By virtue of his enormous fan base and wide circle of influence, popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has rubbed elbows with many influential people on his talk show, Startalk. Some notable examples: Stephen Hawking, Edward Snowden, and the late, great chef Anthony Bourdain, whose last interview with Tyson is featured in the new season premiering Monday. But even a personality as big as Tyson dreams of celebrity encounters, and when Inverse asked him who his dream Startalk guest was in a recent interview, he didn’t miss a beat.
“Barack Obama,” he said. “We wanted him while he was a sitting president, but that didn’t happen.”
An obvious choice. Post-presidency, Obama has been linked to a variety of civil rights projects and has been somewhat vocal about his views on the current political sphere, though perhaps not as much as frustrated Americans would like. But that’s not the first reason Tyson gave for wanting him on the show.
“I don’t know if you knew this, but he wrote a law paper where he explored — was it quantum physics or fractals? — there’s some paper that he wrote that involved sort of complex math and physics in the law universe as a means of analyzing, as a tool to analyze some other bit of information he was writing about,” he says. “So I thought that was pretty cool.”
It’s true. When Obama was a first-year law student at Harvard Law School, he started work as a research assistant for constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe, who published a paper titled “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn from Modern Physics” in the Harvard Law Review in 1989. The footnote thanks Obama, together with other assistants, “for their analytic and research assistance.”
Tribe, by pointing out that the acceptance of general relativity and quantum physics completely changed the way physicists viewed interactions between matter, argues that constitutional lawmakers and judges should likewise reevaluate the impact that lawmaking has on the social space. “Judges, in particular, cannot simply reach in and resolve disputes between individuals without permanently altering the legal and social space,” he writes. Looking back on their collaboration, Tribe marveled at Obama’s grasp on this multidisciplinary approach to law.
“He really has deep insight into a number of things, including physics, and history, and political science, and seemingly a lot of law, though this was before he [finished] law school,” said Tribe in an interview with The Fiscal Times in 2014.
Obama, for his part, published 12 other academic articles in peer-reviewed journals between 2006 and 2016. In 2017, he published “The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy,” in Science, making him the first president to ever publish in that prestigious journal.
Tyson has set a precedent for interviewing political leaders on his show. In 2015, he interviewed former president Jimmy Carter; the next year, it was Bill Clinton and Al Gore. He also interviewed the former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in 2017.
“I like heads of state because they have to respond to multiple forces, and so there’s some compromising that goes on,” he says. “But how do you do that in the face of what is objectively true versus what people feel? What people want to be true? And the juggling that goes on, for people of power, particularly if they are elected to power. I am intrigued by that. I wanted a head of state every season but that’s unrealistic.”
The midterm elections, Inverse pointed out, led to a number of new political leaders in the US that Tyson could potentially interview.
“Heads of states,” he laughs. “Heads of a state rather than head of the state.” May we suggest one of the 10 politicians with science backgrounds just elected to Congress?
Startalk season 5 premieres on November 12 on the National Geographic channel.