“The cool thing about science,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told a capacity crowd at Bovard Auditorium on Monday, “is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.”
Tyson, who holds degrees from Harvard and Columbia, walked on stage without shoes and promptly asked that the lights be turned up so that he could better interact with his audience. Within seconds, he had set the tone of the event, hosted by Program Board Speakers Committee, Academic Cultural Assembly and USC Spectrum, as casual and interactive.
The atmosphere makes sense, given Tyson’s role as a public advocate of science, which will be more apparent as he hosts the reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos this year. Many know him as the host of PBS’s NOVA from 2005-11 or as the snarky scientist who told director James Cameron that a star in the night sky of Titanic would not have been visible in 1912. He’s also one of the most famous scientists on Twitter, with nearly 1 million followers, and he uses his social media clout to encourage interest in exploring the natural world.
As a public figure in the scientific community, Tyson was not afraid to directly call out America, which he jokingly called “’Murrica,” for inadequate funding toward scientific research or perpetuation of psuedo-science as science. He refrains, however, from pushing his knowledge on others.
“I just provide both ways and leave the rest to [the people],” Tyson said.
After all, Tyson sees his role as an educator to the masses. In an interview with the Daily Trojan before the presentation, Tyson said his main objective is simply to make people curious about the natural world. The public matters most to Tyson because it elects its leadership, and he said he declined to serve as NASA’s director based on this principle.
“As director [of NASA], I would report to the president,” Tyson said. “But as a citizen, the president reports to me as it is.”
For Tyson, the key to an America full of educated, creative innovators is to encourage scientific interest and critical thought in the public sphere. His enthusiam in promoting that goal showed at Monday’s event, with his witty and direct dialogue helping keep the audience inspired.
“It’s just you and me tonight,” Tyson quipped at the begginning of the talk, eliciting relaxed laughs from the crowd.
Tyson also used real-world examples to make points about critical thinking. In one instance, he presented the “Face on Mars” photograph, a low-resolution picture taken in the ’70s that seems to depict a face on the planet Mars.
“Most life on Earth does not have a face,” Tyson said. “[Assuming that the Face on Mars was some kind of signal] is a profound absence of imagination.”
And though Tyson might be open to the fact that people believe in science to varying degrees, it didn’t stop him from taking some well-timed digs.
“That makes sense for people for whom evidence doesn’t matter,” he said of the Face on Mars.
Tyson also pointed out that the United States has more creationists than other developed countries, sometimes making it tricky for scientists like himself to work
“The universe is hard enough,” Tyson said. “In my field, you tell it like it is!”
But besides explaining how science is misunderstood, Tyson inspired the same enthusiasm he shows for the natural world to the rapt audience.
After poignantly explaining how the most common elements found in the universe are also the most common elements found in the human body, Tyson ended the talk with an image containing an uncountable number of stars.
“Not only do we exist in the universe,” Tyson said. “The universe exists in us.”
[Correction: A previous version of this article indicated that the event was hosted by USC Spectrum. The event was hosted by Program Board Speakers Committee, Academic Cultural Assembly and USC Spectrum. The Daily Trojan regrets the error.]