You probably know Neil deGrasse Tyson as an astrophysicist with a seemingly endless stream of science fun facts at his command. You might not be aware that he is also a great oenophile and lover of food.
Some 16 years ago, before I was a journalist and illustrator, I worked with Neil at the American Museum of Natural History. He would sometimes carry around a small canvas tote bag. As I recall, the bag would contain one of two things: either a weighty, mango-sized meteorite to show to guests of the museum, or a bottle of wine to gift to a colleague.
It was pretty symbolic of his twin passions – the heavens, and wine. (By extension, that includes cuisine.) I recently talked with NdGT about how these all collide in the kitchen.
On how general, broad knowledge of scientific concepts is useful in the kitchen …
-The lower-than-32-degrees freezing point of liquids that contain alcohol, like wine, allows you to chill a bottle of white wine to sub-freezing temperatures without it freezing, before you bring it a dinner party. The wine warms up during the travel time to just the right temperature in time for dinner.
-When emptying water from a narrow-necked bottle after cleaning it, the water will exit the bottle about twice as fast if you swirl it, tornado style. Swirling water creates a path in its center for air to replace the water that’s leaving the bottle. Without it, the water from an inverted bottle must glug its way out, taking turns with pulses of air that move in to replace the water that has left the bottle.
-If you take a pint of rock-solid ice cream from the freezer and put it in the refrigerator, the temperature difference between the ice cream and the surrounding air will be much less than if you put it on the counter. This slows down the rate at which the ice cream gets warmer, allowing the entire pint to change temperature at a uniform rate. After an hour or so, the ice cream is at a perfect temperature throughout. Whereas, had the pint been left on the counter, the edges get melty first while the center stays solid.
On what aliens on other planets might eat …
Except for salt, everything we eat that has nutritional value was once alive, or was secreted by something that was alive. On the face of it, that’s quite barbaric — we all kill living organisms for our nourishment.
The ultimate source of all that energy is the Sun. Maybe aliens bypass the middle-man and get their energy directly from their host star, via photosynthesis, or some other method we have yet to divine. In that way, they don’t have to kill anything to survive. What would we look like to them?
On how he would entertain Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan if they were all having dinner together …
I would cook dinner for them myself and serve my finest wines across many courses of food, sampling many different dishes that will include pasta, rice, corn, fish, fowl, lamb, beef, and pork, followed by fruit and a cheese platter. Newton will ask if I am king of my country. And I will reply that farming and food distribution has come a long way since his day. So that now, average people — even people who would be his servants — can eat like royalty.
We’d have to catch Newton up on all the scientific and technological advances in society that his discoveries spawned. “Why are there no horses pulling those metal carriages?Why is there no flame in the lighting fixture?” “How do you fit all those music-playing instruments in that tiny hand-held device?” In Newton’s day the concepts of atoms, energy, electricity and motors were not yet developed. After[wards], I tell him we also fly hundreds of people at a time through the air at 500 miles per hour and at 30,000 feet altitude, a hundred thousand times per day. I then say we’ve travelled to the moon nine times. Right around then, his head explodes. (You can see this might take several dinners.)
As for Einstein, I’d just tell him that everything he predicted came true.
As for Sagan, I’d alert him that we’ve continued his legacy by creating a follow-on Cosmos in 2014 to his original [Cosmos show] in 1980. From all I know of his character, he’d be delighted to learn of this.
On how his passion for wine complements his passion for astrophysics …
I’m a sucker for cosmically conceived wine names and labels. A wine that immediately comes to mind is Astralis, a Shiraz by the Aussie winemaker Clarendon Hills. The black label boldly displays the Southern Cross [constellation]. Another wine is Luce, a “Super Tuscan” wine from Italy, born of the collaboration between American winemaking legend Robert Mondavi, and Italian winemaker Vittorio Frescobaldi. Their bottle does not use a paper label. Instead, they’ve etched in color — a stylized image of the Sun in the glass bottle itself. (Of course, luce in Italian means light.) These two wines are not cheap, but they look good on a table, and the wine is pretty good, too.
On his most cherished quotation about cuisine …
It is: “The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.” -Galileo Galilei