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.
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.