To cap the year long celebration of GO-MAP’s (Graduate Opportunities Minority Achievement Program) 40th anniversary, Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke to a roomful of scientists, UW academics, Seattlites, and high school students on Thursday night. It was nothing short of inspiring.
Tyson had the audience in the palm of his hand and seemed to be completely at home on stage in his stocking feet discussing everything from exoplanets to science illiteracy. “The universe is in us” he stated in the husky voice that earned him the title “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine in 2000. Among a large silent crowd, one voice let out an awed, “Whoa…”
In NOVA Science Now style, Tyson skipped from seemingly unrelated topics in quick succession giving his audience unique insight you’ll not find in any single book he’s written. Neil started with the search for life (or really, water) beyond Earth, and of course touched on the Pluto controversy that has plagued him with critical mail from the country’s most stubborn kindergarteners. He breezed through several scientific phenomena like black holes, near earth objects (“killer asteroids”), dark matter, and the Big Bang, wowing us at every turn with funny remarks and stunning pictures.
He then shifted to policy issues in equally engaging form. Starting with a comparison between the Russian/Soviet Union and American commitment to space exploration now and during the Space Race, Tyson lamented the lack of dedication to science in the USA and longed for the day when Americans would put scientists’ faces on currency as do the Europeans. He grieved the loss of Islam’s commitment to science and math which was highly innovative between 800 and 1100 AD—creating algebra, star maps, agricultural technologies and more—yet this Golden Age of Science died in part because of a cultural shift which discouraged working with numbers.
Tyson’s not so subtle transition to America’s fear of numbers and scientific illiteracy predicted a gloomy future for America as well. Citing a congressman who said he had “changed his mind 360 degrees”, tragic engineering mistakes like the Gulf Oil Spill, and “magnetic pole shift” apocalypse predictions, Tyson lamented the profound science illiteracy in America. The majority of American citizens think that humans are not a result of evolution to which Tyson responds, “What country is this? …What Millennium is this?” joking that, “Maybe we should just move back to the caves.”
His presentation concluded with the Cosmic Perspective. (Can’t you just hear that deep, rich Neal DeGrasse Tyson voice? Cosmic Perspective…) Quoting Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and pointing out the small niche that humans occupy on the tree of life, Tyson remarked that to many people these perspectives can make one feel quite insignificant. However, when one considers that the most abundant elements forged in the stars of the cosmos are the very elements that make up the majority of us as humans (Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen) then “we are the same as the universe,” and that makes Tyson “feel larger, not small.”
After an extended Q and A session, I was happy that DeGrasse Tyson ended on this note—the importance of science communication. Tyson described Carl Sagan as the first and best science communicator, a role that Tyson is now fulfilling for contemporary America. Sagan was initially criticized by the scientific community for reaching out to the public, but his efforts not only fostered a love of science in millions of Americans, it promoted budget increases for astronomy and arguably, for science in general. Tyson reminded us that most pure research in America is supported by tax-based funding agencies so scientists are obligated to share their science with the public, but the benefits of communication are mutual. Just listening to Tyson, I can tell that it’s not only his sense of obligation, but his passion for science and story telling that compels him to share with the public.