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Neil deGrasse Tyson challenges science community to set a new trend

Image courtesy Amber Harmon.

Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of National Geographic's Cosmos: A Space Odysseyseries, recently spoke to an audience of thousands at the University of Indianapolis in Indiana, US. Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, US, is author of countless essays and eleven books including the most recent Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military. But he's quick to point out that he doesn’t do book talks. “If I write a book it’s because I never want to talk about the subject again,” he quips.

Tyson attributes the making and airing of Cosmos to a bona fide miracle. “A 13-part documentary about the universe, who does that!?” he exclaims (queue applause). “This tells me science is mainstreaming now.” The series appeared on prime-time television on Sunday evenings in a time-slot Tyson refers to as the Ed Sullivan hour. Tyson is a master of good-natured humor and understandable language. If anyone in the audience arrived unsure of their own knowledge of the universe, their anxiety is quickly put to rest by his amusing stories and slightly self-deprecating humor.

Tyson readily admits that his published research is limited compared to his peers, but that his focus is on engaging the next generation of scientific minds. He seamlessly shifts the focus from himself and engrosses the group in a more than two-hour-long conversation spanning current cosmic events. From the most recent solar and lunar eclipses, to the Chelyabinsk meteor crashing into Earth and the ousting of Pluto from the planetary alignment, Tyson asks questions, and gets engaged responses from the audience — none of which he lets pass without acknowledgment.

“Don’t let anyone tell you eclipses are rare,” he says. “If you ever see an article that says eclipses are rare … just NO! Eclipses are more frequent than the Olympics!” An audience member shouts about the upcoming solar eclipse the following day. Tyson politely thanks her and assures her, as an astrophysicist, if anything is going on with the sun, he is “all up in that.” Next slide: Solar eclipse tomorrow.

The not-for-profit Mars One foundation based in the Netherlands is focused on establishing a permanent settlement on Mars. Image courtesy Amber Harmon

The not-for-profit Mars One foundation based in the Netherlands is focused on establishing a permanent settlement on Mars. Beginning in 2024, crews of volunteers are scheduled to depart Earth every two years, to live in modules on the red planet. Tyson is interested in where the project goes but says, "I'll sign up when there is a budget to bring me back." 

Moving on, Tyson assures audience members that the Earth and the universe basically want to kill them. “Think of all the natural disasters we face,” he says. “Floods, volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis … asteroids, black holes.” To add some perspective, he reminds listeners that nearly 98% of species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. “That’s not a sign of a loving mother planet.”

Tyson displays a news article that asks young adults what they would do if an asteroid were to impact and destroy Earth in the next 24 hours. Knowing his audience is made up of college students, Tyson focuses on three answers with a common thread: Drink more alcohol. But after the laughter dies down, he is clear about his dismay that not one answer in the entire survey included finding a way to deflect the oncoming asteroid.

The next few slides show color-coded continents that inflate and deflate according to the amount of peer-reviewed science taking place within them. Here, a few things stand out: Africa, one of the largest continents, almost completely disappears, which Tyson recognizes as a tragedy. Japan and Korea explode. (Thanks to Samsung, Hyundai, and LG electronics, Korea is a rising powerhouse; Japan is already solidly established as such.) To the west, the US looks pretty fat and happy. “Bloated,” Tyson says.

He assures audience members the map is factually accurate, but insists that what we want to actually understand is the trend-line — the direction in which points are heading. A very different map begins to appear. Japan, Korea, China, and Western Europe become even bigger. Africa becomes even smaller, and the US shrinks as well. Brazil begins to balloon and rival the size of the entire US. Known more for football (soccer), rainforests, and coffee, Brazil has the third largest aerospace industry in the world. This is the writing on the wall, Tyson says, unless we do something about it.

Image courtesy Amber Harmon.

When asked how scientists could become more influential in public policy, he says his views are surprisingly contrary to many. “I don’t like talking to politicians,” he says. “88% of congress is up for election every two years. I could go there and get them all hyped up about science,” he explains, “but then I would have to do it all over again two years later.” Tyson does address the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives, but is quick to point out that their constituents have duly elected them. “My task as an educator is not to change the minds of congress,” he explains. “It is to educate the public so they can elect the right people in the first place.” 

Referencing his recent comments to Salon, Tyson hammers home the idea that we have major problems confronting us  — energy, transportation, housing, health, disease. He told the progressive news website that the world has bigger problems than can be addressed by just waiting for the next app. “I love me some apps,” he says. “But I’m just not confused into thinking that apps will save the world, that’s all.”

“The only way you can build the tallest building that has ever been built, or the longest tunnel, or the fastest planes, or new aerospace technologies,” Tyson says, “is to innovate in new ways, invent new engineering.” The interesting thing about science, Tyson concludes, is it moves — to wherever enlightened questions are being pursued, to the ballooning parts of the map. “We need a different trend-line, and we just don’t have it right now.”



Tyson is the host of the StarTalk Radio podcast — dedicated to all things space.