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.’’
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.