Neil deGrasse Tyson: How to Dream Big, Think Scientifically, and Get More Done on The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • Parenting advice: Expose your child to a wide variety of fields, and once they develop an interest, do everything in your power to encourage them to pursue it
    • An easy way to do this is by buying them books on the subject
  • Curiosity is king – THAT’S what schools should be teaching
    • When you learn how to be curious, you create an arc of learning that continues for the rest of your life
  • As a student, your grades likely aren’t as important as you believe them to be
    • “What matters is: Are you a good problem solver? Are you moral? Are you a hard worker? Are you a good leader? Do you have insights into the field? These are the questions that matter.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • Instead of focusing on grades, pursue your interests with extracurricular activities
      • As a parent, do your best to realize and encourage this

Books Mentioned


  • Host – Tim Ferriss (@tferriss)
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson (T: @neiltyson, IG: @neildegrassetyson) is probably the most famous astrophysicist of all time
  • Check out the Podcast Notes from Neil’s appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience (#1159#1347)

Let’s Talk About Talking | Who influenced Neil to excel at communicating?

  • As a kid, even as young as age 9, Neil would frequently visit The American Museum of Natural History’s astronomy exhibit, often attending the museum’s evening lectures and classes
    • “There were some instructors who had such a facility with words, sentences, humor, and tenor… They had such a facility at delivery information in a pleasing and enjoyable way.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • Neil knew that if he ever went on to be an educator, he had to be able to communicate as effectively as they did
  • Neil also had a smart science teacher when he was younger who had quite the impact on him
    • “I knew that if I was ever a scientist, I had to command the content the way he did. He had a good sense of humor as well… If you combine knowledge-based humor, facility with words and language, and storytelling… the mission statement to achieve this was in me since my mid-teens.”Neil deGrasse Tyson

How did Neil’s parents encourage his intellectual development?

  • They would often take him and his siblings to the Hayden Planetarium 1-2 weekends a month and on other educational outings – to the museum, plays, Yankee games, or to the aquarium
    • The main point of these outings: observing adults with expertise
    • “They wanted to expose the three of us to as much as they could so that when we figured out what we wanted to be when we grew up, it would have a certain authenticity of origin”Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • So many parents do the opposite and force their children to pursue specific paths
        • “There are so many occasions where kids aren’t really doing what their heart wants them to do; they’re doing what their family wants them to do… That was not going on in our household. We had free expression of interest.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • “When I first went to the Hayden Planetarium at age 9, I was hooked” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • Living in the city was a massive benefit for Neil & his siblings – because of this, they had access to all these cultural institutions
      • In a way, the city was his “learning laboratory”
  • Neil developed a passion for science, but what about his other siblings?
    • Neil’s brother caught the art bug and would ultimately attend The High School of Music & Art (Neil attended The Bronx High School of Science)
    • Neil’s sister took a slightly different route and entered corporate America
    • Neil adds – “All of our interests are genuine. We’re not hiding some inner need at the risk of disappointing our parents.”

Suburban vs. City Life

  • In the late 1960s, when Neil was growing up, there were ~2,000 homicides a year in New York City (~7/day)
    • In the 1980s, this number dropped to ~1,000 year
    • Nowadays, it’s ~100/year
  • Neil recalls a 1980s study which found that you were 2-3x less likely to survive to age 18 in the suburbs of NYC compared to the city itself (at any income level)
    • Why was this the case if the city was so dangerous back then?
      • Auto accidents among drunk teens (and other car-related deaths) are more prominent in the suburbs
      • The suicide rate was also much higher in the suburbs – “You have to wonder, how low can you feel walking home after stepping over 3 homeless people?”

How did Neil’s parents nurture their son’s budding interest in astrophysics?

  • By buying him books!
    • Neil’s mom would head to the local bookstore (specifically to the bookstore’s remainder table) and buy whatever books on mathematics, science, and astronomy she could get her hands on
      • “I had the biggest library of any middle schooler in the hood”Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • Tim’s mom would do the same thing

The Legend of Carl Sagan

  • Who was he?
    • “Probably the most famous popularizer of science there ever was… He had a very potent way of communicating science concepts.”—Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • Check out one of his appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
  • The most essential thing Neil learned from Carl: the power of analogy (specifically in the area of communicating sophisticated ideas using familiar objects)
    • To see an example of Neil utilizing the power of analogy, check out this clip from his appearance on Today with Matt Laurer
  • Carl is also the creator of the original Cosmos documentary series (not to be confused with Neil’s 2014 reboot) which came out in the 1980s on CBS
    • The series went on to be seen by a billion people and is still one of the most popular documentaries of all time
    • Neil credits much of its success to the creative co-writers Ann Druyan and Steve Soter
      • “That combination of wit, insight, and sensitivity to the human mind made Cosmos something else. It wasn’t just about the universe; it was about why science mattered to all of us.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • “I don’t think science communication and science education has ever been the same since Cosmos” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

How can schools emphasize curiosity so that learning becomes a lifelong pursuit?

  • Neil has famously said:
    • “There should be a class where you realize how and why science works and what the method and tools of science do. In many people’s understanding, science is just this body of knowledge, but really it’s a way of querying nature.”
    • Neil now adds – “There shouldn’t be just one class; there just be an entire line of curricula that extends all of your years in school.”
      • Neil would design the curricula to stimulate open-ended inquiry across all the different academic subjects
  • Here’s the problem: Schools provide you with knowledge and expect you to learn it through memorization
    • Perhaps they should be providing material and grading you based on your approach to learning it. For example:
      • What sequence of questions would you ask to learn about the subject? How would you probe it?
      • How would you go about investigating the subject if you knew nothing about it?
    • “If you can stimulate inquiry into knowledge, then kids who get out of school won’t celebrate the end of it; they’ll lament” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • When you learn how to be curious, you create an arc of learning that continues for the rest of your life

How to Look at the World Through a More Intellectually Curious Lens

  • Tim greatly benefited by reading Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre
    • The book discusses how to read scientific studies and journalism – “I found it deeply enriching and valuable in helping me to navigate reality” —Tim Ferriss
  • Not everyone needs to be a scientist, but we need people leading society who know how to trust & embrace emerging scientific research
    • “It’s possible to be scientifically literate and not be an expert in any particular scientific discipline”Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • How? – Know how to ask questions and invoke skepticism
        • “Skepticism allows an open mind for things you’re unfamiliar with to be true, but it doesn’t allow your mind to be so open that your brain spills out and you lose the capacity to judge what’s true and what’s not”Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Check out one of Neil’s books –  Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries 
    • “It’s actually about what science is and how and why it works” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • “When people write to me with questions, I know based on how they word things if they read the book or not” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Another resource to check out –  How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff and Irving Geis
    • “It’s a little tiny book that tells you all the things people hope to fool you into believing are true, but aren’t, and how they manipulate statistics to accomplish this” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Problem with the Press

  • Every journalist wants to be the first to leak a story (because everyone will then reference them)
    • (This is how Pulitzer Prize’s are given)
  • Journalists often write stories about a scientific phenomenon assuming truth when it hasn’t yet been replicated
    • “A scientific truth is NEVER any one person’s research paper, ever. The research frontier is a bloody place, and most things will be wrong. The few things that are right are right because they’ve been verified by other research.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • Therefore – look for consensus, not opinion

A Life-changing Meeting with Carl Sagan

  • When Neil was a senior in high school, he applied to Cornell where Carl Sagan was a professor
    • His application was forwarded to Carl – Carl ended up reaching out to Neil offering to give him a personal tour of the campus
      • Neil took him up on the offer on a winter Saturday (while he was still in high school)
  • One thing Neil learned from the meeting: that Carl was deeply committed to making sure the next generation had the same access and enthusiasm that he had
    • “I knew at that point that if I were ever as remotely famous as he was, then I’d give time to students the way he did to me” 
      • “That exchange codified for me what kind of scientist I would be, what kind of humanity I’d carry with me in my interactions with others, especially students”Neil deGrasse Tyson

What does Neil try to instill in the students he meets?

  • Ambition – the “aspects of the ambition tree” include:
    • What is your confidence in yourself?
    • What are you doing to boost who and what you are in this subject?
    • How far do you want to take it?
  • Neil also encourages students not to distract themselves with grades
    • “After your second job, no one asks you what your grades were. Ask any 30-year old person when the last time was that someone asked them about their GPA. They won’t even remember.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
      • “What matters is: Are you a good problem solver? Are you moral? Are you a hard worker? Are you a good leader? Do you have insights into the field? These are the questions that matter.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Also, take challenging classes – it helps distinguish yourself
    • Everyone chooses the option of taking the easy classes (and thus getting good grades)
      • “If you take a harder class and risk the lower grade, you’re actually ascending a ladder, and at every next rung, you’re higher above the ground than anyone else. At one point, you’ll reach a rung of the ladder where no one else is adjacent to you, and people have to beat a path to your door to solve their problems because YOU kept ascending and doing the hard things.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil’s New Book – Letters from an Astrophysicist

  • The book is a combination of 101 letters from Neil responding to questions he’s gotten throughout his career
  • Why this book, and why now?
    • Neil views his life like the famous coin pusher arcade game
      • “There are occasions where so many things are pre-loaded in my life where I have to ask, ‘What am I going to do today instead of tomorrow?’ or, ‘What should I have done yesterday?’ There’s this big stack ready to spill over – that’s the one I have to do now. Otherwise, I’ll lose it all.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson

How does Neil deal with feeling overwhelmed?

  • “People ask me how I achieve equilibrium in life or how I keep balance – it is NEVER in balance, ever, with family, with kids, with life, with work, with television… nothing is ever in balance.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Neil overbooks himself (just like an airline) – “I agree to probably about 10% more projects than I will finish”
    • He estimates he gets ~4x the inbound to participate in projects than he can actually handle
    • This means Neil’s time is always occupied
    • “But everything I agree to I’m excited about. I want to do it. I do it because I think I can do it uniquely.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • How does Neil handle or renegotiate the 10% overage when he needs to?
    • “There’s some finesse there. The energy and effort to say ‘no’ gracefully is WAY greater than saying yes.”
    • He’ll typically send a polite note of regret, saying something like:
      • “My calendar got away from me, and I couldn’t keep up.”
      • Then, Neil will try to offer something in return. He might say: “Can you check back with me in the spring when I think I’ll have more time?”

Never an Idle Moment

  • Here’s how Neil occupies his time:
    • When riding the subway, Neil sits in the corner with a hat and glasses (to minimize selfie requests) and answers email
      • “During the interstitial time in my day, I do email”
    • Neil’s wife will often send him clips from The New York Times if she thinks there’s any bit of relevance to Neil’s work – in this way, she acts as a pre-filter for news
    • If Neil has a large block of time on the weekend (~5 hours+), he’ll write

What Neil Does Before Every TV Interview

  • He studies the host 
    • For example, before Neil’s appearance on The Daily Show, he studied past episodes to determine how many sentences Jon would typically permit a guest to speak before butting in with a joke
      • This is vital information to have – it avoids leaving incomplete thoughts out in the open that the interview might not come back to
  • He’ll also brush up on current events/pop culture in case something is brought up
    • “I don’t want to look like I’m not connected. I spend more time than I otherwise would, exposing myself to pop culture… Getting exposure to pop culture is what enables me to communicate with people who live in pop culture.”

Favorite Failures

  • Neil will frequently join Steven Colbert for interviews
    • “His interview is the most challenging interview I do on television”
    • One of those times, Neil missed a huge current event (the governor of South Carolina who was having an affair with an Argentinian woman) which was tied in with one of Steve’s jokes – Neil saved face by changing the subject

Grades Aren’t Everything

  • “I was never anyone’s model student… I had mediocre grades and was frequently disruptive.” —Neil deGrasse Tyson
    • But Neil was anything but a mediocre student in high school – he was in the astronomy club, he’d often take extra classes at the museum, he was an avid reader, he would frequently visit observatories, and he once received a scholarship to go study Stonehenge with other research anthropologists
      • “That’s why I was admitted to Harvard. They didn’t give a f*** about my grades.”Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • Neil notes – his parents never really cared about his grades (as long as he wasn’t failing)
    • “If they said, ‘We don’t want Bs, we want As,’ I would have had to cut away all those other activities to spend more time in the books studying. Then I would have had As, but nothing else in my life would have developed.”Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil’s Favorite Quotes

  • “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.” – Claudius Ptolemy, from his book The Almagest: Introduction to the Mathematics of the Heavens
    • Neil gets this same feeling when he looks up into the night sky – “There’s this spiritual connectivity with the unknown that courses through me”
  • “The sun can keep the planets in orbit on their appointed paths, yet somehow manage to ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the world to do” – Galileo Galilei
  • “I believe I am tasting the stars” – Dom Perignon
    • This is a famous quote from Dom after taking a sip of wine
  • “In his blue gardens, men and girls came and went like moss amidst the whispers, champagne, and the stars” – Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby
  • Neil adds – “It takes nothing to remember a quote that moves you”

Parting Thoughts

  • “For every chapter you long to relive, you have not done enough with your life in the present to continue to grow who and what you are, and what you can be, benefiting from the wisdom you’ve accumulated over all the years you’ve been alive since then” Neil deGrasse Tyson

Additional Notes

  • Neil attended Harvard for his undergrad
    • Neil is on the “Harvard 100” list – a list of the 100 most influential living graduates
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