Let Me Hear Your Body Talk

Caught in the Act gets astrophysical with Neil deGrasse Tyson in this pre-show interview about dancing, dealing with Twitter haters and why Neil won’t ever be “on brand.”

Early in October, we grabbed almost an hour of time with the fun, funny and brilliant Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson over the phone (for the record, he asked that we call him Neil). He appears at The Straz Oct. 19, this Thursday, for his talk An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper. We’re huge NdGT fans, but instead of talking all things science, we wanted to get into the general relativity of the man himself. He surprised us.

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CAUGHT IN THE ACT: We’re so excited you’re coming back to The Straz for another lecture.

NEIL TYSON: I’m flattered that you didn’t get enough last time.

CITA: We’re excited you’re bringing a new show, but what we really want to talk about is you as a performer.

NT: I’m a servant of your questions.

CITA: Great! Preparing for this interview, we watched you and Chuck Nice on Cosmic Gumbo, then watched your interview with Katy Perry. You seem to be able to adjust quickly as an educator to whomever your audience is, so we wanted you to talk about how you find teaching itself to be a type of performing art.

NT: When you’re on stage, you have to keep people’s attention for however long you’re there. And people are paying money to hear you, so there’s some expectation and obligation that you’ve got to be entertaining or educating or some combination of both. Whereas, in an interview, I feel some obligation to match rhythms with the other person … to match outlook … no, to match rhythms. Otherwise, it’s a mismatch to the viewer. Every time you have a mismatch, not as much information or insight will come across in that conversation. There’s nothing more awkward or unsmooth than two people who have two different ways of communicating trying to communicate with one another. You’re wasting each other’s time, and you’re wasting our time. So, I see teaching as having to have a metaphorical tool kit. People have different literacies, different backgrounds, different energy levels, and I try to find what that is. Upon finding it, I think it’s my duty as an educator to interact in a way where the widest possible communication channels are open to that person. If it means referencing sports, if that’s a point of reference for that person, if it means referencing pop culture or TV shows or movies, that’s what I do. So, I spend some fair amount—maybe 15 percent—of my time learning what other people care about and that’s what’s it in my tool belt.

CITA: How do you go about doing this? What is it that you do to spend time learning what other people care about?

NT: I think it’s a matter of paying attention. So, if I see someone speaking to other people and trying to make an impression or teach them and I see people getting bored, I wonder: why do I see that? Was it the delivery? Was it the jargon? Was it the personality of the person delivering the information? I pay attention to that. It takes a level of socialization that most people have, but beyond that it’s just energy to think about what’s going on. If I’m being called upon to serve the interest of the public in any way at all, I might as well put in some effort to do the best job that I can in that capacity. If I do not, then I’m just being lazy. Or, I’m asking people to meet me at the chalkboard rather than have it be I who meets them on the living room couch. So, it’s simply a matter of paying attention: What is the number one show on television? Oh, I’d like to know about that. I don’t have to know every show, but I should know two or three—the characters, the plot lines, what are the other defining elements of the show. Then I have some fluency in that subject. Anyone who walks in the room walks in with a scaffolding of pop culture. If I’m talking about science and I can clad that scaffold with science, then science applied to the thing they already care about opens a communication channel like none other.

CITA: Then did you study education as well?

NT: No, it’s just that an astrophysicist spends so much energy contemplating the universe, the least I can do is spend some of that brain effort contemplating how people communicate with each other. So, I read people’s speeches, how they put their words together to create impact, to create emotion as distinct from content. So, no, I never took an education class.

CITA: What about performing arts classes? Did you ever study music, theater, dance?

NT: I was a performing member of three dance companies over the years in college.

CITA: Get out of town. Are you serious?

NT: It’s not like it was the Bolshoi. These were just college troupes, but it was done in leotards and legwarmers and this sort of thing. And so I greatly valued and continue to value the juxtaposition of strength and agility. With dance, there’s also the additional element of grace. So, dance is strength, agility and grace in this harmony like no other challenge. I did that on the side. I also wrestled. I was captain of my high school wrestling team. I continued to wrestle in college and graduate school although I wasn’t as good relative to other people—it was a whole other scale of people’s advancement and commitment. But, I enjoyed the sport immensely, the one-on-one the purity of it. I persisted through senior year. I also wrote.

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Tyson, during his dancing days.

CITA: Let’s go back to these dance companies you were in. Where these modern dance companies? Were these college ballet companies …?

NT: So, one of them was Afro-Caribbean style. One of them was competitive international Latin ballroom. I wasn’t good enough to be a soloist but definitely good enough to be on the team performance. We were eight couples performing, 16 of us on the floor performing choreographed routines in competition. The third was just called the Dance Team, and it was a combination of show tunes, ballet, modern, that sort of thing. It was more broadly conceived and executed.

CITA: We hardly ever, ever hear of anybody who has performed Afro-Caribbean style even though we have a strong Afro-Cuban culture in Tampa. So, what were you studying? Was this Afro-Cuban, was it a Chuck Davis style, was it Afro-Brazilian?

NT: It was mostly sort of basic things you would do with your body. I don’t know if was a culture specifically. When I visited South Africa early on—I’ve been there several times—I was more of a pure tourist, and we went to an indigenous culture dance day. I’m watching everyone dance and thinking, “that’s exactly what we did in Afro-Caribbean class.” A lot of that midsection undulating, and the hips and arms and shoulders, and how it comes together in a performance. So that’s what it was. My body would hurt tomorrow if I did that now.

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Tyson, during his wrestling days.

CITA: That’s fantastic. It made our entire life to know that Neil deGrasse Tyson did Afro-Caribbean dance.

NT: When I am onstage, I’m self-aware, and there’s so much more I can communicate with an audience than just my voice in the microphone. There is tonality in my voice, there is my body gestures, there is my gesticulations with my arms … all of this comes together … I’d say by the end of a talk, 2/3 came through the words I spoke and the rest is me I guess the word would be “performing” it. My words are communicating, but so is my body.

CITA: Yes. Watching your facility in conversation is really starting to make sense now that we have this information. Body awareness is not something people think about or are conscientious of or study the way dancers do. But, when you see someone who has a conscientious level of body awareness …

NT: Oh, I’m intently aware. Especially since I wrestled. You know, the body of the person you’re wrestling is everything. The bicep, the triceps … it’s sweeping a different muscle to get them to their backs. It’s a whole intense pathway of thought to reconcile what your body is relative to what you can do in a competition. So, yes, I have an acute awareness. I might have a fascination with bodies that have taken shape by the things that are unique to the performance in which they have excelled. So, the body of a football linebacker, or a prima ballerina, or the body of a marathon runner, the body of a Sumo wrestler. I’m intrigued by any and all humans with bodies that have reached the extremes of expression—all in the service of our entertainment.

CITA: Human bodies morph into expressions in which they excel. You are an astrophysicist so obsessed with and acutely aware of celestial bodies as well. Do you ever spend time in contemplation of the connection between the concept of “body,” the human body in motion, the human body comprised of motion it expels and absorbs and how that relates to astrophysics?

NT: Ah, no. Because the human body, we’re a life form on earth like all other life forms—plants, the cheetah that runs faster than any other animal, the condor whose wingspan is the largest of any bird—if you look at features of animals in the world, of plants in the world, if you take in the totality of the tree of life in the world, it’s quite a fascinating place to visit, delightfully. But, that has no direct relationship to astrophysics.

I’ve spoken metaphorically of it, recently: “when I close my eyes, I imagine the solar system with its pirouetting planets as a cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity.” That is a figurative sentence of having the benefit of being literally true. Motions of the planets are induced by the forces of gravity, and all objects do pirouette. We call it rotate, but they pirouette.

CITA: We have ardent Neil deGrasse Tyson fans in Tampa. When you started out your career, did you have this end game in mind that you were going to get your degree in astrophysics and become the heartthrob celebrity that you are today?

NT: No, no not at all! It’s still not! Every day when I wake up—it might be 9.4 million Twitter followers [I have] at this moment—it’s like, do they know I’m an astrophysicist? I keep wondering “what’s going on here?” Eighty-five percent of the time you see me in public or I’m anywhere in the public eye, it’s in the service of the cosmic curiosity of an organization or individual that has asked questions. About 15% of the time it’s because I’ve written a book, and the book has marketing people attached to it and they’ll install me on a newscast or a talk show. People come up to me and say “I see you all over the place, you must have a good agent.” I say, “my agent is the Universe itself.” And then they want me to come [on their show or outlet] and comment. So, I’d be irresponsible if I did not comment. But I’m commenting as a servant of the curiosity, not because I wake up in the morning and say “how many outlets can I put my face on today?” That is not a thought that I ever have.

CITA: Right. You don’t wake up in the morning and worry about your “brand.”

NT: No, I am not a brand. [I’ll make comments and] people say to me, “I’ve told you that’s off brand,” and [I think] “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” I’ve never tried to build it; I don’t even care. I’ve never even met my brand. Call it what you want, but I’m not going to constrain what I feel is what people want to hear because someone thinks it’s on or off-brand. I don’t think at all about brands. I don’t care. As I said, I’m a servant. Because I’m a servant, it’s not about brands. The only thing I push on the public, if you want to call it that, is a book I might have written.

CITA: Well, you say that, but we saw you in your interview with Chuck Nice, and he was trying so hard to get you to push your book and you wouldn’t do it.

NT: We’re using “push” in two different ways. For me, “push” means to publish it. I wrote it on my own, and now it’s an offering out there. You were thinking “push” as pushing to buy the book, when—in fact—I never tweeted about my book.

CITA: Right, right. That’s what you and Chuck were discussing. That you don’t promote your own books on your Twitter account.

NT: Right. It’s just an offering. So, I will actively write a book for the public for publication. I will actively do that, yes. But the only tweets are thoughts I’m having anyway, so I think I might as well share this; people might be interested. No point in keeping it to myself. So, then I share it. I don’t think “what am I going to tweet today,” no. It’s a thought I’m having anyway, so there it goes. Right. I don’t … I think I used a photo of my latest book in a tweet because it has a really pretty illustration.

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CITA: It’s a nice cover.

NT: But most people put all this stuff on their social media, right? Okay, all these pundits. Of course, you already know what they’re tweeting because they’re going to be telling you stuff you already know they’re going to tell you. But there are others, like comedians, who have strong followings and they’ll say “I’m going to be in St. Louis tomorrow!” I don’t tweet where I am or what I’m going to be doing. Much to the disappointment of, you know … many people [laughs]. That’s not how I use my Twitter stream. I don’t need to tell 9 million people around the world that I’m in Tampa, Florida.

CITA: So, while doing research for this interview, we got kind of angry coming across articles by people accusing you of having this sanctimonious, liberal, left-wing, “sage-on-the-stage” way of delivering information. Like you treat people as though they’re not smart enough to know what you know. But, for anyone who’s paid attention to you, and even in the course of this conversation, it’s obvious you are easy to talk to, that your desire to be a public servant is apparent. Do you care about having haters and people trolling your Twitter feed?

NT: So, there are occasional people who, um, so here’s something that happened. For a couple of years, I would tweet the kind of posts where I thought it was like a clever observation of something that I would like to share with people. There was a subset of people who reacted negatively to it, like “oh, he’s just showing off how smart he is and he’s alienating people.” And I said, “wow”—because that was not my intent, of course—and so the reactions on Twitter to things I post are highly useful swaths of information for me about how effectively I’m communicating. Or not communicating. And second, it’s not just what I get across, but what I think they’ll think if I post this; but, do they actually think this? And if they do not, I’ve failed.

CITA: You conduct it almost like a social science experiment.

NT: It’s not that that’s being done on purpose, but it is a consequence of the medium that is Twitter. I get an instantaneous, neuro-synaptic snapshot of people’s reactions to words I use, to phrases I turn. If I think something is funny and nobody gets it, I will not tweet that way anymore. This is part of the larger story of “are you really communicating with someone or are you giving a lecture.” If you’re giving a lecture, then you don’t care how they think; it’s their job to come to you at the chalkboard or whatever they use today in the classroom. If you’re communicating, then you have to cover most of the distance yourself until you are sitting next to them in their own living room and you’re talking to them like you’re right there. I don’t mind doing this when I’m called to do so.

Here’s another thing. It’s trivial, but it’s real: I used to tweet frequently about the science in movies that I saw. Some of them got famous, like newscasters would report on it, but there was a subset of people—by the way, my goal was to enhance your appreciation of the film, to see things a little more deeply; you know, they got the physics of this wrong, but they got the physics of that right—I view it as no different than if you were a costume designer, and you were like, “no, they missed the period of that costume of that Jane Austen story. That gown was designed in the 1920s not in the 1890s, so they messed that one up.” I’d be thrilled to know that! Or, if you know about cars, and there’s some movie that is set in 1955 and there’s a 1957 Chevy parked on the street, oh my gosh! You’ll never hear the end of it. So, I thought if I could bring science to that same level of analysis, people would embrace it. Most did. But, the subset that did not painted me as a killjoy, as a buzzkill, as ruining the movie for them. I thought “wow, these were thoughts I was having anyway and I don’t need to share them with you anymore.” I don’t have to do it; these are thoughts that will stay in my head. I had some with Game of Thrones, and I thought people would be really intrigued by that. You know, blue breath versus red breath in the dragons, and you have to watch the show to be able to comment on it.

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I was intrigued to learn that people thought that all I wanted to do was attack films for getting things wrong. I started to get calls from talk shows that were like “we want you to come on and talk about this movie and tell us everything that’s wrong about it.” That wasn’t my intent. They wanted to create a segment called “Tyson the Buzzkill.” So, obviously, I wasn’t communicating correctly, so I just stopped. And I don’t know how to resurrect that in a way [that would work]. But anyhow, getting back to the naysayers you’re talking about: it’s interesting to know that they’re out there. I’d say the big fraction of the cases just don’t know what they’re talking about and have a kneejerk, negative reaction. And, oh, they’re accusing me of being liberal which I think is hilarious. Holding aside the fact that I was three-times appointed by George W. Bush to serve on White House commissions in the service of that White House—holding that aside—nothing I ever post is political. Nothing. It’s factual. And if you have a political leaning that either rejects it or accepts it, you are putting a political layer on the facts that I post. I have strong political views, but I don’t publicize them. I care that you think rationally, that you’re an informed citizen—in particular, an informed voter. Quick example: a few years ago, after one of the horrific shootings, I think this one was in Connecticut—after that, I wondered if I should post something, so I did. Here’s the post: “In Wal-Mart, the world’s largest gun seller, you can buy an assault rifle, but company policy bans the sale of rock albums with curse words.”

That tweet was informationally accurate and politically neutral. But, what happened was there were people who viewed it as “he wants to take our guns away! How dare he do that!” so it became this second amendment thing. Other people said “they have the right to do that, to not put curse words in things!” And everybody chose sides, thinking I was trying to get them to do one thing or the other when it’s just contrasting policy within the same company. People think I’m being political when I simply want them to know more about what it is they’re thinking. That intrigues me, too, to realize that they’re out there. I’m just fascinated by this, this de facto sociological experiment.

This one guy, a journalist for a newspaper in Idaho, he had a column. The column was called “Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Horse’s Astrophysicist.”

CITA: Really?

NT: The column gave all these reasons for why I was a horse’s astrophysicist: “liberal scientist blah blah blah blah blah, and he wants us to believe this, and Neil Tyson that.” And, he’s sort of trying to appeal to all his conservative, Trump [followers] …

CITA: Of course, staying “on message.”

NT: On yeah, staying on point, right, exactly. So I was like, “should I reply to this guy?” But it’s a newspaper, right? Not some solo blogger, so, alright, I’ll reply. So, I wrote back, line by line. And I said, “you say I’m liberal, but I actually worked for George W. Bush and he was pretty happy with what I contributed. Plus, there’s no evidence anywhere that I’m liberal, so I just don’t know where you got this information. Second, by the way, I practically said I’m not an atheist. Here’s a video of me saying that. I think of myself more of an agnostic. I don’t know where you got that [idea I’m atheist]—what are your sources?” He also said, “I don’t know if Tyson is a good scientist or not. I don’t think he is.” I said, “Google Scholar: you can learn about this. There’s a whole branch of Google where, if you type in search, it goes to peer reviewed articles. Here’s a link to all my research there.” I was very polite and kind about it. His last comment was that I treated a 9-year-old girl badly when she asked if there would ever be life on Jupiter: “the real reason you’re an ass is because you tweeted back disrespectfully to her,” and he points to a tweet with my name on it responding “how can you think anyone can live in a gas cloud? Go back to school.” And I said, “you know, I looked back on the date on that tweet, and here’s what I actually tweeted that day. It was some stupid comment about a movie that I’d seen. So, I have no idea where you got that tweet. It seems to me you didn’t double check your sources. By doing so, you abrogated your journalistic integrity.” And it turns out he got the tweet from Clickhole, which is a joke site akin to The Onion. So, I wrote this whole rebuttal and posted it. Even his conservative friends said [to him], “you asshole, don’t you know Clickhole is a joke site? How could you possibly cite that?” And everybody jumped all over him. He resigned his position from the newspaper. It’s an interesting story. He resigned his position but he still has his conservative talk show on radio, but he resigned his position because the forces against him … people who had respect for him previously just lost all respect for him.

CITA: Did you title your rebuttal “So-and-So is a Real Horse’s Clickhole”?

NT: No … when I’m being right, I don’t need to name-call. I just said “oh, by the way, you said I’m a real horse’s astrophysicist—I see what you did there!” complimenting him for his wordplay. I don’t mind being called a horse’s ass if I actually did something to justify it. But everything he listed, I never did. I don’t mind being somebody’s horse’s ass, but let it be based in reality and not something you’ve invented. That was the thrust of my reply.

CITA: For a talk like An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper, how do you prepare with such a chaotic, revolving news cycle like the one happening now?

NT: Oh, so I will go back. It’s not like this week’s news. More broadly, it’s news stories that triggered thoughts I have that I thought you might be interested in and my reaction to it. I go back several years for some of these news stories, but if I came back and did the talk again I’d have fresh news. I will go back maybe three or four years and have stories that you probably missed, but I dug them out and kept them. They’ll have something to do with science literacy or the absence of science literacy in the world. So, it will sensitize you about what it is like to read the paper through the lens of an astrophysicist and an educator.

CITA: Great, that clears that up. Look, we can’t wait to see you soon.

NT: Tell everybody thanks for having me back again.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson appears Thursday, Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. in Morsani Hall. Need tickets? Get them while you can.

The Harmony That Keeps Trappist-1’s 7 Earth-size Worlds From Colliding

Hello, loyal readers. Caught in the Act is caught on vacation this week, but we wanted to share this very cool article on the music of the spheres from The New York Times. Enjoy, and we’ll be back with a freshly minted blog next week.

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A visualization of the orbits of the seven planets circling the star Trappist-1. (Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech)

By Kenneth Chang

In February, astronomers announced the discovery of a nearby star with seven Earth-size planets, and at least some of the planets seemed to be in a zone that could provide cozy conditions for life.

The finding of these planets circling the star Trappist-1 40 light-years away came with a bit of mystery. The orbits of the planets are packed tightly, and computer calculations by the discoverers suggested that the gravitational jostling would send the planets colliding with each other or flying apart, some to deep space, others spiraling into the star and destruction.

Now new research provides an explanation for the dynamics of how this planetary system could have formed and remained in stable harmony over billions of years.

“It’s actually a very special system,” said Daniel Tamayo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto Scarborough and the lead author of a paper appearing in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The scientist in the office next door to Dr. Tamayo found musical inspiration from the Trappist-1 planets. Matt Russo, an astrophysicist who is also a musician, turned to Dr. Tamayo’s computer simulations for help turning the orbits into notes, and they have produced a sort of music of the spheres for the 21st century.

“I think Trappist is the most musical system we’ll ever discover,” Dr. Russo said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

While the planets are roughly the size of Earth, the Trappist-1 system is very different from our solar system. Trappist-1 is a dwarf star that is much smaller and colder than our sun, and all seven of the planets orbit within six million miles of the star. By contrast, Mercury, the innermost planet of our solar system, is 36 million miles from our sun. Earth is nearly 93 million miles away.

Since the Trappist-1 planets are so close to their star, they orbit quickly, and their “year” — the time to complete one orbit — ranges from 1.5 days to 19 days.

The original discoverers noted that those orbits were almost exactly in what scientists call “resonance.” That is, the second planet completes five orbits in almost exactly the time the first planet makes eight. The third planet completes three orbits for every five orbits of the second planet, and the fourth planet makes two orbits for every three orbits of the third. The other planets are also in resonance. (In our solar system, Pluto is in resonance with Neptune, with Pluto making two orbits for every three of Neptune.)

Yet when they plugged the data into computer simulations, the orbits quickly became unstable, falling apart in less than a million years. Even when they added the effects of tides on the planets, which tend to push planets toward more circular, stable orbits, the system still often fell apart within a few million years, a cosmic instant compared with the estimated age of the Trappist-1 star (three billion to eight billion years).

“We were missing some physics,” said Amaury H.M.J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and a member of the team that described the Trappist-1 planets. Also missing: exact information about the shape and tilt of the orbits.

Dr. Tamayo and his colleagues took a different approach.

Instead of just looking at the orbits of the planets today, they looked at possible ways that the planets got to where they are now. The planets formed out of a disk of gas and dust. After that formation, the remaining disk would have nudged the planets inward, and those nudges tend to push the planets toward the stable resonances.

Dr. Tamayo offered the analogy of musicians in an orchestra. “It’s not enough for members to merely keep time,” he said.

The missing information about orbits is like musicians playing out of tune, he said. “By contrast,” Dr. Tamayo said, “simulating the formation of the system in its birth disk is analogous to the orchestra tuning itself before playing. When we create these harmonized systems, we find that the majority survive for as long as we can run our supercomputer simulations.”

In more than 300 computer runs, each simulating five million years, the vast majority stayed stable, Dr. Tamayo said.

Then they ran 21 simulations each tracing about 50 million years of orbits, and 17 of those were stable. Each of the longer simulations consumed a week of supercomputer time. That suggests the orbits are stable for several billion years, although it does not provide definitive proof.

“That’s basically as long as we can hope to run our simulations,” Dr. Tamayo said.

Jack J. Lissauer, a planetary scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who works on the space agency’s Kepler planet-finding mission, said the new results fit what was expected. “If the planets are indeed locked in resonances, it’s quite reasonable for them to be stable for very long times,” he said. “This wasn’t a surprise, but it wasn’t shown previously.”

Dr. Triaud said the new results could help refine their observations. “It’s a really beautiful analysis,” he said of Dr. Tamayo’s approach. “We will be looking at our data to see if they match what they propose.”

The resonant orbits also inspired Dr. Russo, a guitarist in the indie pop group Rvnners. He and a bandmate, Andrew Santaguida, started playing around with the data. They arbitrarily assigned a particular musical note — C — to the outermost planet. That set the notes for the other planets based on their relative orbital periods, although they are not exactly in tune.

TRAPPIST-1 Planetary System Translated Directly Into Music (Video by SYSTEM Sounds):

The resonances drift over time, probably because of more complicated gravitational interactions and tidal effects.

“You can tell something is a bit twisted,” Dr. Russo said. “The notes are little wonky.”

In the musical animation, each planet plays its note each time it passes in front of the Trappist-1 star, with the orbit of the outer planet set at two seconds.

In addition, they assigned a specific percussion sound for each time a planet caught up with its neighbor. “It turned out to be very similar to a very natural drum progression,” Dr. Russo said.

So far, Trappist-1 is the only musically enchanting planetary system in the galaxy. In no other system are the planetary orbits stacked in resonance. Dr. Russo did a similar musical treatment of Kepler 90, another star with seven planets. “It’s just horrendous,” Dr. Russo said. “It’s very uncomfortable to listen to.”

That may turn out to indicate something different about how planets form around dwarf stars versus larger stars.

The scientists are releasing the computer software for anyone to explore the music of planetary orbits.

 

A version of this article, by Kenneth Chang, appears in print on May 16, 2017, on Page D2 of the New York edition with the headline: Perfect Timing: How a Celestial Neighbor Holds It Together. It was published online on May 10, 2017. Read it on The New York Times website here.

 

Indiana Jones and the Lost Dinosaur

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim’s fabled adventure to find Spinosaurus is a grand tale—which he reveals at The Straz for his talk on Feb. 21. Here, we get behind-the-scenes info in an exclusive interview.

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Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, a young paleontologist who lives in Chicago, joined the ranks of the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer after his decade-plus journey to rediscover Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur, made international headlines. Originally discovered by scientist Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was destroyed one night in World War II when Allied bombs hit the Munich Museum. In elementary school, Nizar determined he would become the scientist who found the lost dinosaur. In a wild series of events almost too unbelievable for Hollywood, Dr. Ibrahim achieved his dream. He’ll tell you all about it right here in a few weeks, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him by phone to talk about his miraculous life, the importance of science and why all little kids go bananas over dinosaurs.

CITA: Let’s talk about this incredible story you have about finding Spinosaurus. It’s an Indiana Jones plot, complete with Nazis, chance encounters, everything. This was a long journey. What kept you searching, why didn’t you quit?

DR. NIZAR IBRAHIM: That’s a good question. It is a pretty incredible story, and it does have all of these elements. That’s really what makes this not your standard dinosaur discovery story—you go somewhere, you find a few bones, you put them together and that’s it. This story has so many layers and angles. There’s World War II, the discovery and destruction of ancient treasures from the age of dinosaurs, the fossil hunter who had a few bones who I was trying to find . . . and there’s the other aspects like the use of this modern, cutting-edge technology. There’s something for everyone in this presentation. It has history, science, adventure. So, I think that’s what makes it such a compelling story.

Why did I not quit? That’s also a good question. Because in many ways, this story unfolded a little bit like a . . . yes, like a Hollywood adventure movie. You think that certain things only happen in the movies like the chance encounter with the fossil hunter. You think . . . if you saw that in a movie you’d be like ‘yeah, right. Hollywood.’

But I think that … I am at the core very optimistic. Overly so. But you need this optimism and enthusiasm to keep you going. The discovery kind of absorbs you and becomes an obsession, I’d say, so the thought of giving up never crosses your mind. There was one moment I thought it wasn’t going to work out right before the big chance encounter, and I thought I was going to throw in the towel. I’d tried everything to find this mystery man. There were many difficult moments, but you have to persevere.  And, you know, these things require a lot of hard work. You put in so much hard work you say, I can’t quit. I’ve put in so much time and work and sweat and blood. I can’t quit. I have to see this through to the end. And that’s what happened. When it all comes together at the end it’s a real magical feeling. The disparate moments are part of the process.

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Spinosaurus (meaning “spine lizard”) lived in what now is North Africa about 112 to 97 million years ago. (Tyler Keillor and Lauren Conroy, University of Chicago.)

CITA: Can you give us a snapshot of what really blew your mind in the adaptations of Spinosaurus?

NI: I’ll try not to give too much away, but the arms and the legs of Spinosaurus blew my mind.

CITA: Because they didn’t match up?

NI: Not so much about them in relation to each other, but those two parts of the body have very unusual adaptations and unique adaptations not seen in any other dinosaur. The bone structure. Combine all these factors and you get a water-loving dinosaur.

CITA: We were transfixed by the similarities in skull structure and pressure sensors in Spinosaurus that are similar to alligators, which we have a lot of in Florida. Is it a stretch or accurate to say that our alligators are related to Spinosaurus?

NI: Well, yes and no. They are related, but the closest relative to dinosaurs is birds.  Birds are direct descendants of predatory dinosaurs, but we did look a lot at alligators when we were studying Spinosaurus because we do a lot of comparative anatomy. Alligators are really key to studying certain aspects of Spinosaurus anatomy, but just because animals look similar doesn’t mean they are closely related. We see similar kinds of adaptations over and over again in different groups of animals not closely related: torpedo shapes, for example. Snout shapes. Conical teeth for catching fish.

CITA: But Spinosaurus doesn’t shed teeth like an alligator or crocodile?

NI: No, dinosaurs shed their teeth all the time. That’s why we find so many dinosaur teeth. Sometimes in fossils we find the tooth underneath about to push the other tooth out. So, no need for dentists.

CITA: So, you’re not finding any dentists in the fossil record in the Northern Sahara?

NI [laughs]: That’s right.

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Rendering of Alanqa saharica. (Davide Bonadonna)

CITA: We kind of want your job except we’re worried we couldn’t handle the detail work in the lab after the field. We have one other question about relations, though—you discovered a flying reptile called Alanqa saharica. Is this guy related to pelicans?

NI: Not closely related, no. This is a completely different group of flying creatures. A Saharan pterosaur. Pterosaurs are kind of related to dinosaurs, but they’re not dinosaurs themselves. They evolved before bats did. There are only four groups who developed flight: insects, birds, pterosaurs and bats. They all evolved flight in different ways. If you compare bat wings to bird wings they look quite different. Pterosaurs are incredible creatures, the largest flying animals of all time. They pushed the boundaries of biomechanics. The Saharan pterosaur is the largest flying creature known from the African continent. We are working on new fossils right now that suggest that it grew to an even larger size than we had estimated.

CITA: The first wingspan was 20 feet. What are you looking at now?

NI: Now we’re looking at something closer to between 26-30 feet.

CITA: What! So, it’s like a small airplane.

NI[laughs]: Yes, it’s pretty impressive. It would have cast a rather terrifying shadow soaring above you. These animals are like studying aliens. It raises interesting questions.  How would this creature take flight? To give you an idea of size, when it was walking around on land with its wings folded, it would walk around on all fours with this long neck. It would be as tall as a giraffe.

CITA: How is that even possible? You’re blowing our minds.

NI: These things had large, very large muscles. We’re trying to figure out how they grew, how they flew. We have some fossils of hatchlings, so it’s an ongoing project. We’ve found new snake fossils of early snakes and understanding snake evolution. We described trace fossils like dinosaur tracks and burrows, so it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Spinosaurus is the most famous of this system, but there are many others. We’re trying to describe an entire lost world, an entire ancient ecosystem. This is a great opportunity to see how ecosystems change over time—over millions of years. We can look at the Sahara and see how things changed. We can see what happened when continents moved around, when the climate was going crazy, when the land was covered in giant predators.

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Nizar Ibrahim and team members in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: As you’re discovering, are you coming across information about the ecosystem that you can teach us like is the rain more acidic or is the composition of the atmosphere such that it creates better buoyancy for a bird this size?

NI: There are many questions we’re trying to answer. We are really just beginning to understand the Sahara, starting to shed light on this massive land mass. It’s important to understanding the history of life on earth. We’re understanding now how these animals are carving out ecological niches, the “arms race” as it were, for one of the most bizarre ecosystems of this planet’s history.

CITA: You work in the Kam Kam region between Morocco and Algiers in Northern Africa. Can you describe these conditions for us? Also, you’ve mentioned elsewhere you have to be aware of dangers from bandits and smugglers—what’s that all about?

NI: Yeah, one of the reasons we know so little about the dinosaurs of the Sahara versus all the information we have from Wyoming or Colorado is because it’s such a challenging area. You have to bring supplies for an entire team, there are no roads. It’s not easy. You do face the desert challenges like sandstorms and snakes, but the Sahara is also, to a certain extent, a lawless place. There’s no police station around the corner. It’s a vast ocean of sand and rocks. You read in the news that there are groups looting in the Sahara, and there are armed groups. So, you need a military escort in some areas. They will keep an eye on you from a distance or they have to stay with you at all times. It’s the kind of place where every now and then a foreigner is kidnapped.  Items get smuggled across borders. It’s challenging, but it’s the ultimate frontier for paleontology. Things that we uncover there . . . there is always the chance that we’ll find something that may revolutionize our field or at the very least shake up things precisely because we know so very little. In Montana, you might find another T. rex, but in Africa, it’s huge areas of land that have never been explored before. To give you an idea of scale, the whole desert is about the same size of the United States.

CITA: So, you’d be working in, say, the New Jersey part.

NI[laughs]: Yeah, you could say that.

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Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Ernst Stromer’s monographs, 1915.

CITA: During your adventure to find Spinosaurus, you located Ernst Stromer’s granddaughter, who still lives in the family castle. How did it feel when you met her? And, later, how did you feel when you finally saw the life-sized rendering of Spinosaurus from the bones you found?

NI: Well, meeting Stromer’s granddaughter was really something. When you’re working as a scientist you work from the people who came before you, but they tend to be just names. You don’t really find out much about them. With Stromer, it was different because I really entered his world. I was trying to find out more about his expeditions, then before I knew it I was visiting places he went and trying to track down his family castle. That’s when I learned his granddaughter was alive and looking after the castle in Bavaria. Restoring Stromer’s legacy became part of the story. It wasn’t about just finding the dinosaur anymore. He was a very inspiring human being. You know, it was a strange feeling first going to the castle. There were black and white pictures of the expedition that uncovered Spinosaurus and his handwritten notes and journal. Incredible things. Handwritten letters, letters about the finds and one to his sons in the war. He lost two of his three sons in the war. So much drama. His science career was going so well for him, he’d made all these incredible discoveries, yet in a few years he lost everything. To walk around the family castle in Bavaria was special. It was very emotional. So, restoring Stromer’s work became a part of what I was doing.

Seeing the skeleton for the first time . . . was love at first sight. Experts assembled the skeleton in a computer. But seeing it life size . . . You can read the numbers on the computer, so you know this creature is about 60 feet in length, but it’s only when you see it mounted in front of you that you appreciate the actual size of this river monster. Standing next to its giant head, I remember one of the first things I thought was what if I was swimming next to this in that ancient river system? How would I feel as this thing was sort of peering at me. Giant jaws. A water-living dinosaur trying to catch you in the water. Incredible, formidable predator. That’s the first time I was able to appreciate the creature’s sheer size. Spinosaurus for me is fascinating because of all the weird adaptations it has, but most people will remember it’s even longer than T. rex. The first time I saw it mounted I appreciated it for the size.

CITA: So, could you contextualize that size for us? Is it like the length of two city buses?

NI: I don’t know about two city buses, but it’s much longer than one city bus. One of the crocs we have from this period is the length of a city bus, and this croc is quite a bit shorter than Spinosaurus. Actually, I do remember trying to find a good example for size that would explain 60 feet in length, but I couldn’t find anything common enough to make the comparison. When you see it on the big screen and the images I show, will help you get a picture of it life-sized.

CITA: You’ve said in other interviews you were about 6 or 7 years old when you decided to find Spinosaurus. You were a dinosaur kid. What was the first dinosaur you fell in love with?

NI: I don’t know a straightforward answer. I don’t know when it started with dinosaurs. I know I was drawing dinosaurs at 5 years old. I wrote my name and age next to a picture I made, so it provided a date stamp of when it sort of started. Around that time, I went to the natural history museum and saw these towering skeletons. So many dinosaurs were incredible, these mythological dragons, but yet they were real animals in real ecosystems. They weren’t imaginary. They existed at some point. I loved all the famous dinosaurs, all the North American dinosaurs like T. rex.  The thing about Spinosaurus that got me interested was that it wasn’t one of the famous dinosaurs, like T. rex or stegosaurus. It was more interesting—giant spines on his back and was enormous, but that’s all we knew. Spinosaurus hadn’t captured the imagination yet, like the others, it was so mysterious. We didn’t know what it looked like, it was the yeti or Loch Ness Monster—that elusive dinosaur, except it was real. I think that’s what got me interested, and the entire ecosystem Spinosaurus lived in. We know virtually nothing of the north Sahara like we do parts of North America.

CITA: You’re in this north Sahara frontier exploring. It’s gotta be exciting to come across the possibilities of what could have existed in this ecosystem. This was a lush, tropical wetlands brimming with predators and nobody really knew what they were eating.  You realized you’d discovered with Spinosaurus a semi-aquatic, fish-eating predator. They ate sawfish. We still have sawfish in Florida waters today.

NI: They’re not the same kind of sawfish, but they are similar. The sawfish that we have in our [Cretaceous North African] river system is freshwater, about 25 feet in length, and sawfish today get big but not that big. And there were other fish, the giant car-sized coelacanth. Let me tell you about the ecosystem with Spinosaurus. When you’re out there in the desert you really appreciate what we call deep time, that’s what we call geologic time. You appreciate that while you’re in the desert. It’s a big, hot place. The last thing you’re thinking about are fish and rivers. But the fossils you’re picking up are the backbones of giant fish or scales of huge lungfish or armor plates of giant crocodile-like predators. You start to piece together this ecosystem in your mind, and you can paint a pretty accurate picture.

If we could travel back in time 100 million years, and I’ll take you back in time in this Nat Geo show, what we see is this vast river ecosystem that stretched across Africa, across the Sahara, that was the size of the United States. Back in that time, our planet was really going through these hothouse conditions, these extremes in temperatures. It was quite arid overall—no ice on the poles, so the dinosaurs were experiencing violent storms, not very stable conditions and it was very dry. Then you have these giant river systems where all the biodiversity is concentrated. The animals are huge, absolutely enormous. I call this ecosystem the River of Giants.

You have 6 or 7 different kinds of giant freshwater sharks, a giant car-sized coelacanth, lungfish, crocodile-like predators, all of these creatures live in this river system, which must have been incredibly productive. You also have pterosaurs, Spinosaurus, flying reptiles and one thing we found out is that many of the predators in this ecosystem were relying on fish, even predators who were not specialized fish eaters at all. Spinosaurus took advantage of this abundant food supply, this semi-aquatic dinosaur was perfectly adapted to hunt giant coelacanths.

It’s a really bizarre ecosystem because the dinosaurs common to other ecosystems we know are not very common to this one. So, it’s a predator’s paradise. We have no modern equivalent or one from the dinosaur times, either.

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River of Giants by Davide Bonadonna. National Geographic Magazine, October 2014.

CITA: Now that we have an expert, we hope you can answer a riddle for us. Which is: why do you think it is that little kids everywhere love dinosaurs?

NI [laughs]: Quite a few people from different backgrounds have tried to answer this question and they’ve come up with quite a few hypotheses. Some people think that dinosaurs are, yes, big and scary but they’re extinct, so they can’t really harm you . . . kids can exert some control over these monsters by learning their names and facts about them.  I don’t know. Others say dinosaurs represent our parents, that kids are terrified of their parents and impressed with everything their parents can do. Parents are so powerful. So, dinosaurs represent Daddy and Mommy and all the power they have. However, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the curiosity. First, there are lots of kinds of extinct creatures. And not all of them are very popular. Dinosaurs are in a league of their own. I think dinosaurs push the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re the largest land animals of all time, some weighed as much as a whole herd of elephants. They ruled this planet 118 million years—for a very, very long time. I think that’s something that captures the imagination because we’ll never be around for that long. These creatures were around a long time and that alone captures the imagination of people. The best explanation I can think of is that dinosaurs are so bizarre. They are, in many ways, unlike any animals alive today. Look at a mammoth. It’s hairy, but it sort of looks like an elephant, so it’s familiar. Dinosaurs have all these incredible adaptations, skulls and frills . . . when you work with these guys it’s like working with extraterrestrials from outer space. It’s unlike any animal around today. There’s no modern day equivalent. When it was time to look at physiology or biology you’re really kind of starting from scratch. The fact that they’re so alien-looking and from this alien world from their time on this planet; I think that’s what happens. People ask me about kids, why they love them so much, but it’s really everyone. In these Nat Geo series, you see all kinds of people, people in their 30s, 40s, 80s . . . I don’t think there are many people who walk into the museum with these dinosaur skeletons and don’t stand in awe. Very few are like, “oh, whatever.” To get to experience the reality that dinosaurs existed—the imagination goes wild.

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

CITA: As we’re trying to understand the scope of “deep time” you work with, we’re thinking about perspective. Most of us live by to-do lists or calendar apps, and everything feels so important today, or for the next four years, or all this talk about the-world-is-going-to-end. But, you have a different perspective working in deep time. How does that affect your understanding of news, of modern society? When you’re out in the Sahara, do you ever imagine ‘what is the geologic record going to hold from these millennia, what will be left behind from us’?

NI: I think it helps to have this deep time perspective, and I think it would help us as humans to act smarter when it comes to making sure that we can be on this planet for as long as possible. If we want to understand things like long-term changes in climate or extinction or crisis in biodiversity, we must have this perspective of deep time. We’re trying to understand these things but we don’t understand long-term effects. We have numbers and data, so we can create models and predictions in a computer, but the only way to really understand how ecological changes play out in the long term on planet Earth is to travel back in time. These things have happened in the past: massive extinction events, dramatic changes in climate, all kinds of things, and we can see what happened to ecosystems and how they recovered.

One thing we do know looking into deep time  . . .  you know, one of the things people are worried about is that we might destroy all life on this planet, and it will be the end of planet earth. I think we shouldn’t worry about destroying the planet because I think we overestimate our power a bit. One thing that is pretty obvious is that our planet is going to recover at some point.  We are in the process of destroying a lot of biodiversity, and that is a real crime.

But the truth is—in a few million years, our planet is going to recover but humans won’t be around. We should protect our ecosystem. If we don’t care about plants or animals that we share this planet with, we should at least try to preserve the planet for selfish reasons because if we continue to act the way we are at the moment, it will be the end of humans on this planet. There will be a huge crisis in biodiversity, but some life forms will survive. Our planet is going to recover, and it will be fine in a few million years without humans around. It’s in our own interest to take better care of our planet. What we’re doing to ecosystems, and oceans, rainforests, and coral reefs, you name it, is ultimately going to harm us. And that is going to be a quite painful process [for humans to endure]. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us. We need the resources, the water, the food. So it’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of humans [to the planet’s survival].

What you mentioned is an interesting question because we are so focused on this tiny little slice of time that we call the present, as if that is all that matters, but if you are a paleontologist or a geologist, you can step back and see how tiny this slice of time is.

What is going to be left behind if some alien civilization finds earth one day . . .what are they going to find? The answer is difficult to tell, but the things we think are important are probably not going to be preserved in the geological records. Sometimes when you look at a geological section, you find gaps of a few million years missing. And we go, “oh! Three or four million years is missing, not a big deal.” But, as you know, that’s much longer than we’ve been around. You can have gaps from geological processes, so human activity could be missing from the geologic record altogether. Again, we should not overstate our importance. In a few million years, there may not be that much left that we could leave behind.

There’s one thing I think these extraterrestrial scientists would see is a big crisis in biodiversity, a mass extinction, like the one that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. And this one was—hopefully they could figure this out–caused by us, for the most part. There are always some plants and animals going extinct, what you call “background extinction,” and every now and then something very unusual happens. It could be a massive vulcanism, it could be a meteorite impact, or it could be the arrival of homo sapiens. It takes the planet a long time to recover, but it does. That’s one thing they’d see for sure: a mass extinction. Let’s hope they can’t figure out what we did to our planet because we won’t look very good in their history books.

CITA: Perhaps these extraterrestrial scientists will see the layers of fossils and find one thin sheet of plastic which will be all that is left of our time on earth.

NI[laughs]: That’s a possibility. The other thing is that it’s important to have this deep time perspective because it teaches us humility, which is something we always need. I often compare it to astronomy. If you talk to astronomers, they understand we are so small in space and insignificant in many ways. Paleontology is similar because we see how tiny we are in time. So we combine those two and that’s a hefty dose of humility.

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Nizar Ibrahim in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: We’re looking forward to you coming to share your stories of discoveries with us. What else should we know?

NI: Well, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you mentioned that you might not have the patience to go to the lab. People often think of paleontology as this work that goes out and collects fossils then puts them together, but it’s really so much more than that. And, it never really gets boring. You do have lab work, but that is always interesting. Sometimes you’re looking at the microstructure of dinosaur bones or another day you might be putting together a digital skeleton, or studying the chemical composition of the bones and what that tells you about the lifestyle of the animal. You teach students and lead expeditions, and do this National Geographic Live series. It’s the intersection of many fields—you never get bored and you’re not restricted to one academic box. You use tools from many different areas, and that’s worth mentioning.

One of the most rewarding things for me is to see how excited people get about science and exploration. I got a letter from someone coming to the show, and she’s flying in with her son to the Straz Center for the talk. It’s his seventh birthday present, and they’re flying all the way in from New Mexico. We have a wider impact beyond scientific exploration to affecting people, and an experience can change someone’s life. Children see the show and say ‘I want to do this, I’m going to be a scientist.’ That’s exciting.

CITA: That’s an amazing story! We see all the time the direct impact the performing arts have on children’s lives. And, for children who are here to see someone like you—who, at seven years old, decided to find dinosaurs. We hope that child asks you a question during the Q&A at the end. That story warms our hearts.

NI: His mom says he might be [laughs] ah, um, a little star struck. [laughs] So, I told her maybe we could do a meet and greet before or after the show. But yes, museums and performing arts centers are so important to culture. Ask any scientist how it began, and they’ll tell you ‘my parents took me to a museum at five years old’ or ‘I read a National Geographic story’ and these experiences create the passion. I’m trying to make sure young people in Morocco are exposed to this spark of curiosity. We need scientists and innovators, and these events trigger a real passion for culture.

I was just in Africa for a conference, and I told them there—as Africa has huge areas of cultural desert—and I said, it’s really terrible. Look at a place like London, for example, and you take away the culture, the museums, everything, then what’s left? A cold and souless place. That’s how you know how important a vibrant cultural landscape is.

CITA: Yes, yes, yes. We agree. Culture is the soul of humanity. We’re looking forward to seeing you here. There will be a huge audience who loves your work who will be eager to ask more questions at the end of your talk.

NI: Thank you and see you soon.