Neil Tyson's most astounding fact

By Phil Plait | March 6, 2012 1:30 pm

What do you get when you ask astronomer Neil Tyson what he thinks the most astounding fact about the Universe is?

An awesome answer.

Y’know, I’ve been doing this astronomy and space outreach thing for a long time now, and on my best days I might get close to an answer like this. But Neil cranks them out effortlessly. He’s really, really good at this.

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Comments (54)

  1. Elias

    I wouldn’t have thought to use the word “crank” in a post about Neil Tyson.

  2. BJN

    We are stardust…

    I’m not thrilled with the metaphor of “star guts”, but the rest gets pretty close to channeling Sagan.

  3. Grrr, can’t watch YouTube at work. Now I won’t be able to concentrate until I get home to watch this. Is this the Daily Show bit? Yes, he was incredibly inspiring there.

    Again, when will you be on the Daily Show or The Colbert Report? 😀

  4. Jeff


    You’re right, Neil Tyson is an incredibly gifted communicator. And what a cool thing to communicate!

  5. Dave

    What did he say? Those of us who can’t or won’t watch youtube videos are curious.

  6. Daffy

    Absolutely inspiring.

  7. Tom

    A very poetic extension of Feynman’s statement when asked what he would say if we could pass on only one sentence to future generations:

    “All things are made of atoms.”

  8. I ‘d like to adopt his words as mine. I almost couldn’t finish to watch the video due to the tears. As a phisics teacher I’ll use his words in my classes. Beautiful…

  9. Douglas Troy

    The man has a way with words, that is for certain.

  10. Brian

    A lot of this comes from an essay he wrote previously, that you can read here:

    And you’re right, he is really, really good at it!

  11. Chris

    When Neil (where’s the deGrasse) Tyson says we are made from star stuff he gets celebrated. When Miley Cyrus tweets that, many of her fans turn against her.

  12. andy

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, Phil. Tyson gets a lot of practice. That response he gave was seriously almost identical, word-for-word, to responses he’s given in the past to similar questions.

  13. D. Cadman

    When I turned 58 and lost my last job to a computer program, and couldn’t get another to save my standard of living, I began surfing the internet seriously, because I had the time;

    In the intervening 6 years I have learned more about the cosmos, and my place in it, than I had in the previous 58 years; to learn that I am made up of Atoms, that were only theory just over 100 years ago, and that those Atoms are made up of smaller particles, where the space between is empty, and make up the majority of an Atom’s composition, is humbling;

    To learn that the very Atoms are the remains of Stars at the end of their life cycle, and how that all came about and was discovered, from the curiosity of scientists and their ingenuity in researching that curiosity, over less than 100 years, is awe inspiring;

    For me, I have determined one of the things I want to do in the next 6 years, is learn the mathematics and the method of thinking that produced this Physics/Cosmology, with no other reason in view, than to see the beauty of the Cosmos, and the near future, that this beauty will be used to create by the next few generations;

    We are a young civilization, barely nine thousand years old; where will we be in another nine thousand years; it boggles the mind;

  14. Robert Enox

    Awesome. How about that time lapse photography?

  15. Chris A.

    I like his words, to be sure. But his delivery (knowing when to pause, when to emphasize, when to accelerate or decelerate his pace, and when to summon gravitas) is why he works for me. He often treads the fine line between prose and poetry. Plus, he’s got a great sense of humor, and unflinchingly expresses opinions that may ruffle feathers. What’s not to like?

  16. artbot

    @12 – Because they’re idiots? Not really kidding here. Anyone who watches or listens to NDGT probably already knows something about him and is predisposed to agree with him, generally speaking (believes in scientific method, etc.). Miley Cyrus fans are probably from a wider spectrum of belief systems since her primary social outreach is not in astrophysics, but is instead….what again?

  17. D. Cadman

    @ 17 artbot
    I have heard it postulated that 50 % of western society still believes the PRE-Dawinian roots of Humanities origins, and a large percentage of people distrust anyone with a university degree, as over educated; it is little wonder at the reaction of Miley Cyrus’s Fan Base; in contrast, I am happy to have heard that she is at least open to the idea; perhaps she has influenced a few who were on the edge of reason 😉 it gives me hope for the future when someone of celebrity status, goes public with science;

  18. Ken Coenen

    What a wonderful perspective!

  19. artbot

    @18 – Agreed! :-)

  20. Michelle

    Is Mr Tyson still involved in the sequel to Cosmos? I sure hope so. I love how he talks about the universe. Amazeballs.

  21. Okay, so not the video I thought, but still a good one.

    @21 Michelle, yes, Neil deGrasse Tyson is collaborating with Ann Druyan and Seth McFarlane (yes, that Seth McFarlane) on a modern update to Cosmos. :)

  22. Daniel J. Andrews

    I remember when I first learned we were made from the “guts” of stars, and I was so amazed I wrote it down so I could tell people later.

    @D. Cadman (14). I like that response;that eagerness to learn, that love for learning. Were that more people displayed that love. I found your response almost as inspiring as Neil’s (maybe if you included a sound track with it…. ) :)

  23. Andy I

    I can remember Carl Sagan saying we are made of “star stuff”.

    My other favorite fact is that all people are Africans.

  24. Obviously not completely original, but very well said. Dr. Tyson is indeed very good at this. Dr. Plait ain’t all that bad at it either.

    @12 – Kinda odd to see Miley Cyrus mentioned here.

  25. @5: People who *won’t* watch YouTube videos? Where do you find such strange creatures?

  26. eddie

    Well said, Dr. Tyson. As a human being who is now much closer to death than my birth in the distant past, this is a sentiment I’ve always hoped would be a comfort to me if I have to face the prospect of my demise. I’m not sure how I’ll react to impending death, but I sincerely hope the fact that the make-up of my body will be eventually returning to my natural state as star dust will help ease the anxiety of the grave. Being a part of this beautiful universe in any manifestation is a very cool thing. And I will thank science for giving me that small favor, I hope.

  27. Pete UK

    There’s a great book for those who want the full current view of where the elements came from:

    The Magic Furnace: The Search for the Origins of Atoms by Marcus Chown.


  28. Nigel Depledge

    Brian (11) said:

    A lot of this comes from an essay he wrote previously, that you can read here:
    [url omitted]

    And you’re right, he is really, really good at it!


    But he seriously needs to learn some biology before he starts rabbiting on about the significance or otherwise of the genetic differences between us and chimps.

    And the phrase “we are stardust” was Heather Couper’s trademark long before anyone had ever heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    D. Cadman (14) said:

    . . . to learn that I am made up of Atoms, that were only theory just over 100 years ago, . . .

    I don’t know what you are trying to say here.

    Atoms are still “only” theory, since there exists no such thing as absolute empirical proof of a positive statement. (Consider, if you will, how to set about proving that the sun will rise tomorrow, or that you exist).

    However, in science there is no such thing as “only” a theory.

    A theory, in science, is an explanation for a phenomenon or set of phenomena that is logically consistent and is supported by observation and/or experiment. Atomic theory is supported by immense amounts of evidence, and is contradicted by none, but it will never change from being a theory, because “theory” is pretty much the pinnacle of achievement in science.

    Laws, by contrast, describe how phenomena behave but do not explain them.

    If you will, a law is the “how” and a theory is the “why”.

  30. stjobe

    @ 18 D Cadman
    “I have heard it postulated that 50 % of western society still believes the PRE-Dawinian roots of Humanities origins”

    If you mistakenly wrote “western society” when you really meant “the U.S.”, that’s almost correct; only about 40% believes evolution to be correct. In most of Europe (and last I checked we’re still part of “western society”) though, the percentage is about 80%.

    “The US has one of the highest levels of public belief in biblical or other religious accounts of the origins of life on earth among industrialized countries”

    “A study published in Science compared attitudes about evolution in the United States, 32 European countries (including Turkey) and Japan. The only country where acceptance of evolution was lower than in the United States was Turkey (25%). Public acceptance of evolution was most widespread (at over 80% of the population) in Iceland, Denmark and Sweden.”

  31. Bill

    Excellent, excellent answer! When I taught 7th graders, I always made sure to make time to talk about this, despite the fact that it was not covered in the curriculum for Physical Science.

    And does anyone else see Master Chief (Halo) in the reflection of that human eye? Pure awesome!

  32. Melusine

    I liked that he used the analogy, “their enriched guts,” contrary to BJN #2 misquoting by saying “star guts.” One of guts definitions is: essence. From its bowels, now enriched. I think Tyson stated how we are connected to the universe simply and succinctly, which is what he is good at since he mainly speaks to the non-scientist audience through public outreach.

    I’d like to hear him talk about neutrinos passing through everything too. Phil, you do do this as well too, it’s just you don’t make videos with this Saganesque documentary type of speaking in a very designed video. You come off more in a kind of fun way, and that’s your style.

    A nice video to wake up to in the morning. I am an atheist because it’s this type of feeling connected that comforts me enough…that we are part of the continuum of Nature. The awe of our understanding these things helps me have faith in the self-directed nature of humans. There’s always more to learn; some of us will progress in our thinking, others won’t. Thank you Dr. Tyson!

  33. Calli Arcale

    Beautiful. As if I really needed another reason to love Neil deGrasse Tyson. I can forgive him for Pluto, because he does so much good; we need more people to listen to him!

    There was a similar sentiment expressed also on Babylon 5. Delenn (Minbari ambassador) said on more than one occasion that “we are star-stuff”, and apparently it was a common sentiment among her species, which had become spacefaring long before we did. I don’t know what the most astounding fact for me is, but Tyson has picked a damn good one here. Knowing that our atoms were born in the Big Bang and in the hearts of stars and the roaring destruction of supernovas . . . that’s pretty incredible. The long journey that our constituent particles have been on, of which we are but a tiny portion. Or, the long journey that we, as this collection of particles, will continue to live, as our particles move onwards. When we have children, we gift them a small measure of ourselves, of our particles. So our particles continue on in an endless journey, and it is beautiful.

  34. @ Nigel:

    Aww, I thought you were going to chastise him for thinking atomic theory is “only” 100 years old!

    That would be news to a handful of Greeks yammering about atomoi back in the 5th Century BC!

  35. Doug

    Tyson ’12 !!!

    If more people put importance and funding into science, the world would be such a better place. We are connected on the grandest scales of the universe, yet we sit and bicker about the unbelievably small.

  36. icewings

    Interesting, although I could’ve done without the craptastic music at the end. Coldplay, was it?

    Anyway, so my question is: I know I came from the stars but where will my atoms end up? After I die and I’m cremated, my molecules will disperse and decay. And then where will my atoms go? Will they exist forever? Will they end up back in the stars somewhere?

    That is truly my idea of heaven, to have a few of my atoms end up living eternally :-)

  37. D. Cadman

    @ 30. Nigel Depledge and 34. kuhnigget Says:

    in my uneducated way, (I have heard about those Greeks btw 😉 ) I was trying to say, that just over a hundred years ago, the “idea” of atoms was all we had, there was no experimental proof that they existed at all; it took the 20th century and the great minds of physics to determine the fact of their existence, if only by inference (Heisneburg ?) please cut me some slack eh! I didn’t get past high school, which was 1964 😉
    when you think of the strides we have made in that 100 years, in all areas of science, and the cuts that have been made in investment in the past 30-50 years, not just in the US, (I am in Canada) but the rest of the western world, since the west won the cold war, it is still amazing the scope of change that has occurred, and will occur in the near future;
    while I hope to be around for another 30 years, I believe that in my life so far, we have seen an acceleration of change that is comparable to the innovations of the Neolithic Farming revolution, 9000 years ago; I look forward to the future with great anticipation;

    and no, there will be no sound track LOL but I am as passionate about the future as I am about the past, being self “educated” in both; one’s education should never need to be tied to a piece of paper, but be a life long passion; the worst thing we can do is tie a child’s mind to a piece of paper, and say, this is the sum total of your education; a child’s mind is naturally inquisitive and will roam where ever it will, unless put in a box by narrow minded individuals;

  38. Peter Eldergill

    Try listening to it again and picture the same words coming from…

    William Shatner!

    HA! I’ve ruined it for all :)


  39. @ Peter Eldergill:

    You…must be made…to…PAY for…that!

  40. @ D. Cadman:

    Εντάξει. Σας συγχωρώ.

  41. Old Muley

    @Peter Eldergill = You sir, win teh internets. All of them.

  42. Grand Lunar

    People like my aunt ought to see this video, to understand that we ARE connected to the universe, despite what we may think or what dogma may say.

  43. Peter Ozzie Jones

    Phil, if you are the “Bad Astronomer”, it must make Neil Tyson the “Awesomely Bad Astronomer”?

    What a great anti-depressant.
    I am privileged to be able to see it even though I am on, literally, the other side of the world to Neil.

  44. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kuhnigget (37) –

    If I read comment #14 aright, that commenter was not claiming that atomic theory was 100 years old, but was saying that until 100 years ago, atoms were “only” theoretical. It is, of course, this latter point with which I take issue.

  45. Nigel Depledge

    @ D Cadman (40) –
    Fair enough.

    For your further edification, then:
    Through much of the 19th century, there was sufficient evidence to accept the existence of atoms. In fact, it could be argued that the first convincing evidence for atoms was acquired by Antione Lavoisier in the latter half of the 18th century.

    Furthermore, the first sub-atomic particle, the electron, was discovered as a discrete entity in 1896, although it had been known (as “cathode rays”) since about 1870. So it has been known for over 100 years that what we know of as atoms are not indivisible.

  46. Really great video! :)

    Btw. Greeting from Poland to Phil. 😉

  47. Morrigan

    Cute video. Very beautiful images in there. What a shame that the comments are a neverending religious flamewar, though I guess that’s hardly surprising coming from Youtube comments…

  48. himtha

    absolutely love this. Ive seen this 20 times already. I get chills everytime. NDT 2012

  49. Matt B.

    @2, BJN “I’m not thrilled with the metaphor of “star guts”…”

    It could be worse; you could just as legitimately say, “We are all star poo.”


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