Neil deGrasse Tyson, 62, is one of the world’s best-known “popularizers of science,” an Astrophysicist who makes you want to know more. When you listen to Tyson, science becomes entertaining and within anyone’s ability to grasp. When you watch him, you realize how cool science can be.
Like fellow popularizer Michio Kaku, Tyson picks up where Carl Sagan left off, bringing science programming to mainstream media through television appearances and books. Today, Tyson, Sagan’s protege, remains the host of “Cosmos,” a popular series hosted by Sagan in the 80s.
Tyson has called Sagan “the most successful science communicator of the 20th century,” and a “pioneer in the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence.”
When Tyson Met Carl Sagan
In 2014, the first episode of the rebooted “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” aired in the United States. Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, produced the show.
At the end of the show, Tyson reveals how he met Sagan. As a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx, Tyson met the world’s most famous astronomer at a bus stop in the snow. Sagan had invited Tyson to visit his Cornell University lab by letter.
After a tour, Sagan gave him a copy of his book, The Cosmic Connection, which he dedicated to Tyson:
“Carl reached behind his desk and inscribed this book for me,” Tyson said, holding the book.
“For Neil, a future astronomer,” Sagan correctly wrote.
For a young Tyson, the moment changed his life.
“I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become,” said Tyson.
Thus, Sagan passed the torch to his protege.
“Science is a cooperative enterprise spanning the generations. It’s the passing of a torch from teacher to student to teacher,” said Tyson. “A community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars.”
Today, Neil deGrasse Tyson remembers how Sagan was criticized for appearing on nighttime TV shows like Johnny Carson. However, thanks to Sagan’s example, scientists realized the value as the public embraced their work. Now, he hopes to encourage scientific influencers to take over on social media while he passes on the torch.
“…when all the rest of those folks are firmly on the landscape, I want to slowly exit backdoor and have no one even notice that I’m missing.”
However, we have a feeling people would soon miss Tyson.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Curiosity
Unlike in the past, science has recently been politicized, with “a declining public trust in science,” notes the New York Times.
In 2016, Tyson himself remarked on a “growing anti-intellectual strain” in America. “It may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy,” he said. Looking back at the last four years, he was correct.
Tyson says the anti-science trend is the result of spillover as people have lost trust in politicians and institutions.
“We’ve lost confidence in our civic entities,” Tyson “That’s a strong destabilizing force, and some of that spilled over into the scientific community.”
Due to the internet, there is an abundance of misinformation available with a click. As a result, people seem to be losing a grasp on how to navigate credible stories versus harmful misinformation.
To the Astrophysicist, it comes down to a lack of curiosity and self-awareness of our own biases.
“The missing link is curiosity. Without curiosity, you’re no longer probing for what is true. If someone says, “I saw Bigfoot the other day,” there are people who say, “Yeah, that’s great!” And people who say, “No, you’re full of [expletive]” — both of those responses require no brain work. What is the brain work I would like to see more of? It’s: Tell me more. When did you see this? Where did you see it? Did you find other evidence? You start probing. It’s the absence of curiosity that concerns me.”
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Self-Awareness of Biases
At the same time, one must have a “tandem awareness” of bias. Too often, we refuse to look at the information that contradicts what we want to see.
“Among religious people who want to change the science curriculum — that’s a very small subset, by the way, of religious people — many of them see the universe as perfectly ordered and beautiful. Because they see the things that are beautiful. If you look at religious posters that have quotes, usually from the New Testament, those quotes are on top of beautiful sunsets. They’re not on top of the underbelly of a tarantula, which occupies the same world as that sunset. Or ticks sucking blood from its mammalian host. Or —”
Although Tyson references religion here, he is aware of his own cognitive bias. It’s part of being human.
“The fact that scientists are human like everybody means that there is a susceptibility to bias. The difference is the scientist is supposed to have good self-awareness of that bias so that they can check for it,” he says.
As an educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson is fully aware of how he may want the world to be. However, he lets scientific evidence take precedence.
How Science and Religion Can Coexist
To Tyson, there is no scientific evidence of intelligent design, of a God creating nature. However, he remains open to the possibility. In 2015, he appeared on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, discussing in a lighthearted moment why he doesn’t believe in intelligent design:
“I think of, like, the human body, and I look at what’s going on between our legs,” Tyson said. “There’s like a sewage system and entertainment complex intermingling. No engineer of any intelligence would have designed it that way.”
More seriously, he sees no evidence of a benevolent God in a world full of mortal perils.
“Well, anytime someone describes their understanding of God, typically it involves some statement of benevolence or some kind of kindness. And I look out to the universe, and yes it is filled with mysteries, but it also filled with all manner of things that would just as soon have you dead — like asteroid strikes and hurricanes and tornadoes and tsunamis and volcanoes and disease, pestilence,” said Tyson. “There are things that exist in the natural world that do not have your health or longevity as a priority. And so I cannot look at the universe and say that “yes there’s a god and this god cares about my life at all.” The evidence does not support this.”
However, the scientist also believes that religion and science can coexist, so long as religious beliefs don’t attempt to stifle scientific evidence.
“You can say ‘I’m cool with science,’ provided you allow science the berth to discover whatever it can about the universe no matter what you say it should be discovering based on scripture,” Tyson said. “If that’s the case, then there’s no conflict.”
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Objective Truth vs. New Frontiers
While people refuse to look at the evidence, they also have lost faith in the authority of scientists. Consequently, he says scientists need to communicate better about what is objectively proven true and what remains on the frontiers of possibilities. Otherwise, people feel like science has failed to deliver on promises, such as visions of a futuristic world of flying cars where robots do our laundry.
“…you have to teach science differently. You have to say, Here’s this body of knowledge that are objective truths established by science. Then: Here’s this frontier where we’re still asking questions. You distinguish between science that’s objectively established as true and science on the frontier.”
To establish more scientific authority in the public consciousness, he says the National Academy of Sciences needs “better marketing.” Unfortunately, few people know about its existence. In 2015, Tyson received top honors from the Academy, in part for communicating “why science matters.” Thus, he was the first person to receive such an award since Sagan’s win in 1994.
Setting Sights On Mars
Today, under new leadership, “science is back,” according to President Biden. Now, Tyson hopes that interest in science will continue to gain momentum, just as it did in the 1960s when the astronauts planned to land on the Moon.
Now, he sees plans for a manned mission to Mars as bringing science back where it can “reign supreme again.”
Reaching the Red Planet would require the input and expertise of all the sciences. In preparation, it would inspire generations of kids just like the Moon landing did before.
“You tickle all the STEM fields, and everybody is going to want to be a part of that, and science would reign supreme once again,” said Tyson.
Thus, Tyson encourages SpaceX and NASA to travel to Mars, a real trip out of Earth’s orbit and into outer space.
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