I’m just home from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s talk at the University of Houston, and I wanted to get some thoughts down while they are still fresh. Don’t worry, I’ll stick with a general review of the talk, and leave the details for you to consume when he next speaks in your town.
Sponsored by PBS, Dr. Tyson’s talk was different than many I’ve seen lately, and I think that’s due to the fact that most of the lectures I’ve attended in recent months have been strictly tied to skeptical events. The presentation tonight was not specific to skepticism, and I found that to be very refreshing. Even though there was much discussion of science —Â a subject intrinsically tied to skepticism — and some wonderful examples of critical thinking, the focus was on space exploration and the delusions and misconceptions associated with it. There was noÂ underlying tone ofÂ “us versus them” that can be inherent in talks associated with a movement. OneÂ didn’t have to be a skeptic or well versed in the subjects we cover here on Skepchick to enjoy and benefit from the presentation.
Being topical, Dr. Tyson opened with some humorous ribbing of the media concerning the LHC, but he quickly turned to the subject at hand, and held the audience’s attention for two full hours. ManyÂ in the estimated 450-person crowd seemed surprised to learn of the spin placed on the space raceÂ during the Cold War, andÂ I admit that even I had not considered some of the angles Dr. Tyson spoke of.
In addition to that,Â he went on toÂ point out the abundant shortcomings in the way the U.S. approaches its space program, both then and now; specificallyÂ in the areas ofÂ motivation and funding.
Interestingly, Tyson has been at odds with some of the bigger names in space exploration and even in astronomical physics, publicly disagreeing with Buzz Aldrin about the state of the spaceÂ program in the collective psyche of the American people, and semi-opposing the push for solely un-manned space flights. He has published op-ed pieces detailing his position, andÂ as far as I could tell, there’s not aÂ weak argument to be found in them.
In addition to theÂ past and current statesÂ of theÂ science and politics involved in space exploration, Dr. Tyson spent a good amount of time on what to me was the most intriguing part of the discussion. He outlined fully the reasons human beings have undertaken most (if not all) of the biggest, most expensive endeavors in the history of civilization, including building the Great Wall of China, the expeditions of Columbus, and putting a man on the moon. I won’t go into all of the reasons humans have undertaken those tasks, but I can tell you that none of them involve the words “for scientific discovery” — a point that doesn’t seem toÂ sit well with Tyson the scientist.
And one never forgets he is a scientist. As interesting and perhaps even controversial as his approach is to the driving forces of exploration, it’s clear that Tyson has not come to his conclusions lightly. He backs his thoughts, arguments,Â and opinions with facts and evidence, and applies them to real world scenarios to make his points resoundingly. The result is a talk loaded with a set of ideas that are as compelling as any I’ve heard in a long time, andÂ thatÂ in itself served to re-kindle my interest in space exploration and the psychologyÂ of why we even bother doing it.
As thought-provoking as theÂ items I’ve mentioned were, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a sort of peripheralÂ theme of his talk. Yes,Â Tyson is brutally honest, and he holds no punches pointing out the stupidity and mistakesÂ of the lowest person associated with space exploration on up to peopleÂ we’ve all but placed above reproach. But he takes great pains to convey the notion that he believes we can do better in all endeavors, be they scientific, political, orÂ cultural.Â One gets the sense that he genuinely has hope that we as Americans (and all humans) willÂ realize our profoundest dreams.
Simply put, he is the type ofÂ person, theÂ kind of mind,Â this world needs. He sees things clearly, but he does not arrive at conclusions and opinions without deep consideration. He is passionate, personable, and bright. I thoroughly enjoyed his company, brief as it was.
If you get the chance to seeÂ Neil deGrasse TysonÂ speak, do notÂ miss it.