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

October 8, 2004

Air Date: October 8, 2004



Reach for the Stars

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From the moment nine-year old Neil deGrasse Tyson saw the night sky in New York's Hayden Planetarium, he knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist. Not only did Tyson fulfill his dream, but he eventually became director of the Hayden Planetarium. He talks with Living on Earth host Steve Curwood about his journey, and about why he continues to marvel about the wonders of the universe. (29:20)

Emerging Science Note/It’s a Gas / Jennifer Chu

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Living on Earth s Jennifer Chu reports on a method of cutting down methane from livestock. (01:20)

Yucca Swings / Jeff Young

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Senator John Kerry is betting that Nevada's opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site will help him win that battleground state. Jeff Young reports. (09:00)

The Nader Factor

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Ralph Nader’s name may inspire many feelings among voters this election year, but host Steve Curwood talks with one Nader loyalist in the swing state of New Mexico, who says people should get over their fears and vote for social change. (06:00)

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Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve CurwoodGUESTS: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sam HittREPORTER: Jeff YoungNOTE: Jennifer Chu


CURWOOD: From NPR, this is Living on Earth.


CURWOOD: I’m Steve Curwood. Look up in the clear night sky sometime, and try to grapple with the millions of stars and the billions of miles of vast, open universe, and you can get a sense of what makes Neil Tyson tick.

TYSON: There’s some deep feeling we all have to try to understand our place in the universe, and this is a feeling that’s expressed itself, not only across time, but through culture, through the history of human culture.

CURWOOD: Tyson runs the Hayden Planetarium in New York City where he hopes to engender in the general public a sense of why we reach for the stars.

TYSON: The biologist sees the fundamental molecule of human life and they call it deoxyribonucleic acid. We look up and we say the “silver river” for the Milky Way. It’s a different emotion.

CURWOOD: The story of a young man’s search for a sense of the cosmos - this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.


ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Reach for the Stars

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Looking up is something Neil deGrasse Tyson just loves to do. He takes great pleasure in watching “the cosmic real estate,” as he calls it. Stars, nebulae, planets, comets, galaxies --these celestial bodies tease him with their beauty and mysteries--mysteries that he’s working to solve as an astrophysicist and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium.

As one of a very few African American astrophysicists, Neil Tyson also finds joy in being a role model as he shares his enthusiasm about the nature of the universe. You may have seen him in the recent specials by Nova on PBS called “Origins,” or perhaps you have picked up his autobiography, “The Sky is Not the Limit – Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.” Neil Tyson joins me now in our studio.

Now, Neil, you knew from early on in your childhood that you wanted to be an astrophysicist. In fact, you had a defining moment — you were nine years old, you went into the Hayden Planetariun - and, or course, you’re director there now, all these years later - but what happened to you that day?

TYSON: (LAUGHS) That was a defining moment. On that day I was struck by the night sky as I had never before seen it. Having grown up in the Bronx, New York - of course, one of New York City’s five boroughs - I thought I had known what the night sky looked like. It had a dozen stars in it, you know, you can see the moon and the sun – and that was my inventory of the cosmos. It was not until a trip to the Hayden Planetarium at age nine – and the lights dimmed, and the stars came out, and I thought that was kind of entertaining, you know, the nice hoax. I didn’t think it was real, because I knew the night sky – I had seen it from the Bronx, and there were 14 stars. So I was certain it was a hoax until I left the city with the family on a family trip into Pennsylvania, actually, and I looked up, and there was the night sky.

From then to this day – it’s an embarrassing thought, but it’s true nonetheless - that when I look up at the night sky from the world’s finest observing sites I say to myself, it reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium.

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But actually the moment, the “ah-ha!” moment, was when you were outside and could really see the sky.

Twelve year old Neil and his father, Cyril deGrasse Tyson, assemble Neil’s first telescope. (Photo courtesy of Tyson Family Archives (1970) Reprinted by permission of Prometheus Books)

TYSON: Right. So that sort of imprinted me, that first experience in New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. And then it took a couple of years to become something within me. By age 11, a friend of mine had lent me a pair of binoculars, and I used them to look up at the moon in the twilight sky. And the moon wasn’t just bigger, it was better – it had mountains and craters and valleys and hills. And at that moment I felt that I was communing through time with Galileo who first turned his telescope to the sky and saw all those very same things. Of course, a bajillion people have seen it before I did but that didn’t matter – it was my first time. And I was hooked ever since. It was like a calling.

CURWOOD: Now, why do you suppose that of all the kids from your school class that went to the Hayden Planetarium that day that you’re the one that wound up as an astrophysicist and, in fact, running the planetarium?

TYSON: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Maybe the shape of my neurological receptors was different. But I can tell you this: that every single person I grew up with remembers their first trip to the Hayden Planetarium. I don’t think that’s even unique for the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Any school trip to a planetarium, you remember that first time your whole life. So it’s not as though that day mattered to me and didn’t matter to others; it mattered to everyone. But, somehow, I was star-struck.

CURWOOD: Okay, so you’re a kid in the Bronx. What do the neighbors think of a kid who’s up on the roof…


CURWOOD: That’s where you went to look, right? With binoculars?

TYSON: Well, binoculars are not so obvious from afar. But over the years when I saved money from walking dogs, actually, in this apartment complex in which there were many dogs – that’s sort of the urban counterpart to the paper route, is you walked people’s dogs, 50 cents a walk – I bought my first telescope. And I’d haul the telescope to the roof. People would see that and think I had a bazooka or something. Police would come all the time wondering what I was doing.

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) So, what do you say to the cops? Because here’s this African American guy up on the roof with something that look’s like it could be a weapon, and –

TYSON: Yeah, plus I had a cord going down to a neighbor to get power to run the clock drive on the telescope, so there’s a wire going down the side of the building. So, this probably looked odd to the police for anyone to be up there. But this is, of course, in the 1960s and 70s, black Americans were not typically thought of as either academic by the establishment, certainly not by the police department – and there I am, looking at the universe. So, the planet Saturn bailed me out every time. (LAUGHS)

CURWOOD: Saturn bailed you out?

TYSON: Yeah, you just show somebody Saturn through a telescope, they become a puppy. You know, they re-holster their gun and they say, “wow, that’s cool, I want to show my kids!”

CURWOOD: So, what is it about the solar system that fascinates you?

TYSON: Well it’s not only the solar system, it’s the galaxy and the entire universe. I don’t think I’m unique in my fascination with the cosmos. I don’t twist the arm of editors to have them make cover stories of cosmic discoveries. You look at Time magazine, Newsweek magazine, the major newspapers have science sections – an image comes down from the Hubble telescope, they put it right on the cover. I don’t twist their arm to do that. They know intuitively, if not intellectually, that there’s some deep feeling we all have to try to understand our place in the universe. And this is a feeling that has expressed itself not only across time but through culture. Through the history of human culture you’ve got people wondering what our place is in the universe. For the first time we can now address those questions using the methods and tools of science, which makes today more exciting in that regard than in any previous time.

CURWOOD: Okay, I’m going to take you, the scientist, away from science a little bit to plain, old-fashioned emotion. This is the media, right? -

TYSON: Sure, okay.

CURWOOD: We tell the facts but it’s got to come with feeling.

TYSON: All right, all right.

CURWOOD: Okay, so I want to do a game of association with you. Is that possible?

TYSON: Okay, go for it. Just so you know, I’m generally not strongly driven by emotional thoughts. So I don’t know how this game will go. (LAUGHS)

CURWOOD: I guess we’re about to find out.

TYSON: (LAUGHS) We’ll find out.

CURWOOD: Here’s the game: what word or phrase comes to mind when I mention the following? And we’ll start with an easy one. Now, as I understand it, your favorite planet is Saturn. Saturn.

TYSON: Splendor.

CURWOOD: Splendor.

TYSON: Yes. It’s by far the most beautiful planet of them all.

CURWOOD: Really?

TYSON: Oh yeah, Saturn, you can’t argue with Saturn. With the rings? Come on now. Other planets have rings, but nothing like Saturn’s rings (LAUGHS).

CURWOOD: Jupiter.

TYSON: Ah, Jupiter. All I can think of is the comet that slammed into Jupiter back in 1994. A comet slammed into Jupiter. That sight was unforgettable to me, that’s an image I have. It’s a comet that had been minding its own business whose orbit got altered for having come a little too close on one of its fly-bys. And then Jupiter captured it and put it on a collision course and the comet broke into two dozen pieces, and each piece carried the energy of the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs here on earth 65 million years ago. And 24 of them plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

CURWOOD: Um, diversion from the game for a moment. What would have happened if that comet had hit the earth?

TYSON: There’d be no people left on Earth, just as 65 million years ago there were no dinosaurs left after we had such an impact. But this impact was vastly more devastating, would have been vastly more devastating than even that impact. So, I keep part of my attention and I keep an eye on the vagabonds of the solar system, because one of them will surely show up with our name on it.

CURWOOD: I want to come back to that in a little bit, but let’s go ahead with the game now.

TYSON: So that means I don’t feel emotion for Jupiter, I just feel the facts about it. I’m sorry, the game isn’t working. We can try a few more.

CURWOOD: So far, it’s kind of interesting. To me, anyway. Okay, we’re still in the free association: the Milky Way

TYSON: Milky Way. I think of the different cultures and the names they have for it. And my first thought is what they call the Milky Way in China. If I’d practiced this – I think it’s Ying-Hur, which translates into English as “the silver river.” And every time I see the names the various cultures give the Milky Way, they’re all majestic, they’re all poetic, they’re all beautiful. And that’s a testament to the emotions we all feel when we look up and try to name things. We don’t look up and name it 20-syllable words. The biologist sees the fundamental molecule of life and they call it deoxyribonucleic acid. We look up and we say “the silver river” for the Milky Way. (LAUGHS) You know, it’s a different emotion.

CURWOOD: The Big Bang theory.

TYSON: Big Bang. Once again, in astrophysics we stick to the one-syllable descriptors of things, even important things. Big Bang, you know, I see that as the triumph of 20th century astrophysics. To actually recognize and measure and demonstrate the fact that the universe had a beginning – a beginning. It wasn’t even thought so. Why even have that as a thought? And it’s traceable back to Hubble. Hubble the man, not Hubble the telescope. Hubble the man, after whom the telescope was named, of course. He discovered the universe was expanding in the 1920s. And you run through the math and look at the observations, yesterday the universe was smaller than it was today. Go back a few more days, it was even smaller. Keep going back there’s a point where all the universe began as one little nugget – 14 billion years ago. I think that’s one of the most amazing stories that has emerged from modern science. And not enough people have come to feel that and appreciate what a triumph that is, no longer having to resort to the mythologies of cultures past because we have the methods and tools of science to address these problems.

CURWOOD: But, of course, science always raises a question when it answers one. And the obvious one is: what was before the Big Bang?

TYSON: We have no idea. (LAUGHS) That’s right, that’s part of the fun of science. Some people are uncomfortable with ignorance. Good scientists have to, in fact, relish in it. In fact, there’s part of a poem by Rainier Marie Rilke. The poem ends, “you must learn to love the questions themselves.” So yeah, right now the next frontier is what was around before the Big Bang. We have some ideas, but nothing grounded in observation or experiment.

CURWOOD: Okay, last question in our game here. What word or phrase comes to mind when I mention Pluto?

TYSON: Pluto. Overrated as a planet. (LAUGHS)

CURWOOD: Overrated as a planet?

TYSON: Overrated, overrated. I mean, it was discovered by an American so Americans got all happy about it and, coincidentally, it has the same name as a Disney character – which was first sketched, coincidentally, the same year that Pluto the cosmic object was discovered: 1930. So with Pluto, you know, we think of it as a planet but most people who think that don’t also know that there’s six moons in the solar system bigger than Pluto, including Earth’s moon. And so we don’t start calling our moon a planet, but why not? We ought to if size matters. Well, if size doesn’t matter, let’s look at composition. Pluto is, more than half of its volume is made of ice. If Pluto were where Earth is right now it would grow a tail from the heat of the sun evaporating the ice. Now, what kind of behavior is that for a planet? We have a word for things that have tails in the solar system – we call them comets. In fact, we just recently discovered other objects in the outer solar system that look more like Pluto – Pluto and they look more alike than either of them look like any other planet in the solar system. So we think Pluto has found its family, its family of comets in the outer solar system. I still love it to death but you’ve got to take it in context.

CURWOOD: My guest is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and his book is called “The Sky is Not the Limit – Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.” And we’ll resume our conversation in just a moment. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: John Williams Conducts John Williams “Parade of the Ewoks” THE STAR WARS TRILOGY (Sony Classical – 1990)]

[MUSIC: John Williams Conducts John Williams “The Imperial March” THE STAR WARS TRILOGY (Sony Classical – 1990)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If you’re just tuning in, my guest is Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and author of “The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.”

Neil, in your book, which I guess is a memoir of sorts, you write about having an existential crisis with your academic major -- astrophysics. So, I’m wondering if you could read for us from a section here about that time in your life. I think it’s on page 135.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (Photo courtesy of Patrick Queen© Reprinted by permission of Prometheus Books)

TYSON: I’d be happy to. (READING) During the spring of my sophomore year at Harvard I was well into the course of work for my declared major, taking on an unhealthy dose of physics and math classes, as well as the requisite other non-science courses that a full schedule requires. That year I was also on the university’s wrestling team, a second string to a more talented senior in my 190-pound weight category.

One day after practice we were walking out of the athletic facility when he asked me what I’d been up to lately. I replied, “My problem sets are taking nearly all my time and I barely have time to sleep or go to the bathroom.” Then he asked me what my academic major was, and I told him physics, with a special interest in astrophysics. He paused for a moment, waved his hand in front of my chest, and declared, “Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being spent on astrophysics.”

No wrestling move he had ever put on me was as devastating as those accusatory words. Never before had anyone so casually, yet so succinctly, indicted my life’s ambitions. My wrestling buddy was an economics major and a month earlier had been awarded the Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where, upon graduation, he planned to study innovative economic solutions to assist impoverished urban communities. I knew in my mind that I was doing the right thing with my life – whatever the right thing meant – but I knew in my heart that he was right. And until I could resolve this inner conflict, I would forever carry a level of suppressed guilt for pursuing my esoteric interests in the universe.

CURWOOD: Now what was the ethnic background of this gentleman?

TYSON: He was black. American black, straight American black out of a city, you know, a big city. So I couldn’t just cite that he didn’t understand my situation. If he were white I could say he just doesn’t know. But we had such common profiles, right on through being the college athletes. And his comment was so simple and so real that I was just devastated. I was devastated. And it took me ten years to dig out of that hole that he put me in.

CURWOOD: So how did you resolve this?

TYSON: Well I didn’t. I mean, yes, I went on to graduate school –


TYSON: But again, I was carrying this guilt, wondering whether I could ever fully and deeply justify my interests. And let me comment that my graduating class that was at Harvard, of 132 black graduates only two went on for advanced academic degrees, myself included. The rest went on to professional degrees – law school, medical school, went into business, that sort of thing. So if you want to ask, you know, who’s doing good, if you go on to a professional degree you make much more money, you become economically upwardly mobile much sooner. And there I was trying to get a PhD for the next six, seven years of my life, earning practically minimum wage doing it.

So it took ten years. And it was not until I was in graduate school - Columbia University – there was an explosion on the sun and Fox News called our department. And they would usually send public inquiry to me because they knew I had some appreciation for public curiosity. And I spoke with the weather guy because they always do all the science things with the weather guy. And the weather guy said “There’s this explosion on the sun, should we be worried?” And I said, “Oh, not to worry. This is a blob of plasma, the sun burps these up every now and then and occasionally one heads towards Earth. And it’s charged particles, they’ll see Earth’s magnetic field, they’ll spiral down and collide with our atmosphere, render it aglow. You’ll have a beautiful display of the Northern Lights this weekend. Use it as an occasion to go north.

And he said, “That’s great, can we get you on the air saying that?” I said, “Fine.” So they sent up the limo, and I ran home and put on my one tie and my one jacket, shaved, and we did the interview in the studio, pre-taped. I went home, called everybody, of course, you know, grandma, mom, dad, sis. There it was on T.V. I’m watching myself, I’m eating dinner and watching myself, kind of like an out-of-body experience. I said, “Was that me? No, I’m me. So who could that be? Well that was me, but I’m here.“


TYSON: (LAUGHS) The first time you’re on T.V. watching it you have to get through this, your brain has to figure that one out. But anyhow, I realize at that moment – this is 1989 – I had never before seen a black person interviewed on television for expertise that had nothing whatever to do with being black. You think about it, you’ve seen blacks – sure, they’re entertainers and actors and athletes – but when you look at people brought on to television as experts, watching myself that was the first time I had ever seen it. The interviewer didn’t ask me, “Well, how do black people feel about this explosion on the sun?”


TYSON: “Does the melanin in the skin make any….?” It was not about being black. It was about my expertise. And I realized this is one of the last challenges of race relations, is shaking this stereotype that the black community can’t do anything intellectually challenging. And I realized that if I or anyone else like me were visible doing just that, that that could have a greater force in the future of race relations than any enterprise zone that gets set up in the inner city. And, at that point, I realized this is what I’ve got to keep doing. I can’t turn down these opportunities. Still need to be the scientist but I stand the possibility of becoming vastly more influential than my accuser ever would have been. And I don’t even know what he’s doing now. I looked him up and couldn’t find him. I don’t know what he’s doing.

CURWOOD: He’s probably making money.

TYSON: (LAUGHS) Probably making money!


TYSON: That’s my long story. But it was transformative for me.

CURWOOD: In your book, you say you want to bring the universe down to Earth. And you lament that Hollywood, even the news, distorts science. How best do we achieve scientific literacy in our society?

TYSON: A couple of ways. You know, if I had a nickel for every parent who walked up to me and said, “How do I get little Johnny or Jane interested in science?” And one of my – I give them an answer they don’t actually like – I say, get out of their way.


TYSON: If you’ve ever been around a kid – you know, a four-year-old, a three-year-old, a six-year-old – they’re into everything! They’re experimenting. They’re playing music with the pots and pans, and they’re pouring milk on the table and throwing things. And what’s the first thing a parent says? “Stop doing that.” “Sit down.” “Be quiet.” “Stop making the noise.” “Clean that up.” And when my daughter – you know, she was two, she poured milk on the table and watched it drip through the eaves of the table separators, and then looked under the table and watched it drip down on the ground. She was doing experiments in fluid dynamics, as far as I saw. (LAUGHS) And I let that continue and, of course, I cleaned up after her. But I think kids are natural – they’re born curious about the world around them, so in that sense they’re born scientists. You just get out of their way. And make sure you take them to museums where they can express this curiosity, and possibly mess up somebody else’s place instead of yours! (LAUGHS)

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) What did your wife say about this, uh –

TYSON: I cleaned up, there was not a problem. I made sure to clean up.

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) Now, what should the role of planetariums be in communities?

TYSON: I think, you know, there’s no counterpart to planetariums in any of the other sciences. There are no, sort of, “Here’s a physics particle accelerator for you to visit this weekend, Johnny.” You know, the closest you get to this is dinosaur bones on display. You can bring the universe to the public. The universe is photogenic. Like I said, the Hubble brings back the next picture it’s cover story in all the news weeklies. So we have the advantage that not only is the universe photogenic, our vocabulary to describe it is transparent. We don’t use big words. We use simple words that actually have some descriptive value. Spots on the sun? Sun spots.


TYSON: Big red stars? Red giants. Regions of space where light doesn’t come out and you fall and you never come out? Black hole. These are our formal terms for very real astrophysical things. I’d like to believe that the scientific literacy of the public can be pumped, can be enhanced, can be enriched by using the universe as a hook to get people interested in science at all. If you’ve got people that are indifferent to science I don’t believe they can retain that indifference with the slightest encounter with how beautiful the universe is. You just show them that and they’ll say, “I want to learn more.” Look at the chemistry of space. Now we’re looking for life on other planets. You can become an astrochemist, an astrobiologist, a biogeologist, because there’s life thriving deep within the fissures of Earth’s crust. The biologist is no longer separated from the geologist. They must live together in the same room. So, there’s so many frontiers of science represented in the study of the universe that I think, if that can’t hook you, nothing will. And that’s what we’ve got to promote. And that’s the role of the planetariums going forward, I think.

CURWOOD: One of the most provocative parts of your book involves your calculations of the odds of getting killed by an asteroid.


At age fifteen, Neil deGrasse Tyson went to Camp Uraniborg in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. In this picture, he stands looking through binoculars next to a large-format astrocamera. (Photo courtesy of Tyson Family Archives (1974) Reprinted by permission of Prometheus Books)

CURWOOD: An asteroid striking the earth, an asteroid of the dimensions, I guess, of maybe not as big as the one that recently hit Jupiter, but by a pretty big one. You say it’s about the same as getting killed in an airplane crash, and that you think the United States ought to be spending money to track these objects out there to be in a position to prevent something like that from happening. So, tell me, how likely is it that a meteor, a deadly meteor, could hit the earth in our lifetimes or in our children’s lifetimes? And how do you talk about that without sounding alarmist? I mean, there are these scary Hollywood movies made about this. And then, finally, just to pile the questions on, what could, in fact, be done if something like that were aimed at the earth?

TYSON: These are important and real questions. In fact, I was co-signer of a letter, an open letter sent to Congress and the administration, appealing – even in the midst of all the problems that we now face in the world – appealing to Congress to consider the importance of devoting some resources, national or international resources, to tracking and monitoring the trajectories of asteroids and comets that we already know cross Earth’s orbit. They just happen to cross orbit when we’re not there, at the moment. But if they cross our orbit at all, one day in the future, they may cross the orbit at the same time we’re in that spot and then hit us.

So, getting back to the likelihood of that, a very important statistic that is not widely appreciated. Yes, your odds of getting your tombstone saying “killed by an asteroid” are about the same as the one that would say “killed in a plane crash.” The reason why those are the same is because an asteroid, as rare as it would be, is of tremendously high consequence. If an asteroid the size that took out the dinosaurs hits again – or even less, a smaller one than that – it could kill a billion people. Whereas, an airplane crash, annually a couple of hundred people die in airplane crashes. How long would it take airplane crashes to accumulate to kill a billion people? It might take ten million years, 50 million years. Well, once every 50 million years an asteroid kills a billion people. So, when you look over a long enough base of time, the number of people dead from an asteroid would be the same as the number of people dead from an airplane. And that’s why those statistics match. The point of citing them that way is to sensitize the public to the need to do something. I’m not talking about directing billions of dollars to it because it might not happen for another million years. But you don’t want to be stuck. I don’t want to be the laughing stock of the universe, of being a species on Earth that has the intelligence and the technology to do something about it and end up going extinct for having sat on our hands and done nothing. That would just be embarrassing, I think.


TYSON: So, what do you do if you see one coming our way? If you want to be macho about it you’d detonate it and blow it into smithereens, but that’s not the wisest solution. What you’d want to do is nudge it out of harms way. It’s still out there, but it takes very little energy to just guide something slightly, give it some sideways motion, so that by the time it would have hit Earth it actually misses us completely. And we’ve got workshops with engineers and astrophysicists and orbital dynamicists working on that very problem right now. But it’s not that much money if you want to know which asteroid would pose that risk. Right now, our inventory of Earth-crossing asteroids is woefully incomplete. There could be thousands that we have yet to discover that are headed our way. And not all are large. The small ones actually hit more frequently. Those are the ones we know the least about. So, it’s just an appeal to throw a couple of dollars that way. Insurance companies know this – it’s the - what is it worth to buy insurance for a very rare but high consequence event.

CURWOOD: Now you’ve been on a couple of presidential commissions looking at what we should do in space. So, what do you say? From your perspective, what would be the ideal move for the United States – for this planet – to take in terms of space exploration?

TYSON: You have a couple hours for this (LAUGHS)? I’ll try to make that brief, but a couple of things. First, there aren’t many agencies, government agencies, that stimulate dreams the way NASA stimulates dreams. In fact, I would say no other agency stimulates dreams at all. And NASA’s the only one that does it, and they do it like it’s nobody’s business. Those dreams are to look up and imagine yourself among the stars. To look up and answer questions that you might have harbored all your life about is there life in the universe? What is it like to walk around on the surface of Mars? What’s it like on the rings of Saturn? NASA is the agency to do that.

And I know there are problems in the world – there were problems in the world in the 1960s, we were fighting the Vietnam war, a cold war, it was the height of the civil rights movement. But the Apollo Project, when you poll people as one of the greatest achievements, not simply of Americans but of human beings at all, the Apollo missions to the moon are at the top of that list. We look upon that era as a time when dreams were realized. And that’s what gives you energy to keep living, to try to improve life. That’s what you – that’s food for happy thoughts in this desert of unhappy, this desert of tragedy and problems that we face in the world and the Middle East and the terrorism threats and the like. Occasionally, I need to pause and look up – and look up literally and philosophically. And our future in space does that for me.

CURWOOD: Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and author of “The Sky is Not the Limit – Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.” Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

TYSON: It’s been a pleasure.

[MUSIC: The Ventures “Fear (Main Title from “One Step Beyond”)” VENTURES IN SPACE (EMI – 1992)]

Related links:
- RealPlayer)
“The Sky Is Not the Limit” by Neil deGrasse Tyson
- Neil deGrasse Tyson’s webpage

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Emerging Science Note/It’s a Gas

CURWOOD: Just ahead- atomic waste and the presidential election. How the fight over Yucca Mountain could tip the balance in the swing state of Nevada. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Australian scientists are taking a new approach to combating global warming: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, one belch at a time. If it all sounds like a bunch of hot air, well, it is. Sheep and cattle are plentiful in Australia, and they expel large amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as part of their natural digestive processes. Such “natural” gaseous effusions account for one-fifth of the global output of methane. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide in its contribution to global warming.

But scientists at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization have taken a big step toward curbing the environmental damage caused by these farm animals. The Australians have developed a vaccine against three species of microbes that produce methane in sheeps’ stomachs. A recent test of the vaccine shows some promise: sheep that received two injections in a 13-hour period emitted eight percent less methane than the control group.

The scientists note that their vaccine is only a prototype but they’re working to develop a formula against more of the microbes—ultimately, reducing livestock methane emission even further. And that’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science, I’m Jennifer Chu.

CURWOOD: And you’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Laika and the Cosmonauts “Note Crisis” INSTRUMENTS OF TERROR (Upstart – 1993)]

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Yucca Swings

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the presidential race, you know the outcome is likely to depend upon a few key swing states where votes are expected to be close and the candidates are running neck and neck.

In one of those states there’s an environmental issue that’s at center stage. That’s Nevada and the issue is Yucca Mountain — the highly controversial project intended to hold the country’s atomic waste for thousands of years. President Bush signed the bill approving the project. But Nevada officials are fighting it in court and most Nevadans strongly oppose bringing the country’s nuclear waste to their state. Senator Kerry tells Nevada voters if elected he would stop Yucca Mountain.

From Las Vegas, Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report

YOUNG: This is Las Vegas, so let’s go ahead and get the cliché gambling reference out of the way, okay? Who’s the smart money bet in the race for Nevada’s five electoral votes?

JELEN: It’s a horse race. I wouldn’t bet a dime either way.

YOUNG: That’s Ted Jelen, political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Like most pollsters, Jelen sees Nevada as a toss up, which is not what he expected. He thought President Bush would be winning Nevada by an eight to ten point spread. Except for one thing.

JELEN: The main thing, I think, is the Yucca Mountain issue. Yucca Mountain gives the Democrats a very strong issue, you know, on which they can set the agenda.

YOUNG: On the campaign trail, John Kerry bashes President Bush. In Nevada, he also bashes Yucca Mountain, as in this interview with Las Vegas public radio station KNPR.

KERRY: I happen to be against Yucca Mountain and I’m against that storage mechanism. There are other ways of storing and other securing means without dumping them on unwilling partners.

View of the tunnel’s entrance at Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy of www.yuccamountain.org)

YOUNG: Kerry mentions the safety concerns raised by citizen groups as they fight the Yucca project in court: that nuclear waste containers could corrode if water seeps into Yucca mountain’s tunnels; that the area is prone to earthquakes; and that moving radioactive waste to the site invites accidents or attacks.

Kerry calls, instead, for an ambitious scientific effort to find new ways to deal with the waste.

KERRY: What we really have to do is begin a kind of Manhattan Project on the disposal of nuclear waste. We have barely applied ourselves scientifically to the task. Instead of being so dependent on storage, we ought to be more dependent on destruction.

Aerial view of the crest of Yucca Mountain. (Photo courtesy of Department of Energy)

YOUNG: Jelen says the Yucca issue alone keeps Kerry competitive in Nevada.

JELEN: It’s hard to think of anyone who is for Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The Bush administration has a lot to answer for to the citizens of Nevada, and has not done so effectively.

YOUNG: Four years ago, candidate Bush told Nevadans he would let science guide his decisions on Yucca mountain. Here’s how Bush explained it at a campaign rally this summer in Las Vegas.

BUSH: When I campaigned here in this state I said I would make a decision based upon science, not politics. I said I would listen to the scientists, those involved with determining whether or not this project could move forward in a safe manner, and that’s exactly what I did. I listened to the people who know the facts and know the science and made a decision.

YOUNG: That got cheers from a carefully screened, partisan crowd, but not from Yucca’s opponents.

JOHNSON: Absolutely he lied to us, and I say that every chance I get.

YOUNG: Peggy Maze Johnson directs the group Citizen Alert, which is approaching its 30th year of activism on nuclear waste issues. Johnson says Bush did not fulfill his pledge when Congress sent him the bill approving the Yucca site.

JOHNSON: When he signed it there were over 293 unanswered scientific questions. Now, from where I’m sitting, that is not sound science.

[PHONE RINGS. Man answers phone, “Victory 2004, Kerry for president”]

YOUNG: At the Democratic headquarters, campaign director Sean Smith says Yucca mountain has become a touchstone for other concerns about President Bush.

SMITH: It’s as much about this issue that George Bush cannot be trusted as it is about Yucca Mountain. And we’ve seen the anger about that decision for a long time.

YOUNG: Across town at the Republican headquarters, party director Chris Carr is in a ticklish spot. He supports Bush, but opposes Yucca Mountain.

CARR: We here in Nevada, we don’t think that it was sound science. However, I think it’s a big stretch – I think it’s absurd that they say that he himself was not honest about it. The president obviously depended on his advisors at the Department of Energy and his advisors at Department of Energy if they went and gave him the information that it was sound science, then the president trusted his advisors.

YOUNG: So, which version of this do voters here buy? Do they feel misled by Bush? Do they believe Kerry when he says he’d stop Yucca Mountain? For some answers, I went to watch some high school football.


YOUNG: It’s Friday night and the Chaparral Cowboys host the Las Vegas Wildcats. This is no scientific sample, but a few random conversations with folks here reflect pretty closely what polls show. Recent polling says about a third of Nevadans are like Isa Rivers.

RIVERS: The reason that I’m voting for Kerry is because of that issue. And if there’s an accident, heaven forbid, you know there’s going to be spilling and fallout, and there’s going to be all kinds of problems. I can just see so many things happening because of it. I’m just against it. I’m opposed, and I’ll vote against it until I die.

YOUNG: The poll shows 67 percent of Nevadans oppose Yucca Mountain. But about half say it will make no difference in how they vote in the presidential race. Why is that? Well, listen to what Bruce Scott thinks of Kerry’s pledge.

SCOTT: It’s a political football. Whatever they feel that you want to hear they’re gonna say. I don’t believe he’s gonna stop it. I don’t believe he’s got the power to stop it. It hasn’t been stopped yet. They’re still digging the hole, the hole is still there--might as well fill it in and use it.


YOUNG: Maybe it was just because the home team was getting shut out, but there was an air of defeatism about the Yucca project. Many say they think Yucca cannot be stopped. That’s the message the Yucca project’s proponents want Nevadans to hear. Robert List was the state’s Republican governor in the early ‘80s. Now he’s a consultant for the nuclear industry on Yucca Mountain.

LIST: If you ask the average Nevadan, “do you want the project here if you had a choice,” the majority certainly would say “no, we don’t want it here.” At the same time they say, “but we think its going to happen and we believe we ought to begin to negotiate for benefits.”

YOUNG: List says a project estimated at 60 billion dollars will bring jobs and tax revenue to the state. Activists fighting Yucca say Kerry’s campaign here has breathed new life into the opposition. But a decisive vote against Kerry could be viewed as a sort of referendum for it, as President Bill Clinton warned Nevada Democrats at a fundraising event in June.

CLINTON: I’m telling you, you need to go out and tell the people of Nevada, if you vote one more time for this administration they will think you are voting to greenlight this.

YOUNG: The nuclear power industry has a lot riding on this vote. The industry’s lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has spent tens of millions in lobbying and campaign contributions to win Congressional support for Yucca. NEI Vice President Angie Howard is disappointed with Kerry’s stance.

HOWARD: We’re concerned that Senator Kerry has taken that position. There has been over 20 years of very solid science gone into the development of Yucca Mountain as a possible candidate site for the repository. And Yucca Mountain’s important for continuation of the development of nuclear energy as we go forward for our nation’s electricity supply.

YOUNG: Back at his campus office, Professor Ted Jelen sees a great irony in all of this. The one state where an environmental issue appears to be making a real difference in the presidential race is a state that largely does not much care about environmental issues.

JELEN: Well, the state bird is the construction crane. (LAUGHS) This is not a place where – the environment in Nevada is to be conquered, not protected.

YOUNG: Jelen says opposition to Yucca Mountain is generally not viewed as a fight for the environment, but as one against big government.

JELEN: This was something imposed from outside the state, and the local Democrats are doing very well. They’re not proposing it so much as an environmental issue as a state’s rights issue. Nevadans will decide the use to which land is put, not bureaucrats in Washington. So that anti-government sentiment that you get in this part of the world can cut both ways.

YOUNG: We’ll see how deeply it cuts come November 2nd. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Las Vegas.

Related links:
- Yucca Mountain Project
- Eureka County, Nevada Nuclear Waste Page
- Citizen Alert

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The Nader Factor

CURWOOD: Whether or not one believes Ralph Nader tipped the last presidential election to George Bush, this year Kerry campaign officials say privately that if Mr. Nader polls just one or two points it could make a crucial difference in the swing states. Many of Mr. Nader’s supporters from last time have dropped away, some because he no longer has the backing of the Green Party, and others who fear a spoiler effect.

But not Sam Hitt. a former Green Party candidate for New Mexico’s land commissioner, and a long time anti-logging and water rights activist, Mr. Hitt is standing by his man, and he joins us by phone from Santa Fe. Hello, sir.

HITT: Hello.

CURWOOD: Now, I’m sure your friends and folks you work with in politics are asking you this. We have a winner-take-all system when you run for president of the United States, the electoral vote system and such, and that in a tight state, which is yours, New Mexico, votes for Ralph Nader could at the end of the day could end up supporting George Bush. So, what do you say to these folks?

HITT: Well, yeah, so that’s a real strong incentive it would seem to me for the Democrats, for John Kerry, to earn my vote. To get out there and make the environment an issue. He has not done that. He is talking with the coal industry making concessions and compromises. He has not addressed the public land issues, as far as I can tell, in the campaign at all.

CURWOOD: Wait a second, he doesn’t want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

HITT: Well, that’s true, and I appreciate his long history there and that’s great. Unfortunately, he’s told the oil and gas people that he’s going to allow them to drill elsewhere in the lower 48. And we have several very valuable and ecologically important areas here in New Mexico which would be opened up to oil and gas exploitation if he goes through with his promises. So I think that’s not something that’s going to earn my vote.

CURWOOD: But many environmental activists would make the charge that President Bush has a very poor environmental record.

HITT: Well, I think there’s no doubt there that he does have an extremely poor environmental record. I just have to part company with my fellow environmental activists and conservationists. We just don’t quite see eye to eye on what the environmental movement is. I have believed for decades that it’s a social change movement very much like the abolition of slavery and the suffrage of women and the populist movement in the 1890s. You know, those were movements that started from the outside. They didn’t rely on lobbying in Washington, D.C. to achieve social change. And I just believe if we’re going to have the kind of fundamental social change it’s going to come from the outside – that’s our history, that’s the way our system is set up and that’s what Ralph Nader represents.

CURWOOD: So, I’m sure your friends argue with you, look, how much are you willing to risk having Bush in office for another four years to send the message of social change?

HITT: Well, yeah, these are all serious considerations and I’ve weighed them very carefully. I’m tremendously enthused and excited by all the voices that have risen up – the Michael Moores and Amy Goodmans and the Tom Hartmans and many, many others that … You know, we just have this flowering of progressive political thought in America today. I think we’re really educating the next generation, and that would be a silver lining to the cloud, if you will, if Bush is re-elected. That that movement will not lose its steam, that will gather steam.

CURWOOD: Sam, I’m wondering, do you have kids?

HITT: Yes, yes I do have three children, yeah.

CURWOOD: And how politically active are they?

HITT: Well, my two boys in their 20s are increasingly active. They were both inspired by the Nader campaign in 2000. I think they both voted for the first time then.

CURWOOD: And which way do you think they’re going this year?

HITT: Well, that’s a good question. We’ve had a lot of heated exchanges and, you know, I think they’re weighing their options. They’re probably leaning toward a Kerry vote, but it’s hard to tell, at this point.

CURWOOD: Sam, wait a second. You’ve given them their political education in your household and they’re going to vote for Kerry? Why do you suppose they’re going to do that?

HITT: Well I hope I’ve given them the sense that we need to keep our eye on the prize and work for fundamental social change. You know, there’s a tremendous pull from fear, and they’re as susceptible of that as everyone else, including myself. So, I think it takes a very principled and a very determined attitude here to do what’s right, even if on the surface and in the short term it appears to be wrong.

CURWOOD: Okay, it’s November 3, 2004, the day after the election. President Bush has won re-election with the electoral vote margin that came from New Mexico. By a handful of votes – in fact, the margin attributable to those folks who voted for Ralph Nader. How do you feel?

HITT: Well I guess I would feel like William Lloyd Garrison did when he burned a copy of the Constitution back in the 1830s to protest slavery, which was written into the Constitution. You know, many of his supporters abandoned him. They thought he was off his rocker. Well, of course he was right, a slave isn’t worth three-fifths of a person. And that’s what the Constitution said. It was decades before he was proven right. So, you know, again, there has to be a few people in America, there has to be a Ralph Nader that’s outside the system to work for long-term social change. Which often takes more than just one lifetime, but is the only significant thing that’s going to make this a more livable planet.

CURWOOD: Sam Hitt is founder of the Wild Watershed Organization in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and a former candidate for state land commissioner on the Green Party ticket. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

HITT: You bet. My pleasure.

[MUSIC: Mark Isham “Coalwood” ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK: OCTOBER SKY (Sony Classical – 1999)]

Related links:
- Nader for President
- Green Party Refuses to Back Nader for President

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CURWOOD: Next week, on Living on Earth - Marine parks attract millions of visitors each year to see shows with sea stars like Shamu, the killer whale. But some criticize how these animals are captured, and then how they are cared for in these marine parks.

WOMAN: Animals died from too much chlorine in their tank, from jumping into an empty pool during a cleaning, marine animals swallowing key chains, sunglasses, metal…things that people toss into the tanks not thinking twice, and the dolphin eats it and dies.

CURWOOD: It’s the flip side of Flipper, next week on Living on Earth. And remember, you can hear us anytime and get the stories behind the news by going to Living on Earth dot org. That’s Living on Earth dot O-R-G.


CURWOOD: We take you now to a place where earth and space meet to make beautiful music.


CURWOOD: This is the sound of lighting striking across Earth’s magnetic field. Robert Helliwell recorded these atmospheric whistlers for the CD “Pulse of the Planet” produced by Jim Metzner.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced for the World Media Foundation by Chris Ballman, Christopher Bolick, Eileen Bolinsky, Jennifer Chu, Ingrid Lobet, and Susan Shepherd - with help from Carl Lindemann, James Curwood and Kelley Cronin.

Our interns are Jennie Cecil Moore, Jenn Goodman and Steve Gregory. We had help from member station KNPR-Nevada Public Radio. Special thanks to Ernie Silver. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek. Alison Dean composed our themes. Al Avery runs our website. You can find is at Living on Earth dot org. Environmental sound art courtesy of Earthear.

I’m Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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