Neil deGrasse Tyson did not want to talk about Pluto with the audience of NSBA’s Second General Session Sunday. Yes, the New York astrophysicist, author, television commentator, and conference key speaker did have a hand in demoting Pluto from its planetary status (Tyson says he was an “accessory” in the demotion). And yes, he has a cabinet full of hate mail, mostly from third-graders who were irate about the Pluto situation.
However, what Tyson really wanted to talk about was American’s apparent fear of numbers. He pointed out that many New York City high rises skip the number 13 on their floors. “People are afraid of the number 13, and we want to lead the world in what?” he asked. And when we get to the ground floor, we are reduced to using letters, not numbers.
“Why? We have a good system for representing numbers below ground,” he said. “Negative numbers. But I think we fear them for some reason.”
One country, known for its engineering prowess, uses negative numbers for its below ground floors: Germany. Tyson sees a connection between the common use of this mathematical term in Germany and the country’s production of superior engineers.
And the U.S. is not just afflicted with fear of numbers; it also has seen a rise in math and science illiteracy. Tyson used a recent newspaper headline as an example: “Half of the schools in the district are below average.” He said: “That’s kind of what average means.” Another example: A congressman who said he had changed his position 360 degrees.
Tyson, who is a proponent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in schools, told the audience that this illiteracy was going to start affecting our economy.
He acknowledged that some school boards are struggling with the conflicting religious beliefs in their communities. However, he said, “The real issue is not religion in schools. There is a science classroom and there’s a religion class. There’s no history of scientists and atheists telling preacher what to teach. It’s odd that religious people are trying to tell the science teacher what to teach. It’s an odd thing. “
Tyson pointed to a six-year-old New Jersey case that turned into a church and state dispute. A teacher told her students that evolution and the Big Bang was not scientific. Some people said it violated the teacher’s First Amendment rights to make her stop making these statements in her classroom. “If we have a teacher who says this, it’s not about the need to separate church and state. It’s about separating ignorant and scientifically illiterate people from the ranks of teachers, he said. “If you are scientifically illiterate, someone needs to call that out.”
There are some promising signs, however, including the plethora of popular television shows based on science: “NCIS,” “CSI,” “Breaking Bad,” and Fringe.” And of the most popular sitcom right now, “The Big Bang Theory,” is about a group of scientists (and featured Tyson in a cameo in one episode, where he talks about Pluto). “More people than geeks have to be watching it,” he said.
He ended his talk about urging his audience to keep STEM in the classrooms, but also make sure the arts are emphasized as well.
“Our country is shrinking in relevance,” he said. “Make sure we keep STEM subjects there because it’s the future of our economy.”