Tyson Talks of Space Exploration

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 — 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 no underlying tone of “us versus them” that can be inherent in talks associated with a movement. One 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. Many in the estimated 450-person crowd seemed surprised to learn of the spin placed on the space race during the Cold War, and I admit that even I had not considered some of the angles Dr. Tyson spoke of.

In addition to that, he went on to point out the abundant shortcomings in the way the U.S. approaches its space program, both then and now; specifically in the areas of 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 space 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, and as far as I could tell, there’s not a weak argument to be found in them.

In addition to the past and current states of the 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 to 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, 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, and that in itself served to re-kindle my interest in space exploration and the psychology of why we even bother doing it.

As thought-provoking as the items I’ve mentioned were, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a sort of peripheral theme of his talk. Yes, Tyson is brutally honest, and he holds no punches pointing out the stupidity and mistakes of the lowest person associated with space exploration on up to people 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, or cultural. One gets the sense that he genuinely has hope that we as Americans (and all humans) will realize our profoundest dreams.

Simply put, he is the type of person, the kind of mind, 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 see Neil deGrasse Tyson speak, do not miss it.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Hi! Do you know if there’s a video recording of that speech? Since I am living in Europe I don’t think I will have the chance to see Mr. Tyson speak in the foreseeable future.

  2. I’m angling for tickets to see him in Ohio at the end of October. The event is Ohio State freshmen first, the bastards, so I’m waiting to hear back if some tickets are available for my skeptic group. If not, I suppose we can just crash it. Tyson would forgive us, right?

  3. @Sam: Thanks I will check out that site later. Too bad Mr. Tyson’s science TV show is not available on DVD in Europe. But after listening to his interview in the Skeptics’ Guide podcast I think I should at least try to get my hands of one of his book. Mr. Neil deGrasse Tyson not only has a cool name but he’s obviously a very funny guy, great scientist and skeptic. :)

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