Neil deGrasse Tyson: Urgent Need for Science Literacy

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, cosmologist, and celebrated science author and educator.

Tyson recently talked with the Harlem Times on a number of topics — including the importance of science literacy, the upcoming sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and the enigma of dark energy that keeps him blissfully scratching his head each morning.

We interviewed Tyson in his office at the American Museum of Natural History, where he resides as Director of Hayden Planetarium. Rising in the transparent elevator above the planetarium, one gets the feeling that Tyson is like Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard, Captain of a vessel exploring the frontiers of human curiosity. Below us, within the white dome a recording of Tyson’s voice explains the mysterious pressure in the vacuum of space, as viewers hurdle through galaxies and star-stuff in Hayden’s “Dark Universe.”

Like Picard, Tyson is doggedly committed to exploration. He said in the interview that those who restrict scientific exploration are the same people who doom humanity. Tyson referred to the search for extraterrestrial life and understanding dark energy as ongoing topics of fascination for him, and “profound areas of mystery and ignorance.” Like any good Captain, Tyson is in awe of the Universe. His sense of wonder has much to do with his success as an educator and scientist, as it inspires others to explore and engage with the Universe.

In Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, slated to air on March 9 on Fox and the National Geographic Channel, Tyson actually does fly around in a computer-generated spaceship, slipping through blackholes, exploring the Universe, and explaining its wonders. The show is a sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Seth McFarlane, of Family Guy fame, and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, are the show’s executive producers.

Tyson said that he can’t fill Sagan’s shoes, but “I can be a really good version of myself.” The new Cosmos is intended to capture the spirit of the original series. Tyson hopes that the accessibility of the show will lead to space talk over the next morning’s water cooler. He credited Sagan for relating a wide range of fields to astronomy (such as astrobiology), showing the public why science matters in everyday life, and helping contribute to a deeper understanding of our place in the Universe.

When Tyson talks about the Universe his eyes get big, his voice speeds up, and he starts puffing short breaths excitedly. He still has the spark of childlike fascination in him — constantly seduced to know and discover everything around him. According to Tyson, the point of Cosmos is to present science in an inviting and entertaining way — to empower people to become aware of cosmic events, and realize that we are all connected at an atomic level to the Universe, as participants in an unfolding process. As Sagan said, “We are made of star-stuff.”

Tyson champions the necessity of scientific literacy with such vigor that to some he’s known as “the Preacher” (a nickname I’m not sure he fully embraces). What stands out about Tyson’s stance on scientific literacy is that he does not explicitly stress science education for young people. He seems to think that grown-ups are the ones in most need of science education.

“Consider that adults outnumber children by five to one … and adults are in charge, adults wield resources, adults are the ones making decisions about the future of the country… So, to have a community of scientifically illiterate adults say, ‘Oh. Let’s train the kids.’ No — let’s train the adults,” Tyson said. He added later that children are born curious about the world and, “A scientist is a kid who has never grown up.”

Tyson isn’t saying that everybody should be a scientist; just that society owes it to itself to be educated about science. He doesn’t yet claim specific solutions to educational problems, but is currently working on a book on the subject. “Let’s create a world of scientifically literate adults, and then the kid who is scientifically curious can rise up in that world, with their interests nurtured by adults who know what they’re nurturing,” said Tyson.

One point on education that Tyson did speak out about is the overemphasis that our educational system puts on test results. “You’re not going to evaluate my character, my capacity for ambition, my capacity to work hard, to stay focused, my capacity as a leader, my capacity as someone others might want to trust? If you look at the work place, these are the characteristics of the person who succeeds in the work place,” Tyson said.

Tyson isn’t a big fan of the term “gifted” either, and stresses that his skills and knowledge are the result of focus and practice. He said that when he was a kid his school contacted him to participate in a government-sponsored program for gifted children. “And I thought to myself, ‘gifted?’ I’m working pretty hard here, what gifts are they talking about? That implies that some people are gifted and others aren’t,” Tyson said. “What does that do to the person who’s not then identified as such?”

Tyson noted that the different factors behind success (such as hard work, drive, commitment, emotional stability, social skills, and resilience) are not measured by the same metric — making the point that the most innovative scientists are not always the ones who have the highest IQ scores. Despite his success and recent fame, Tyson said others used to tell him what he was good at and what he should do with his life — options which he did not end up pursuing. As a bit of advice for young people finding their way in the world, he said, “You need to decide whether you love what it is you do. And you’re likely to be better at that in life than anything else you can come up with.”

“What does a teacher assess? A teacher assesses your grades … their measure of things,” Tyson said. “The people who get high grades are the people who can parrot back what a lesson plan requires. Is that the person who comes up with a new idea? Is that the person who innovates? To innovate is to think in a way the teacher has never thought before you.”

It was his passion, drive, and commitment to science that started Tyson on his path, not some amazing ability to take tests. Tyson first got truly interested in the universe at 9 years old. Born and raised in the Bronx, and subject to urban light pollution, Tyson didn’t always know about the lush starscape waiting in the night sky. When he first went to Hayden Planetarium as a child, Tyson thought it was a hoax — he didn’t believe that such a thing could be real. It wasn’t until later, after visiting the country in places like Pennsylvania, that Tyson could verify his sense of awe. He said that he used to have the “disturbingly urban thought,” that the night sky reminded him of the planetarium.

“Since most people live in cities, most people live light-polluted lives. So to take in interest in the Universe for a city-dweller requires a different kind of access. And my access as a kid was the Hayden Planetarium” Tyson said. “That was my night sky, that was my virtual backyard.”

Tyson’s passion for the Universe as a young man drew the attention of Carl Sagan, who tried to recruit Tyson to Cornell’s undergraduate program. Tyson says that the way Sagan went out of his way to reach out to him deeply influenced the way that he interacts with students. This warmth or openness, characteristic of Sagan, has likely contributed to Tyson’s passion for communicating about the Universe. He says that Cosmos is important in that it relates scientific knowledge in ways that are relevant to the human condition, helping shed light on our sense of place in the Universe.

Part of what distinguishes Tyson from other scientists is his ability to communicate and spread information — a skill that he assures comes from hard work (he said he studied John Stewart’s interview style, to make certain that Stewart’s jokes didn’t stop him from making his points). Tyson has his own radio program, StarTalk, and is pretty active on Twitter. Tyson is amazing at merging his identity as a scientist with his public persona. Some of his tweets are scientific facts, while others convey his life philosophy. One tweet reads, “If you were aware of how much wisdom you don’t have in Youth, you’d moan about it just as Old People do of their aging bodies.” During our interview, Tyson did at least three other interviews over the phone, taking on questions from a group of Latin American journalists. It seems like almost everyday is like this for him, whether it’s interviews, filming, or giving talks — Tyson works hard to spread the gospel of science. He is somewhat new to the limelight though, and tells the Harlem Times that he’s looking forward to returning to his research in the near future.

What connects his work at Hayden Planetarium with Cosmos is that in both projects Tyson shares his passion for the Universe, in order to start a conversation about science with the public. As the Hayden Planetarium inspired Tyson as a child, he is now using his knowledge and technology to steward a new generation of scientists and space-lovers. This article is the first in a two-part series. Next month’s issue will delve further into the format of Cosmos, and will also provide a brief overview of exciting topics in cosmology, astronomy, and astrophysics. The Harlem Times is excited to take this journey with the community, to together explore and better appreciate our Universe.