Acclaimed astrophysicist, science communicator and Twitter personality Neil deGrasse Tyson makes his way to St. Louis this Thursday to speak to a crowd at Peabody Opera House about his new book “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.”
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Tyson joined St. Louis Public Radio reporter Eli Chen to discuss the book, science communication and share a bit of “cosmic perspective.” Below, find summarized responses to Chen’s questions of Tyson.
Who is the book ‘Astrophysics for People in a Hurry’ for?
“What I found was that there are people, hardworking people who have kids or a job or school, and they remain curious throughout this busy life,” Tyson said. “They manage to assemble snippets — they’ll read a newspaper article about the universe and they’ll see words like ‘multiverse’ or ‘dark matter’ and they don’t have enough time to get into it and create some kind of coherent understanding of it all.
“What I’ve done is draw some of the coolest astrophysics that have been in the headlines. This has been collected together in a primer for becoming fluent, cosmically fluent.”
What do people have to gain from learning about astrophysics in this way?
“I don’t think of it as a gain or a loss, but I think of it as enlightenment,” Tyson said. “It is not going to make you a better person. Well, maybe it is. The twelfth and final chapter is called ‘Reflections on a Cosmic Perspective,’ and it is something I and all my colleagues have that I think we take for granted.
“Most of the time, we are thinking about the world in a very different way from other people. We see the Earth as this small speck in this vast universe. When you think of the Earth that way, it can be humbling because we think of ourselves as so important as an individual, a culture, your religion, your nation. Look at the conflict that comes about when people who feel equally strongly about how important they are confront someone else who feels differently, who feels they are important and not you. This is the source of all conflict that ever was.
“A cosmic perspective lifts you above this and provides a point of view that is humbling but also uplifting and enlightening. What you’ll find is you can be special not for being different. You can be special for being the same. That is a shift, a complete shift in outlook, that can have a different impact on how you treat other people, the environment and your relationship to descendants who are yet to be born.”
Why is science communication important?
“If you are aware of someone’s body language when you describe something to them, if you are aware of that and you care then you can make adjustments to the words you use, the sentence length, the topic depth,” Tyson said. “I’ve been doing that most of my life. The universe is a highly attractive topic for so many people. We’ve all looked up at night and wondered where we come from, where we’re going, what it all means … why are most gods placed in the sky? It is not often you place gods beneath your feet. The sky is something we look up to and revere. It is not an accident that when an astrophysicist has knowledge about what’s going on above your head, you’ll be interested in it.”
What can reporters and science communicators do better?
Tyson gave three main ways:
1. Erase the sentence that follows the announcement of a new discovery that goes something like “scientists will have to give up cherished theories and go back to the drawing board.”
Tyson said that this kind of language makes it sound as if scientists have a special affection for the data they find, when in reality it has to do with seeing a lot of data in support of something, rather than a special connection.
“Also: We are always at the drawing board,” Tyson said. “We’re not sitting back at our desks with our legs up, basking in the profound knowledge of the universe. We are at the boundary of known and unknown in the universe. When you’re there, we are always befuddled. It is not a new state of mind to have a new idea, that’s happening all the time.”
2. Consider showing your article to the scientist before you publish it.
Tyson took issue with the journalistic practice of not showing a piece of reporting to a scientist (as journalists do with any source) prior to publication.
“Do you care more about being right or not showing the article to the person you’re writing of?” Tyson said. “Sentences can be perfectly fact-checked but leave a false impression. You need someone who can check impressions, not just the facts.”
3. Reconsider “equal time for opposing views.”
“That works in politics, religion, almost any other human endeavor, but in science when you have an emergent truth which is confirmed by the overwhelming body of data, for you to go after an outlying scientific response does it complete injustice to the public who is trying to figure out the universe is and how and why it works.”
What can scientists who are dismayed about the prospect of federal funding cuts to science do?
Scientists have expressed concern (and marched) over fears of cuts to science funding this spring. Jeffrey Millman, a professor at Washington University, tweeted a question to Chen and Tyson about that.
— Jeffrey Millman (@JeffreyRMillman) May 9, 2017
Tyson responded: “I don’t have a silver bullet here but I can tell you that if scientists are the only ones objecting to what’s going on, it leaves you to think scientists are some kind of special interest group and we just want our jobs protected. If people see it that way, they’re missing the role science and science literacy plays in our civilization. … Stay vigilant: if you see someone write an op-ed, write back. Become a part of the resistance force. You’ll see less of me hitting people over the heads as an adult, but simply fighting back by educating people however I can so they can observe what they’re missing.”
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