Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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Today, in America, science literacy rates are low and calls for budget cuts are loud. Tyson warns that the nation is losing ground in science and technology “just by standing still.” He has a to-do list for the space program that he says will stimulate “intellectual capital.” Among other things, he wants to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa, first seen by Galileo 400 years ago. Scientists believe that Europa contains liquid water. “We should drill through the kilometers of ice on Europa and explore its subsurface liquid ocean for living organisms,” Tyson asserts.

For Tyson, the more evidence that we’re not the center of the universe, but part of a cosmic chain, the more connected we’ll feel to the cosmos and to each other. As he often tells audiences, we are, after all, made of stardust: The most prevalent chemically active elements of the universe — hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen — are the most common elements of life on Earth. “We are not simply in the universe,” he says, with cosmic profundity. “The universe is in us.”

Saturn’s Harvest

Photo: Jenica MillerThe final trivia question on the S.S. Canberra was this: Other than its beautiful rings, what feature strongly distinguishes Saturn from the other planets in the solar system?

The young Tyson was in his comfort zone. The year before, when asked to build a wooden lamp in his seventh-grade shop class, he ignored the basic design provided by the teacher and instead fashioned a clever instrument in the shape of his favorite planet: Saturn. You turned the lamp on and off by tilting its rings. Saturn was his. And so he knew, that night on the high seas, that Saturn is the only planet with a density less than that of water. Find a bowl big enough, and Saturn would float.

Tyson still has the Saturn lamp. It sits on his desk, among his quills and inkpots, a reminder of how the heavens inspire invention, and how those inventions illuminate our everyday lives — one of Tyson’s principal themes.

“They give out grants to medical researchers to find cures,” he says. “And the question becomes, ‘What about the physicists? Are we going to fund them, too?’ ‘Oh no, the days of the physicist are over, they built bombs for us.’ Excuse me, let’s pause for a minute. Yes, physicists were the scientific foundation of the military armament of the Cold War. But the last time you walked into a hospital, what were those machines with the on/off switches that can investigate the condition of your body without cutting you open? Those would be the X-ray machines, the MRI, and ultrasound. And every single one of them exists based on the principles of physics, discovered by a physicist who had no particular interest in medicine. Period.

“True revolutionary advances in our understanding of the natural world issue from the cross-pollination of disciplines. And the problems posed in the investigation of the universe attract people who have the smarts, the ambition, and the perseverance to make the discoveries that will transform the way we live.”

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