into that perimeter of ignorance,’” he said, all in one breath. “It’s not just, ‘Oh there’s another star, let’s learn about it.’ It’s, ‘Here’s an entire idea that is an organizing principle for modern cosmology. Oh my gosh!’”
By age 15, he had given his first public lecture on astronomy, and began attending the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Gone were the days of standing on his apartment rooftop, desperately peering at the sky through his binoculars. He had gotten his first good look at the stars, and there was no turning back.
“To any child, everything is an adventure,” he said. “What’s under this rock? Where does this ladder go? What’s in this book? What’s behind this tree? What happens if I play with this egg? It will probably break, of course. These are manifestations of curiosity, because everything is a frontier of ignorance to a child.
“If the child grows up and still retains that level of curiosity, then they’re scientists,” he continued, “except they just have better tools, and you learn what others have discovered so that you can hone your intellectual and physical energies, and you can direct them to places where nobody knows the answer, rather than you just not knowing the answer.”
Mr. Tyson took his talents to Harvard University, where he studied physics, and completed his doctorate in astrophysics at Columbia University, publishing research on dwarf galaxies and his first book, “Merlin’s Tour of the Universe.”
“I can tell you that the world looks different once you’ve had physics,” he said. “It’s not just learning more. It’s calculating the interplay between matter, motion and energy in this world. You look at a table and it’s not a table—it is a weight supported by force vectors touching the floor that happen to look like wooden legs. You strip the world down to its purest forces, and when you come to a problem that way, you’re more likely to see what is fundamental to it than if you don’t.”
It is through this lens that, last week, he finished his latest book, “Letters from an Astrophysicist,” a selection of 100 questions from total strangers, collected over the past three decades, and his approach to them from a cosmic perspective. They range from struggling parents to convicted felons, a terminally ill patient with six months to live, a person who is struggling to find God and another who has lost touch, and a young boy who is being picked on at school.
“I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got this.’ The nerd set, we were all made fun of. I wasn’t so much because I was bigger than other kids, but I was your classic nerd stereotype that was portrayed in all high school movies,” Mr. Tyson said. “I relate to this kid—they’re not beating him up, but they make fun of him—and he loves space, and one day he wants to be an astronaut, and he wants to make a science fair project that is so good that the kids will no longer make fun of him.”
Mr. Tyson sighed. “And then the kid says, ‘Oh, and by the way, I have intermittent seizures, and my last seizure was really bad, and the kids really made fun of me that time. And then other people told me that I can’t be an astronaut if I have seizures. So now I don’t know what to do.’ Oh my God, I can’t even get through it. I’ve read the letter 100 times, and I still can’t get through it without just welling up.”
For the answer to his young reader, that will have to wait until the book releases on October 10. In the meantime, Mr. Tyson remains focused on his long-term goal: to help foster the growth of science educators, “so that there comes a day where I don’t have to do any of this,” he said.
“I just step out the back door and go into my lab, and you won’t even miss me, because everyone else will be contributing on that landscape,” he said. “And then, yeah, I’m there and retire in the lab. That’s kind of a dream state.”
At the suggestion that his fantasy of disappearing into the ether seemed, somehow, unlikely, Mr. Tyson laughed modestly. “You’d be surprised how quickly people forget me.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and Southampton Press