Will Harvie

Marlborough Express - - CATALYST -

The in­ter­view with famed Amer­i­can as­tro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson came at an odd mo­ment. He was pro­mot­ing an up­com­ing tour of Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

The same day, ru­mours were float­ing that Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump would with­draw from the Paris cli­mate change treaty. (He did, the next day.)

It seemed rea­son­able to ask Tyson if his high-pro­file ef­forts to ex­plain and pop­u­larise sci­ence – in­clud­ing best sell­ing books, tele­vi­sion se­ries, live shows such as he’ll be do­ing here early next month – have made any dif­fer­ence?

If Trump re­jects cli­mate change, then surely Tyson and other global sci­ence celebri­ties aren’t achiev­ing their goals? ‘‘Let me ask an equally re­al­is­tic ques­tion back to you,’’ he replies.

‘‘Imag­ine how much worse it would be if not for these ef­forts?’’ Trump could ‘‘zero fund’’ all US sci­ence agen­cies. Close them al­to­gether. Rather, he says, ev­ery lit­tle bit helps in the global ef­fort to ed­u­cate peo­ple about sci­ence. And ed­u­ca­tion is Tyson’s job, as he sees it. ‘‘I see elected of­fi­cials as duly elected,’’ he says.

‘‘If you have an elected of­fi­cial who is sure the Earth is flat or Earth was made 10,000 years ago, or the uni­verse was made in six days, or global warm­ing is a Chi­nese hoax... if you are an elected of­fi­cial and you feel that way, then the chances are that the peo­ple who voted for you feel that way too.’’ That’s how democ­racy works.

‘‘As an ed­u­ca­tor, my goal is not to hit politi­cians on the head,’’ he says. ’’It’s to ed­u­cate the public about, for ex­am­ple, what sci­ence is and how and why it works.

‘‘Once you know what it is, you would never elect a politi­cian... who does not know it.’’

Or, as Tyson put it in a re­cent tweet: ‘‘To be sci­en­tif­i­cally lit­er­ate is to em­power your­self to know when some­one else is full of s....’’ And then not vote for them. Dur­ing that re­cent in­ter­view, Tyson said he’d com­posed but not yet posted an­other tweet in case Trump pulled out of Paris. Here it is: ‘‘If I and my ad­vi­sors had never learned what sci­ence is or how & why it works, then I’d con­sider pulling out of the Paris Cli­mate Ac­cord too’’.

Tyson pur­sued a re­lated idea in the in­ter­view. Trump, he says, is a busi­ness­man. Businessmen un­der­stand that re­search and de­vel­op­ment pro­duce fu­ture prof­its for cor­po­ra­tions, although prob­a­bly not this fi­nan­cial year. Trump should then un­der­stand that the US is like a cor­po­ra­tion and fund­ing sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy re­search is the na­tion’s R&D bud­get.

‘‘If you lead in sci­ence and tech, you lead the world in many met­rics, es­pe­cially your wealth,’’ Tyson says. ‘‘It seems to me that if any­one could un­der­stand that, it would be a pres­i­dent who is fun­da­men­tally a busi­ness­man. Maybe I’m naive.’’ Tyson hasn’t been in­vited to the White House yet.

But he’s bring­ing a show called A Cos­mic Per­spec­tive to New Zealand; July 4 in Christchurch and July 9 in Auck­land.

He ‘‘will guide Kiwi au­di­ences on a trip across the cos­mos and at­tempt to make sense of some of our big­gest ques­tions’’.

Are we likely to en­counter alien life and will they be pro­tected by the same eth­i­cal codes we ap­ply to each other? Should we be con­cerned about the rapid so­phis­ti­ca­tion of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and does it threaten us with ex­tinc­tion?

With Neil deGrasse Tyson head­ing here next month,

asks if high-pro­file boffins boost the public’s in­ter­est in the sub­ject.

The shows may be the high wa­ter mark in an un­prece­dented year for sci­ence celebrity in New Zealand, says Peter Grif­fin, di­rec­tor of the Sci­ence Me­dia Cen­tre NZ, an off shoot of the Royal So­ci­ety.

Big time sci­ence celebri­ties such as chim­panzee ex­pert Jane Goodall and Bri­tish pro­fes­sor of par­ti­cle physics Brian Cox will be stag­ing live shows in New Zealand this year. Bri­tish cos­mol­o­gist and TV celebrity Brian Greene has al­ready come and gone.

Mean­while, in New Zealand, Michelle ‘‘Nanogirl’’ Dick­in­son has tar­geted chil­dren, es­pe­cially girls, with sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics (Stem) shows and me­dia ap­pear­ances.

And psy­chol­o­gist Nigel Latta has pre­sented tele­vi­sion shows on foren­sic psy­chol­ogy, parenting, Antarc­tica, blowing stuff up and the re­cent TV se­ries on the fu­ture, What Next?

Latta has stepped well out­side his ex­per­tise but he bases his pro­grammes on ev­i­dence, says Grif­fin.

‘‘I can’t think of a year... where so much sci­ence celebrity tal­ent is com­ing through New Zealand,’’ he says.

This is partly be­cause the Royal So­ci­ety is cel­e­brat­ing its 150th an­niver­sary and be­cause Think Inc, an Aus­tralia-based ‘‘ini­tia­tive’’, is bring­ing sci­ence celebri­ties to that coun­try and some tack on NZ visits. (Tyson and Goodall’s shows are both Think Inc projects.)

‘‘A lot of this stuff is best com­mu­ni­cated by per­son­al­i­ty­driven ve­hi­cles,’’ says Grif­fin.

A prom­i­nent host with big and ex­pen­sive pro­duc­tion val­ues can ‘‘work re­ally well in get­ting a broad au­di­ence en­gaged in sci­ence’’, he says.

There are pit­falls, how­ever, and they’re far short of the White House.

This level of sci­ence celebrity sug­gests ev­ery­one should have their own TV show or ma­jor ve­hi­cle to com­mu­ni­cate sci­ence. Any­thing less seems in­fe­rior. ‘‘Whereas what we’re see­ing in New Zealand is a lot sci­en­tists and ex­perts do­ing stuff at a much lower level and hav­ing im­pact,’’ Grif­fin says.

They are lead­ing cit­i­zen and par­tic­i­pa­tory sci­ence, judg­ing sci­ence fairs, talk­ing at schools, mu­se­ums and zoos. New Zealand TEDx talks are of­ten dom­i­nated by lo­cal sci­en­tists.

‘‘They might not have the ca­chet of Tyson or Nanogirl but they have a big im­pact on peo­ple’s lives and that doesn’t get recog­nised as much,’’ says Grif­fin.

Mostly these sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tors aren’t re­warded or in­cen­tivised by their em­ploy­ers to per­form this work, Grif­fin says.

Tyson agrees: ‘‘Academia has to take some of the blame here,’’ he says.

The at­ti­tude some­times is: ‘‘Ev­ery minute you spend with the pu­bic, you are not in lab, you are not do­ing your work.’’

At a min­i­mum, it should be that those sci­en­tists who want to pop­u­larise their work – or maybe as­pire to sci­ence celebrity – shouldn’t be hurt pro­fes­sion­ally.

Tyson says the re­ward is ap­peal­ing to fun­da­men­tal truths of hu­man na­ture.

‘‘Maybe peo­ple are long­ing for some ac­cess to ob­jec­tive truth. Maybe peo­ple for­got what it was like to be cu­ri­ous, about learn­ing new in­for­ma­tion and it’s time to re­claim that birthright that we all had as chil­dren,’’ he says.

‘‘If you are young enough, you’ll ex­plore your en­vi­ron­ment on the level to risk your life. That’s how cu­ri­ous we are from birth.

‘‘From zero to age 3 or 4, par­ents are al­ways walk­ing af­ter you to make sure you don’t kill your­self. Ev­ery­thing we do is an ex­plo­ration – and some­how we lose that. I don’t know why.’’

MONIQUE FORD / FAIR­FAX ME­DIA

Michelle Dick­in­son aka Nanogirl taught chil­dren to code their own self-driv­ing car in Welling­ton re­cently.

Amer­i­can sci­en­tist Neil deGrasse Tyson will per­form 180-minute-long shows in New Zealand early next month. Right: Nigel Latta’s books and TV se­ries are ev­i­dence based.

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