Neil deGrasse Tyson on why science needs better advertising

Rihan Najib | Updated on November 08, 2019

Urban Spectacle: Crowds gather for ‘Manhattanhenge’, a bi-annual phenomenon witnessed on the streets of Manhattan and named by Neil deGrasse Tyson   -  REUTERS

Astrophysicist and science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest book compiles decades of correspondence with ordinary folks who looked at the world and asked ‘how come?’

“I am about an hour north of Baghdad. This is a place in your book that has gotten a few references,” writes a private in the US Army deployed in Iraq, referring to the fact that during the Golden Age of Islam from the 8th to the 14th century, the intellectual cradle of the world was Baghdad. The soldier goes on to say how the revelations of the book spawned long chats with Iraqi locals who were acquainted with their city’s role in scientific history. “These conversations [...] leave me feeling more like a heavily armed tourist, rather than an occupying invader.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson


The book is Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries (2007) and the letter is addressed to its author, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who writes back to the private: “Two thirds of all stars that have names, are named in Arabic, enabled by major advances in navigation a thousand years ago. The most enduring thing about being human is the discovery of cosmic truths that transcend culture, politics, religion and time, forming the corpus of knowledge and wisdom that we call civilization.”

Among the most popular science educators in the US and abroad, Tyson (61) enjoys planet-wide popularity. Amassing a cult following through his books such as City of Stars: A New Yorker’s Guide to the Cosmos (2002) and Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017) as well as his shows such as StarTalk and Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Tyson has received several awards for his role in communicating the wonders of science to the public. Recently, he congratulated Indian scientists on attempting to bring India into the elite club of moon-faring nations with the Chandrayaan-2 lunar exploration mission.

Letters from an Astrophysicist; Neil deGrasse Tyson; WH Allen ;Non-fiction; ₹599


“Hello, Neil here,” he tells BLink on the phone, with characteristic affability. His latest book Letters from an Astrophysicist is a collection of 101 exchanges with people from varied backgrounds, professions, interests and causes. Like the letter from the US soldier in Iraq, there is a fascinating mix of correspondence — from disgruntled schoolchildren upset by Pluto’s demotion from planet status, and people divided by loyalty to faith and science to science fiction enthusiasts who are curious to know which films Tyson considers “the worst cinematic offenders to science”. His answer to the last is the Disney film The Black Hole (1979), followed by Armageddon (1998), which, according to him, “violates more laws of physics per minute than any other film in the universe”.

The letters, he says, were exchanged over several decades, and each was an opportunity to learn something new. “Before I reply, I try to understand where [the letter writer] is coming from. I do my homework. So when I reply to you, I give serious consideration to your question,” he says.

Origins of a lifelong passion

Tyson was raised in the Bronx, New York, by a mother who worked as a gerontologist and a father who was a sociologist. On weekends, his parents took their three children around the city for different activities — at times it was the zoo, other times it would be the theatre or opera. His journey as an astrophysicist began with a visit to the Hayden planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History in New York when Tyson was nine.

Cosmic intervention: Tyson’s journey as an astrophysicist began with a visit to the planetarium at the age of nine   -  ISTOCK.COM


“I remember it as though it was yesterday,” he says. “There I am, sitting in the darkened room, looking up at the night sky and all those stars, and I think it’s a hoax because I have seen the night sky — there are only maybe 12 stars there.”

He notes that in the neighbourhoods he grew up, the buildings were so tall that the sky was rarely visible from below. “No one in New York has a relationship with the night sky. The closest you can get is the planetarium,” he laughs, adding that only later did he learn that the sky has as many and more stars in it.

“The weird thing is that when I visit mountaintop observatories and I look at the canopy of stars from that point — even to this day I think, ‘wow, this is beautiful, it reminds me of the Hayden planetarium’,” he says.

So it was a matter of great elation for him when he took charge of the Hayden planetarium as director in 1996. “It’s an awesome responsibility — and when I see the kids come to visit the exhibits, I feel such a duty to make sure that I, as an educator and a scientist, can influence that next generation coming through my door the same way as my mentors had influenced me,” he says.

The cosmic perspective

Among Tyson’s mentors was the astrophysicist Carl Sagan, whom he had met as a 17-year-old aspiring student of astrophysics. Though he had applied and was accepted at Cornell, he was unsure about joining the university. “The admissions office, unknown to me, had sent my application to Carl for comment,” he recalls. “Then Carl sent me a personal invitation to visit the campus to help me decide if I would attend.”

The two met on a Saturday outside Sagan’s office, with the well-known astrophysicist showing the young Tyson around the laboratories and the campus.

“Carl handed me one of his books, and signed it for me. It said: ‘To Neil Tyson, future astronomer’,” Tyson says. As the day wound to a close, it began to snow. Sagan offered to host him for the night if his bus back home was delayed.

“And I’m thinking, what did I do to deserve this attention? He was a famous person. He hadn’t yet done [the TV series] Cosmos but he was already well known,” Tyson says. “And I said to myself, if I ever am remotely as famous as he is, I will treat my students the way he has treated me. It’s like the passing of a torch, you have to nurture the next generation, otherwise science dies in its tracks.”

In this respect, it is particularly poignant to note how, back in India, aspiring science writer Rohith Vemula took his own life in 2016, unable to bear the systemic caste discrimination he faced as a Dalit. In his suicide note, Vemula — a PhD scholar at the University of Hyderabad — wrote about being inspired by Sagan’s words, decrying how instead, “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility”. Though Tyson admits to not knowing about Vemula, he understands the impulse that drew Vemula to Sagan, having faced endemic racial discrimination as an African American in the US.

“One of the things that Carl brought to anyone’s mind is a cosmic perspective. This is something you glean by stepping away from your circumstances and looking at it from a distance,” he says. “From space, all you see on Earth is oceans, land and clouds. You don’t see political boundaries, you don’t see the caste system, you don’t see war and conflict, you don’t see people tribalising their views to say they’re better than others,” he says.

Tyson adds, “Carl had a way of communicating the vastness of the universe... that not only shrinks your ego but somehow doesn’t make you feel small; somehow, at the end, you feel large, as though you are a participant in the great unfolding of cosmic events.”

The book comes at a time of pervasive anti-science attitudes both in public society as well as governments in the US and India. “This disconnect is perhaps because science needs better advertising — someone who will tell you what about your life is better because of it,” he says.

As a response to those who question the merits of scientific research and its contributions to humanity, he suggests giving away everything in their house that was inspired by science. “This person will wake up in a cave, and will, by the way, die before the age of 35.”

Though Letters from an Astrophysicist at times reads like a vanity project, with fawning letters from fans and self-congratulatory responses from Tyson, it is proof of how a scientific temper is cultivated by ordinary people observing the world and asking “how come?”.

Tyson’s closing statement ties together this sentiment with his love for the stars: “Keep looking up!”

Allegations of abuse

In 2018, when the #MeToo movement had reached a fever pitch, Tyson was accused by four women of sexual misconduct, one of them alleging that Tyson had drugged and raped her when they both were graduate students. Tyson addressed the allegations in a long Facebook post, denying the rape and apologising for what he deemed were clumsy displays of affection.

Investigations into allegations were announced by the Hayden musem and his shows, Star Talk on National Geographic and Cosmos on Fox, were paused. In March this year, the shows resumed after the studios declared the investigations to be complete. Later in July, he was reinstated as director after the museum concluded its inquiry. The findings of the investigation into the allegations of misconduct were not made public by the museum, National Geographic, Fox or Tyson.

Published on November 08, 2019

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