There are basically two scientific rock stars in America today: Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I heard Bill Nye speak when he came to Columbus during my Ohio State days.
Last night, I got to hear Tyson, too.
His talk was at the Detroit Opera House. (The photo above isn’t from last night. No photos were allowed, and anyway, we were way up in the balcony.) The place was packed, and you should’ve heard these people lose it when he came on stage. I should know. I was one of them.
Dr. Tyson opened with a long preamble on various topics, including shameless self-promotion of his books (it was funny), the apparent irony of Cosmos airing on Fox (he actually fell to his knees on the stage – it was funny), and the controversy over Pluto’s planethood. (“Pluto. It’s still not a planet. Get over it.”) He showed us a wonderful letter that some grade-school child had written him, complaining about Pluto’s demotion, and said he had hundreds more like it at home.
He also claimed that, although he was in an opera house, he would not be singing. That turned out to be a lie.
The main topic of his talk was “The Cosmic Perspective,” or how science affects our view of the world. He brought up the Apollo program, which he argued may have sparked the environmental movement. And he ended with a discussion of the Pale Blue Dot, and “a reading from the Book of Carl.” (That would be Carl Sagan, the man behind the Pale Blue Dot photo, as well as the previous host of Cosmos, Tyson’s mentor, and all-around great scientist and writer.)
In between, Tyson spoke on an incredibly wide range of topics.
He showed us a Periodic Table where each element had the flag of the country that discovered it. Sweden had a lot of discoveries – but partly because a single cave in the single Swedish town of Ytterby just happened to contain four entirely new elements. (Creatively named ytterbium, terbium, erbium, and yttrium.)
He showed us currency from all different countries that depicts famous scientists and their discoveries. England with Darwin, Israel with Einstein, Germany with Gauss. (He noted that the German bill has a graph of a normal distribution curve on it.) He pointed out that the only scientist on American currency is Benjamin Franklin, and that was emphatically not because of his scientific accomplishments.
Tyson goes off on long tangents when he talks, and he spent a good while discussing Franklin’s invention of the lightning rod. He said that it works mainly by dissipating charged particles and preventing lightning strikes, and only secondarily by “catching” the strikes that do happen. (I had never heard that before.) He also said lightning strikes from the ground up, not from the sky down, which I believe is actually wrong. (Wikipedia says the strikes are ground-up 75% of the time, not 100%, though obviously that’s not an authoritative source.)
Some of his points weren’t even science-related. He talked about the sheer audacity of the U.S. dating its independence, not from the date we defeated England, ratified the Constitution, or inaugurated the first President, like any sane nation would do, but – astoundingly – from years earlier, the date when the country’s future leaders decided on paper that they were free. Cool stuff, and thought-provoking.
Speaking of the U.S. of A., he argued that the 21st century may be the start of a scientific decline for us. He pointed out a variety of examples, some serious (major engineering failures like the levees during Katrina) and some funny (like the missing 13th floor in many American buildings. “I don’t mind if you have a fear of the number 13. But why would they put you in charge of designing the elevators?”)
There was a Q&A session at the end, too. He pointed out to a 31-year-old question-asker that his billionth second of life would come when he was 31. (As a 29-year-old myself, that is handy information.) He talked to a ten-year-old boy about the supremely cool Island of Stability predicted to exist way beyond the current Periodic Table. And, at the request of a woman from up in the balcony, he actually sang for us a song that he previously did, years ago, in an episode of NOVA. (He was just going to recite the words, not sing them, but the “Awww” of the crowd changed his mind. After he finished, they went nuts.)
Overall, I found Tyson funny, engaging, and very intelligent. There were some hiccups, though.
For instance, after about 90 minutes packed with jokes, he switched abruptly and jarringly to a frame-by-frame analysis of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. This included a discussion of the physics of the plane crashes, which felt distasteful, to be honest – especially since it had almost nothing to do with the rest of his talk. I understand that it’s personal for him, since he was there, I just think he handled it in a very weird way.
He also went on for an uncomfortably long time about how the Muslim world has made essentially no major scientific contributions in the last 700 years. Not saying it’s an invalid topic, but after a while, it starts to feel like he’s rubbing it in your face (especially, I’d imagine, for any Muslims in the audience).
And, to be honest, the overall talk did go on a little long. The whole thing, Q&A included, ran about three hours, which was about an hour longer than it probably needed to. Some of his digressions were interesting, but some felt more like he was just rambling.
But I don’t want to imply it was a bad experience, or that I didn’t like him. To the contrary. It was great, I’m glad I went, and he seemed like a smart, funny, and all-around cool guy.