29 March 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson talk

Last night, Neil deGrasse Tyson came to our campus as part of our “Distinguished speakers” series.

There wasn’t enough room in the theatre to hold everyone who wanted to hear him talk. The only speakers before Tyson who had ever got that sort of turn out were former American presidents.

What a fantastic presenter. People, if you are ever in doubt as to how to do science communication, look no further.

His talk was about how scientists see the world. And wonderfully, he didn’t just use his own field, but talked about almost every discipline, talking about the “chemist’s lens,” the “engineer’s lens,” the “skeptic’s lens,” the“mathematician’s lens,” the “exobiologist’s lens,” and so on. It was a nice demonstration of the common elements of science.

Tyson almost immediately set the tone by... removing his shoes. He delivered his entire talk in his socks. Immediately, it showed what probably most of the audience already knew: this was not a guy who took himself too seriously.

And the playful tone continued throughout. He had a bit of fun when the audio-visual guys a sort of “picture in picture” of him on his own slides, noting that it was a little odd to see a small version of himself on the screen. The sense of play was never far from the surface, and Tyson had a lot of good jokes.

But Tyson was not just fun and games.

He talked about being in New York when the World Trade Center was destroyed. He showed pictures of the street outside his building, covered with ash.

He was a little angry when he said that the tragedy of New Orleans was not because of Katrina, but because of failed engineering, and that had not been said enough. (Spontaneous applause followed.)

He was exasperated when he talked about the recent goofiness over the “supermoon.”

He was worried about the future of American science, which he returned to over and over again. He gave plenty of examples of how nations that were great in science were usually among the most influential in the world. Those that gave up on science never regained their stature.

And at every turn, he was always engaged and engaging.

Most speakers want to negotiate to allow the audience to questions; Tyson actually went longer with questions than the organizers originally wanted. Originally, the organizers were going to limit it to four questions, and I got to ask question #4.

I congratulated Tyson for being placed on Time magazine’s list of top 140 Twitterers (which Tyson, naturally, had tweeted earlier that day), and asked if, given how busy he was with being a science advocate and science educator, if he had any time to do any original research of his own.

Tyson said he like the question (flatterer), and that he currently spent about 5% of his time on his own research. He hoped, though, that once he got some books and radio projects he was working on out of his system, that he would be able to go back and do more of his own original science.

Another question that surprised me, given that our university doesn’t have doctoral programs in the basic sciences, was that someone asked if there were too many doctorates being produced. Tyson took the point of view of a true academic, saying that he simply wanted people to be engaged and making discoveries. He acknowledged that it is important to pay the rent, but saying that economic reasons aren’t the main reason one should do a Ph.D.

Most speakers’ talks probably go for about an hour. From the start to the time all the questions ended, Tyson was on stage for two and a half hours. Nobody could accuse Tyson of taking it easy. It was a rich, deep, totally enjoyable evening, and not just for scientists.

If you ever have a chance to see this man present, do not miss him.

Picture from here. Because I am a loser who cannot be bothered to check whether the battery in his camera has any power.

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