I can cross this off my Bucket List now.
Last week, I had a chance to sit down with Neil deGrasse Tyson at The Amazing Meeting 9 in Las Vegas. We discussed the future of the space program and science education, among other things.
Excerpts from that conversation are below. The remarks are entirely those of Dr. Tyson, except for my own, which are [marked off in brackets].
I’ve edited our remarks for the sake of clarity without affecting the content.
On the lack of qualified science teachers and how to get more people interested in science:
While increasing the ranks of teachers, or making them better in the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] fields… sure we need that. But I think it’s overrated in the impact it would actually have on the nation… What the nation needs is something to stimulate a sort of “STEM field zeitgeist” of the entire educational pipeline.
And when you do that, then everybody wants to become a scientist, and everybody wants to become a teacher, but to create a program to create more teachers is… was it Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to build a better boat, don’t teach people carpentry. Teach them to long for the sea.”
[And they’ll find a way to get there?]
Yes. And it’s the longing that innovates. It’s the longing that drives human emotion and human ambition… and that’s different from the teacher lighting the spark. Which, of course, you need, but the teachers don’t light sparks in everyone, maybe a few kids per class, at most. If you teach a person to long for the sea, they’re gonna beg, borrow, and steal to make a boat to get there. You don’t teach them boatmaking.
[Have we done a good job of teaching them that longing…?]
We haven’t done it since the 1960s.
[With the space program?]
Yes, that’s correct.
[What do you think is the equivalent of that now…?]
A funded space program. Going to Mars. If we did, and you choose the astronaut class — by the way they’d be in middle school today — you choose ones that are doing well in school, that are physically fit, that are kind, that’ll handle it… they’d be in Teen Beat magazines, they’d be interviewed on the evening news. It’d be cool again to be a scientist, to be an astronaut. It’d be our modern version of the Mercury Seven, who were paraded around the country as a next generation of explorers and discoverers.
You want better science? Create a project that is so compelling, that people will climb over the hill to want to become scientists. And create the compelling case to get the best teachers there can be in the service of that interest and that ambition.
On whether private companies can replace NASA now that its funding has dropped:
There’s been a misconception about the role of the private sector in this exercise. It’s been commonly thought that NASA is ceding the frontier to the private sector. That’s just not the case. There is no marketplace on the frontier of technology that has never been tested before. The scale of funding and the uncertainty of return of that funding requires governments to engage in it as an exercise… That’s always been the case.
The Dutch East India trading company was not the first to land in America. That was a government-funded project that sent Columbus, it sent Magellan… then, once you know what the dangers are, you can mitigate against them, you know where to go, you know where the cultures are, you know where the riches are. Then you can set up your business channels.
So the private enterprise, in the context of American space exploration, involves access to low Earth orbit, where we’ve been for the past 50 years. The entrepreneurial space is not to advance a frontier; it’s to gain inexpensive access to low Earth orbit, creating other business opportunities there. That’s what it’s gonna do. Meanwhile, NASA will continue, if it’s properly funded, to advance the frontier beyond that.
But the first person to do it, there is no business case for it.
If the government has foresight, it would do it because it would believe within itself that, one day, it would become a huge enterprise that it could then tax. That’s all there is.
On science literacy and whether it’s getting better or worse:
I’m neutral on that. There are pockets where it’s getting better and other pockets where it’s worse…
[Where are we good and where are we bad?]
With the explosion of the Internet, your access to good science sources is as never before. You don’t have to even get out of your butt — as in the old days, you’d have to go to a library if you didn’t have science books at home — you don’t even have to leave the easy chair to search on countable number of web pages that feature science content. Not only that, you can channel surf and find a station — multiple stations — given unto science-themed documentaries. When I grew up, you’d go months before you would come upon such a show.
You have access. But just as you have access to the good stuff, you have access to the bad stuff… there can be a mistake that’s published, no one knows how to judge it, and then it runs through like wildfire. Either because the fact is tasty, or very retell-able, or they want it to be true…
The easiest misconception is the fact that people don’t know how to ask for the meaning of information they’ve just learned.
There was a news article that said, “In August, 2003, Mars will be closer to Earth than it’s been in 60,000 years.” So do you freak out…? Or do you say, “How much closer will it be?” It’d be, like, a couple of inches closer than it was last year. Just because it’s a record doesn’t make it interesting. Just because it hasn’t happened in a long time doesn’t make it unusual… The alignment of the planets at any given instant — it’s not going to repeat for 200,000 years or more. So, “Wow, it’s rare, so let’s get a picture of this rare configuration!” Well, 5 minutes later, it’s in another configuration that’s not gonna repeat for another 200,000 years… it’s rare, but uninteresting.
Those things distort anybody’s understanding of how to interpret data, the meaning of a statement about a record.
I celebrate access to science that’s out there, but I lament the noise level of what can contaminate the really good sources [of information]…
On something — anything — that’s not cool about him:
My Achilles’ heel… hmm… I have some more TV work coming in the fall and I’ve gotta get the TV weight going… The camera puts pounds on. I want to look as good as I can… whatever is possible given my age and body type and whatever… just because then it’s, in television, it’s writ there forever, and so you want to at least look your best, as they say. So I’ve got some pounds to lose, I think. I want to lose at least 30 pounds, possibly as much as 50. That’s a lot of weight. So I’m Chubby Neil right now.
But wait till the fall! It’ll be Six Pack. Ripped. Back up when I walk into a room then!