At NCSU, Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about revitalizing America by revitalizing NASA

jprice@newsobserver.comApril 3, 2014 

— What with TED Talks, YouTube channels like MinutePhysics and Vsauce, and ongoing TV such as PBS’s “Nova,” it’s a Golden Age for communicating science to popular audiences.

And the current man of the hour in the science-explaining business is astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a new version of Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage."

Tyson is known for verbally exploring the universe’s complexity, getting at deep themes so simply and entertainingly that he appears frequently on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.” But he’s also a serious scientist who studies topics such as the formation of stars and the arcs of their lives.

At N.C. State University on Thursday, Tyson met students at a rousing town hall meeting, then spoke at the suitably futuristic Hunt Library.

He also sat with a group of journalists from campus media and The News & Observer. Here’s some of what he said:

Q: We live in wonderful times for science communication, in part because of YouTube and TED and shows like yours. You’re atop that tidal wave right now. Where do you think it’s heading?

A: I’m not one driven to false modesty. If I do something good, I’ll say, yeah, that’s good. But by the same token, if I’ve done something that’s not good, I’ll say I’ve got to get back to the drawing board on that.

You described it as I’m surfing a wave, and that implies the wave was already there. A big part of what I’ve done in the past five years has, by my reading of popular culture, helped create that wave. But in a way you might not be thinking. I’m not trying to make a wave. I’m providing ways for people to reveal their inner interest in science and in that now-tested world, there are 111 other ways that you can have people reveal tho create a wave. Because they come to those YouTube channels, and they watch the science talks on TED, and they make “The Big Bang Theory” the number one show on television, and Fox says, we want to put a science documentary on our channel, and not relegate us to the science ghetto. The science programming channels are where people who already know they’re interested in science tune in. If you’re trying to spread science, that’s not the way to do it.

I think, echoing your point, had “Cosmos” landed 10 years ago it would not have been on network television. Because the climate, the soil would not have been tilled sufficiently for it to have landed in prime time, on a major network, on a Sunday night when everyone is home, on Fox no less.

I’d like to think, however delusional, that this movement is irreversible. Because when it manifests, it will manifest as a stronger nation economically as well as politically.

We are flexing our muscles, saying Russia, we’re not going to deal with you anymore because you did bad things in the Ukraine. Did Russia flinch? Why not? Because it doesn’t matter if we boycott Russia. So we’re losing our influence in the world. Meanwhile we still need their spaceship to get to the space station.

So, I’d like to think it’s a non-reversible trend. The same as the Civil Rights Movement. It’s unthinkable that would reverse. The women’s lib movement, it’s unthinkable that would reverse, at least in this culture.

So, a general awareness of science, why it matter and how it shapes our civilization, if that ever reverses, that’s the end.

Q: You are reportedly an extraordinary dancer, and you were an exceptional athlete at Harvard, where you wrestled and rowed crew. But you work with your mind. Does your role as a communicator bring these things together to a degree?

A: People want it to be true that mind, body and soul all function as one. But some of the people in the worst physical shape I have ever seen are some of the most brilliant scientists I know. I think the urge to want there to be a fundamental connection between the two is oversold. I danced over a period of 10 years or so, and I enjoyed every minute of it. That was a chapter of my life. When I was dancing, I wasn’t writing books, I wasn’t giving lectures. So, that’s a chapter, it’s under the bridge now and I’m in a different chapter. So, while I still value being in the shape I was when I danced – and I’m not right now, but I remember it – I am rational enough to recognize I’m doing other things in my life now. So when people come up and say why don’t you go on “Dancing with the Stars”, no.

Q: But it’s a great show title for you, “Dancing with the Stars.”

A: Yes, it’s an easy sell (he laughs).

Q: Have you been approached to do that?

A: Not officially. But unofficially, very persistently (he laughs again). And yes, I could probably dance, but then I would be dancing, I wouldn’t be doing what I have chosen to do for my current chapter of life.

There is a line from that manifesto of wisdom and how to live your life, “Desiderata,” that says ‘Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.’

The last thing I want to do in my later years is to try to be again what I was in my younger years. This is unrealistic, bordering on irresponsible. So, yeah, I can take my foot and hold it up here (he held his palm up beside his right ear). But why? What does it get me?

People say when I give a talk, ‘Can you send your talk in advance?’ I say ‘What? My talk is the words that come out of my mouth, and those words are tailored for that audience in that time and place.’ And when I’m delivering that talk, my entire body is a participant. Because I danced as a means of expression, 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.

Of the things I want to do in life, giving a public talk is probably not in the top 20. People say ‘You’re good at this, you must enjoy it.’ But it’s not in the top 20 of things I enjoy doing. But if I’m ever called to give a public talk, why not give the best public talk that I can give? Why not? If I’m asked to be interviewed on Stephen Colbert, why not study how he interviews people so that I can be the best I can be at that?

Q: We have an unusual number of scientists in this area, many of them extraordinary. And when I meet the research teams of some of the real rock stars among them, people like Joe DeSimone who is at both NCSU and UNC, and Nobel Prize winner Robert Lefkowitz at Duke — who, like you, attended Bronx Science — I see diversity. I once heard DeSimone say, essentially, that if you want solutions from outside the box, you need scientists who don’t all come from the same backgrounds, go to the same two famous research universities and have the same three mentors. But the diversity I see in labs here seems more global than domestic, meaning I see researchers, male and female, from all over the world but I see very few U.S-born minority researchers. What can be done to grab the imaginations of more minority kids with science?

A: I don’t claim any special knowledge of how to attract one demographic versus another. My public professional identity make no such distinction at any time. It doesn’t distinguish women from men, ministries from non-minorities, over-represented from under-represented. And so I have no creative thoughts in response to that question. I have one observation, however. If you come from a disadvantaged background, however we define that in America, and let’s say you’re the first to go to college (from your family), you’re not thinking that in this, a capitalist democracy, you’re going to major in something that has the intellectual luxury of just solving cosmic problems. You’re going to take a major that has clear and distinct correspondence with the acquisition of wealth. So you’re going to become a lawyer or doctor or a business person. If you look at for example, the majors of first-generation immigrants, it’s not the exotic majors they’re in. It’s the standard professions that assure employment when they get out. It could be nursing, whatever. Now, when you talk about something like aerospace engineering, I don’t know any unemployed aerospace engineers, but it’s a less traditional path to wealth than anything I just listed.

I would hypothesize that it would take a second or third generation in that family after the acquisition of wealth for someone to feel comfortable enough about where that next meal is going to come from and say, ‘I will major in botany or zoology or entomology,’ or something that’s just the luxury of creative thought.

Let’s say you didn’t see the color of anyone’s skin and you went around and said, ‘OK, who’s missing? We’re missing this huge swath of America. They’re not even thinking about going to college.’ Well, who are they? Then you color in the skin and fill in everything else, and you find out that many are black, and you find out that perhaps many may live in, say, Appalachia and aren’t black. And they’re people who don’t understand what an academic opportunity even means. It’s not in their culture. There aren’t books in the shack where they live. Their parents didn’t go to college. They don’t even think that way.

So maybe the challenge isn’t, ‘How do we attract minorities?’ but, ‘How do we not discard the fraction of our population that anyone would consider disenfranchised because of poverty or health or circumstance?’

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 know how science works, so I’m not into beating them over the head for not knowing, I’m faulting an educational system that hasn’t taught them what science is. And 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. Science literacy is knowing how to ask questions. That’s really all it is. So if you have these two crystals and you say, ‘If I rub these together they will heal you,’ some people think, ‘Well, that’s bogus, get it out of my face.’ That’s just as blind as accepting it outright. Each one of those options requires no thought. Thinking is harder than not thinking. So you say, ‘Well, what are these crystals made of? Why does rubbing them make a difference? Where are they from? What ailments are they said to heal? Can you show me where they have healed? What do they cost? What is the mechanism by which they heal?’

By the time you’re done, the person has run away in tears. Because they wouldn’t, in that case, have the answers to every one of the questions. You won that encounter because even without knowing the laws of physics, you knew how to enquire.

My son, who is at 13, was at breakfast, and the waiter came over, took away his coffee mug and asked others if they wanted coffee. He said, ‘Why are you taking away my coffee mug? And the waiter said, ‘Well, I presumed you don’t want coffee.’ He said, ‘I do want coffee.’ And the waiter said, ‘Don’t you know it can stunt your growth?’ And my son said, “Where did you obtain that information?’ He said, ‘My mother told me.’ Then my son asked, ‘Is everything your mother ever told you correct?’ And the fact that we all know that our parents are not always correct meant this guy just lost the argument. And he put the cup down and gave him coffee.

That was just a series of questions. Maybe it does stunt his growth, but not by any evidence supplied by the person about to pour him coffee.

It’s asking questions that matters.

Q: If you could call the shots on science education in America, what would you do?

A: I would double or triple NASA’s budget. That’s all you need to do. That solves everything. Then NASA can have a budget to go somewhere, a budget to advance the space frontier. And any time you advance a frontier, you have to patent new machines, tools, and methods, and these discoveries then make headlines. Because any discovery on a frontier is headline-worthy, typically. And people read the headlines and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that was on the far side of the moon.’ Or, ‘Oh, we’re going to mine asteroids for the first time. So now I need mining engineers. And maybe I need some lawyers. What are the legal ramifications of mining an asteroid?’ Everyone ends up being a participant, and the frontier of space is so cool that now people want to specialize in STEM fields, and you don’t need programs to get them interested.

I derive this from the fact that when Sputnik was launched it put a flame under our rear ends in 1957, and people were climbing over each other to take science and engineering classes.

There was a challenge in front of us that was making headlines. Once you do that, by my read of history and of 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.

Price: 919-829-4526

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