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‘China is a frenemy’: Neil deGrasse Tyson on space race | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

‘China is a frenemy’: Neil deGrasse Tyson on space race | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

The China-US space race, God, aliens on Earth, and why it’s our duty ‘to live life to its fullest’ – astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson opens up

  • The US and China are ‘frenemies’ in their space race, Tyson says. As with the USSR in the 20th century, competition could yield better results than cooperation
  • The astrophysicist weighs in on souls and the afterlife, UFO sightings, flat Earth theory, and how everyone on the planet is alive against ‘stupendous odds’

For decades China and the United States have been embroiled in political tensions, stemming from issues such as trade, climate change, technology and Taiwan.

Naturally, this complex relationship extends to outer space, where the two countries are locked in a race to be the first to establish a base on the moon, for example.

To the US, China is a “frenemy”, says renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in an episode of Talking Post with Post chief news editor Yonden Lhatoo.

A recipient of the Nasa Distinguished Public Service Medal and currently the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, Tyson is known for combining wisdom and wit to explain complex scientific concepts to everyday people.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in East Hampton, New York, earlier this year. Photo: AFP

“Competition stirs innovation,” says the 64-year-old. “Having other countries compete in a technological space, no pun intended, can have multiple outcomes. It could stimulate even more innovation – because you don’t want to be beat by somebody else – in ways that cooperation might not.”

For example, in the realm of outer space, the US is known for its Apollo 11 mission, where Americans Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon in 1969.

Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, was launched by the Russians on October 4, 1957. Photo: SCMP
But that mission, Tyson points out, was initially prompted by Russia’s strides in space.

The competition between China and the US has intensified in recent years, spurring more innovation. China, Tyson says, is leading the way in certain key sectors of space innovation.

“The United States [hasn’t been] thinking about going to the moon for 50 years. We were last on the moon in 1972,” Tyson says. “All of a sudden, we’re going back to the moon? Let’s not fool ourselves. [It’s because] China’s going back to the moon.”

The Apollo 11 mission was the first to land humans on the moon, where they planted an American flag in July 1969. Photo: Getty Images

China is also home to the world’s largest radio telescope, the Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (Fast) in Pingtang County, Guizhou province.

Meanwhile, the Arecibo Telescope in the US territory of Puerto Rico collapsed in 2020 because of structural failure.

As a scientist, Tyson does not care who ends up driving the innovation first, even if he views China’s technological advances as a reminder to Americans to keep innovating.

The Five-hundred-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (Fast) in Pingtang County, southwest China. Photo: Xinhua

But in the ongoing space race and as people follow spacecraft missions via social media – Nasa launched the Artemis 1 mission from Florida on Wednesday after years of delay – it is important to differentiate fact from opinion, as Tyson writes in his new book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.

Deemed a “wake-up call to civilisation”, the book uses cosmic truths as a conduit to explore the human condition. For one, Tyson is increasingly worried about what he calls “scientific ignorance”, which often breeds on social media platforms.

“Twitter can be and often is a cesspool,” the astrophysicist says. “But it’s a cesspool because we turned it into that. It didn’t start out that way … As an educator, I don’t want to blame media, because we create media, we engage media.”

Spectators watch as the Artemis I lifts off from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Centre on November 16. Photo: AFP

Tyson hopes to encourage critical thinking and analysis as opposed to memorisation, and advocates for schooling systems that make it fun for students to learn.

“If I were sort of Pope of school systems, that’s the school system I would put into place,” he says. “And if we had that, nobody coming out on the other side would say, ‘Yeah, Earth is flat.’ That would not happen. There would be no place in your brain to embrace such an absurd claim.”

There has been plenty of discussion of otherworldly beings, especially in light of the Pentagon’s release of UFO imagery. But Tyson is quick to debunk the idea that there are aliens on planet Earth.

“Each phone is capable of obtaining high resolution photos and video of anything around you. We are in a way, crowdsourcing any possible alien invasion,” he says, noting that the world has about 6 billion smartphones in circulation.

“Plus, we have satellite imagery of every part of Earth’s surface accessible at all times on the internet. It seems to me that if we were being visited by aliens, it would show up a little better than a fuzzy tic tac on a monochromatic video seen by Navy pilots in restricted airspace.”

What about the existence of God and the afterlife?

A technician putting the finishing touches to Sputnik 1, in October 1957. Satellites have come a long way since then, and now can provide imagery of every part of Earth’s surface at all times. Photo: AFP

Tyson says that, while there is no scientific evidence of any higher being, and religious texts like the Bible have made references to Earth that have since been proven to be scientifically incorrect, everyone is entitled to their own spiritual beliefs.

There isn’t any evidence of a physical soul leaving the body when one dies, as a group of scientists have already conducted X-rays on people who were near death, he says.

“Scientifically, there is not any evidence for there being anything that happens to you after death that is any different from anything that ‘happened’ to you before you were born. They’re simply states of non-existence,” he says. “If there is a soul, it has to be extra divine and not responsive to any scientific measurements.”

An ancient alien civilisation in China? That’s what some believe

As a scientist and educator, Tyson is evidence-driven, and simply operates on what he knows – and one key fact that has been proven is that he and all the rest of us on Earth is alive against “stupendous odds”.

“There’s countless quadrillions of people who could exist. So whatever hand life has dealt you, even if you have some disease, or congenital, what … whatever it is, you are alive,” he says.

“As [British evolutionary biologist] Richard Dawkins has put it, we’re the lucky ones who get to die. Because most people who could ever live will never even be born. That’s a fact. Objectively verifiable.

The cover of Tyson’s new book.

“In the face of that information, it is incumbent upon me, incumbent upon all of us to live life to its fullest.”