Astrophysicist and Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson made a brief appearance in an Apple event earlier this week, where he seemed to say that Apple’s App Store was one of humanity’s crowning achievements.
In a recorded video about the App Store — which recently marked its 100 billionth app download, according to Apple — Tyson says something that made my ears prick up.
Right after Apple executive Phil Schiller talks about how huge the App Store has become in the seven years since its launch, Tyson’s voice comes on.
“Apps plus handheld devices — I think that’s a watershed moment in civilization,” Tyson says in the video. “I put it up there with the invention of the microscope and the telescope. Here we live in a time where the most powerful tools ever imagined to investigate and probe our world are in the hand of essentially everyone.”
So I contacted Tyson to clarify that statement. And I’m glad I did, because despite Apple’s framing, Tyson was not actually raving about the App Store — or even about apps in general.
“What I said was: Apps alone are pretty useless,” Tyson told me. “The value of apps derives primarily from the ingenious hardware that has been attached to them.”
“Without the hardware,” he continued, “apps would be little more than video games.”
Tyson went on to say that the lines Apple quoted came from a 45-minute interview, during most of which he focused on the amazing achievements of smartphone hardware makers.
And then he laid into me for misconstruing what he actually said.
“I never mentioned Apple, or the App Store,” Tyson told me. Yes, fair point: He didn’t. I’d wager that many who watched the keynote came away with that impression, though, which suggests Apple wasn’t 100 percent straightforward in the way it was presenting his quote.
And when I asked him about a story from a year ago, in which he seemed to slam app developers, he laid into me again.
At the time, he said, “Society has bigger problems than what can be solved with your next app, in transportation, and energy and health.” He didn’t mean that apps are bad, or that they didn’t solve problems, or that app makers were cave-dwellers.
What he meant, Tyson told me, is that apps are dependent on more fundamental innovations in hardware and infrastructure. It is those innovations, combined with the apps that use them, that will help solve fundamental problems — problems that, if we don’t solve them, will have us headed back to the caves of our ancestors.
“People praise an app because it tells you where you are on Earth.” But, he said, “It can only do that because the military put up a system of satellites” — the GPS on which your phone depends to determine its location.
“It’s all about the hardware,” Tyson said. “That hardware is not just, ‘I got my latest smartphone.’ That hardware has stuff in it, and accesses stuff, that enables me to probe and investigate my environment.
“That’s what scientists do.”
But are phones really helping make people into scientists, I wondered? He gave me a long and forceful answer, pointing to a bunch of examples from popular culture showing that science is more significant than ever before. The most popular show on television, he said, is Big Bang Theory — showing “scientists and geeky people doing geeky things.” Fox aired his show, Cosmos, a 13-part documentary, on primetime. (Yes, it has an app.) On Twitter, 3.7 million people follow him. When he commented about physics gaffes in the movie Gravity, it became a subject for the Today show, evening news shows, and late-night talk shows. CSI, he explained, shows people solving crimes using “real science” — chemistry, geology, physics, biology — not just “Sherlock Holmesian” deductions.
“Yes, I think the public is learning how to think like a scientist. You don’t have to be a scientist, just learn what it means to take a measurement. That’s an important thing for an informed democracy,” Tyson said.
“Anything that gets people paying attention to their environment and measuring things connects you to nature as never before.”
“I’m praising the hardware people,” he said. “The software guys will be there forever … but at the end of the day they’ll just be writing video games without the extraordinary miniaturized hardware that’s contained in our handheld devices.”
And not just processors: The hardware includes sensors, like cameras, microphones, accelerometers, and more.
During our conversation, he gave me a wishlist for future sensors that smartphone makers could incorporate, which would in turn enable even more apps. An ultraviolet light sensor, for instance, could enable an app that would tell you what strength of sunscreen you needed to put on. A molecular analyzer could be used to make a breathalyzer app, a smoke detector app, or a pollution-sensing app.
Because the smartphone crams a huge amount of processing and sensing power into such a small package, and because it’s connected to the Internet and to GPS, it’s incredibly powerful, and enables a host of powerful apps.
Tyson may not be an App Store fan. But he is an unabashed fan of handheld devices, and he is not backing off his claim that they are as significant to civilization as the microscope and telescope.
“I think the smartphone is the most amazing thing there ever was,” Tyson said. “It’s the most amazing object ever created.”
Is he an Apple fan? Actually, yes: He’s been using Apple products since 1985, he said. But he was careful to point out that, although Apple paid him for the interview, the company is not paying him to pitch its products.
“I don’t mind if people use what I say, and if it happens to suit their needs, fine,” he told me.
But he was very clear that he wasn’t endorsing Apple or its App Store, and he repeated his enthusiasm for hardware makers above software makers.
“There are no developers without the hardware,” he told me. “Somebody needs to say that.”
And maybe, he thought, this clarification “will get people to think about the future of building things with hardware with no less vigor than they think about making software.”