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Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Cosmic Perspective

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Karen Ciancetta share a photo-op
Do you think a two-hour lecture on physics would be a dreary exercise in relativity (as in how a short time can stretch to infinity)? If so, then you have never seen Neil deGrasse Tyson in action.

A full house at Proctors sat enthralled on Monday night as two hours flew by at warp speed, with TV's Cosmos star Tyson guiding us on a rollicking trip through centuries of scientific, cultural, and social ideas, illustrated with slides that communicated clearly and entertained fully.

Though he claims to prefer time in the lab, Tyson is a natural and enthusiastic showman who knows how to work a big crowd as if they were guests in his living room. Rarely have I experienced such a sense of intimacy among so many people. This is the Tyson charm - he may be a genius astrophysicist who regularly schmoozes with presidents and billionaires, but somehow from the stage he makes you feel like he's also happy to hang out with simple ol' limited you.

Meanwhile, he's teaching you lessons that could be some of the most important ones you will ever learn.

The theme of The Cosmic Perspective is to share with the general public the extra-proportional mindset that astrophysicists live with every day - as they are accustomed to seeing everything from a big-picture point of view: from biology and space travel to arithmetic, economics and war.

Tyson presents each topic in a humorous, yet well documented style, referring to his PowerPoint slides as needed, but riffing like the best professor you ever had crossed with a seasoned stand-up comic. Along the way, you are asked to question whether space exploration is a good investment (clearly, he thinks so), how the periodic table can be read as a history of different nations' passion for science, and why Americans tend to be so afraid of math that our elevators never display negative numbers for the floors below ground level.

Along the way, you may learn something about evolution (for example, we humans are more closely related to mushrooms than mushrooms are to green plants) about astronomy (the tiniest slice of a clear picture of the universe from Hubble will include countless billions of entire distant  galaxies) or about chemistry (the "noble" elements are called that because they don't bond - i.e. associate - with other elements).

And, ultimately, you will see both how utterly inconsequential our own actions are and how easy it can be to feel empowered to try to have a positive impact on our little world.

Tyson, like all scientists, owes a debt to those who came before him, and he honored many of those lights during his talk - but none so much as his direct predecessor, Carl Sagan, who he quoted at length in his conclusion, citing Sagan's elegiac book Pale Blue Dot, which really puts things on Earth into proper perspective. The book was inspired by a picture taken in 1990 by the Voyager spacecraft as it passed beyond Saturn. Tyson shared a reprise photograph of Earth, taken in 2013 by Cassini - which, in timely fashion, has begun sending back new close-up pictures of Saturn and its rings just this week, on its way toward total immolation in that planet's atmosphere.

The evening ended with a lively Q&A, leading Tyson to offer advice to one questioner (and the rest of us) on how to "talk to idiots": He advised empathy, patience, and the willingness to offer information. Tyson also emphasized the value of supporting STEM education as our path to a future as a world-leading nation - a status that he amply and viscerally demonstrated the US is rapidly losing. He also pointed out that our educational system must find ways to stimulate students' imaginations, rather than teaching them how to pass tests.

My one criticism of these conclusions is that, to stimulate the imagination, STEM must become STEAM - that's for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math. I wish Tyson had publicly acknowledged the importance of the arts in developing good, young minds into critically thinking adults.

Finally, as you can see above, some people with special tickets, including my wife, Karen, were able to meet their idol backstage. While waiting, I had the good fortune of running into my friend Steve Tyson, a painter and professor of art at Schenectady County Community College. He would also be going backstage - to visit with his kid brother, the scientist. I like to think Steve might have taken the opportunity then to say a little something to Neil about the importance of that A in steam.

Cassini took this picture from behind Saturn, showing the "pale blue dot" of Earth