Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s April 3 visit to NC State was a celebration of science and of our College of Sciences’ first year. Prior to meeting with students and speaking at the Hunt Library, the Hayden Planetarium director chatted with reporters from Technician and The News & Observer, as well as University Communications staff.
Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of his answers in that interview:
Q: If you called the shots on education policy, what would you do to improve science education in America?
A: I would double or triple NASA’s budget. That’s all you’d need to do. That solves everything. Then NASA can have a budget to go somewhere, to advance the space frontier. And when you do that, you’re making discoveries because you’re advancing a frontier. Any time you advance a frontier, you have to patent new machines, tools, methods, and these discoveries then make headlines because almost any discovery on a frontier is headline-worthy. Most of them are. And people read the headlines and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that was on the far side of the moon.” “Wow, there’s a person going to Mars, and their elementary school is just around the corner. Let me go interview the teacher who had that astronaut as a child.”
So everyone ends up participating: ”Oh, we’re going to mine asteroids for the first time. Wow, so now I not only need mining engineers, but maybe I need some lawyers. What are the legal ramifications of mining asteroids? Who owns an asteroid?”
And the frontier of space is so cool that now people want to specialize in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. You don’t need programs to get people interested. I derive that from the fact that when Sputnik was launched, it put a flame under our rear ends in 1957. People were climbing over one another to take science and engineering classes because there was a challenge in front of us that was making headlines. So once you do that, by my read of history and human conduct and the impact of the space program on the American economy, I know of no more effective force to be brought to bear on that problem than a fully funded NASA.
From NC State to Outer Space
NC State alumna Christina Hammock is among eight members of NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates.
Q: It’s surprising how often science communicators write articles that have the wrong facts or that make unsupported speculations about recent technology. What do you think we as science communicators can do to advance our field so that these things don’t happen as often as they do?
A: I’m less concerned about things that are false out there. It may not seem like it because I criticized the movie “Titanic” for having the wrong sky over the sinking ship. And then he (director James Cameron) changed the movie in response to that. So, yes, I do care about detail. But I don’t expect everybody to get everything right all the time.
Practically every article written has misstatements in it. If we’re failing in science in this country, it’s not because the occasional article overpredicts or gets some fact wrong. If you think it’s that, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. It is a way deeper problem than that. I don’t look at the detail sentence by sentence; I ask, are we better off in general because this article even exists, because someone even wrote about the future? That’s better than nobody writing about the future, even if what they wrote has some errors on the edges.
That’s how I look at it. That’s why I’m not so critical of “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s widely criticized for caricatures and how women are portrayed, although I think there’s some overreaction. They’re professional women on the show – there are two Ph.D. women and then the one who lives across the hall, right? The initial worry was that women weren’t portrayed as academic and the other two women were not in the first part of the first season, so that was corrected very early. But the point is you have the public embracing a show that is a window into the geekosphere. And that’s extraordinary, for it to be the No. 1 sitcom on television.
NC State senior Charles Parrish is in the running to put down roots on the red planet.
Q: How can science literacy change the minds of people who reject scientific evidence out of hand?
A: The people who reject scientific evidence out of hand don’t understand how science works. So, I’m not into beating them over the head for not knowing. I’m faulting an education system that hasn’t taught them what science is. And for me, science literacy is not the recitation of what the DNA molecule is or how an internal combustion engine works or what the big-bang theory is. Those surely are aspects of science literacy, but I invented my own definition of science literacy, whether or not anyone cares. Science literacy is knowing how to ask questions. That’s really all it is.