Neil deGrasse Tyson talks time travel, teleportation and space in interview for South King County student podcast

If you’ve ever wondered which science-fiction movie best captures the rules of time travel, it’s…

If you’ve ever wondered which science-fiction movie best captures the rules of time travel, it’s “Back to the Future.” Or so Neil deGrasse Tyson told a group of South King County elementary and high school students when they interviewed him for their podcast this week.

Tyson, well-known astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was the latest guest on a podcast that features lively debates between students from White Center Heights Elementary School in White Center and Raisbeck Aviation High School in Tukwila.

Because the episode the students are currently working on centers on time travel and teleportation, Misael Arriaga Chapman — a fifth grader at White Center Heights — thought Tyson would be the perfect guest expert.

Raisbeck sophomore Ellie Dykes sent the initial email to Tyson’s publicist. When Dykes reached out, she figured it would be a longshot. But two weeks later, she got a response.

“I thought it was spam initially,” she said with a laugh.

Episodes of the podcast, called The Survivors, range in topics, though they all have a similar structure, said Shoshanna Cohen, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) specialist at White Center Heights, who oversees the group. In one, students debate which are better: cats or dogs. In another, they pit Xbox against PlayStation. A third features comic books versus anime.

During the Thursday Zoom interview with Tyson, about 20 students watched intently from their computers at home as the astrophysicist explained the science behind wormholes. The fifth graders, who returned to a few hours of in-person teaching at the beginning of the month, looked comfortable on their screens, seamlessly muting and unmuting themselves as they took turns asking Tyson questions. The high school students, who will begin hybrid learning on April 19, also smiled and nodded along as Tyson responded to each inquiry. 

One student, who asked if time travel and teleportation were actually possible, told Tyson he was a huge fan, and that he had watched him on TV since he was a kid — first on “Nova,” then “Cosmos.”

Some of the students’ questions were strictly related to science — I know you can turn energy into mass, but can you turn mass into energy? — while others required a more creative answer — Where in the galaxy or universe would you want to vacation? (answer: Titan, one of the moons of Saturn).

The students also asked Tyson about the reality of teleportation, repercussions of time travel and what advice he might give to future scientists and mathematicians, though Tyson said he was reluctant to give specific tips.

“My advice will be anchored in today, yet you are going to invent a tomorrow,” he said. ” … You will invent whole new ways of living that today I don’t even think a person can dream about.”

He also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to touch on the famous butterfly effect, an idea in chaos theory that “if you make a tiny change over here, it makes a big change over there.”

“If a butterfly flaps its wings in one country somewhere, that extra gust of air may have gone turbulent and could trigger atmospheric phenomena that turn into a storm,” he explained. “You just never know what might happen.”

A few of the students were nervous to ask their questions, they said, but Tyson kept the mood light with jokes and personal anecdotes.

“I never forget that you teachers are in the trenches,” he said before signing off from the Zoom call. “I spend all day talking to a camera lens or doing TV shows, but you’re in the real world and the least I could do is every now and then be a servant of your world. So, glad you gave me a call and I was happy to serve.”

Arriaga Chapman, the fifth grader who thought Tyson would make the ideal guest interview, said his mother introduced him to Tyson’s show “Cosmos” about a year ago, and he’s been hooked ever since.

“I thought it was so cool how he was able to word things for someone who didn’t really understand those topics,” said Dykes, the Raisbeck sophomore who sent the initial email to Tyson’s publicist.

Cohen said she expects the episode featuring Tyson will be finished within the next few weeks.

The fifth graders and high schoolers — who participate as a part of their school’s Key Club — launched their podcast partnership last year, after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and halted many clubs and extracurricular activities, Cohen said.

“Over the past several months, our students found new ways to grow, connect and learn new skills through online collaborations,” one student says in the introduction of their first episode, which the team uploaded to Spotify in January.

Since then, they’ve produced three more episodes and are currently working on several more.

The group usually brainstorms debate topics together, votes on favorite ideas, then splits into teams to research each side, Dykes said. The fifth graders often take charge of the debate, she said, while the high school students edit the audio clips together and upload the final product to Spotify.

“For every topic, we also try to find experts who best fit (to be a guest),” Cohen said. For their cats versus dogs episode, for example, they brought on a local veterinarian to discuss why she went into the field and what advice she has for kids who want to work with animals one day.

Once the episode is finished, the students send it to a judge of their choosing for a verdict on the winner of their debate.

“It’s just been phenomenal,” Cohen said. “The high schoolers have taken on big leadership roles … and they’re so willing to play along with the kids. And for my students, that’s really special to get that attention and mentorship at the same time.”

Because the older students attend Raisbeck Aviation, a school in Highline Public Schools that offers a specialized curriculum focused on aviation- and aerospace-related topics, they have a lot of opportunities to work with robotics and engineering — creating a promising learning experience for Cohen’s fifth grade students.

“Having students that already have that education instilled within them and then being able to impart that on my STEAM students is worth its weight in gold,” Cohen said. ” … It means my students now have all this exposure to STEAM careers that they didn’t before.”

She added, “I try my best to introduce them to all the STEAM (activities) I can to get them excited, because that’s where the future is going to be. “