Bill Moyers
January 17, 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson on Science, Religion and the Universe

BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on science, God and the universe.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: If God is the mystery of the universe, these mysteries, which we're tackling these mysteries one by one. If you're going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.

ANNOUNCER: Funding is provided by:

Anne Gumowitz, encouraging the renewal of democracy.

Carnegie Corporation of New York, celebrating 100 years of philanthropy, and committed to doing real and permanent good in the world.

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.

The Herb Alpert Foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society.

The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. More information at Macfound.Org.

Park Foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues.

The Kohlberg Foundation.

Barbara G. Fleischman.

And by our sole corporate sponsor, Mutual of America, designing customized individual and group retirement products. That’s why we’re your retirement company.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Look at this glorious photograph. It was taken by a NASA space telescope and shows the remains of a supernova, an exploded star, 17,000 light years away from us, back when here on planet Earth we were still in the Stone Age.

Now hold your hand up to the screen and see how the photo resembles the X-ray of some large celestial hand. That’s why astronomers have called this image the “Hand of God.”

Not literally, of course. But the picture does provide us with an elegant entry into the next part of my conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

He's also the narrator of a mesmerizing new show at the planetarium called Dark Universe, and this spring he’ll appear as the host of a remake of the classic PBS series Cosmos. You can see it on the National Geographic Channel and FOX TV…

In our first episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about the phenomenon of dark energy, the accelerating expansion of our universe.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON from Moyers & Company Show 301: We expected gravity to be slowing down the expanding universe. The opposite is happening. We don't know what's causing it.

BILL MOYERS: Nor do Tyson and his colleagues yet fully comprehend another cosmic enigma known as dark matter.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON from Moyers & Company Show 301: There is no known objects accounting for most of the effective gravity in the universe. Something is making stuff move that is not anything we have ever touched.

BILL MOYERS: On that mysterious note, we begin the next part of my talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Welcome.


BILL MOYERS: There were two strange sequences in your planetarium show. And I managed to go online and look at.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: You've become a dark matter junky here. You're going online, you need more.

BILL MOYERS: I think--


BILL MOYERS: So let's talk about the scene of dark matter from your show at the planetarium.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So what's going on here is you're viewing the structure of the large-scale universe. And what we've represented here are dark areas that themselves have more gravitational attraction than the light areas. So the light areas are drawing themselves to the dark areas. And so you, what happens is, as this happens over the eons, structure begins to manifest in the universe. And you see this web work, and it looks almost organic, or it looks like some kind of neurosynaptic map. The formation and collection of matter in the universe follows the laws of physics. And when you add in the dark matter, this extra gravity, it turns the universe into the universe that we see.

That's why we know that dark matter is real. We don't know what it is. But we know it's there because we can't make the universe as we see it unless we put this extra gravity into our simulations to match the gravity that we see.

BILL MOYERS: So you know it's something.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: It's something. And there's some exotic ideas for it, by the way. Particle physicists are convinced that it might be an exotic particle that doesn't interact with us. Doesn't interact with our light, with our telescopes, but that it has gravity. So these particles are doing their own thing, invisible to us, but otherwise attracting our matter into their, nucleating us among them. So, but of course, a particle physicist would think that the solution is a particle. If you're a hammer, all your problems look like nails. One of the more intriguing accounts I've heard is if you have multiple universes, it turns out gravity can spill out of one universe and be felt by another.

And if we have another universe adjacent to ours, it could be that these sites where we see extra gravity is ordinary gravity in a parallel universe. And here we are, looking at it mysteriously like, "What is this?" It's like the blind man touching the elephant. "I don't know what this whole thing is, but here I can describe this part of it. And it's kind of textured, and it's, no, no, no, no, no, this got, it's smooth and hard." And, you know, you can't see the whole elephant. Maybe the elephant is ordinary gravity in another universe and we're feeling it and we're making stuff up just to account for it.

BILL MOYERS: You think there could be another universe?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I don't see why not. Because back when we thought Earth was alone in the universe, we knew that there were other planets, that the Earth is just a planet, one of many. "Well, the sun is surely special." No, the sun is one of a hundred billion other suns. So, the galaxy, the Milky Way. No, the galaxy is one of hundred billion galaxies. How about the universe?

We have philosophical precedent to suggest that why should nature make anything in ones? Okay? Everything else we ever thought was unique or special, well, we found more of them. So philosophically, it's not unsettling to imagine more than one universe.

We also have good theoretical grounds for suggesting the existence of a multiverse. Where our universe is just one of some countless number of other universes coming in and out of existence, with slightly different laws of physics within them. That makes it a little dangerous. Because we are held together, involved in a universe where we work. Where we work physically. If you want to visit another universe, I would, like, you know, send something else ahead of you.

BILL MOYERS: So explain this to me, why is it I felt more satisfied watching the planetarium show, and as I'm sure we will watching the new "Cosmos," than I do personally from science fiction? I mean, I came away with a sense of really having experienced something authentic at the planetarium.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: That's a great question. By the way, there are many science-fiction fans who also embrace the science reality. And people who are fans of fantasy and super heroes and science fiction and all the storytelling that goes on on the frontier, essentially, everyone there knows the difference between that frontier and the real science that comes out.

And they will judge the storytelling based on how much science it got right before starts inventing what the frontier of imagination would bring. If you violate a known law of physics, that's lesser science fiction than the one where you get all your physics right, now take me, now give me the warp drive. Now give me the transporter.

Take me beyond what we know. So, but to your point I think maybe it's the same effect as if you tour the Air and Space Museum in Washington, which has the history of flight, including space flight, that we could've made an exact, we museum people, could've made an exact replica of the Apollo 11 command module that went to the moon.

And then we'd say, "Here's an exact replica." So that's okay. But if I now say, "This actual thing went to the moon," intellectually, that means something different to you. Your eyes see exactly the same, you could make a replica, a perfect, that looks exact, with all the blemishes and all the heat shield damage. You could do that. But if you know it's the real thing, the meaning is magnified. And so yes, you go to our space show, it is the real science. And it is captivating you the way we'd only perhaps had thought science fiction could.

BILL MOYERS: Science fiction came first in a way, in terms of popular entertainment.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: In some cases. But I'm a fan of JBS Haldane once said, I'm paraphrasing, he said, the universe is not only stranger than we have imagined, it's perhaps stranger than we can imagine. And when you realize that I, you understand why some people don't need to read the science fiction. Because black holes flaying stars in orbit around them and planets that have life forms undreamt of on Earth, this is, we're speaking real stuff here. Maybe that's as seductive as the imagination of someone standing on the frontier.

BILL MOYERS: One thing I took away from your planetarium show is that dark energy, is the increasing rate at which the universe is pulling itself apart, so how does it happen that we don't experience this expanding of universe as we walk down the street, or sit here in this building?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, because you live 80 years instead of billions. If you lived billions of years, oh yeah. This would be, "Hey, check that out. Look what I noticed." Yeah, I think about things you miss because of how short our time on Earth is. I'll, the best example I can give is when you walk around, say, "Oh, there's a nice, puffy cloud." You don't stare at it for an hour, you just notice it.


NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: If you do a time-lapse of the cloud, especially cumulus clouds, they are roiling, gurgling, boiling, places of condensed water vapor. They're alive. Yet, when you walk down the street, you think it's just sitting there peaceful and calm if it's just a simple cloud. So even something that does change in your lifetime, you don't think of as an actively roiling place, a cloud. So imagine longer, imagine mountain building on Earth. Imagine watching the Hawaiian islands pop up, or come, imagine watching ice ages come and go. Imagine watching species of life rise up, the dinosaurs, and then an asteroid comes, they go extinct essentially overnight on the, in the fossil record. That's a whole other way to see the world.

And it’s the task of the geologist, the astrophysicist to think about how that works. Fortunately, we have computers that can speed up time. I'll give you a great example. We used to have catalogues of galaxies. We say, "That's a really messed-up looking galaxy there. Let's make a catalogue of irregular galaxies."

So we have a catalogue of beautiful galaxies and irregular galaxies. And then people came up with theories, "How does a galaxy become irregular?" No one knew until we realized, galaxies collide. Galaxies feel each other's local gravity, collide, and it's a train wreck. And half the irregular galaxies are train-wrecked galaxies.

There's a famous astronomer, Gérard de Vaucouleurs who said, a wrecked Lexus is still a Lexus. It just happened to be in a car accident. So we would learn. Now, how do you get to know that galaxies collide? You put in the forces of gravity on a computer, run the simulation, and watch it unfold. And there you can recreate the havoc that you see in the universe on a 100-million-year time scale.

BILL MOYERS: So when a child sings, or used to sing, I don't think they do anymore, "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are," it's not twinkling. Something powerful, dramatic, and dynamic is happening to it. Right?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, yes, and we call that twinkling. So yeah, there's starlight coming billions of, or millions of light years, well it depends on if it's a galaxy, well, hundreds of thousands of light years across space, and it's a perfect point of light as it hits our atmosphere, turbulence in the atmosphere jiggled the image, and it renders the star twinkling.

And by the way, planets are brighter than stars typically, like Jupiter and Venus. Venus has been in the evening skies lately. And if you go, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are," and you, I want, you want to wish upon the star, most people are wishing on planets. That's why their wishes don't come true. Because the planets are the first stars to come out at night.

BILL MOYERS: Don't you sometimes feel sad about breaking all these myths apart?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: No, no, because I think it's, some myths are, deserve to be broken apart. The, out of respect for the human intellect. That, no, when you're writhing on the ground and froth is coming out of your mouth, you're having an epileptic seizure. You have not been invaded by the devil. We got this one figured out, okay? I mean, discovery moves on. So, I don't mind the power of myth and magic. But take it to the next frontier and apply it there. Don’t apply it in places where we've long passed what we already know is going on.

BILL MOYERS: I came out of the planetarium, and that evening, I sat thinking about what you said in the show about, you acknowledged the Big Bang and you, and I remember that Hubble rewound the process mathematically. Correct me if I'm wrong, and calculated that everything, matter, space, energy, even time itself, actually had a beginning.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So it turns out that was not Hubble, although Hubble had the data that enabled the calculation. The person who did that was a Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, he was a priest, physicist. Physicist-priest, okay?

What a cool thing to have on your business card. You got people coming and going with that. But he calculated what the implications of Einstein's general relativity, which was the new theory of gravity, would be with Hubble's expanding universe. And he says, the whole universe may have begun in a singular point in the past. And thus Big Bang as a phrase was used pejoratively of this idea, but it stuck.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the astronomer Robert Jastrow described it like the explosion of a cosmic hydrogen bomb. Not the explosion of a cosmic hydrogen bomb, but like the explosion of a cosmic hydrogen bomb.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Yeah, so there you're stuck with the analogy of the biggest explosion you know, using that to describe something that's even bigger. Which is hard to do, right? I mean, not to get morbid on you, but I was four blocks from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers. I live downtown. And I was trying to describe to others the sound of the collapse of 107-story building. And it is not like anything else. So I can say, "Well, imagine two trains colliding." But how many of us even have heard or seen that? Whatever that is, it's more than that. So you're stuck. If the biggest explosion we've made on Earth is the hydrogen bomb, and then you say it's a cosmic hydrogen bomb, it is, I think saying it's a cosmic hydrogen bomb cheapens the event. Yeah, it's way bigger than--

BILL MOYERS: I understand. An incredible flash of energy and light, though?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: And matter and, yeah, all of this. All of the above.

BILL MOYERS: Do you give people who make this case, that that was the beginning and that there had to be something that provoked the beginning, do you give them an A at least for trying to reconcile faith and reason?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I don't think they're reconcilable.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Well, so let me say that differently. All efforts that have been invested by brilliant people of the past have failed at that exercise. They just fail. And so I don't, the track record is so poor that going forward, I have essentially zero confidence, near zero confidence, that there will be fruitful things to emerge from the effort to reconcile them. So, for example, if you knew nothing about science, and you read, say, the Bible, the Old Testament, which in Genesis, is an account of nature, that's what that is, and I said to you, give me your description of the natural world based only on this, you would say the world was created in six days, and that stars are just little points of light much lesser than the sun. And that in fact, they can fall out of the sky, right, because that's what happens during the Revelation.

You know, one of the signs that the second coming, is that the stars will fall out of the sky and land on Earth. To even write that means you don't know what those things are. You have no concept of what the actual universe is. So everybody who tried to make proclamations about the physical universe based on Bible passages got the wrong answer.

So what happened was, when science discovers things, and you want to stay religious, or you want to continue to believe that the Bible is unerring, what you would do is you would say, "Well, let me go back to the Bible and reinterpret it." Then you'd say things like, "Oh, well they didn't really mean that literally. They meant that figuratively."

So, this whole sort of reinterpretation of the, how figurative the poetic passages of the Bible are came after science showed that this is not how things unfolded. And so the educated religious people are perfectly fine with that. It's the fundamentalists who want to say that the Bible is the literally, literal truth of God, that and want to see the Bible as a science textbook, who are knocking on the science doors of the schools, trying to put that content in the science room. Enlightened religious people are not behaving that way. So saying that science is cool, we're good with that, and use the Bible for, to get your spiritual enlightenment and your emotional fulfillment.

BILL MOYERS: I have known serious religious people, not fundamentalists, who were scared when Carl Sagan opened his series with the words--

CARL SAGAN from Cosmos: The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, that scared them, because they interpret that to mean, then if this is it, there's nothing else. No God and no life after.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: For religious people, many people say, "Well, God is within you," or God, the, there are ways that people have shaped this, rather than, God is an old, grey-bearded man in the clouds. So if God is within you, what, I'm sure Carl would say, in you in your mind. In your mind, and we can measure the neurosynaptic firings when you have a religious experience.

We can tell you where that's happening, when it's happening, what you're feeling like at the time. So your mind of course is still within the cosmos.

BILL MOYERS: But do you have any sympathy for people who seem to feel, only feel safe in the vastness of the universe you describe in your show if they can infer a personal God who makes it more hospitable to them, cares for them?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: In this, what we tell ourselves is a free country, which means you should have freedom of thought, I don't care what you think. I just don't. Go think whatever you want. Go ahead. Think that there's one God, two Gods, ten Gods, or no Gods. That is what it means to live in a free country. The problem arises is if you have a religious philosophy that is not based on objective realities that you then want to put in a science classroom. Then I'm going to stand there and say, "No, I'm not going to allow you in the science classroom.” I'm not telling you what to think, I'm just telling you in the science class, “You're not doing science. This is not science. Keep it out." That's where I, that's when I stand up. Otherwise, go ahead. I'm not telling you how to think.

BILL MOYERS: I think you must realize that some people are going to go to your show at the planetarium and they're going to say, "Ah-hah! Those scientists have discovered God. Because God,” dark matter, “is what holds this universe together."

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So is that a question?

BILL MOYERS: It's a statement. You know, you know they're going to say that--

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: So the history of discovery, particularly cosmic discovery, but discovery in general, scientific discovery, is one where at any given moment, there's a frontier. And there tends to be an urge for people, especially religious people, to assert that across that boundary, into the unknown lies the handiwork of God. This shows up a lot. Newton even said it. He had his laws of gravity and motion and he was explaining the moon and the planets, he was there. He doesn't mention God for any of that. And then he gets to the limits of what his equations can calculate. So, I don't, can't quite figure this out. Maybe God steps in and makes it right every now and then. That's where he invoked God.

And Ptolemy, he bet on the wrong horse, but he was a brilliant guy. He formulated the geocentric universe, with Earth in the middle. This is where we got epicycles and all this machinations of the heavens. But it was still a mystery to him. He looked up and uttered the following words, “when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies,” these are the planets going through retrograde and back, the mysteries of the Earth, “when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch Earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

What he did was invoke, he didn't invoke Zeus to account for the rock that he's standing on or the air he's breathing. It was this point of mystery. And in gets invoked God. This, over time, has been described by philosophers as the God of the gaps. If that's how you, if that's where you're going to put your God in this world, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance.

If that's how you're going to invoke God. If God is the mystery of the universe, these mysteries, we're tackling these mysteries one by one. If you're going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread. So to the person who says, "Maybe dark matter is God," if the only reason why you're saying it is because it's a mystery, then get ready to have that undone.

BILL MOYERS: In the next and concluding part of my conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, we’ll talk about science and democracy.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: You have not fully expressed your power as a voter until you have a scientific literacy in topics that matter for future political issues. This requires a level, a base level of science literacy that I don't think we have achieved yet.

BILL MOYERS: At our website,, there’s more about and from Neil deGrasse Tyson. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.


© Public Affairs Television, Inc. All rights reserved.