Friday, 28 July 2017

Navigating creation: A Cosmic Perspective with Neil deGrasse Tyson

I recently attended an interesting event at an Auckland venue usually reserved for pop music concerts. An audience in the thousands came to Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Cosmic Perspective, featuring the presenter of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and radio/tv show StarTalk. The 'Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive' presented his brand of science communication to an enormous congregation (forgive the use of the word) of science fans aged from as young as five years old. So was the evening a success? My fellow science buffs certainly seemed to have enjoyed it, so I decided it would be worthwhile to analyse the good doctor's method of large-scale sci-comm.

The evening was split into three sections, the first being the shortest, a primer as to our location in both physical and psychological space-time. After explaining the scale of the universe via a painless explanation of exponents, Dr Tyson used the homespun example of how stacking the 'billions' (which of course he declared to be Carl Sagan's favourite word) of Big Macs so far sold could be stacked many times around the Earth's circumference and even then extend onwards to the Moon and back. Although using such a familiar object in such unusual terrain is a powerful way of taking people outside their comfort territory, there was nothing new about this particular insight, since Dr Tyson has been using it since at least 2009; I assume it was a case of sticking to a tried-and-trusted method, especially when the rest of the evening was (presumably) unscripted.

Billions of Big Macs around the Earth and moon

Having already belittled our location in the universe, the remainder of the first segment appraised our species' smug sense of superiority, questioning whether extra-terrestrials would have any interest in us any more than we show to most of the biota here on Earth. This was a clear attempt to ask the audience to question the assumptions that science fiction, particularly of the Hollywood variety, has been popularising since the dawn of the Space Age. After all, would another civilisation consider us worthy of communicating with, considering how much of our broadcasting displays obvious acts of aggression? In this respect, Neil deGrasse Tyson differs markedly from Carl Sagan, who argued that curiosity would likely be a mutual connection with alien civilisations, despite their vastly superior technology. Perhaps this difference of attitude isn't surprising, considering Sagan's optimism has been negated by both general circumstance and the failure of SETI in the intervening decades.

Dr Tyson also had a few gibes at the worrying trend of over-reliance on high technology in place of basic cognitive skills, describing how after once working out some fairly elementary arithmetic he was asked which mobile app he had used to gain the result! This was to become a central theme of the evening, repeated several times in different guises: that rather than just learning scientific facts, non-scientists can benefit from practising critical thinking in non-STEM situations in everyday life.

Far from concentrating solely on astrophysical matters, Dr Tyson also followed up on topics he had raised in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey regarding environmental issues here on Earth. He used Apollo 8's famous 'Earthrise' photograph (taken on Christmas Eve 1968) as an example of how NASA's lunar landing programme inspired a cosmic perspective, adding that organisation such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were founded during the programme. His thesis was clear: what began with political and strategic causes had fundamental benefits across sectors unrelated to space exploration; or as he put it "We're thinking we're exploring the moon and we discovered the Earth for the first time."

The second and main part of the event was Tyson's discussion with New Zealand-based nanotechnologist and science educator Michelle Dickinson, A.K.A. Nanogirl. I can only assume that there aren't any New Zealand astronomers or astrophysicists as media-savvy as Dr Dickinson, or possibly it's a case of celebrity first and detailed knowledge second, with a scientifically-minded interviewer deemed to have an appropriate enough mindset even if not an expert in the same specialisation.

The discussion/interview was enlightening, especially for someone like myself who knows Neil deGrasse Tyson as a presenter but very little about him as a person. Dr Tyson reminisced how in 1989 he accidentally become a media expert solely on the basis of being an astrophysicist and without reference to him as an Afro-American, counter to the prevailing culture that only featured Afro-Americans to gain their point of view.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Cosmic Perspective

Dr Tyson revealed himself to be both a dreamer and a realist, the two facets achieving a focal point with his passion for a crewed mission to Mars. He has often spoken of this desire to increase NASA's (comparatively small) budget so as reinvigorate the United States via taking humans out from the humdrum comfort zone of low earth orbit. However, his understanding of how dangerous such a mission would be led him to state he would only go to Mars once the pioneering phase was over!

His zeal for his home country was obvious - particularly the missed opportunities and the grass roots rejection of scientific expertise prevalent in the United States - and it would be easy to see his passionate pleas for the world to embrace Apollo-scale STEM projects as naïve and out-of-touch. Yet there is something to be said for such epic schemes; if the USA is to rise out of its present lassitude, then the numerous if unpredictable long-term benefits of, for example, a Mars mission is a potential call-to-arms.

The final part of the evening was devoted to audience questions. As I was aware of most of the STEM and sci-comm components previously discussed this was for me perhaps the most illuminating section of the event. The first question was about quantum mechanics, and so not unnaturally Dr Tyson stated that he wasn't qualified to answer it. Wouldn't it be great if the scientific approach to expertise could be carried across to other areas where people claim expert knowledge that they don't have?

I discussed the negative effects that the cult of celebrity could have on the public attitude towards science back in 2009 so it was extremely interesting to hear questions from several millennials who had grown up with Star Talk and claimed Neil deGrasse Tyson as their idol. Despite having watched the programmes and presumably having read some popular science books, they fell into some common traps, from over-reliance on celebrities as arbiters of truth to assuming that most scientific theories rather than just the cutting edge would be overturned by new discoveries within their own lifetimes.

Dr Tyson went to some lengths to correct this latter notion, describing how Newton's law of universal gravitation for example has become a subset of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Again, this reiterated that science isn't just a body of facts but a series of approaches to understanding nature. The Q&A session also showed that authority figures can have a rather obvious dampening effect on people's initiative to attempt critical analysis for themselves. This suggests a no-win situation: either the public obediently believe everything experts tell them (which leads to such horrors as the MMR vaccine scandal) or they fail to believe anything from STEM professionals, leaving the way open for pseudoscience and other nonsense. Dr Tyson confirmed he wants to teach the public to think critically, reducing gullibility and thus exploitation by snake oil merchants. To this end he follows in the tradition of James 'The Amazing' Randi and Carl Sagan, which is no bad thing in itself.

In addition, by interviewing media celebrities on StarTalk Dr Tyson stated how he can reach a far wider audience than just dedicated science fans. For this alone Neil deGrasse Tyson is a worthy successor to the much-missed Sagan. Let's hope some of those happy fans will be inspired to not just dream, but actively promote the cosmic perspective our species sorely needs if we are to climb out of our current doldrums.