From the Wrestling Mat to the Hayden Planetarium: Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysics, Wrestling
August 20, 2012 10:00 am

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Space Chronicles, and highly enjoyed the book. From the opening of the book, I was hooked: astrophysics is clearly something that all people should at least attempt to understand. After all, the health of the human race depends on it! Dr. Tyson, in addition to writing, appears regularly on shows such as the Colbert Report, and is well-known for his ability to communicate complicated subjects in a relatively simple and engaging manner. But what most of us do not know – until now, at least – is that Dr. Tyson grew up playing a variety of sports, first and foremost of which was wresting. is delighted to have interviewed Dr. Tyson regarding his views on astrophysics, education and wresting, and how these three topics intersect. Enjoy!

CC photograph courtesy of "NASA HQ Photo" on Flickr

1. You became interested in space science at a very young age, but you also grew up wrestling competitively. Did you find that the two activities completed each other, or shared some characteristics in common?

Yes, wrestling is all about the physics of strength, speed, and balance.  But knowing the location of someone’s center of mass does not guarantee you have the speed and agility to do anything about it.

I note that there’s a phenomenon in orbital mechanics called a double tidal lock. That’s when two orbiting objects show only same face to each other at all times.  Earth has tidally locked the Moon, which is why the Moon has a near side and a far side.  But the Moon has not (yet) tidally locked Earth.  Pluto and its moon Charon are tidally locked to each other.  I knew about this phenomenon in High School, and wanted to invent a new wrestling hold called the “Double Tidal Lock” but never succeeded.

2. Wrestling requires some very quick thinking, and that was especially evident while watching wrestlers in London 2012. Do you find that the thinking skills developed in wresting transfer over to your work as a scientist?

Wrestling skills don’t specifically transfer to being scientist, but they offer insight to life itself.  Wrestling trains you to overcome struggles when you, and only you, are responsible for your own success.  Team sports do not offer this feature.

And unlike most other “combat” sports, where your goal is to injure your opponent, in wrestling your goal is to to place your opponent’s two shoulder blades on the mat at the same time.  Since he does not want this to happen, the task requires extreme investment of physical and mental energy.

In fact, if you ask people what is the most physically grueling sport they have ever done, you will get a variety of answers, such as rowing, swimming, soccer, cross country skiing, etc.  But in my experience, if the person has ever wrestled, the answer will be wrestling.

3. While at Princeton, I’ve learned that in addition to wrestling, you also participated in ballroom dance. How did you manage to balance these activities, along with your studies?

I wrestled in High School, College, and some of Graduate School.  I was a postdoc at Princeton, and only occasionally rolled around with the team there. I danced in College and in Graduate School. I rowed in College and in Graduate School.

None of these activities served an astrophysics academic program, and I spent longer in graduate school as a result of this split investment of my time.  But I pursued the sports because I enjoyed them.

4. The world is now hyperconnected, with an increasing number of people having access to learning materials. What are your thoughts about some of these tools, such as the Khan Academy, Coursera and TED Talks?

Best thing ever.  But the very same sentence was surely uttered by people after the invention of writing, the invention of the printing press, the invention of radio, and the invention of television.  They are all communication tools that further broadened access to knowledge and wisdom, while simultaneously broadening access to misinformation.

5. What would you tell parents from a low-income family that want nothing more than their child or children to live a fulfilling life?

Take full advantage of the public educational system that the USA worked so hard to create over the past century.  And sacrificing for education is the surest investment you can make in a person.  As a former president of Harvard once said – if you think education is expensive, try the cost of ignorance.

6. Why is the act of exploration and discovery so meaningful to you?

It’s fun and it fosters a creative and active mind.  But I do not presume that everyone will feel this way. And so that’s not the case I make for it.  A timelessly potent argument is the role exploration and discovery play in the economic health of a nation.

7. There seems to be a constant flow of discoveries in astrophysics, not only right now, but in recent decades. What are some of the current and upcoming projects that inspire you?

All sciences enjoy a constant flow of discoveries.  it’s just that astrophysics discoveries make cooler headlines.

Currently, I’m thrilled by our active search for Earthlike planets.  Our attempt to characterize and understand the currently mysterious Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  I want to know why Mars and Venus, so nearby in space to Earth, are so inhospitable to life as we know it.  I want to know how organic molecules become self-replicating organisms. I want to know if there are other universes.  That’s all.

8. What was your favourite moment from the London 2012 Olympics, and why?

My cable service broke half-way into the Olympics and was not repaired until after the closing ceremonies.  So I missed nearly all of the Track & Field.  But from what I was able to catch on-line, I was impressed most by the 4x100m men’s relay, in which Jamaica and the USA were dead even on the final baton transfer – the final straightaway.  Then Usain Bolt went into overdrive and passed Ryan Bailey, our anchor.  USA ties the world record, and Jamaica comes in a fifth of a second ahead of them. There are only 45 fifth’s-of-a-second in any one leg of this race.  So to win by that margin represents a singular feat of athletic performance.



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