Podcast Interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson: “We are Living in a Time of Scientific Illiteracy”

Like a number of other wonders now in my life, I came late to appreciating the importance of scientific knowledge for the common person. In high school, my lack of such was stupendously appalling. In 1970, when I was a freshman, I had a crush on a boy who came to class one day in April, quite upset over some astronauts being “stuck” up in space. I didn’t know much about that, so I repeated what I’d assumed was an intelligent remark an adult family member had made about the situation, “What possible reason could the government have for wanting to spend our tax dollars to send people up there?”

The look on that boy’s face after I said that to him was indescribable. But he responded with, “Yeah ─ what possible reason?” I only understood his reply had been contemptuous when he avoided me for the rest of the term, thwarting yet another of my girlish romantic hopes.

Four years later, the only thing keeping me from graduating with a Regents diploma was my dismal scores in Chemistry and Physics. I just couldn’t get my ‘literature-bigoted’ brain to memorize all those formulas involving ‘vectors’ or whatever they were, nor the “boring” Elements symbols on the Periodic Chart . So I stayed after school with my science teacher every day for extra help; not because I thought I really needed to know any of that stuff, but because I wanted that gold seal on my diploma. Even though my teacher was aware of that, he still gifted me with a barely passing grade, and I’ll always wonder if he did so because he felt sorry for me, or because I told him I thought he looked like Robert Redford. Whatever his reasoning, I was grateful. However, he did warn me, “This passes you for my class, but I don’t know how in hell you’re going to get through the Regents exam.”

Believe it or not, I did get my Regents diploma, although not because I passed the state chemistry exam. Those who prefer Magical Thinking would say Fate intervened. And there I was ─ just another American kid holding a credential I hadn’t really earned.

It took twelve long years and the birth of my son, (who was allergic to many medications and had violent reactions to some) before I began to suspect that I’d missed something big by dismissing the lessons taught in that class. And it took another thirteen years after that for my attitude about science in general and space exploration in particular to change dramatically.

It was in 1999, when, while in Greece working for Scholastic International, I met astronaut Scott Parazynski at a reception being given in his honor by the American Community Schools in Athens. Dr. Parazynski was the flight engineer for the 1998 STS-95 Discovery. Scott had a very special crewmate on that mission ─ Senator John Glenn. John Glenn, as many know, was the first astronaut to orbit the earth back in 1962. But he’s also the oldest person to fly in space, because he was 77 years old when he flew on this mission with Scott. [Note: Details of this flight can be found here and videos of this flight can be found here] At this reception I learned with awe that on just this one mission to space, the following were only some of the goals the astronauts aboard achieved:

  • They collected data which provided a model system to help scientists in understanding aging. Since the aging process and a space flight experience share a number of similar physiological consequences, which include bone and muscle loss, balance disorders and sleep disturbances, the team’s fact finding (with John Glenn as the willing subject) was sponsored by NASA and the National Institute on Aging. Gerontologists believe more research in these areas will help older people live more active lives, and reduce the number of individuals requiring long-term medical care in their later years.
  • They gathered measurements of the solar corona and solar wind. This information lead to a much better understanding of the solar winds that directly influence orbiting satellites and weather conditions on Earth, which in turn impact our television and phone communications.
  • They obtained EUV and FUV fluxes from the solar atmosphere, which are required when studying the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Accurate knowledge of this flux is crucial for determining space weather, which in turn can help us forecast severe and destructive weather conditions here on Earth.
  • They launched a satellite (PANSAT, developed by the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California) which remains in orbit and tests innovative technologies to capture and transmit radio signals that normally would be lost because the original signals were too weak or contained too much interference. Believe it or not, one of the main uses of this satellite is so that amateur radio ground stations will be able to utilize it for communications. (Via a bulletin-board type user interface. See YouTube video here)

Gee ─ and here I thought astronauts only went up into space so they could float around drinking Tang and coming up with new ways to use velcro. It only took me forty-some-odd years to learn that is not certainly the case.

The study of the universe and our expeditions into space have yielded survival gold for mankind. Before the Space Age, we would receive news from around the world weeks after it’d occurred. Life-threatening storms could hit us without any prior warning whatsoever. We wouldn’t have known about the holes in the ozone layer, which led us to study pollution and the Greenhouse Effect. There would be no internet, no high definition TV ─ even something as simple as an overseas telephone call used to take forever to connect, was interrupted by static, and cost way too much for the average person to afford. Not only that, but studies of dust storms on Mars, which sometimes cover that entire planet, creating horrific drops in temperature on its surface, helped our scientists recognize that an ice age could be triggered on Earth by nuclear war ─ the ‘nuclear winter‘ effect. And studies of the atmosphere around Venus gave us crucial evidence of the environmental threats of climate change ─ ‘global warming’ ─ to our own planet, prompting advocacy for conservation and modification of our mining practices and more. Therefore, it has been our quest for knowledge and investigation into the unknown that has allowed us to develop intellectually as a species and raise the quality of life for us all.

Now, when I hear people say, “Why should we spend money on space exploration?” I cringe, because that kind of talk once came from me. I’m thankful I had a science lesson courtesy of a chance meeting with an American hero- an astronaut whom I will never forget. From that meeting forward, I understood that no knowledge that is available to be obtained is “boring” or inconsequential.

However, I know I’m not alone in sensing that there is growing disinterest in our population regarding the pursuit of genuine knowledge, as opposed to allegorical knowledge and party-line propaganda. Too many of us are content to allow these very same advances in technology ─ television, satellite radio, internet ─ to be the vehicles upon which our religious and political leaders, our popular performers tell us what to think, negating the motivation our scientists and engineers had in creating these remarkable inventions in the first place.

That’s why (if I can be excused the irony here) I thank God for Neil deGrasse Tyson. He is another one of my heroes. As an American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, host of PBS’s educational television show, NOVA scienceNOW, and “popularizer of science”, Dr. Tyson’s mission is to alert the general public to the importance of scientific knowledge. Not just so we can get gold seals on our high school diplomas, but because it’s pretty damn vital to our continued existence.

Speaking at conferences, writing a monthly essay for Natural History magazine under the title “Universe,” hosting Star Talk Radio with comedienne Lynne Koplitz, and appearing on programs as diverse as The Daily Show and BBC Horizon, he talks to us with candor and humor. Yes, humor. His laugh and his way of living are as large as his universe. He loves what he does, he loves his family, he loves his impish ‘space theme’ ties, he loves to dance, and ─ bless his heart ─ he loves California wines. He is passionate without being extreme, and brilliant without coming across as a ‘smarty-pants know-it-all’. His Facebook page lists his religious views as “agnostic, though widely claimed by atheists”, a quote I found particularly impressive amongst all the things that impressed about this human being, because to admit to such says to me that he is so smart that he’s smart enough to know he can’t possibly know everything.

In addition to all this, Dr. Tyson has written nine books, his two latest two being the playful and informative Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, chronicling his experience at the center of the controversy over Pluto‘s demotion from planet status.

Believe me when I tell you I could have spoken with this man for hours. (And I almost do. You will hear him during our interview, which was supposed to be a half hour, but which he graciously extended, try to politely extricate himself from answering any more questions. And good thing, too, because there was so much more I would have asked.)

We first communicated when I wrote a satirical piece on James Dewey Watson’s assertions suggesting there are biochemical links between skin color and intelligence. [Note: we’ve reprinted this piece in this issue here.] Dr. Tyson’s response was, “Good stuff, Ms. Davis. But I have no comment on Watson. Life is too short to combat the old guard. Would rather educate people the right way to begin with.

Wow. Can you blame me for wanting to snag an interview with a person of this caliber? And once doing so, being reluctant to let him stop talking? When you listen this podcast, you will see what I mean.

Harlots’ Sauce Radio thanks you for this interview, Dr. Tyson, and for being who you are. Of the (now) eight planets in our solar system, we’re so glad you’re living and teaching on this one. Only do you think we could possibly bribe you to come out to the west coast? We’ll treat you to all the wine you can drink.


Click on the logo to Follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter

Click on the logo to Follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter

Click on the logo to Follow Scott Parazynski on Twitter

Click on the logo to Follow Scott Parazynski on Twitter

Patricia Will be Speaking at the 2010 San Francisco Writers Conference

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Some of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s favorite California Wines:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on NOVA Science Now.

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Guest Writer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, on Harlots’ Sauce Radio

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