This story appears in the February 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
She’s won an Oscar for acting, a Tony for producing, a Grammy for a comedy album, a couple of Emmys—and played an alien on a Star Trek television series. What more could Whoopi Goldberg desire? To help her friend Neil tackle some big questions—about asteroids hurtling toward Earth, realistic superheroes, and zombie saliva.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: You’re one of 12 people, is it, who have won the Tony, the Oscar, the Emmy, and the Grammy? That’s crazy, girl!
Whoopi Goldberg: I think there are more of us than 12, but thanks. And you—you know, you’re like the smartest man on the Earth. People are like, “I love him! I hated science before he started talking.” When you find somebody who can explain to you those things which you think you’re too dumb to understand, it’s a magnificent thing.
NT: So do you have any question for me? Is there any science question that has plagued you?
WG: Well, I do want to know: Every couple of years we hear that some asteroid is heading our way. What’s happening that suddenly we’re seeing it more and more?
NT: We have a greater capacity than ever before to monitor asteroids that have close approaches. For me the danger zone is, are you coming closer to Earth than the orbit of the moon? I count that as an invasion of our space. Get the hell out of my living room, right? Or my backyard.
NT: A few times a decade we get an asteroid the size of a small building or a large car coming in between us and the moon. Maybe that’s enough for you to say, “Hey, let’s build an asteroid defense system.” Because you know the dinosaurs would have done that if they could. If they had a big enough brain and opposable thumbs.
WG: What does that system look like?
NT: There’s the macho version of it, where you get your nukes and you blow it out of the sky.
WG: But doesn’t that mean that other stuff is raining down?
NT: That’s what I’m saying. We’re really good at blowing stuff up and less good at knowing where the pieces will fall. So the kinder, gentler way is to nudge it off its current course. It will still be there on another orbit, but you get to have it not hit us this time around.
WG: So the idea of a laser destroying the asteroid is out?
NT: One idea is, as the asteroid is moving through space, you beam lasers on one side of it. You vaporize that side of the asteroid, it outgasses, and that creates a recoil to push it in the other direction. Both of these are trying to change its orbital path.
WG: There are satellites all around, right? Why can’t a satellite be used to shoot it?
NT: By the time it’s close enough for satellites that are in low Earth orbit to hit it, it’s too late. When I talk about changing the path, I’m talking about seven orbits in advance. Say the asteroid’s on a 10-year orbit and on the seventh orbit, 70 years from now, it’s going to hit Earth. I’m going to deflect it today so that in 70 years it misses us. That’s how you’ve got to do this. If it’s on the last path in to the Earth, forget it. You’d be hosed.
WG: I have to tell you, with the announcement recently of finding—what did they say—1,200 new exoplanets out there, that didn’t make me feel better. Because I don’t know where those planets are. What are they doing? Who’s on them?
NT: Your interest in science fiction—did that influence you to take the gig on Star Trek: The Next Generation? I remember growing up, we would see science fiction stories and I’d say, “How come there are no black aliens?”
WG: Because they were green, Neil. They were green.
NT: Does that scare you, that there were no black people in anybody’s vision of the future?
WG: Well, I realized as a kid that I didn’t understand that, because I loved sci-fi. So when LeVar Burton comes to my house and tells me, “I’m getting ready to do Star Trek,” I was like, “Dude, I want in.” He was like, “I’ll tell them.” I saw him about eight months later and said, “Dude, did you tell them?” He said, “I told them, but they didn’t believe it.” I said, “Call them right now. Set up a lunch” [with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry].
Gene says, “So, you want to do Star Trek?” I said, “Yeah. You don’t understand: This was a huge part of my life because as a kid who loved science fiction, not until Lieutenant Uhura did I realize that I was in the future.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Gene, if you look at science fiction movies that predate Star Trek, there are no people of color anywhere. Anywhere. Unless you go to Japan, where you see the Godzilla movies, but we’re nowhere else.” He was like, “I don’t think I knew that.” I said, “Well, you know now.”
So he created my character, Guinan, and he built this bar for me on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. I may be the last creature he created. [Roddenberry died in 1991.]
NT: Do you still have a little bit of science fiction in you? There’s some movies you might want to be in?
WG: I would love to do any science fiction that’s happening, and also all of the superhero movies. Because you know, I’m a woman of a certain age who’s grown up with Superman and Batman and Supergirl and all of the DC and Marvel Comics universes. And there’s nothing out there for women of a certain age. I want to see somebody who saves the Earth who looks a little bit like me. Whose behind is a little bit bigger. Whose chest is on the floor. But when the superpowers kick in, whew! She could slap a whole nation of people on the way to taking care of business.
NT: Here’s a question I have. How come if humans bite zombies, the zombies don’t become human? That’s what I want to know.
WG: Because there’s some enzyme that messes you up as a zombie.
NT: I know, but why can’t I turn a zombie back into a human if I bite him?
WG: Because you don’t have an enzyme in your teeth or in your saliva that will work that way. It’s a one-way thing.
NT: Oh, OK. You’ve thought about that.
WG: Clearly, I have too much time on my hands. And I’ve watched too many zombie movies.
NT: Thank you for solving all that.
WG: I try. You do the universe, I do the zombie world.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mondays through February 6 at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond, is available wherever books are sold and at shopng.com/startalk.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, airing Mondays at 11/10c on National Geographic. His new book StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need to Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, the Human Race, the Universe, and Beyond is available wherever books are sold and at shopng.com/startalk.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.