Arts & Sciences: The Citygram Q+A with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage

Leave it to the internet to point out a problem with the performance of “Moon Song” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O. and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig at the Oscars last weekend. Onstage, the song “was either sung in the Southern Hemisphere, or the rising Moon was upside down,” someone tweeted loudly – well, as loudly as a person can tweet, anyway.

Tyson brings his brand of wit, wisdom and unparalleled knowledge of space back to Austin during SXSW.

And that twitter user would know; after all, he’s Neil deGrasse Tyson, the nation’s preeminent astrophysicist, revered as much for his accessibility and humor as for his intellectual brilliance. As for the volume of said social media observation, it reached more than 1.67 million people – that’s how many followers he has. While such an audience may be a far cry from that of President Obama’s or, say, Katy Perry’s, it’s still something worth noting in a world largely obsessed with political scandals, snark-laced memes and the state of Miley Cyrus’ tongue.

Karen O. performing "Moon Song" at the Oscars with Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) and an upside down moon.

Karen O. performing “Moon Song” at the Oscars with Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend) and an upside down moon.

Tyson brings his brand of wit, wisdom and unparalleled knowledge of space back to Austin (little-known fact: he spent time in a Ph.D. program at UT Austin before his thesis committee dissolved itself and he later earned two astrophysics degrees at Columbia University) this week in the name of South by Southwest as he participates in a special keynote interview on Saturday. He took the time to answer some questions we sent his way last week about his latest project, the importance of science education, and his thoughts on the universe and everything in it.

Likewise, we tossed a few queries in the direction of Adam Savage, one of America’s two favorite MythBusters, who’s delivering a keynote during SXSW next Monday. A recent guest on Tyson’s StarTalk Radio alongside fellow Discovery Channel star Jamie Hyneman, Savage also brings a blend of humor and high-level curiosity to the podium as he talks about the intersection of art and science, highlighting the theme of this year’s much-anticipated SXSW Create. Savage isn’t just a television producer and co-host; he’s also a maker, having worked as a special effects artist, fabricator and model-maker on several feature films, including three in the Matrix and Star Wars franchises.

Whatever the measurable outcome of these two science superheroes’ time spent in town over the next few days might be, one thing is certain: they’re both sure to ignite the imaginations of fellow thinkers, dreamers, doers, and makers, inspiring them to aim for the cosmos in their own endeavors, too.


Neil deGrasse Tyson


CITYGRAM: On behalf of the city of Austin, we’re honored to welcome you back to town. Your accomplishments since your time spent at UT have been mind-boggling. In your SXSW keynote, you’ll no doubt be discussing your latest project, COSMOS, an all-new installment of the Carl Sagan classic from the 1980s. What can you tell us about it?

“Religion has been an extraordinary force in the history of human culture. It should be taught in every school curriculum. Not a religion – all religions – all god[s].”

TYSON: [It’s] a continuation of the story of how, using the methods and tools of science, we came to discover our place in the universe, not only in time, but in space, and how that knowledge and wisdom, when taken to mind and heart, can make us better shepherds of our civilization and of our planet.

C: So, you’re the first scientist to amass more than one million twitter followers, and your tweets are an engaging mix of education and humor. It’s cool to see someone of your caliber embracing the medium and doing something great with it amid all the cat memes, selfies and listicles out there. So, who are some folks you follow on social media that we might enjoy, and why?

T: A few Fridays ago I dropped in several tweets detailing who and what I follow. At the moment 49 people and entities. The list includes comedians, scientific colleagues, and expositors of science.

C: Texas is an interesting place in that it teaches creationism in many of its public schools, while two of its universities (Texas A&M and UT Austin) are key partners in the Giant Magellan Telescope project, which was recently approved for construction. When it comes to public primary and secondary education, how important a role do the sciences play, and how do you feel about the role of religion in education?

T: Education is not mentioned in the US Constitution. By its omission, education falls entirely under state control. So by law, a community can, in principle, teach what it wants to its citizens. As a scientist and educator, it’s not my duty to change the Constitution, but I can alert the electorate of the consequences to swapping religiously-driven philosophies for science curricula. Such actions undermine a student’s awareness of what is objectively true in Nature, hopelessly handicapping the ability to make scientific discoveries that serve as the engines of tomorrow’s economies. In a capitalist democracy nobody wants to die poor. So I retain some confidence that things will swing back. I ask here what religious people would do if scientists demanded power of influence over what the preacher teaches in Sunday school. That has never happened and it never will.

“my favorite musical genre…is the Blues…traceable to my first time hearing Buddy Guy live – I think it was at Antone’s.”

Religion has been an extraordinary force in the history of human culture. It should be taught in every school curriculum. Not a religion — all religions — all god[s]. Only then can a student be empowered to analyze the subject objectively in the context of history… that’s what it means to be an educated person. But I suspect [it] will not likely happen, because, from what I have observed, strongly religious people tend to choose sides, asserting one religion as true against all others. This approach promotes dogmatic thinking, which is the enemy of a free mind.

C: In the last few decades, Austin has become something of a live music mecca — hence, we suppose, the presence of the music portion of South By seeming so at home here. We can’t help but ask: what kind of music does someone with a mind as brilliant as yours enjoy? What are you grooving/rocking/relaxing to these days, and will you be catching any live music while you’re in town?

T: While I avidly listen to most genres of music, from show tunes to classic rock to 1940s crooners to new age, my favorite musical genre among them is the Blues. Forged, I might add, while I was a graduate student at UT Austin, traceable to my first time hearing Buddy Guy live – I think it was at Antone’s. No time to catch up on anything while in town. My calendar will be tightly choreographed during the visit.

“The best advice is never given to you. It’s always learned firsthand.”

C: Our readers are an intellectually curious bunch who look up to a lot of lofty role models in the arts and sciences, and we love knowing who inspires them, too. We’re wondering: what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

T: The best advice is never given to you. It’s always learned firsthand. At the top of my list is the recognition that we are all part of a human family. And that it’s arbitrary where we have traditionally been drawing the line to establish our family tree. Once you know that any two random humans in the world, if you go far enough back on the world family tree, share a common genetic ancestor, you are allowed to look to the greatest accomplishments humans have ever achieved, and assert your genetic relevance to them.

COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey debuts on Sunday, March 9 at 8 pm CST on FOX and the National Geographic Channel. Shown in 170 countries and 45 languages, the premiere marks the largest global opening in history for a television series. Dr. Tyson’s SXSW keynote interview takes place one day prior on Saturday, March 8 at 2 pm in Exhibit Hall 5 of the Austin Convention Center. The event is accessible only to festival badge-holders.


Adam Savage


CITYGRAM: We’re excited to have you keynote this year’s conference with a discussion of the intersection of art and science. In a similar vein, there’s an increasingly held belief that “great design can save the world.” Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

SAVAGE: Design makes the world a nicer place to live in. Engineering will save the world.

C: We’re sure you get asked all the time, “What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever done on MythBusters?” So we’re not going to ask you that. We’re going to ask you, “What’s the dumbest?”

S: It was 118 degrees in a rock quarry, and I had engineered the system whereby a ballistic gel dummy would get dropped from weather balloons from 400′ up in the air (so he was traveling at terminal velocity when he hit our experimental target). I had worked out everything except the mechanical transition that would start to lift our dummy into place.

“Engineering will save the world.”

That transition involved taking weight and transferring it from the balloons and to our guys holding them, to the dummy itself. There was a 2′ quick jerk of the rope that allowed the transition to happen, but it also ripped the ropes from the balloon holder’s hands, giving 5 people rope burns instantly. We also screwed the experiment that morning and meant we had to come back the NEXT day, when we were supposed to be wrapped. Whoops.

C: You’ve done more than your fair share of repurposing machinery and materials for the show, giving things a second, third and fourth utility instead of just tossing it out when it’s not new anymore. Either on the show or in life in general, what’s the most interesting instance of creative reuse you’ve ever seen?

S: That’s a great question. I love the website, showing backwoods ingenuity and genius of every stripe. Like this homebuilt bicycle jeep:

Bicycle jeep from - a website Adam enjoys for its "backwoods ingenuity."

Bicycle jeep from – a website Adam enjoys for its “backwoods ingenuity.”

C: Austin is full of creative young minds who want to make something tangible for a living, but as mega-investor Marc Andreessen insists, “software is eating the world.” For those upstarts in this growing tech hub who might otherwise get drafted into the vortex of software development, what advice do you have for creating a life that’s really about making, fixing and recycling actual stuff for a living? Where should they start?

“Making even seemingly small things is vital and important.”

S: Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. You NEED to get your hands dirty. Making even seemingly small things is vital and important. Draw a picture.

C: By our tally (and by that we mean Wikipedia’s), your fellow MythBuster, Jamie, has worked in no fewer than nine professions, including those of certified dive master, wilderness survival expert, boat captain, linguist, pet shop owner, animal wrangler, machinist, concrete inspector and chef. If the show ended tomorrow and by some twist of fate the two of you, bound for life, had to spend the rest of your days living in Austin and doing one of those jobs together, which would you choose and why?

S: Christ, that sounds like hell on earth. But if I had to choose (and I’ve been a graphic designer, animator, stage rigger, set designer, welder, machinist, moldmaker, actor, toy designer, director and tv host) I’d choose machinist. It’s my favorite room in my shop, the machine shop.

MythBusters airs regularly on the Discovery Channel. Full episodes can be downloaded at iTunes. Savage’s keynote takes place Monday, March 10 at 2 pm in Exhibit Hall 5 of the Austin Convention Center. The event is accessible only to festival badge-holders.

This article originally published in The Admire Issue of Citygram Austin Magazine [February 2014].
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Photos: Courtesy of Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage, SXSW. Adam Savage photo by Chris Perez

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