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Making Science Hip

Originally aired on July 23, 2009

Audio

Aired 7/23/09

Who cares about science these days? We'll talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the hip host of NOVA scienceNOW, about how to make science fun, cool and interesting to the masses.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. As science becomes more complex, as scientific disciplines become more specialized, sometimes scientists have a hard time talking to each other about the latest advances in their fields. So how in the world is the average person expected to keep up? Creating a platform that makes science accessible to the non-scientist while not dumbing it down, and making it interesting at the same time, is quite an achievement. And, fortunately for us, it's a goal that public television's NOVA has been achieving for more than 30 years. With the original show still going strong, NOVA has branched out with the NOVA scienceNow program. It has a faster-paced magazine-style format. And I’m very happy to introduce two of the people who are responsible for the PBS NOVA series. My guests are Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS. Neil, welcome to These Days.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON (Astrophysicist, Host of NOVA scienceNOW): Thanks for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: And Paula Apsell is senior executive producer of NOVA and director of the WGBH Science Unit. Paula, welcome.

PAULA APSELL (Senior Executive Producer, NOVA): Thank you very much. Great to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to tell our listeners that we are inviting them to join our conversation. Do you have a favorite episode of NOVA? Maybe a question about how science programs are put together. Give us a call, 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Neil, you know, this week has been all about remembering the moon landing 40 years ago and…

TYSON: Well, it’s – apparently it’s about Comic-Con in town. Apparently.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve already heard. Well, we’ve heard national programs. We did a program yesterday about the moon landing…

TYSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …and so forth. And I wonder, in retrospect how important was that achievement in space science? In what we know about space science?

TYSON: Well, the fact that we haven’t been back to the moon in 37 years meant it wasn’t as important as people thought it would have turned out to be. Normally, if you do something first, you would hope—and it’s of great achievement—you would hope and expect that those that come behind you maintain that effort and continue and grow upon it. That didn’t happen. We went to the moon six times and stopped. And so since 1972, we’ve basically been like driving around, you know, driving around the block is all we’ve been doing in low Earth orbit. So it’s – So I’m disappointed in us as a species, for us as Americans that that adventure was not further pursued. That’s my first point. But, second, what it signified, however, was that so much of what we might ever think is impossible might not be, technologically. Because most of the time that preceded the Apollo era people are saying, oh, you can never leave Earth or go to the moon. That’s impossible. We go to the moon; now it’s possible. No one is saying, for example, if we want to go to Mars, no one is saying, oh, we can never – that’s impossible. No one is speaking that way. You’ll say there are challenges, we might have to overcome them some might be particularly difficult but no one is saying it’s impossible. And so I think it catapulted our technological expectations of ourselves to be able to achieve whatever it is we wanted and I thought that’s an important step.

CAVANAUGH: You know, it’s interesting in those years that you talked about, from the early seventies to now, we seem more interested in making movies about going to space than we actually go to space and have projects like that. Have we lost the sense of adventure about space travel?

TYSON: Well, as expensive as big budget Holly movie – Hollywood movies are, they’re vastly cheaper than actually going into space. So, yeah, the – So movies, you can make movies. I don’t think we’ve lost our sense of adventure. The – We have to remember, a proper assessment, a proper accounting of what went on in the sixties needs to include the fact that we were at war with the Soviet Union. And when you’re at war, it enables money to be dislodged from coffers and flow like rivers. And so that’s principally why we went to the moon. We didn’t go to the moon because we’re explorers and discoverers. That’s the cleansed memory that we have of that period right on down to the sentences that we recount, spoken by President Kennedy: We will go to the moon and chose to do the other, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard, and we… So that’s all – The hair rises on the back of your neck when you hear this. And you say, wow, he was an explorer. We’ve edited out other paragraphs of that same speech that say we must do this to choose the path of freedom over the road of tyranny that the Soviet Union – I mean, it’s a battle cry against communism. So when we beat them to the moon, that entire drive left the equation. And so people are surprised we were not on Mars by 1985 but, in retrospect, I wasn’t surprised at all.

CAVANAUGH: And so, if we don’t have the cold war, what’s going to get us back, let’s say, to a mission to Mars?

TYSON: Well, in my read of the efforts that people, cultures, have invested in achieving great expensive things, things that require huge investments of physical or financial capital, and you can make a list of what those are, the pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Columbus voyages, these sorts of things, we can all agree what’s on that list. What they all have in common is only one of three drivers, one of them is the ‘I don’t want to die’ driver. That’s what I call it. It’s the war driver. It’s defense is a big – is the biggest of them. Next is ‘I don’t want to die poor.’ So it’s the prospect of gaining wealth, and a lot of the great voyages of the 16th century were driven by that. A third one, which you don’t see much today is the ‘praise of royalty or deity.’ You don’t get much of that anymore. And if you don’t satisfy those three, my read of the history of human achievement says it’s just simply not going to happen. So if you want to go to Mars, I’m not convinced—I wish it weren’t this way—but I’m simply not convinced that the urge to explore is sufficient enough to dislodge the amount of money necessary to actually take that trip. So we’ve got to find a nice economic reason to go. Tourism works for me. You know, people spend all kinds of money to – on their days off. I don’t see why space exploration couldn’t be part of that, part of that adventure. And – but you don’t want there to be a war driver but I assure you if China says we’re going to put military bases on Mars, we’ll be in Mars ten months from now. I assure you that’s what’s going to happen.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS. And my other guest is Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. We have a caller on the line, Pam in Encinitas. Good morning, Pam, and welcome to These Days.

PAM (Caller, Encinitas): Thank you. Good morning. I was just calling to ask what age group the show’s geared for?

CAVANAUGH: NOVA, the original series NOVA?

PAM: No, the scienceNOW program, which is great. I love it but I’m just curious what age group it’s geared towards.

APSELL: Well, one of the things that PBS does, and that we do at NOVA and at NOVA scienceNOW, is we take all comers. We are happy to have any – any and all ages. We want all people to feel that our show has something to say for them. But it is curious that the age group that seems to find NOVA scienceNOW really compatible with its interests is somewhat younger than the age group that gravitates to NOVA. And I think that’s not surprising. The stories are shorter, it’s more lively, it’s a little bit lighter, it has a lot of humor to it and so we do find that there’s a younger demographic watching the show. One thing that’s really interesting about the NOVA scienceNOW audience that we’ve found is that parents and kids tend to watch it together, which is not something that’s very common these days. I mean, what we hear is that there are five people in the household, there are five television sets going all in different places in the house. But this is – we get – our audience is very responsive to NOVA scienceNOW. In the first program this season, we got about 1500 e-mails the next day just really – It really made your heart beat faster, people telling us how much they appreciated this take on science and on current research. And many people commented that they watch it with their kids, so since parents have the greatest influence on the careers that their kids have—not that we necessarily are trying to cultivate scientists, we want to cultivate science literacy and people who are interested in science—but it’s nice to know that families are – we’re giving families something that they can enjoy together as a group.

TYSON: And, by the way, it typically happens where the – it’s the parent or the older figure of the house who has the TV on and watching the program and then their kid walks by, their teenage kid walks by to go to the refrigerator and looks over the shoulder and says, oh, what’re you watching there? And they say, oh, nothing, it’s just science. And then they stay and they both sit on the couch and watch the show. So I remain fascinated by the multigenerational attraction that this show offers the household and so it’s hard to say who it’s targeting. I can tell you that, given the timeslot, which is in the evening, no, it’s not for your preschoolers, no, but it’s the fact that adults who want to be science literate as well but who might not have had the attention span for the full hour of NOVA, they find it intriguing and enlightening as do the people who are – they’re raising in the household.

CAVANAUGH: Keith is on the line from Vista. Good morning, Keith, and welcome to These Days.

KEITH (Caller, Vista): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I had a comment and sort of a tag on to the discussion you’re currently having about how this program, in particular, is really accomplishing those goals. I love the show and my older daughter loves it as well. And, you know, we – I think in this day and age we need to encourage, in particular, more women, more girls to get interested in science and that. And I think we’ve been doing that but this program really helps out in that. And some of the topics you guys have covered, making of the artificial diamonds and also some of the robotics aspects of the – of segments you’ve had really touch her imagination. They touch my imagination. And I just wanted to thank you for doing such a fine, fine job of making science accessible to people of all ages.

APSELL: Well, you’re very welcome. That really warms my heart and it’s great to hear that the program is appreciated by people like you. I do want to add that one of the things that we were trying to do in this program is a way to encourage interests in science and to make young people feel, wow, I can do that, is that each program has a segment that’s a profile and in that we look at a scientist and it’s often a young scientist and it’s often a scientist that – person that traditionally may be of a group that wouldn’t go into science, and we profile not only they’re a scientist and their life in the lab but their actual life and to try to get away from the stereotypes that are so common that scientists just live in the lab, that they’re boring people, that their knowledge is so specialized that they don’t know anything else. And on this week’s we profiled an engineer at MIT named Sangeeta Bhatia and we start out in her car and she starts out saying my car is a mess. And talking about how she can’t cook, that her husband said that she’s great at preparing food, which means opening cans. And she said, I just want to be seen as a normal person and having a normal life. And yet she has amazing accomplishments. She’s creating an artificial liver and, clearly, is a very, very, very fine scientist with great achievements to her name. So that’s the purpose of our profile and I think that people can look at that and say, wow, I can see myself doing that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for that call, Keith. And I’m wondering, Paula, you oversee NOVA and WGBH’s Science Unit, which produces a lot of science programs. You’ve talked to us a little bit about why it’s important to make television shows about science but is it difficult to make television shows about science?

APSELL: Yes, it is. It is difficult. But, I mean, I feel making any good program that has strong content and, at the same time, has the right kind of entertainment quotient to bring in an audience, it’s not simple no matter what you’re doing. But it is difficult because the science has to be extremely accurate. We have the support of the scientific community. We go into these scientists’ labs and we kind of take them over and we mess them up with our lights, and scientists who are very, very busy people, what with writing grants and doing their work and their conferences, they give us a day, two or three, of their time. And they’re not going to do that unless they feel that we can get the story right. So we have a laser focus on getting the story right. At the same time, you need to make it entertaining and fun. You need to be able to tell a good story. So combining those two and finding people who have the good, old-fashioned talent to do that, yes, it is a complicated undertaking but it’s very rewarding.

CAVANAUGH: Speaking with Paula Apsell. She’s senior executive producer of NOVA, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is host of NOVA scienceNOW. Both seen on KPBS. And we are taking your calls. In fact, we have to take a short break but when we come back, we’ll continue taking your calls and if you want to tell us what your favorite episode of NOVA or NOVA scienceNOW is, or if you have another question, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. We will return in just a few moments. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

[break]

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guests are Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS, and Paula Apsell, senior executive producer of NOVA. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, 1-888-895-KPBS. If you want to join the conversation just give us a call. Neil, I’m wondering, when did you become interested in science?

TYSON: I was nine years old.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TYSON: So it’s my entire life, and it wasn’t just science, it was the universe. It was very clear, clear as day or clear as night, that…

CAVANAUGH: Clear as the cosmos.

TYSON: Clear as the cosmos, it was an unmistakable moment. A family trip to the local planetarium. I grew up in New York City. The planetarium there is the Hayden Planetarium, where I’m now the head of the planetarium, so it’s one of those stories. But those stories don’t play well in a city that has eight million people. It’s not a small town so that doesn’t – But anyhow, so I was nine years old, the lights dimmed, the stars came out, and I seemed – I feel almost in retrospect that the universe chose me, like I had no say in the matter. I was just hooked on the cosmos from then onward. It would take a couple of years before I would learn that you could make a career of it. I wasn’t thinking career at age nine, I was just thinking what titillates me. By age eleven, though, if you’d asked me what I—as adults always do…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, right.

TYSON: …what do you want to be when you grow up? I saw a comedian joke about that once, say that adults ask that of kids because they’re looking for ideas themselves. It was Paula Poundstone, the comedienne, if I…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

TYSON: …remember correctly. But she – So from age eleven onward, I would answer, I want to be an astrophysicist, and it’s been that ever since.

CAVANAUGH: That’s just – that’s an amazing story. So for a little nine-year-old boy looking up in the sky in…

TYSON: No, no, no.

CAVANAUGH: …the Hayden…

TYSON: I grew up in New York City.

CAVANAUGH: The Hayden Planet…

TYSON: There is no sky.

CAVANAUGH: No, no, the sky, the false sky at the Hayden Planetarium.

TYSON: That’s right. Right.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.

TYSON: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: Paula, through the years, as I say, NOVA has had quite a run now. Have you changed the way that you’ve been presenting science to the public? Have you seen that the audience needs a change?

APSELL: Yes, I mean, the show really has evolved. What you – what we did when Michael Ambrosino began the program in 1973 and all of the sciences were complete virgin territory. We could do anything. We’ve done a lot of scientific subjects. We’ve made over 500 programs now. So, yes, I think that we’ve broadened our scope to some extent. There’ve been entirely new sciences and entirely new scientific areas. I mean, when I first started on NOVA, there was no such thing as genetic engineering. Now, everything is DNA. So there are whole new areas, computer science, artificial intelligence, I mean, these were areas that were very small and really not very well developed when the show began. So we have a lot more latitude now. There’s so much more science going on. But, yes, I do think, definitely, you have to continually update your style. I mean, there’s a difference between style and content. The content, I mean, I still think that we have the same dedication to accuracy, to telling science as a story, and I think that was really NOVA’s innovation. It wasn’t we’re just going to give you the facts, it was we’re going to make a story out of it because behind every scientific innovation there is, indeed, a story. And so the emphasis has always been on storytelling on NOVA, giving the audience fantastic visuals and now, of course, with computer animation, with different types of cameras, with the high definition, there is technically, we have a lot more latitude in what we can do. And so I think that the demands for visualizing these subjects are much greater and we really try to comply with that. And, you know, you always have to try to be entertaining in the vernacular of the day.

CAVANAUGH: And we have a caller on the line. Priscilla is calling from Temecula. Good morning, Priscilla, and welcome to These Days.

PRISCILLA (Caller, Temecula): Good morning. I just have a question. A few months back I saw an episode about magnetic fields and how the Northern Lights are created up in Alaska, and I loved it, by the way. My question is, how many of the images we see are computer generated and how much is real? And I guess it applies also for any other shows about space, I guess.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

TYSON: That’s an excellent question. There are two ways you need to think about how images are presented. One of them is, while we have an idea of what the phenomenon is and then you hire an artist and we just tell the artist what to draw, so that’s one kind of way one might show the science if you didn’t have an actual photograph of it. But another way, which is a way that predominates scientific visualization today is where you have a computer simulation of a phenomenon, and that computer simulation is fully informed by all the laws of physics and all of the aspects of all of the manifestations of those laws of physics as we would see them and measure them and detect them. You then put that into a computer and have the computer show that to you. And in that way, it’s not an artist’s rendering, it’s what we call a scientific visualization of phenomenon. And so in the show that had the Northern Lights, with many of the images, we were outside of the Earth looking towards the Earth and you’d see sort of magnetic field lines and solar particles coming in. That’s a representation of actual particles and actual magnetic fields creating the Northern Lights. So what you need to think going forward is that, typically, when you see these phenomena today it is what it would look like if you were where the camera, at that spot in space, where we’re putting that virtual camera. So that’s how you need to look at what we’re doing going forward.

CAVANAUGH: And…

APSELL: I…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

APSELL: I think you’ve hit on a really important point because with the increase in quality of computer animation and other forms of scientific visualization, journalistically we always have the issue: What am I looking at? How do I cue the viewer in, in the narration, so that they know that what they see is real as seen through the lens of a camera? Or, is it something that we’ve created, have we created it from genuine scientific data? Or is it really an artistic rendering? And sometimes you can’t tell the difference and I’m always asking the producers myself, what am I looking at? Because, oftentimes, I don’t know. It’s very – it’s quite indistinguishable from what’s really out there.

CAVANAUGH: And so you always try to cue the audience in some way to let them know what it is. This is a real photograph taken that’s been color enhanced. This is a computer generated image. You always try to let them know one way or the other, is that right?

APSELL: You try to figure out a way in the narrative to let them know, definitely, yes.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Marie is calling from San Diego. And good morning, Marie. Welcome to These Days.

MARIE (Caller, San Diego): Hi, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great. Thank you for calling.

MARIE: Thank you. I just wanted to thank you for doing the segments on scientists that are interesting people. When I was younger, I’m 51, and I had no real role models for science. I went into finance and I was lucky enough to go into biotech where I got exposed to science and I now know so many people – my niece was just profiled by the National Science Foundation. She’s a Ph.D. chemist working on bird flu. She’s a scuba diver, a triathlete, a world traveler, a gourmet cook. Scientists are not nerds and I think it’s really important to get that message out to the young people today.

TYSON: No, I have to say some scientists are nerds. The lesson we try to say is…

MARIE: No, and they’re trying to save the world, which is good. But, I mean, typically what you think of as boring, scientific nerds is just not the case. It really can be a fascinating life.

TYSON: Exactly so. What we’re trying to say is not all scientists are the nerds of the stereotype and there’s enough who are not to actually try to explode the stereotype entirely. So I’m agreeing with you but I just want to…

CAVANAUGH: Thank – thank you, Marie, for that phone call. And I’m wondering, you know, as I said in the opening, science has taken on a renaissance, I mean, a new vogue now. It was out of fashion. For awhile, there was this – a lot of scientists said that there was a war on science during the previous administration. Now, there’s a new feeling. I’m wondering if you’re feeling that, Neil and Paula, and in the way that you’re going about and producing your shows and the response that your shows are getting from the audience? Neil.

TYSON: Yeah, this concept of a war on science is interesting. Largely, that’s a criticism levied on the Bush administration and the war on science that was claimed was very narrowly applied. For example, the budget for NASA went up under the Bush administration and the budget for the National Science Foundation went up under the Bush administration as it did for the National Institutes of Health. What the war for people – typically people describe are these branches of science that had political ramifications depending on which way a result would go and Bush was pretty clear about how he felt about things whether or not how he felt was informed by actual scientific results. So what matters at the end of the day is what kind of atmosphere does the president create for the discussion of various subjects. So Bush was not any kind of paradigm of scientific literacy and science hardly ever showed up in any of his speeches. Hence whereas with Obama, to mention restoring science to its preeminence in America, in his inaugural address, sets a landscape of comment that allows the public to think about science. In other words, the president has more influence over moods and attitudes in a nation than the actual passage of legislation. The fact that a president talks about science at all means now you have all your 24/7 talk shows that have to sort of respond to that. And then people start thinking about science more and a grant might be more likely to be funded if it’s for a producer who wants to do a science program. And there’s this trickle effect, and we’re living in a time where there are hit TV, primetime shows that feature science as its source of solutions. Such as CSI, which we all know about. There’s another show called Numbers…

CAVANAUGH: Numbers, right.

TYSON: …which uses math to help solve it. And these are – you have attractive actors who are the scientists and they’re kicking butt and taking names and solving problems. And so if you create this atmosphere, it can transform an attitude of a nation towards a subject as I think it is happening right now.

CAVANAUGH: And let’s take a call. Thomas is calling us from San Clemente. Good morning, Thomas. Welcome to These Days.

THOMAS (Caller, San Clemente): Thank you for taking my call. I guess I have sort of a contrarian comment to make. It seems to me that the target audience for a lot of these shows is actually someone with no more than an eighth grade education. For example, you almost never show math on any of these shows. It’s forbidden. The entertainment quotient is always much higher than the information quotient. It seems like you jam about one minute of actual information into ten minutes of air time. Seems to me that there needs to be a way to communicate with intelligent, college educated people about actual, more detailed information about what’s going on in science in all different areas.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for those comments, Thomas. And, Neil, Paula, would you like to respond?

TYSON: Yeah, sure. I don’t know if the caller is specifically referring to NOVA and the NOVA produced product.

CAVANAUGH: Thomas, are you still on the line?

THOMAS: Yes, I am, actually.

CAVANAUGH: Are you speaking about NOVA?

TYSON: Specifically about NOVA? Or just general science programming that you see?

THOMAS: In general science programming that I see and that I read, things like Science News, for example has changed its format greatly. But that includes NOVA.

CAVANAUGH: Okay.

TYSON: Yeah, I have a comment and perhaps Paula would react as well. I think you need to view TV differently from how – what may have been your expectations. If it had the level of content that your comment implies that it should, you end up becoming like a college lecture rather than a - something that would keep a person interested who’s not previously interested in the subject. And so I view television as a medium which, at its best, will ignite a flame of interest in its viewer who would then go and learn more about the subject on their own. And WGBH, the station responsible for the NOVA franchise, has an entire staff that creates web content that follows up on what you see in that programming so that you’ll see a 12 minute segment from NOVA scienceNOW on, let’s say, robotics. You go to the website, there’s an interview with the scientist in the lab, there’s links to robotic manufacturing companies, there’s all kinds of extra material supplemented into that. So if you want TV to be your entire source of scientific enlightenment, then I think you’re – stand to be disappointed. If, however, if the TV becomes a pointer to subjects that you might not have know were interesting, then it’ll send you places and NOVA at PBS does that. At the end of the show, you can – tells you where to go to find out more. So maybe it’s a mismatch of expectations rather than a failure of a product to deliver what you want. Paula, did you have another view there?

APSELL: Well, yeah, I mean, I think television is a mass media and I think it’s our job to make programs for a general audience. The PBS audience is quite well educated, that’s what our demographic is. But if you have to have an advanced degree in science, if you even have to have a bachelor’s degree in science in order to understand our programs, then I think we’ve failed somewhere. And I think if you compare our programs with a lot of other science-like programs on the cable channels, you will find that the density of information on NOVA is pretty high. Many people think it’s too high but we don’t want to raise the bar so high that people feel intimidated or can’t really follow our programs. I mean, I have to say, as executive producer, I have to be able to sit down and watch it and feel like I can really absorb the information. In addition, you mentioned mathematics, and we have made a few mathematics programs. “The Proof” was one, which was – chronicled Andrew Wiles and his solution of a conjecture in mathematics that hadn’t been solved ever. And television is, by definition, a visual medium. We have to be able to use the pictures. They have to tell the story. So we are somewhat limited by what television is and what it isn’t but I think, as Neil said, we’re very fortunate now to have the web which can really point you to all sorts of other information. And so it’s not – we’re no longer just a television program.

CAVANAUGH: In the few minutes we have remaining, Neil, I do want to ask you about your most recent book, “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.” Why was it America’s favorite planet?

TYSON: I didn’t start the day presuming that that was the case.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

TYSON: Because why would America have, you know, America, Europe, Africa, who cares? It turns out that when Pluto – the movement was underfoot to demote Pluto from its planet status, the loudest complainers out there and whiners were Americans. And you go to Europe and you’d say that Pluto was going to be demoted, they’d say, oh, okay, but of course, you know. Pass the wine, you know. It was not – Other people just didn’t care. And I thought, well, maybe it’s because an American discovered Pluto. Maybe that’s why, so then I asked those people who were pissed off about these results, this movement to demote it, and only one out of ten of them knew that an American had discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, back in 1930, so it couldn’t be that. And then I realized, of course, Pluto, we all know, particularly here in California, Pluto, the cosmic object, shares the same name as Mickey’s pet…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

TYSON: …dog. And not only that, Mickey’s pet dog was first sketch in the Disney Studio’s the same year, 1930, that the cosmic object was discovered. So they have the same tenure in the hearts and minds of Americans. And not only that, when do you first learn about planets? It’s early elementary school. When are you watching cartoons if you’re a normal kid? Early elementary school. So they come upon your cultural awareness simultaneously. And so I’m convinced that long into adulthood we have an irrational attachment to this diminutive ice ball in the outer solar system far beyond its actual value to our understanding of the solar system.

CAVANAUGH: Because he’s Mickey’s dog.

TYSON: Mickey’s dog. There it is. I could not – I had no other accounting for it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both so much for sharing – for sharing that observation…

TYSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: …and all your observations with us. I’ve been speaking with Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is an astrophysicist and host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS. His latest book is “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.” Thank you, Neil, so much.

TYSON: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Paula Apsell is senior executive producer of NOVA and director of WGBH Science Unit. Thank you, Paula, for being here.

APSELL: You’re very welcome. I’d just like to mention that you’ll be able to see “The Pluto Files” on NOVA next spring.

CAVANAUGH: And you will be able to see that right here on KPBS TV because I want to remind everyone that Tuesdays are science night on KPBS-TV with two hours of NOVA starting at 7:00, followed by NOVA scienceNOW at 9:00. And I want to thank all the listeners who called. Sorry we couldn’t get to all of our callers but we’d love to have you post your comments on our website. Go to KPBS.org/TheseDays. And These Days will continue in just a few moments.

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