You might not think of scientists as celebrities, but odds are good you know more of them than you realize. Names like Socrates, Galileo, Newton and Einstein are etched on the walls of the halls of history, of course, but we have more than a fair share of recent figures, too: Sagan, Fauci, Hawking.
And, of course, Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Dr. Tyson's academic CV alone is testament to his remarkable intelligence and ambition: bachelor's at Harvard, doctorate at Columbia, postdoc at Princeton, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. But he's far better known for being America’s science teacher-in-chief: our engaging, personable, energetic national advocate for the pursuit of knowledge. From books to radio to television to podcasts to Twitter, he's become a ubiquitous figure, doing everything from trading barbs with Bill Maher to popping up in Superman comics.
When he’s not traveling the cosmos in a ship of the imagination, however, you just might find him poring over watches. It's through his love of complex timepieces that he became allied with the folks over at Accutron, and how we wound up interviewing him at Accutron’s birthday party in New York this fall, within view of the Empire State Building — lit up Accutron green for the occasion.
You’re here with Accutron, wearing the new Spaceview 2020. How did you become involved with them? What are your thoughts on the new watch and its electrostatic movement?
I’ve only just learned about the electrostatic movement, I hope to learn more about it.
It sounds cool.
What I understand is, there was a long quest. Once you invent a new mechanism, a new movement, there’s a tabletop prototype; then, you have to make it small enough to fit inside a wristwatch. Otherwise… it’s a tabletop clock. The devil’s in the details there: how do you make something small while retaining the accuracy, as well as the precision — which are two different words, of course.
But I’ve known about Accutron since I was a kid; they were one of the early digital watches that came along. It’s actually remarkable, when you think about it, that analog watches [still] exist at all. Because, in the early days, you would boast of how accurate your watch was: accurate to three minutes a month, or some measure [like] that. And then when digital watches came, it blew the accuracy out of the water. So everybody got a digital watch. President Clinton was the first president to wear a digital watch. And digital watches were initially expensive, and then, they got really cheap.
And then, people reminded themselves that watches are, on some level, a statement about yourself. They border on jewelry. I mean, they can be jewelry, of course — if they’re studded, or use special metals — but your watch, your ring, your pen that you might carry: these are part of the well-dressed person. We had this digital watch excursion in the marketplace, but then, people slowly returned to the analog watch. Which then put the pressure back on the watch companies to continue to innovate.
I saw the same thing happen with fountain pens, because I have a collection of fountain pens. And fountain pens used to be the only kind of pen! Then the ballpoint pen came along, and people said, what, I don’t have to carry ink? I don’t have to dip? It doesn’t leak? And so, ballpoint pens became all the rage, and then they became disposable. Then people realized, hey, maybe my pen is part of my statement. The well-dressed person has a fine pen, a fine watch.
I’ve observed these trend lines, I’ve been intrigued by them. And in a way, I’m a participant. I own several watches — but the watches have all been gifted. So, I still have to ask myself: if I had the money enough to buy one of these watches I’ve been gifted, would I have still spent the money on it? [laughs] I don’t know! There are other things that would compete for the money there.
That actually answers my second question, too, which was going to be about how you became interested in watches.
Oh! You want a watch story?
But you have to promise, you can’t make the whole article about this story. You can’t make the whole article about this story.
I grew up in the Bronx. In middle school — I was 14 — I walked dogs for a living. I used it to buy my first camera, my first telescope. I was also fascinated by complicated watches. There was this watch — it was relatively thick, might even have been a half-inch thick, and it had three dials on it. One of them, you’d adjust it, and you’d [see] the time in different cities — not that I had traveled anywhere yet, but I still thought it was kinda cool. Another dial was a tachometer, and I was intrigued to learn how a tachometer dial worked. Because, you time something with the sweep second hand, and the number that shows up on the dial is how fast it’s moving in miles per hour. And I just thought that was cool. The third dial, which I think was just the seconds — [it could] go to zero.
I saved up to buy this watch at Macy’s — Macy’s Yonkers, off the Cross County [Parkway]. My mother took me on a special trip there to get the watch. So I’m wearing it, and I did something athletic, and then the sweep second hand fell off. So I go to a neighborhood jeweler and I say, "I need to get this fixed." And the person said, “I don’t have a key to open the back of this.” It looked pretty simple to me — it didn’t look like you needed something designed by NASA [to open it]. I said, “Really? This looks simple.” Then he said, “Actually, we can’t repair this, because this watch is stolen.”
I’m still a kid, I still think the best of people, not the worst of people. I’m thinking, “Wow, how did Macy’s get ahold of a stolen watch?” That was my first thought! I got it at Macy’s! I thought, “Did a truck pull up and Macy’s didn’t know, and they got duped into acquiring stolen watches?
And then, of course, it occurred to me. Here was a Black kid walking into a jeweler; he was certain I had stolen it.
We’re talking about the Seventies now, the early Seventies. It was same shit, different day, on some level. But here I am, with my own little hobby — and I can’t even express that without confronting the judgments of others about the authenticity of what I owned and what I saved up enough money to buy.
I would learn, you can’t let [it] affect you, because, you’ll just kill yourself, right? Or you lead a life of depression. So I’ve learned. As Martin Luther King said, “You can only be ridden if your back is bent.” So I learned to not be affected by people with regressive world views who did not stand between me and any lifetime goal that I had. This is just a jeweler, I can go to another jeweler. The taxi that wouldn’t pick me up going north in Manhattan, because north is Harlem, even though I was going to Columbia University — I just wait for the [next] taxi.
It’s a tax being paid, of course, but it’s not between me and my goals. Today, I guess they might call them microaggressions. Are they micro or are they macro? I don’t know. Now, times have changed. It’s one in six taxis that doesn’t pick me up, not one in three. These are metrics that I’m happy with.
No one else has that story. It’s not even in my memoir.
Well, damn. Thank you for sharing that.
And I wish I remembered the name of the watch, and I don’t. I don’t think I still have it. I would spot it on sight. It would have been a watch [from] around the early Seventies, it had steep sides — it was like a cylinder, like tuna can proportions. Squat, but still had some height. And it had three dials. It was a black face. How many watches like that can there be?
Editor's note: After some research, we've come up with a couple watches that roughly fit Dr. Tyson's childhood timepiece description. The LeCoultre Shark Deep Sea Chronograph and the Favre-Leuba Sea Sky GMT are pictured below — and cost a pretty penny in 2022. If you have other theories, please let us know in the comments at the bottom of the story.
Change of topic: Let’s say you’re going to the International Space Station. You get to bring 1.5 kilos of personal effects; are you bringing any watches, any pens?
No. First, my fountain pens won’t work, because it’s zero-g; I have to bite the bullet and get a Fisher space pen. Or, use a pencil. NASA is always telling you what time it is — plus, there is no time, there’s only the time of wherever you came from. So I think that’s the wrong place to bring a watch.
Of course, the original Apollo [astronauts] had Omega watches, because there wasn’t a digital clock everywhere. So I get that, and I understand it. But no, I would say, I don’t care what time it is! I’m looking at 18 sunrises and sunsets a day. I don’t care, I don’t know, and I don’t wanna know.
Is there an outstanding question about the nature of the universe that you want answered above all the other ones? I know there are infinite questions, but — is there one when you’re trying to go to sleep at night, you’re like, when are we ever gonna figure that one out?
So, I’ve stopped thinking that way. Because it implies that the one unanswered question is some kind of holy grail of modern research.
For me, I lose sleep over two things: wondering what question I don’t yet know to ask, because the research hasn’t reached it yet. For you to say, what question should I ask — if then we answer it, and [we're] standing in a new place, farther than before, then a new question arises. So there is no final question; it’s a continuum of exploration into the great unknown. That’s one question I have.
Another is, are we smart enough as a species to answer the questions we pose? But more importantly, are we smart enough to even know to ask the right questions? And a third part of that, which is related: are we smart enough to discover everything discoverable about the universe? Might there be some edifice that is unresponsive to our greatest efforts to access? An edifice of secrets?
So it’s: Are we smart enough to answer the questions we pose? Are we smart enough to know what questions to ask? And are we smart enough to ever fully comprehend the universe?
What do you think the answers are?
Yes, no and no. I mean, think about it: if you were a chimp, the question, how far away is the center of the Earth?...the question has no meaning. What is Earth? It looks pretty flat to me, what does it mean, it even has a center? Maybe there are questions that are simple to an intelligent alien that would just blow our minds, and we can’t even approach it. Like the edifice of secrets.
Speaking of: what do you think of all that UAP [Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon] stuff, now that it’s more front of mind for everyone? I’m just genuinely curious to know your thoughts on all this.
So, first of all: who are they fooling? “Unidentified aerial phenomena?” It’s a UFO! They’re just trying to rebrand it. What the hell’s wrong with them? They’re just rebranding it. They’re not fooling anybody. That’s point A.
B: It seems to me — just spitballing here — that if Earth is being visited by aliens from another planet, it would not require congressional hearings to establish. I’m just thinking, juuuuust putting it out there. Aliens visit; Congress has to meet to decide if it’s real. That’s my first point.
Second point: in the last six months, we’ve been treated to high-resolution, stereoscopic imagery from the surface of Mars, obtained by an SUV-sized rover, plunked down — oh, by the way, that rover carried a helicopter! You’ve seen the last few seconds of a high-res image of a moonlet of an asteroid that was slammed into by the DART mission to change its orbit to protect the future of Earth, so it doesn’t fall into harm’s way from a future asteroid. You saw the entire surface of that. We folded a telescope, stuck it in a rocket fairing, launched it to a million miles away from earth, unfurled it, pointed it at the edge of the universe, and we have detailed images of galaxies being born.
You’re telling me there’s an alien in front of your airplane, and the best you can do is a fuzzy monochromatic Tic-Tac? Really? And it’s in our atmosphere? It’s there?!? The plane can see it?!? Really?!?
Not only that — there’s six billion smartphones in the world, last [time] I checked. And each phone can take high resolution photographs and video. If a kitten jumps from the table to the back of the couch and falls, that goes viral. Do you think if anyone got a video of an alien, it wouldn’t go viral? There’s a million people at any given moment airborne, with windows looking out into the air. You have satellite photos now of nearly every square inch of Earth’s surface.
We have crowdsourced an alien invasion. Crowdsourced it. In the sixties and seventies, there was a psychologist named John Mack, who specialized in interviewing people who said they were abducted — that’s where you get the stories of the anal probes, and the gonadal…
He found these accounts to be so repeatable, that — out of his sample size, he then multiplied it up to the full population of the country, he said, there must be a million people who experienced this. Abducted. Nowadays, you can stream what your phone sees. If an alien is taking you onto a flying saucer, you can stream that. In the era of the smartphone, there is no such video.