Neil deGrasse Tyson
April 13, 2016
The Sacerdote Great Names Lecture Series celebrated its 20th anniversary with American astrophysicist and pop-science star Neil deGrasse Tyson who visited Hamilton on April 12. Tyson was the first scientist to be a guest in the Series, despite Hamilton being a “very science-friendly campus,” as President Joan Stewart stated in her opening remarks. “He continues to reach those who thought they never would, or could, be interested in science,” she went on, “and tonight we will have an experience of wonder.”
Stewart was not wrong: Tyson captivated his audience over the next 95 minutes, intermixing astronomy, social commentary and humor with his warm demeanor. Tyson began by saying that his talk would be used to “Reflect on things going on in our society now, [and] potentially as a call to action.” While Hamilton continues to highly regard writing as a skill, many colleges do not, said Tyson, and similarly, America as a society has lost its appreciation for science and mathematics.
As a means of comparing social value placed on such fields, Tyson referred to his collection of now-defunct currencies to offer several examples of scientists who were honored by being placed on their nation’s bills (before being replaced by the Euro). “Germany, for example, is known for engineering,” Tyson began. “On their currency, we see Werner von Braun -- on whose shoulders America's space program was built -- and on the back: the curve of a normal distribution and an equation, stuff you might not see until college.”
It’s not that German citizens are learning applied physics from their money, however. “My suspicion,” Tyson offered, “is that most Germans don’t know this equation, but they know that it’s math and that it’s important because it’s on the currency, and this dude is somehow important too. And this, instills an appetite for science and engineering at all levels of society,” he continued, “so that if one day you are responsible for making legislation, you don’t fear math, even if you don’t participate in it, and you certainly aren’t hostile to it.”
The concept of representation is also important as there are not many women pictured on currency. “In Poland, they have Marie Curie… On the back of the bill is one of her famous experiments with radiation which helped her earn two Nobel prizes and have an element named after her,” he said.
“The UK has a slew of scientists,” Tyson continued, pointing out that Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein are pictured on currency. The trend spans continents, Tyson noted. On Iraq’s bill is Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytham who discovered how sight worked. “On the back is an illustration of the ray diagram he developed,” said Tyson.
Yet, Al-Haytham’s depiction represents the Golden Age of Islam, which ended around the 12th or 13th century and is often attributed to the attack on Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. However, Tyson points to a different cause: the works of theologian Imam Hamid al-Ghazali, which codified the teachings of Islam and categorized activities as either ‘spiritual’ or ‘earthly.’ Al-Ghazali suggested that humans should lean toward the spiritual, Tyson explained, and thus mathematics, which was classified as earthly, became socially devalued.
If the attack on Baghdad was the reason math and science become devalued, then there would have been a resurgence in the 1400’s when Muslim culture spread to the Iberian peninsula, according to Tyson. “During this time,” he stated, “we see architecture and other things advancing, but math got left behind and has not been recovered to this day.”
I lay awake at night lamenting the fact that in this world we have 1.5 billion people who are not participating in the frontier of discovery but who used to. Discoveries that lay buried in those who have been disenfranchised, and thus prevented from experiencing that exploration. And this goes for anyone who is marginalized: half of the world is women, and if they too don’t have access to the frontier of discovery, you can’t say we live in a civilized world.
To illustrate this point, Tyson turned to the 655 scientists who were recipients of the Nobel Prize since 1900. Out of these scholars, 165 (or 25%) were Jewish, from a worldwide population of about 15 million. In contrast, there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, yet only three have won Nobel Prizes (or ~.46%). Tyson attributes this stark difference to the fact that science and math never stopped being culturally valued in the Jewish community, while Islam was heavily influenced by Al-Ghazali.
Tyson reflected on this: “I lay awake at night lamenting the fact that in this world we have 1.5 billion people who are not participating in the frontier of discovery but who used to. Discoveries that lay buried in those who have been disenfranchised, and thus prevented from experiencing that exploration. And this goes for anyone who is marginalized: half of the world is women, and if they too don’t have access to the frontier of discovery, you can’t say we live in a civilized world.”
In the U.S., we do have a scientist on our currency: Benjamin Franklin. However one finds that there isn’t a depiction of his laboratory, inventions or experiments, rather a state house. “He’s not there as a scientist,” Tyson explained, “but as a founding father.”
Tyson then went on to explain what he called “Bad Science,” by citing examples from American media. For example, an online article explaining how to see last year’s “supermoon” which appeared just a fraction larger than it normally does during a full moon and, regardless, was “large enough you don’t need instructions to see it.” Perhaps the most upsetting for Tyson was when USA Today picked up a story about four consecutive blood moons as harbingers of the world’s end. “Where is the science in 21st century America?” Tyson deplored.
“We [Americans] have beer commercials more scientifically accurate than presidential candidates,” Tyson stated, referring to a Guinness commercial featuring evolution and Ben Carson’s claim that it is “a theory advanced by the devil.” America also tops the list of countries struggling with mathematics while South Korea and Japan are doing the best. Although the Guinness commercial was (roughly) accurate, Tyson added that it isn’t uncommon to see published ads with egregious scientific mistakes which don’t get caught because the artists and writers aren’t familiar with the science and aren’t culturally expected to be.
“You can say and believe whatever you want,” Tyson continued, “but when one belief system takes over and you can’t believe what you choose, then that’s a despotic system and that leads to the death of civilizations.
Tyson then talked about a series of engineering disasters, such as the levees in New Orleans and the Gulf oil spill of 2010. “Katrina did not flood New Orleans,” he stated, “faulty engineering did, and we are too hubristic to admit it.”
Technical failures like these bother Tyson, who was raised in an America that led the world in innovation, exploration and engineering; a world focused on ‘the civilization of tomorrow.’ “In the 60’s,” Tyson explained, “Americans knew that math and science were necessary, and it was because we were going to the moon.” When Lunar Orbiter I captured the famous ‘Earthrise’ photograph, he continued, it was “the first time we, as a species, viewed earth not as we saw it presented to us on color-coded maps, but how nature intended it to be consumed. Ocean, land and atmosphere. Earth became something we cared about. When we went to the moon to study it, we discovered the earth.”
“You don’t have to be a scientist to be science literate,” he assured the audience. “In the 60’s, there were plenty of things to worry about: civil rights and campus unrest, a hot war with Vietnam and a cold war with the Soviet Union, and two assassinations in one year. Yet this was the era that birthed the modern environmental movement because NASA made us think of things we didn’t before. In ’69 we walked on the moon, then in ’70 the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were formed, in ’71 we celebrated the first Earth Day, and in ’72 Doctors without Borders was created. They probably would have come into existence anyway, but why ‘without borders?’ Because for the first time we adopted a planetary perspective.”
Carl Sagan, legendary astrophysicist and science popularizer, undoubtedly influenced many when he promoted a picture of Earth, famously known as The Pale Blue Dot, in 1990. Tyson ended his lecture by reading a passage from “the book of Carl” while the new Pale Blue Dot photograph, taken in 2013, was displayed behind him.
During a brief question and answer session, Tyson explained that in terms of disenfranchised groups, progress is necessarily slow considering the systems that need to be overcome, and assured one audience member that “Kids are born explorers of the environment,” and the best thing you can do is “get out of their way.” When asked about his recent social media argument with musician B.o.B, Tyson confirmed that world is, in fact, a sphere -- or more precisely, “an oblate spheroid.”
The final question was posed by a group of sixth graders, who asked when the U.S. will become a space-faring nation again. Tyson replied, “Maybe the future isn’t a ‘space race,’ but a collaboration -- the largest collaboration of humanity beyond war -- an amalgam of the total intellectual creativity of our species. How much collaboration needs to happen so that we don’t worry about space faring nations, but rather begin thinking of ourselves as a space faring species?”