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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Superman of Astrophysics

Air Date: Week of
(Wikimedia Creative Commons)

He's an astrophysicist extraordinaire, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. And Neil deGrasse Tyson is also now a comic book character. He talks with host Steve Curwood the latest developments in space news and his appearance in the Superman comic.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Well, it's not actually Superman – but it is super astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

TYSON: (laughs) I don't stop and jump tall buildings, I take the elevator.

CURWOOD: Neil deGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden planetarium in New York City and now a comic book character.

TYSON: Well, what happened was DC comics called up, they wanted one of their installments to involve Superman visiting the Hayden planetarium. So, ostensibly all they really wanted was permission to represent the museum and the planetarium in the comic, and then from there it kind of grew.

They said: Can we draw you showing him his home star on the dome? You know, this is Superman, right, so you’ve got to say yes to that. Had it been Aquaman, or Elastic Man, no! It’s gotta be Superman (Laughs.)

CURWOOD: Not even Spiderman, huh?

TYSON: Maybe Spiderman. But, you’ve gotta rank your super heroes in this regard, otherwise how would you allocate your time in any sense of the word.

CURWOOD: But, Superman’s home planet, which is Krypton, it blows up as he’s flying away as a baby, so how is he going to see it blow up from the Hayden planetarium?

TYSON: This is where the plot thickens. As the story tells it, he has come every year to the Hayden planetarium to look at his planet Krypton orbiting his host star. Now, the only way that can happen is if he arrived through a wormhole. So, remember, he’s launched as a baby in a basket, kind of Moses-style, and then he arrives as a baby. So, in his life, hardly any time had elapsed.

Now, the only way to get him here sooner than the edge of light that’s carrying the information that Krypton exploded would be to get him here in a wormhole. So, every year he’s been observing Krypton except this one particular occasion, where it’s about 27 years later and he’s in his late 20s, and when he was born Krypton was destroyed, so this particular visit to the Hayden planetarium, he’s in for a sad moment.

CURWOOD: And, that moment of course being…

TYSON: Spoiler alert here: he observes the destruction of Krypton. So, if it was only… I help them observe this for this melancholy moment, then it’s just they’re representing me with my vest, my trademark vest, and all this, that’s kind of cool. However, it was more than that, I said: I could probably find a real star that’s 27 light years away that’s red just like Superman’s home star, so let me comb the catalogs, as I did. Found them a star!

It’s official title is LHS 2520, if you’re taking notes, and it’s in the constellation Corvis, that’s Latin for crow, visible from the Southern Hemisphere. And not only that, those of you who are Superman aficionados will know that in Smallville, his High School mascot was the crow. So, you combine all this together and it makes for this, not only interesting sort of sad chapter in Superman’s life. But there’s some science, actual science infused in that storytelling, and I was delighted to actually be able to assist them in this effort.

CURWOOD: So, let me just review the science. The hypothesis here is that Superman as a baby travels through a worm-hole which goes much faster than the speed of light, but to see his natal planet, ordinary light is what he uses, so it’s 27 light years away. And that means that by the time he’s 27, he gets to see it blow up.

TYSON: Exactly. It turns out we don’t know how to observe planets in that detail using visible light, so you need a kind of mondo-interferometer, where you combine many different telescopes across the width of the Earth, which then enables the width of the Earth to act like it is a single telescope dish that is that size.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in his trademark vest. Dr. Tyson is director of the Haden Planetarium in New York. (Photo: Neil deGrasse Tyson)

And when you have a telescope technique that’s using that technique it’s called interferometry, and by the way, they use that word in the comic – I was like: ooh, so cool. Using actual astrophysics terminology there - and so when you combine the telescopes that way, which we don’t really know how to do yet, you can get an image, high enough resolution to watch Krypton destroyed. So, Superman, uses… he, like, stares at the computer and his superpowers help the computer calculate this image, and so it’s another invocation of his powers in order to tell this story.

What I didn’t know is that several episodes a year, DC Comics introduces key personal elements in Superman’s life that are worthy of press releases, and this was one such episode. It’s Action Comics #14.

CURWOOD: Action Comics #14. To see super astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson and Superman together…

TYSON: And I’ve gotta tell you, I spoke to the illustrator, and I said: You know if it makes no difference, if it doesn’t matter, could you like trim a few pounds off my waist? If it’s no difference to you? And they said: Dr. Tyson, this is the comics, everybody looks good. (Laughs.) So I come out from the back room, rolling up my sleeves, looking buff, so that was cool.

CURWOOD: Now, there are some other developments in space…

TYSON: There always are!

CURWOOD: Yeah, that I wanted to ask you about. And there’s something that I’d never heard of… a rogue planet?

TYSON: Oh yeah! Oh, you’ve never heard about the rogue planets? Well, we didn’t even think to think of these things until our models of the formation of the solar system showed us that if you start out with a star and a collapsing gas cloud making surrounding planets, you can make planets in all kinds of places in orbit around the host star, but not all of those places are orbitally stable.

And what we found was the solar system itself might have started with two, three dozen planets, and depending on where their orbits are relative to other planets, they might not maintain a stable, forever, orbit around their host star, and they can end up getting flung into interstellar space. And when this happens, they become rogue planets. Homeless planets. And what makes it interesting is some planets still have heat left over from when they formed.

Jupiter still has heat left over. Actually, it’s generating heat because it’s slowly collapsing so it radiates more heat than it receives from the sun. And of course Earth has all this heat from its geologic activity, we’ve got this magma sitting below the crust and all of this volcanic activity… that heat, that energy is not traceable to the sun. That’s born here on Earth. So you could imagine flinging a planet out into interstellar space, and still have energy there that could possibly sustain life.

So it’s been hypothesized that most life in the universe is found on rogue planets, where they don’t need a star. And we’re pretty sure that there are more rogue planets than planets that are in happy, stable orbits around host stars.

CURWOOD: What if they’re headed this way?

TYSON: Sure, but space is really empty, and so you worry that one is going to be on a collision course with Earth, I suppose, in principle that’s possible. But the sun’s gravity and Jupiter’s gravity is so much greater than Earth’s gravity that they are going to do most of the redirecting of what comes near our solar system. So we have our big brother protectors out there in the schoolyard.

CURWOOD: Make sure those rogue planets don’t mess with us!

TYSON: (Laughs.) That’s right… the bully planets coming through.

CURWOOD: Now, there’s something else out there that has astrophysicists excited. There’s a super hot gas cloud headed for a black hole – what does that mean and what’s likely to happen?

TYSON: Well, black holes are only rendered visible in the galaxy and the rest of the universe… because they’re black right, so how do you even know they’re there. And one way we detect them is they dine upon anything that comes too close – it could be gas clouds, it could be entire stars.

In fact, one of the classic ways to detect a black hole is the black hole used to be a star, a full red-blooded star that died, and the black hole is its death state, and it was in orbit around another star which is still alive. And stars in their later stages get big and fat, they become red giants, and their outer layers would then become flayed by the black hole that’s in orbit around it. Then it’s the descent of this gas down to the center of the black hole that ends up getting heated and radiates profusely at very high temperatures, so high that it’s radiating ultraviolet and x-rays.

And so the very first black holes ever discovered, were discovered with x-ray telescopes. It’s a whole different window to what’s going on in the universe, when you put on x-ray eyes. So if you know in advance that a gas cloud is approaching a black hole, then get ready for the fireworks, because it’s going to be a scrumptious meal for the black hole that is soon to come.

CURWOOD: Tell me more about this black hole. Isn’t this now in the Milky Way, and if so, what might we be able to see?

TYSON: What we’re bracing for is at the point a black hole eats anything, typically it is revealed by what this stuff does, whatever be the material, whether it’s a gas cloud or an entire star. As it descends into the black hole, it becomes ferociously hot before it crosses over into the event horizon where it’s gone forever. But just before that, the act of descending into the black hole generates heat and that heat renders the material visible to an x-ray and ultraviolet telescope. So what you get ready to do is prepare your x-ray telescopes, line them up and just watch the fireworks unfold.

CURWOOD: We won’t be able to see anything from our back porch, huh?

TYSON: Oh, you want to be able to see a black hole eat something from your back porch? I’m sorry, I can’t help you there. (laughs)

CURWOOD: Um, I want to bring you a little closer to Earth here, Neil deGrasse Tyson, in the wake of superstorm Sandy a lot of people were so impressed by the accuracy of the satellite projections, being able to see the storm and the path nine days in advance, but I understand the satellite we relied on in that storm was actually a backup! What’s going on with the satellite fleet that’s up there… it seems to be aging!

TYSON: Yeah, so they’re aging. A lot of the satellites were launched in the… sort of conceived and then launched in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Satellites don’t live forever, so there’s the natural life cycle of satellites, that’s not what the concern is. The concern is if the satellites go through their life cycle and you don’t have ones to replace them, then what started out as this major effort to monitor the various atmospheric and oceanic conditions on Earth so you can create accurate weather prediction models, if you’re not replacing them at the rate that they were first put up there, then your capacity to monitor Earth fades.

So there’s an interesting sort of impasse here. Everyone thinks of NASA, as: These are the people who go into space. And we think of orbiting Earth as space, and so therefore weather satellites are the purview of NASA. Well, I kind of view the world differently. I think NASA should be the agency that expands a space frontier. Right? Go some place tomorrow that we haven’t been today. That’s, I think, what NASA should be. And you have other agencies like NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which they’re tasked with monitoring the Earth. All they do now is get the data from these NASA-launched weather satellites, but maybe a whole organization should be tuned and tooled just for this purpose.

And that way you can let NASA continue to expand the space frontier, re-trick out NOAA, which would be very hard to do at this point because that’s not what they do, they don’t have labs, they don’t have designers and engineers to do this. But if you did, then you’d have an entire agency whose task it is, is to monitor Earth. And maybe we’re long overdue for that. And then they’ll say: Yeah, we need more satellites! And you wouldn’t be competing the funding for an Earth satellite with a Mars rover, they’d be separate concerns, which in fact, they are.

CURWOOD: So the problem has been this financial competition and now, NASA being a place of exploratory science, they have not been willing to make enough noise to make sure that the weather satellites are replaced ¬– is that what you’re telling me?

TYSON: Yeah. I mean, there are many things competing for money in the limited budget of NASA’s portfolio. So if you want NASA to do it, then fund it at that level. This is not a hard problem to solve. But if you’re not going to fund it at that level, then Peter is getting robbed to pay Paul. By the way, it’s not just ‘how good is your picture from the satellite that’s moving from one municipality to the next,’ it’s ‘what are the surface temperatures of the land and the ocean,’ and ‘observe the Earth in infrared, invisible light and these other bands where Earth might be trying to tell you something.’

And if you’re missing that branch of data, then your model then cannot be correct because the model may depend on this. Then there’s the heating from the sun – is it reflecting off the clouds, is it returning to the Earth, is it being trapped by your carbon dioxide? What’s reflected back from the glaciers? How much glaciers do you have left? It’s a hugely complex problem and you need as many satellites up there as you possibly can. And we have less money being spent on weather satellites today than we did 20 years ago, so that’s a problem.

CURWOOD: So, Neil deGrasse Tyson, President Obama, of course, got a second term. So what do you think that might mean for space funding, for NASA funding going ahead?

TYSON: Yeah, I don’t know for sure, I haven’t seen an official document, but I know there’s pressure on him to actually go back to the damn moon! Excuse my language! What he did in his first term and I was at his speech and it sounded great and everybody applauded it, until you reflect on the consequences of it.

What he said was: We don’t need to go back to the moon, we’ve been there already. Let’s set our sights further away. Let’s go to Mars, let’s go to asteroids. This is the first time I’d ever heard a president speak at that length about deep space, so it sounded great, it sounded visionary. And then I thought about it and I said, well, wait a minute, we have thousands of people, engineers, planning on going to the moon, building spacecraft to enable this. So, what happens to them? Well, they lose their jobs – they lost their jobs.

And so I kind of want to demonstrate again that we know how to get there. It’s been 40 years since we’ve been to the moon. You can get there in three days, right? It makes a nice media cycle, we can like track them as they go– how’s it going and what music are you listening to? And that becomes a very sellable trip, I think, to the American people.

That way you reinvigorate a near-term space plan. This: Oh, well, let’s go to Mars… when? In the 2030s. Well, excuse me, that’s like under the leadership of a President to be named later, under a budget not yet established. So I’m concerned when a President promises something that they never actually have to shepherd… have a nice day! (Laughs.)

CURWOOD: (Laughs.)

TYSON: (Laughs.) You know, I’m just saying! We live in a free country and you vote for who you want, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I will tell you the consequences of certain actions or inactions that are in progress, and the country belongs to We the People, last I checked. To say, what’s Obama going to do, it’s what are WE going to do? He works for us! Congress works for us!

So I don’t have the attitude, I wonder if this leader will take us back into space – if you want to go back into space, vote that way. Create the imperative that law-makers must then follow, otherwise they simply get voted out of power.

CURWOOD: Neil deGrasse Tyson is Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. And his latest work is a DVD entitled the Inexplicable Universe, part of the Great Courses. Thanks so much for being on the show, Neil.

TYSON: Thanks for having me. By the way, if you are interested I also tweet the universe. They're really more like cosmic brain droppings but if you're interested I tweet at Neil Tyson so check it out if you have nothing better to do with the free time of your day.

CURWOOD: Alright, we're all a twitter. (Laughs)



Hayden Planetarium: More about Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter


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