Words by Dylan Sonderman
During his visit to Kent State, Neil deGrasse Tyson shared his observations, predictions and opinions about where America is heading in regard to scientific progress.
In a secluded conference room in the back corner of the Science research building, I awaited the arrival of Neil deGrasse Tyson at 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2013. Tyson, an astrophysicist and the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, was coming to give a short press conference with Kent State student media. He was going to speak on Kent State’s campus later that same day as part of the Presidential Speaker Series. The goal of his presentation (titled “An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper”), in his own words, was to share the unique outlook of his own “professional life trajectory” as a scientist.
When Tyson entered the room, calmly and without fanfare, he came over to the table and sat down right in front of me. He spoke with candor and ease, answering my questions to the best of his abilities. Tyson is well-known in not only the scientific community but also in the public eye. He has authored several books on astronomy and cosmology, advised the government in various capacities on scientific matters and, perhaps most famously, led the shift in thinking of Pluto as a dwarf planet.
“True explorers do not need to be encouraged,” Tyson said when questioned about the idea of encouraging people to take an interest in space exploration. “They have the pure urge, and the people that fund them have geopolitical urges. It is this combination that makes it happen.”
Because there are not the same geopolitical motivations for further exploring space today as there were during the Cold War, the true explorers of this generation might be in for a wait before pursuing their inclinations. Relating to America’s current prospects, Tyson lauded NASA as the “future of the nation” and referenced his address to Congress about increasing the amount of funding allocated to them; though he also says he feels that the organization needs to be “more ambitious” in its endeavors. (He referred to space-shuttle missions as “boldly going where hundreds have gone before.”)
“Cutting back on university science programs is bankrupting the future of our country,” Tyson said. Immediately after the press conference, we went next door to Smith Hall, home to Kent State’s physics department, entering through the back to an auditorium full of excited students and faculty. Tyson’s entrance here (for a question-and-answer session designed specifically for physics majors) was much more dramatic. He ran into the room, to great applause, and climbed atop the desk at the front and spoke in a very conversational manner. He spent quite a bit of time here, refusing to leave until the university staff all but forced him out to continue with their itinerary for the day. It seemed clear that he was genuine when he spoke of the importance of university science programs.
Tyson said many times throughout his visit that the universe “chose him” to be a scientist after his first visit to Hayden Planetarium as a child. Certainly, looking up at the stars can be an endless source of inspiration for anyone. While Tyson has repeatedly went on record in interviews to say that he is not an atheist and that “agnostic” is the better term to describe his viewpoints, he doesn’t appear to have a complete overlap of science and faith for himself. He shows strong opposition to the ideas of intelligent design and other spiritual notions about the universe.
At the question-and-answer session Tyson gave at Smith Hall earlier in the day, one student asked a question regarding Tyson’s opinion of metaphysics (an area of philosophy that attempts to explain the fundamental nature of reality). Tyson dismissed the validity of the discipline as a whole on the grounds that “they don’t have a lab” with which to test their ideas and observations. However, he also stated that it is best to “stay nimble” in one’s thoughts and actions when dealing with unanswered questions about the universe.
When it came time for Tyson to speak in the Student Center Ballroom, the population of Kent State did not disappoint in showing its interest. The entire ballroom was full to capacity, and the Kiva also was full with people watching remotely. Tyson’s presentation covered many events in astronomy that were covered by the news media in recent years. He humorously but sharply criticized the factual errors that many of the reports made, which he again said indicated a lack in understanding of scientific topics in the media.
Neil deGrasse Tyson grabbed a young child from the audience at the Student Center Ballroom lecture to hear his thoughts on the scientific topics discussed that evening. Tyson explained to the students and faculty in Smith Hall why plutonium should not bear its current name, because it follows the trend of naming elements after planets, and Pluto, of course, is no longer one. Photo by Jacob Byk.
Tyson also went well over his allotted timeslot, and while he took many questions, he spent much more time talking than any of his questioners, as if putting his views and opinions forward were more important than hearing what anyone else had to say. He spoke with a mild but noticeable degree of arrogance, though he was always at least courteous with the people he interacted with, and continued taking questions well beyond the projected time of the event.
If Tyson’s actions were inconsiderate, so were those of Kent State. University spokesman Eric Mansfield stood on the stage and slowly crept closer to Tyson as the astrophysicist went further and further beyond the agreed upon amount of time. At one point, Mansfield even interrupted Tyson, calling for applause and effectively dismissing him from the stage. A few people clapped, but Tyson went on regardless until finally relenting.
Despite hosting Tyson and superficially pandering to those who cry for greater consideration of the sciences, it seemed that the university was not willing to give him any leeway to speak longer than he needed to. Overall, this felt quite ironic and helped to drive Tyson’s point home about how the sciences might not be as valued by the general public and the education system as they should be.
Tyson is currently working on a reboot of Carl Sagan’s popular series “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” which he said is nearly finished being filmed and should premiere in the spring of 2014. Perhaps this iconic program being revitalized for a new generation might provide the extra push to bring space exploration back to the front of the American consciousness. “I only sleep with comfort thinking that people can be moved along the science literacy scale,” Tyson said.