There’s scientific fun and then there’s Neil deGrasse Tyson level fun. Both are great, but you’ll have a blast if you get a chance to catch Dr. Tyson live in your lifetime.

By Kenneth Shipp

The opener for Dr. Tyson, Herb Williams (an artist for the Rymer gallery here in Nashville) recalled his experiences with one of his high school teachers which encouraged him to explore bigger questions than the other children around him. It reminded me a lot of my favorite science teacher Mr. Little. He could at times be a bit abrasive, but he was unwavering in his desire for learning particularly towards literature and science. His logic and approach to life would help me figure out how I wanted to tackle the challenges presented before me.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is very reminiscent of your favorite science teacher. He’s plain spoken, blazer and jeans, and even took his shoes off during the chat to get more at home. He has developed an amazing energy and humor over the years, which was translated well to his fans and to the newer folks in the crowd that were unfamiliar with his lectures.

During his chat, Dr. Tyson spent time addressing objective truths, how we arrive at them, what to do with our opinions, and using a scientific approach towards life that he believes would eliminate plenty of current issues. I found myself agreeing with quite a bit of his explanations. For example, his criteria or definition for a truth would be when most of the community conduct the same experiment, and consistently arrive at the same result, you can now move forward from there to more specificity. We know the Earth is round, not flat and that came about through multiple people coming to the same conclusion several times. Now, the Earth is not a perfect sphere, so once you’ve figured out one truth, you can try to measure how round it actually is which can lead to better definitions of the previously established truth.

Nashville Scene: I saw that the theme of your upcoming lecture in Nashville is “Science as a Way of Knowing.” One element I saw of that was “political forces that stimulate or thwart this moving frontier.” So what as you see it are some of the biggest roadblocks of modern scientific advancement, whether political or intellectual or otherwise?

Tyson: So what matters most is freedom of thought and exchange of information and an understanding of how and why science works. Because once you know that, then you will know how to distinguish between an emergent scientific truth and some other bit of information that someone would call truth, but it doesn’t have its anchor in what is objectively true. For example, Jesus could be your savior and that’s your personal truth, but Jesus is not everyone’s savior. There are other people who have different religious traditions or foundations, so you can step back, look at the world and see belief systems that people ascribe to and feel deeply about. And that’s one sort of cut through the world of thoughts. And now you say, “All right, is there anything about the world that is true no matter your belief system?” Well yeah, the value of Pi, E=MC2, the methods and schools of science as emergent truths derived from the consensus of observations and experiments. And so those are objective truths. So now if you want to take a personal truth and use it to cherry-pick objective truths and you have power — cultural or political power — then you are creating a society that is not based on a foundation in reality. We have words for societies such as them, they’re called dictatorships. Where you have a belief system and everyone must conform to that. And it’s a belief system that is your belief system but might not be someone else’s but you have to conform to it anyways because you’re a resident of that land. And we call those dictatorships, where you don’t have freedom.

So one of the interesting features of the United States of America as an experiment in a country — we think of it as an experiment from 200 years ago — is that there is no law that prevents you from having whatever belief system you want, provided it doesn’t encroach upon the rights of others. The rights established in the Constitution. Have whatever belief system you want — go ahead, no one is going to stop you. But the moment you take your belief system and require that others have it, and your belief system is a personal belief system, this is the beginning of the end of an informed democracy. So part of the talk will discuss how people have come at science to cherry-pick what they want to be true about it and reject what they don’t want to be true about it, and what consequence that has on our democracy, on politics, on culture and at the end of the day, on our future.

I never got the impression that he was out to get anyone or nail them. Being a believer, I never felt like my faith was under attack by his suggestions. I think that’s an important quality to note throughout from his entire chat. He could be a bitter guy and degrade a lot of different groups, but he doesn’t do that. Tyson would rather let the scientific truth speak for itself.


Funniest moment of the night:

Dr. Tyson addressed the last question of the night which was concerning his pop culture status and we finally get an explanation about the waffle pouring photo. In an effort to keep his daughter and her friends from having adolescent  misadventures elsewhere, he allows a slumber party where he cooked waffles the morning after. One of the girls snapped the photo of him pouring the mix and the internet ate it up. It just so happened for us in the crowd, that a man in the front row was wearing a shirt of it. Tyson got him up on stage to show it off and even offered to sign it.

Being at the level of nerd stardom he’s achieved, he’s not afraid of the spotlight (although he certainly admits being shocked at the number of Twitter followers he has.) But it’s a place that serves him well, being a vocal proponent for the sciences and showing us how awesome it can be to be a nerd. Just like our old teachers said we could be.

mrs frizzle'
Or at least, this teacher told us it could be.

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