Renowned scientist encourages Elon audience to seek objective truths
Astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson headlined Spring Convocation on April 2, 2015, with a passionate defense of science, an analysis of what drives people to accomplish great feats, and advice to students for being lifelong learners.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world’s most recognizable scientists and authors, visited Elon University on Thursday for a sold-out Spring Convocation program that packed Alumni Gym on a warm spring afternoon.
It was an appearance that had everything: humor, insight, encouragement, reflection and a touch of self-deprecation that often had his 2,000 audience members in laughter.
The social media enthusiast even sent a tweet from stage to his 3.4 million Twitter followers.
As one of the most visible and passion advocates of science and science literacy, Tyson used his time at Elon to describe why objective truths - observable conditions like the law of gravity - are important, and how people can be vigilant to distinguish objective truths from subjective truths, such as those often found in religion.
Objective truths that apply to everyone can’t be argued. Tyson pointed to debates over climate change and how it concerns him that many people still argue change isn’t happening, despite evidence that human activity is quickly warming the planet.
Where subjective proofs belong are “in another room,” he said. That room is for politicians and policy makers to decide what the best courses of action for addressing climate change. Carbon credits? Renewable energy? Other options?
“There’s nothing you can say about the natural world that will offend a scientist. Think about it,” he said. “There are no feelings invested in an objective truth. Imagine how orderly Congress would be if all their debates were about objective truths. They might get stuff done! Imagine that!”
Tyson soon shifted the focus of his remarks to three things motivate people to do extraordinary things: Praise from royalty or deities, money, and the fear of dying. The pyramids in Egypt are one example of a human marvel inspired by the divine, he said, and the great cathedrals of Europe are another.
For money and power, look no further than Christopher Columbus, who discovered the New World through support of the Spanish monarchy and a quest for land and fortune. And the fear of dying? Tyson pointed to several examples: the Great Wall of China, the atomic bomb from the Manhattan Project, and even America’s original push toward space.
It was Sputnik and the Soviet Union’s launch of a manned mission into space that led President John F. Kennedy to challenge the country to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. Once the Soviet space threat vanished, interest in exploring the stars waned.
Yet the impact of that race to the Moon is still felt today.
“War took us there, but there were other effects to it,” he said. “Pictures of earth from the Moon, seen as only nature had ever intended, with oceans and land and clouds. The one thing it didn't look like was your schoolroom globe color-coded with countries artificially carved by people who want to believe that that means something.”
“We went to the moon to explore the Moon, and we discovered Earth for the first time.”
Toward the end of his remarks, Tyson asked students to consider their reasons for achieving high grades. Those who simply want to memorize material must realize that after college, GPAs matter little. Employers want to see ambition, creativity, problem-solving and leadership from prospective employees.
So instead of earning good grades for the sake of grade point averages, he said, students should foster a love of learning.
“Ambition matters. You’ll spend much more time not in school than in school,” he said. “School should train you to be curious, so that when you graduate, and you have that curiosity, you’ll continue to learn for the rest of your life. That's what education should be.”
Tyson today holds the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium, and he was host of the 21st century reboot of Carl Sagan's landmark television series “Cosmos.”
The New York City native earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University and his doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University. His professional research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of the Milky Way.
From 1995 to 2005, Tyson was a monthly essayist for Natural History magazine under the title “Universe.” Among his books is a memoir “The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist” and “Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution,” co-written with Donald Goldsmith.
In 2001 Tyson was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on a commission that studied the future of the U.S. aerospace industry. The final report was published a year later and contained recommendations that would promote a thriving future of transportation, space exploration and national security.
In 2004 he was again appointed by Bush to serve on the President’s Commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, which navigated a path by which the new space vision can become a successful part of the national agenda. The head of NASA appointed Tyson in 2006 to serve on its prestigious Advisory Council, which will help guide the agency through its perennial need to fit its ambitious vision into its restricted budget.
Two of Tyson's recent books are 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 planetary status. The PBS/NOVA documentary "The Pluto Files,” based on the book, premiered in March 2010.
For five seasons, beginning in the fall of 2006, Tyson appeared as the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA's spinoff program “NOVA ScienceNOW,” which is an accessible look at the frontier of all the science that shapes the understanding of our place in the universe.
The founder of StarTalk Radio is the recipient of the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen. His contributions to the public appreciation of the universe have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson.
On the lighter side, Tyson was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People Magazine in 2000, a distinction about which he joked at Convocation. He pointed out that the award was 15 years and 35 pounds ago, and he said he has no clue about his competition.
“I don’t know who I beat out,” he laughed. “I assure you I'm not big-headed about that distinction. I just don’t know. Stephen Hawking in the running? I don’t know! That's all I'm saying!”
Elon’s Spring Convocation serves as an annual event to recognize Dean’s List and President’s List students, the faculty, the upcoming graduating class and members of the Elon Society, the premier annual giving group at Elon.
Elon University President Leo M. Lambert congratulated seniors on their upcoming Commencement and all students for their academic achievements. He also praised the Elon University faculty and staff for nurturing close, transformative relationships with students who are preparing to be globally engaged citizens.
“We are deeply honored to have Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson here for today's celebration of student achievement, scholarship and philanthropy,” Lambert said in his welcoming remarks. “Your work as an author, astrophysicist and educator is inspiring.”