Buffalo, New York, USA
January 01
Traveling through the universe.....just tarrying on this planet savoring life. I get the "Last Word" sometimes in "The Indian American' and relish the privilege to have a few Op-eds published in "News India Times". Niche 'n nice!


APRIL 1, 2010 7:34AM

Colbert more challenging than Stewart: Neil deGrasse Tyson!

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  “We are Stardust” ….The last words of Neil deGrasse Tyson hung around for a while staring through the picture of outer space at University of Buffalo last night, and once more I was invigorated by the promise of Science and scientific process in the understanding of the universe.

After a rousing “Top Ten Out of the World Things You Should Know” he had the most vibrant Q and A session with the students who lined up unhesitatingly. Ranging from religion to Astrophysics, the Q&A session took this talk to the top of line of luminaries I have attended which include Cornell West, Kofi Annan, Jon Stewart, Donna Brazile and others.

Answering a question about personal bias and its role in scientific endeavor, Tyson pointed out to the student that in “science” there is a built –in checking system which is the “peer-review”. Where another scientist with a different bias can and does actually check the work and affirms whether the results lead to the same interpretation or not. Either or both scientists can be wrong or right and thus theories and hypotheses get verified and modified and the cumulative knowledge of humans moves in the forward direction. Since the peer-review process is between those who are competing in the same field, it HAS to be fair or else the person/s judging loses credibility in the tight world of research and takes a hit and never recovers from it. In fact, scientists are the hardest upon themselves and try to find holes in any and all theories.

Busting the “ego” and feeling of self importance as we study the galaxies around us, he explained the question about SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). Just like we have not yet broken the barriers to understanding even our closest cousin, the Chimpanzee and we don’t break our stride wondering what little Goldie is thinking swimming in the tank, perhaps we have been spotted by other intelligence and they have disregarded us as being non-intelligent since they are light years ahead! Yet even as we realize our microscopic place in the universe we have to credit our own brains for having figured out much of the complexity of the universe.

A middle-school student delighted the crowd with his question about the universe. He asked Tyson how one could be certain that there were indeed many galaxies and it was not just merely moving images like through a kaleidoscope. Neil demonstrated how there were indeed portions of space that were images but the rest was not. How the newest theories of uni-verse versus multi-verse are heating up. The boy was delighted as were we!

He lamented the loss of an invigorating goal for NASA of boldly going where no man has gone before and said that without conquerable frontiers as goals we were depriving our kids of challenge and enterprise.  While confirming that what was being spent on NASA was a half penny to the dollar he felt sure that we could strike a balance between our spending on matters earthly and serious for the planet’s society to function and yet have more than enough for the stars and the galaxies. If carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other elements are what we and the universe are made of, there is no doubt that we are one of the other. If all elements found in the periodic table have come to earth from the centre of stars where the heat and pressure cause fission and fusion to produce those elements, then we can only find our answers looking up into that universe and learning as much as we can about it.

While acknowledging both Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert as masters in their craft and wa-ay ahead of the rest of the pack, he definitely thought Steven was the harder to deal with, describing him as a construct. With both hosts, not only did he have to know his astrophysics (which is easy!) he had to know this massive amount of current events to be able to deal with their agile brains which could easily connect up the universe with some utterly mundane event on-going in society.

Once Colbert grilled him by saying that “Most people in the US cannot even name a scientist. Should they then take trips to Argentina?” Tyson had absolutely no idea what Colbert was talking about because he did not know the current event about Gov. Mark Sanford and his outdoor activities. Had he known about it he might have been able to come back with something.

  Finally, he pointed out the Large Hadron Collider experiments on-going in Europe, for pursuing answers to basic fundamental questions in Physics. Why? Well, funding was cut to the program in the US after the coming down of the Berlin wall in 1989, because there was no observable advantage to continuing it. So, while the rest of the world is surging ahead in STEM and exciting the best brains of their children with dreams and aspirations we are left behind staring over the pond wistfully. We have no space program left which can be carried forward for the same reason. 

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The asteroid “Apophis” which has a chance of colliding with earth (in the USA) is being proposed to be studied in Russia, who have issued an invitation to NASA for collaboration, to study designs for a possible deflection mission. Such a reversal of roles and it could have been a matter of such pride for USA to have led the project! With proper funding, we could still get back to our inspiring goals for humanity and lead the world in explorations and scientific discoveries, and make this the country everyone would be proud to defend in every way.

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I think I know the astro-physicist you're referring to - well, not know, have seen on TV is what I mean. Black, very enthusiastic and jolly? I thought he held his own with both Stewart and Colbert, tho I don't recall the Argentina reference. (But, like, was the guy living in a black hole, haha, not to be aware of that scandal?)

Excellent post, Traveller! (We all need a little cutting down to size, as specks in the uni- or multi-verse FTTT as a matter of perspective.)
Just a further thought - he's right, it would be much harder to be interviewed by Colbert the "construct" - Stewart does straight, congenial interviews, while Colbert interrupts and makes fun of and stays in his officious character construct, playing with the earnest straight-people he has lured onto the program. (It usually puts the interviewee's points into a positive light, but it's a twisted process!)
Wow! my post disappeared from the Most recent feed too.... so there is absolutely no chance of finding it. Shows me where I stand !! Hahaha!
Excellent report, Traveller. I would have loved to have been there to see and hear him in person. I think we are in the midst of a period of looking short term, understandable given the economic mess. But following such periods in the past we, in the US, have had leaders who have shown us new scientific visions. Right now there is a government emphasis on practical science, particularly in medicine, which leaves little room for thinking beyond the planet. But that will not hold forever. We will, I hope, once again look to the heavens and seek to "touch the face of God."

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

— John Gillespie Magee, Jr


I swear, I read something like this and it makes me want to donate my entire estate when I die, to NASA.

Of course, that assumes NASA will still be in existance when I die. Maybe I should make out my legacy donation to LHC!
Sheer luck if anybody catches anybody on the fast-moving feed...

I was a little sad to learn that Tyson isn't having as good a time on the Stewart & Colbert shows as he seems...
Oh Myriad, he says he has a marvelous time .....only that they are so good that he really has to prepare for it! I think that speaks very highly of the two comedic interviewers who can engage an intellectual of his capacity to the extent where he has to prepare. Usually most scientist deal with their own peer group and as such are very confident amongst them. That is true about all professions in the world. Its like a huge comfort zone to be within your own kind. It is when you can hold your own amongst those who are outside your specialized group that things really happen. That actual opinions are created. As long as one is within their group one is simply talking to the choir. It is the challenge of creating new opinions , new discussions, new controversies that people step out of their comfort zones and go where others do not dare to.

What is LHC? I too live under a rock sometimes and have not a clue!But NASA or NASA like activities would certainly be my choice too.... if I had anything left by the time I became one with the elements of the universe . Good thought!
Monte, Thank you for your kind visit especially since I have been out of it for so long now.
Neil was a delight! Every youngster in the crowd came away invigorated. We need more speakers like him!
thank you, i really enjoyed this very much.
Thank you farer of the sea.....!
Thinking about the universe is restful to the brain. Somehow averting the asteroid seems more straight-forward than so many social or personal problems. I needed this starry break.
Defending our home planet against the asteroid with a deflection would be a noble human endeavor . Money and resources well spent what say? Wish we knew more and more about the neighborhood. I agree Sirenita.
Watch Colbert report from April 8th to see how on the mark my review is. Neil literally spoke EXACTLY what I thought he said. Reading the review in UB's own newspaper I was shocked to see a real reporter simply regurgitating his talk without feeling him , without any appreciation for his sorrow at USA losing her manned space exploration program.
Delighted that I still have my finger on the pulse!