We had the GREAT pleasure last night to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the “Boe Forum” at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.The Boe Forum on Public Affairs was founded in 1995, with a goal “to provide access to individuals who can address events, issues or problems of worldwide or national concern and of broad public interest.” They’ve certainly had some wonderful speakers (and some less wonderful speakers…think Newt Gingrich and Rudy Guiliani) over the years. They’ve managed to draw some very big names, including Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore, Desmond Tutu, Vicente Fox, Sandra Day O’Connor, Pervez Musharraf, and Madeline Albright. Augustana University has just opened their new “Froiland Science Complex”, and said they wanted a “moonshot” science speaker to coincide with opening of that science center. They certainly succeeded by managing to draw Neil deGrasse Tyson to Sioux Falls.
Tyson ended up talking for two hours, and while my son was getting a wee bit antsy towards the end, I must say that it was a very engaging, surprisingly funny, and interesting talk that kept me very engaged the entire time. There were a few things that surprised me a bit, things I disagreed with. Given today’s political climate and how it’s affecting science, I was hoping for more content on the intersection of the two, but overall it was a terrific talk. Some of the takeaways for me:
1968 – 1972 – Birth of the Environmental Movement — The highlight of the talk to me was a section where he specifically talked about the period of 1968 to 1972 and the profound effect it had on humanity and our country. Apollo 8 was the first mission to orbit the moon, in 1968. As they rounded the moon, astronaut William Anders took the iconic “EarthRise” photo (bottom of this post), looking across the moon’s surface back at Earth. The next year we landed on the moon. As Tyson noted, these events totally changed humanity and how we view our own planet. Some very simple observations noted how little we understood our earth up to that point. He showed a photo from Star Trek, of the Enterprise orbiting the Earth. Their depiction of Earth had the continents, the oceans…but no clouds! Tyson gave other examples of artwork and even scientific renderings of Earth up to that point, and none of them portrayed the clouds that are always present! The sense of wonder during the space race, the first looks at our planet from space…it changed how we viewed our planet. In the period from 1968 to 1972, you thus ended up with the establishment of the first Earth Day. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was founded. We started cleaning up our air, our water. We noticed the massive decline in our national symbol, the Bald Eagle, and banned DDT to save the species (a resounding success!). The Endangered Species Act was founded in 1973. This period STARTED the environmental movement.
Reinvigorating interest in science — The take-home point from the examination of the 1968-1972 period? All that sense of wonder…that feeling that our Earth is a special place…that’s GONE, or at least incredibly diminished right now. Many people today simply can’t see past their own short-term guilty pleasures to even THINK about the future. At the end of Tyson’s talk, he had a question-and-answer period. One of the questions was related to these points, and how we can get back to those days of the 1960s and 1970s where environmental conservation, where caring about our planet, really was part of the American consciousness. The answer from Tyson wasn’t related to politics, it wasn’t related to things like the March for Science coming up on April 22nd, it wasn’t related to need for better PR. No, the answer was much more basic, and was rooted in k-12 education. We just don’t value science as much as we should in those formative years. As Tyson stated, what’s going to end up giving us a kick in the butt isn’t just a change in k-12 education, but a realization that we’re losing our economic competitiveness. With education driven not by national-scale policy but local and state policy, the States that embrace science and technological innovation, starting in k-12, are the ones that will be competitive for industries that drive our economy. Given how much of a focus their is in this country right now on economics, money, and growth, the cynical side of me believes that it will be economic competitiveness that will end up re-igniting the interest and science and innovation, rather than any pure desire to invest in science for science’s sake.
Intersection of Science, Culture, and Politics — Speaking of the March on Science on April 22nd, one of the questions he received was about scientists and their role in activities such as this. Overall for the night, he really avoided politics, although there were a few timely, light jabs thrown in. When the audience member asked this question, I thought we might finally hear his thoughts on the impact of politics on science right now. He did touch on that intersection, but it was different than I was expecting. He’s an educator, some may view him as an entertainer, but at his heart, he’s a scientist through-and-through. His answer began by saying he was on the fence, that in his own mind, he’s still trying to decide how scientists should react in this kind of political environment. But for the March itself, he said what he really hoped was that such an event wouldn’t be necessary. As he hammered home all night long, science isn’t political. Science provides its own truths, as as he stated, it doesn’t really give a damn what you think about it, what your personal, cultural, or political beliefs are. In short, you can tell that what he’d like to have happen is that the science would speak for itself, that the knowledge and understanding we produce would stand on its own, and that humanity would return to a time where we’d base our decisions on that knowledge. You can tell he’s struggling a bit with the issue, and is likely as bewildered as many of the rest of us as to how truth, how fact, are being ignored in the face of cultural, political, and ideological attacks. He definitely didn’t seem to have a clear answer on how scientists respond.
Human ego and science — Tyson ended his talk with a theme similar to his discussion of the 1968-1972 period, and its effect on humanity. He talked about the “Pale Blue Dot” images, the first from Voyager One in 1990, where the instrument looked backed towards Earth and took an image representing our planet as tiny, pale blue dot in a sea of stars and emptiness. The Cassini satellite studying Saturn provided a similar view more recently, with a 2013 image that shows Earth as a tiny blue dot hiding in the shadows below the foreground image of Saturn and its rings. The end of the talk itself was a reading of material from Carl Sagan, from his 1994 book “Pale Blue Dot”. The following summarizes that material (a bit revised, from a talk Sagan gave that year):
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
Religion and Science — Tyson touched on topics related to the Sagan reference all night long. In the overall scheme of the universe, we’re insignificant. We’re not “special”. At one point he listed the 5 most common elements in the Universe. He then listed the most common elements in a human body. The list is identical, with the exception of helium (given it’s pretty much non-reactive, it doesn’t form elements found in the human body). The point he makes…we’re just “stardust”, made up of the same common elements found throughout the universe. On a night when he would occasionally brush up against the edge of talking in depth about the intersection of culture, politics, and science, but never really dive into the deep end of that pool, this may have been the most “controversial” part of the talk (particularly given that the talk was at a University associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and was speaking in very “red” South Dakota). When touching on politics or culture, you can tell he tries very hard to avoid offending anyone, and he barely mentioned religion. But as I listened to this part of the discussion, I did wonder what some of the more religious people in the room were thinking. We’re not “special“. We’re almost certainly not alone in the Universe, given that we’re made up of the same material as is found throughout the rest of the Universe. We live in a country, however, where a huge swath of the population is unable to separate the science, even the empirical world staring them in the face, from their religion. In the end its a personal ideology that ends up driving the behavior and interactions of so many Americans, science (and reality!) be damned. Overall for the night, in what would be interpreted to be a tough cultural and political setting for a science purist like Tyson, he did a great job walking the fine line of informing, without offending.
If you ever get a chance to see Tyson speak, it’s well worth your time. He’s a wonderful speaker, with a rare ability for a scientist…he knows how to connect with people.