Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t going to tell you how to run your schools, or even how to teach science. The astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City says school board members probably have a better handle on these things.
“I’m just sort of a STEM person at large,” said Tyson, former host of “NOVA scienceNOW” and one of the keynote speakers at NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Diego in April. “It’s a report from the field, a report from the depths of our society and culture.”
It’s a society and culture, says Tyson — a frequent guest on television talk shows like “The Daily Show” and “Real Time with Bill Maher” — that needs to pay more attention to what’s going on in the worlds of astronomers and microbiologists. He talked recently with ASBJ Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy.
Are we as scientifically literate as we should be?
No. The nation is becoming profoundly absent of scientific literacy. Now I don’t want a law saying someone has to be scientifically literate. I want people to want to be scientifically literate because they feel empowered by it, enlightened by it, and it’s something that will stimulate a curiosity in them that they once had, or never knew they had, in their youth.
So we don’t know much about evolution or the asteroid belt.
It’s the combination of being a scientifically illiterate person and gaining cultural or political power. That’s a combustible combination because then you end up making decisions that affect countless other people based on ideas and thoughts that are missing the fundamentals of how the natural world works.
A few years ago your planetarium declared Pluto “not a planet,” thus upsetting the cosmological certainty of countless elementary school students. Were there repercussions?
Essentially, a file drawer of hate mail from third-graders. One of my favorite letters is, “Dear Scientest” (spelled T-E-S-T). “Why did you make Pluto not a planet anymore? It that’s people’s favorite planet, then they’ll no longer have a favorite planet. And if there’s people on Pluto, then they’ll no longer exist.” [People] thought we just got rid of Pluto.
And the media reacted?
Oh, my gosh. The subtlety of the argument didn’t make it into the headlines. In fact, the New York Times reported on it, [writing] “Pluto not a Planet? Only in New York.” That was the headline on Page One. I wrote a whole book on this. It came out in 2007. It’s called The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.
I hear you also messed with America’s Favorite Movie (at least among teenage girls in the 1990s). Something about the night sky being wrong in Titanic?
I complained publicly only because so much of the marketing platform of that film was on how accurate it was. If authenticity is important to you, you should have gotten the sky right.
You said director James Cameron was annoyed but eventually reconsidered and, for the release of the IMAX 3-D version, changed the sky in a key scene to the way it would have looked that night in the North Atlantic.
The most important scene is the sky straight above Kate Winslet’s head when she’s singing deliriously, floating on that plank. So I gave him that sky. In fact, I gave him a little latitude because the exact overhead sky wasn’t as good as the one a little to the left. You can fudge that and say she wasn’t looking exactly overhead, but was looking at an angle. You want to give people artistic space to work with.
And they used it.