Tyson’s World of Science and Communication

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Fall of my junior year at Ohio State Neil deGrasse Tyson came to Ohio State and gave a presentation to a filled auditorium of undergraduates, graduates, and faculty. I was one of those lucky audience members who had the opportunity to witness one of society’s greatest science communicators comfortably walk on stage, take his shoes off and proceed to give an amazing lecture in front of hundreds in his socks. The title of the talk was “The Cosmic Perspective: How the Astrophysicist Views Life, the Universe and Everything”, making a direct reference to author Douglas AdamsThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Tyson discussed the most important problem science faces today: funding. Funding is the gas that feeds the engine of science research and technology. No gas means an empty engine with nowhere to go and nothing to do but rust. Tyson’s question was how can scientists convince the government to give it more funding. This is a question that is highly difficult to answer when you look at certain science research areas such as astronomy. Astronomy has a minimal effect on aiding society in any way except providing knowledge of objects far away that today’s generations or even ten generations from now have no hopes of physically visiting. Almost anyone will agree that theoretical computer simulations of galaxies colliding is really cool, but these models will not cure cancer or or world hungry (directly). So, how on earth do you get the type of funding that NASA receives to build such technological marvels like the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Telescope if all they do is improve knowledge and not humanity’s well being?

The point Tyson made, and I will never forget it, was that countries who have made the most vital contribution to science and technology are also the countries who have the best standards of living and are some of the most powerful countries in the world. That is why multimillion and multibillion dollar science projects are so important. If the United States wants to maintain its cushy position as a world power, and Americans want to keep their pampered life styles, science must continue within this country. It is a vital artery leading to the heart of securing the existence and freedom of the United States of America.

Abandoned, rusted engine.

Ever since I went to that lecture and heard Tyson’s arguments I have had a sinking feeling every time I read about cut backs in science technology. For example, the recent death of Fermilab’s Tevatron marks the end of Americans’ chance to be a leader in particle physics research. Europe’s particle accelerator, CERN, is now the place where the future of particle physics lies. CERN, not Fermilab, will attract the best scientists and Europe, not the U.S., will be at the forefront of particle physics research. Europe is not just gaining a lead in physics, it’s gaining a lead in science, and its feeding its engine that will take it to places the United States can not go. What happened to the attitude American’s had in the sixties? What happened to the space race and the imperative need to surpass the Soviets in scientific technology? Compare the amount of coverage space travel received in the sixties to today. The most television coverage space travel has seen in the twenty first century is in science fiction shows and movies.

An American was the first human being to step on the Moon. What nationality will the first human to step on Mars be?

I fear that too many Americans don’t understand this subtle reality that the advancement of science drives the betterment of society. As renowned as Tyson is, he is only one man and can only reach so many people. It is the responsibility of others to push for more funding for science research and technology. Talk about it, blog about it, shout it from the roof tops. Whatever your approach is get the word out that science matters. It may seem silly, but not enough people appreciate science, and it’s time for them to start!

I recently came across a blog post from The Intersection at Discovery’s online site discussing Tyson’s advice for young science communicators. Being a young science communicator, myself, and my profound respect for Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was instantly rushing my arrow to the link that would take me to the full article. After finishing the article there was a link to the site Center for Inquiry, which as a podcast section called Point of Inquiry. One of the recent eipsodes for Point of Inquiry is an interview with Tyson himself discussing the forefronts of science research. The first ten minutes were great. I have not finished the full clip, yet, but I plan to listen to the whole thing tonight, and I’m sure I’ll have a thing or two to say about it.