NC State hosted a bona fide superstar last Thursday when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and host of the Fox TV show “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” came to campus.
If you’ve ever seen Tyson give a lecture or hold forth in one of his 10 appearances on the “Colbert Report,” you know he has a galaxy-sized personality and charisma to match. Both were on full display during his campus appearances, which included a roundtable interview with local media, a meeting with students in the College of Sciences and a public lecture in the Hunt Library auditorium.
Tyson said organizations that invite him to speak often ask him to send them the talk in advance, but he doesn’t do that.
“My talk is the words that come out of my mouth, and those words are tailored for that audience in that time and place. When I’m delivering that talk, my entire body is a participant, because I used to dance as a means of expression,” said Tyson, a one-time champion Latin ballroom dancer. “If I’m communicating, then my body is a participant right alongside my words. Why do anything in life unless you do it with intensity? That’s a tweet. I should tweet that right now.”
Science Is Asking Questions
Throughout the day, Tyson emphasized the importance of science literacy.
“For me, science literacy isn’t the recitation of what the DNA molecule is or how an internal combustion engine works or what the big-bang theory is,” he said. “Science literacy is knowing how to ask questions.”
A packed lecture hall full of students got to do just that when Tyson conducted an hour-long question-and-answer session at SAS Hall. Wearing a blazer, jeans and an open-necked shirt, Tyson sat comfortably on a desk down front while ushers carried microphones to students who had questions. One student asked whether Tyson thought the science education efforts of “Cosmos” would have a social impact and inspire change in society.
“Have you not been reading blogs?” Tyson replied. “After our last episode, ‘Cosmos’ is all over the Internet. It’s crazy. We talked about how the Crab Nebula is 6,500 light-years away, but we can see things that are farther away than that, so the universe can’t be just six or seven thousand years old.”
Tyson took issue with media reports that his TV show “bashes creationists.”
“I won’t tell you what to believe,” he said. “But as an educator, it’s my duty to alert you to the consequences of thinking one way instead of another … If you don’t know what science is and how it works, that will have dire economic consequences for our nation.”
In response to a student’s question, Tyson acknowledge that he often uses economic arguments to advocate for increased investment in science.
“A culture will only make a major investment for three reasons: you don’t want to die in a war, so you build the Great Wall of China or the Manhattan Project; you don’t want to be poor, so you send out Lewis and Clark or Columbus to discover trade routes; or you want to praise royalty or a deity, so you build pyramids or cathedrals,” he said. “So I always invoke the economic argument. The people controlling the purse strings won’t fund exploration for the sake of exploration.”
The Problem With UFOs
The hour flew by, and then Tyson was shuttled out the door and across campus to a capacity crowd waiting to hear him speak at the Hunt Library. Tyson put on a tie for the occasion; but no sooner did he take the stage than he kicked off his shoes and emptied his pockets on a nearby podium.
“Give me a minute to get comfortable,” he said. “Okay. Now we’re ready to rock.”
Tyson started out talking about science illiteracy rather than science literacy, starting with UFO sightings.
“The problem with UFO sightings,” he said, “is that if you see something in the sky and you don’t know what it is, that’s what the ‘U’ stands for. It’s unidentified. Period. Once you say it’s a UFO, it’s time for you to stop saying things about it. You don’t say, ‘That object is unidentified, so it must be a spaceship carrying an alien life form to Earth.’ That’s called arguing from ignorance.”
Tyson asked the audience if anyone there had been abducted by an alien, and one person said he had indeed been abducted. Tyson spoke directly to this audience member and said, “Let me tell you what. Next time this happens, and you’re on the spaceship, and they’re probing you and examining you and doing whatever they’re doing, take something from the UFO — an ashtray or whatever — and put it in your pocket. That way, when you come back you can retrieve it from your pocket, and then you have a case.”
He went on to cite other examples of science illiteracy in American society: a newspaper headline saying “Half the Schools in the District Are Below Average” (as if that were not the most likely distribution), and a member of Congress saying “I’ve changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.”
He also showed a picture of a Bayer Corporation magazine ad that depicted students in a classroom, with text that said, “Try to get them interested in why lighter things fall faster than heavier things.” To highlight the absurdity of that statement, Tyson dropped a pen and his shoe to the stage, demonstrating to the audience that both objects fall at the same rate of speed, despite their different weights.
Tyson again alluded to the creationist controversy surrounding “Cosmos,” noting, “People are voting for what they want to be true, but that’s not how science works. Science is what’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
After covering topics as diverse as the so-called “Supermoon,” Judgment Day cults and the demotion of Pluto from planetary status, Tyson closed with his reading of a passage written by astronomer Carl Sagan, describing Earth as a “pale blue dot” floating amid the cosmos when viewed by a satellite passing beyond the rings of Saturn. The appreciative audience gave him a standing ovation, which was his cue to grab his shoes and head upstairs for a reception honoring his daylong efforts on behalf of science.