Artist Alexis Rockman and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson debate the merits of hopeful images, science in pop culture, and how Hubble images mimic psychedelic art.

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NT: It is primal. That’s right. But getting back to your original point, what I try to do is find the tasty tidbits about the universe — the fun curiosities — that I know people latch onto. And once they latch on, they’re ready to go wherever I want to take them. At that point, it’s an active dialogue. With a painting, it seems to be that you’ve got to put it all there at once.

AR: That’s right. Because my painting is obviously about being hot, my primary question was, Is there anything that would credibly transform a believable landscape in a visceral way, through color or light? No one had a real answer for that. Then when I was talking to the paleontologist Peter Ward and sort of complaining, he said, “Well, why don’t you step outside of the science of it and think about this: What do tropical rivers look like?” And I said, “Butanic acid.” He said, “Make the frigging thing orange.” That is the transformative way of showing that something’s been changed.

One of the things that I realized while I was working on this is that it’s not an accident that there aren’t images of global warming out in the world. I think that there’s a tremendous amount of pressure from corporate American not to show it. The infantilizing of the American public continues to disturb me. It’s very dangerous.

NT: Mm-hmm.

AR: We live in a context that seesaws toward the medieval, as I said earlier, in terms of its theological propensity. It’s also anti-intellectual. How do we reconcile the fact that we live in this landscape, which I know makes me very upset but also determined? How do you feel?

NT: Well, it is true, but not always. To paraphrase the subtitle of one of Carl Sagan’s books, The Demon-Haunted World, science is a candle in the dark.

AR: Yes. That’s a very important book.

NT: Sometimes I feel that science is a candle in the dark. But other times I feel like the lights are turning on. Recently, I’ve looked at the influence of science on the public, and I see very hopeful signs. There was a day, not long ago, when public access to science was either non-existent or happened through the stereotype of the lab-coat-donning intellectual. Part of the success of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, back in the ‘80s, was that there was no other access to science at the time. How many TV stations were there? Five? Maybe six?

AR: Channels two, four, five, seven, nine, and 11.

NT: And 13. That was it. In New York City, those were the stations. And so back then, exposure to science was singular. Today we can complain about the coverage, but it doesn’t change the fact that, with hundreds of TV stations, if you sit there with the remote, any time you go channel surfing you’re going to hit a science program. Somebody always seems to be airing a science program. And half the ones you bump into are about the universe. None of this existed 20 years ago.

So that’s step one. Step two, what does it all mean? Well, a couple of years ago I looked around. You know what I saw? Playing on Broadway were the science-themed plays Proof, Copenhagen, and QED. And there’s a dance troupe whose choreography is inspired by scientific themes. One performance that I remember featured four dancers — earth, air, fire, and water. And they danced relative to the way wind blows across the land and fire consumes the forest. And at the same time, Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe was on the best-seller list. And I said to myself, Am I dreaming? No. It’s just that science has become so much a part of society that it became fair material for the artist.

AR: And for entertainment.

NT: And whenever artists take on a theme, you know it’s a theme drawn from the culture in which we live. When I look back at what served as the artists’ muse 500 years ago, most of what I find are religious figures.

AR: There was also humanism, which is basically using science as an articulation of theology, using the human body as a measure.

NT: Sure. But if you go far enough back, all you find are Bible characters.

AR: Absolutely.

NT: I don’t see those same religious themes inspiring artists the way they once did.

AR: Thank God. No pun intended.

NT: [Laughs] Well, I find this remarkable. In spite of the bleak signs of the anti-intellectual times in which we live — in spite of those very real signs — it doesn’t change the fact that there are other signs that give me some hope. That’s why I think science today is more than just a candle in the dark. Somebody put on the night-light, and somebody’s near the wall dimmer, ready to brighten the chandelier.

AR: A lot’s changed since Carl Sagan wrote that book. But it’s not enough. Time is running out, because of the biodiversity crisis and global warming. And on the same stations that have science-based programming, right after it there’ll be a show about UFOs, which I find so distrusting — I think there’s a confusion and elasticity of the boundaries of what is called science that can be very destructive.

NT: I don’t blame the networks. There’s something missing in our educational system that prevents people from thinking rationally about information placed before them. We’re so hell-bent on feeding knowledge to people, without actually teaching them how to think in the first place.

Here’s the challenge: First they see a program on, let’s say, the universe. The big bang. There’s the learned scientist pontificating that the universe once was so small that all the matter, time, energy, and space could fit inside of a marble. Then, on the program that follows the big bang show, some other deeply sincere person says, “I saw a flying saucer land here with lights and little green men inside.” Now, if you don’t know anything — rather, if you don’t know how to think it’s not at all obvious which expert’s testimony sounds truer. To say the whole frigging universe once fit inside of a marble does not go down easily.

AR: It’s peculiar.

NT: It is peculiar. Perhaps as hard to believe or harder to believe than that a spaceship came down and sexually probed its abductees.

AR: Both require suspension of disbelief.

NT: Yes. [Laughs] And so our challenge is: How do we equip people with the capacity to distinguish between those insights that issue forth from rational investigation of the world and those that come out of the endlessly fertile, creative mind of the human psyche?

AR: Exactly. Something I’ve been dying to ask you since I heard that we were going to do this is: Money, politics, everything aside, what would be the project that you would most like to see happen. What would be the thing that you consider the most urgent in terms of your agenda as a scientist?

NT: I have a goal. I hesitate to call it an ambition, because normally we associate ambition with careers. But I have a goal. I’ve seen people react intellectually and emotionally to information that I have shared with them about the universe. I’ve seen reactions of awe or reverence to knowledge that they have just gleaned. At the top of that list is the association of the chemical elements of the human body with the deaths of high-mass stars in our galaxy. This is profound. Because what it says is that we’re not simply in the universe — the universe is in us.

All the people who are turned away from the cosmos because they are uncomfortable with our smallness within it, all the people who turn to belief systems that centralize them in the cosmos — my rebuttal to them is, Yes, we’re small. No doubt about it, we’re as small as your nightmares ever told you we are. But nonetheless, we are a participant in the cosmos. It’s our cosmos. It’s everyone’s cosmos. It’s not that we’re here and the universe is out there. We are — this is going to sound a bit New Age — one with the universe. There’s power and enlightenment in that fact. I don’t mean military power. I mean just the power of wisdom, of knowledge. That you understand something not only here, but out there — a place where you’ve never even stepped foot.

So one of my visions is to offer the universe not as something that attempts to combat religion — religion has been here for thousands of years — but to offer it to people who are not religious but are looking for something to fulfill them. I think the universe can do that. There are also people who are not looking to be fulfilled, because they believe they’re already fulfilled. In their case, they don’t know how much more fulfilled they can be. I also offer the universe to them. And in my experience, they receive it openly in ways they had never imagined before. And so I see the universe as an endlessly fertile source of enlightenment that can supply people with a sense of hope, a sense of participating, a sense of vision for humanity.

I know it sounds “pie in the sky” — no pun intended — but during any given night under the stars, you should pause to think about what we’re doing here on this cosmic speck we call Earth. In dozens of places around the globe, people are taking up arms against their neighbors. I look at this and I want to slap them all in the face [laughs] and say, “People, would you stop, look up, and reflect on our place in the universe?”

I see this as the ultimate offering I can bring, which sums up my life experience — bringing the universe down to Earth, inspired by all that excites and enriches me. That’s what I see.

AR: I think that’s great. And I think that while you were describing that, I realized what attracted me to you — in an intellectual way — is…

NT: [Laughs]

AR: That there’s a profound sense of humility that we share — 

NT: That’s the word I should have said somewhere in my last five minutes of soliloquy. Humility. If you have humility, you’re not going to wage war.

AR: Politics becomes something else.

NT: That’s right. Politics is a philosophical exercise. And what the cosmic perspective does is disarm politics as an instrument of oppression or as an incentive to wage war.

AR: Absolutely. I think that if I had to give a sound bite about what I’m trying to do, I would say it’s to bring, through my own subjectivity and my own imagination, ideas and images that remind us that we haven’t stepped outside of our biological contract, our own evolutionary history. These ideas make us very uncomfortable.

NT: So many people like to think we’re something separate from the biological tree — as though the animals were something separate from the people.

AR: One of the most profound images that I can remember from the twentieth century is the first photograph of the earth from the surface of the Moon, to give it a context of the fragile blue sphere.

NT: It was Apollo 8, three missions before we actually walked on the moon.

AR: Right.

NT: Apollo 8 executed a figure-eight trajectory around the Moon. After coming around the far side, Earth rose above the horizon. And there it was, this blue ball afloat in space.

AR: And that’s the iconic moment when I think the first wave of eco-consciousness had a poster. That’s where I grew up, with all my mom’s hippie friends who were into Rachel Carson and the Peace Corps, and I was taught that that was where we were. And what I am compelled to do is to bring tough and difficult imaginary to the public, because I have the opportunity to show in galleries and museums. And also let me remind myself that that’s an incredible privilege in this culture, to have a subjective perspective and position about something, to create images, and — 

NT: Have a platform.

AR: I have a responsibility to myself to bring difficult images like global warming, like the implications of biotechnology, to us and to our ideas — about not only boundaries and categories and what constitutes what an animal is and the taxonomy of that, but how we view ourselves. What are the boundaries between us and technology? Between machine, animal, plant? We’re at a point now where all bets are off in terms of categorization, in terms of how we imagine ourselves. Of course it makes us scared.

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