Neil deGrasse Tyson at SXSW Interactive 2014

A Conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson

On Saturday afternoon, Neil deGrasse Tyson took the stage with Scientific American editor Christie Nicholson in his keynote, “A Conversation with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson”. I am a huge fan of Dr. Tyson. Although I’ve watched and heard him in many a TV show and podcast, he was still incredibly amazing in person.

“A scientist is a kid who never grew up.”

One of the topics he discussed was education. He described his experiences with his own children, from letting them play with eggs to learn the concept of brittle to watching his daughter put together an experiment to figure out whether the tooth fairy was real. He continued explaining that when children pull out pots and pans to bang on them with wooden spoons, they are conducting experiments in acoustics. By allowing children to explore and experiment and be curious, those children will grow up to be scientists, or at least be interested in science. He then confessed that his own house is a complete mess as a result of these experiments. In fact, he even advised people should have a “broken stuff budget”.

“Some lessons need to be learned first-hand. Education costs money. But the price of ignorance is much more costly than knowledge.”

Christie Nicholson brought up a recent survey stating that Americans are becoming much more accepting of Astrology, the highest number in decades. “The missing skepticism is the problem,” he responded. He equated some popular pseudo-science beliefs with someone deciding that gravity isn’t real. “You can’t choose what is true and what isn’t.”

There a lot of other great bits in the interview, including a demonstration with a blow-up Earth and foam Mars and Moon, where we learned that the distance between the moon and Earth as we know it is a complete lie. It’s much further than we realize (textbooks don’t have enough pages to demonstrate the distance visually). He also explained Felix Baumgartner’s jump from “space” was just a measly 2 mm from that blow-up Earth he was holding, and at that level, you cannot see a curvature of Earth’s surface. It was the magic of a wide-angle lens making us believe that Mr. Baumgartner was further into space than he really was. He really wasn’t bashing Baumgartner’s feat, just simply stating that he was at the very “tip” of space and the cameras mislead the audience. (Here’s the clip for reference.)

“The day you stop thinking about tomorrow is the day you stop innovating.”

Other key takeaways from the interview: the need for government to fund space exploration (it’s too risky with little or no ROI for private enterprise to be involved at this point in the game). Don’t get attached to numbers (“There is no physics to the number of things. All the nine-planet people out there? Get over it. IT’S EIGHT.”) And finally, he said there is a hunger for science out there; science is becoming mainstream.

“Science literacy is how much do you still wonder about the world around you. What is your state of curiosity?”

This was one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen at SXSW. I highly recommend you watch the full interview (see below). Enjoy!