Welcome, Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tamara Scott-Williams

Sunday, November 25, 2012

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I am delighted to know that American astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, PhD, will be visiting Jamaica as guest of United States Ambassador Pamela Bridgewater, as part of the American Government's overall commitment to science diplomacy as well as, I am sure, to advance President Obama's promise to make America great again on the space frontier.

Tyson, according to this newspaper, is "to deliver a lecture/presentation entitled 'Star Talk' that will focus on space exploration and the cosmos, and an evening presentation that will highlight the importance of systematic and institutional support of the sciences with greater accessibility to the study of subject area". Whatever that means, it sounds like astrophysics to me. What a yawn, no?

No. Not at all; because, if you've ever caught a lecture, interview or YouTube video of Dr Tyson, you'll know that he is a warm, high-energy, articulate, teddy-bear of a man who has a mad passion for his work and a childlike wonder for science. He talks about "stupid design" and wears funny vests and knows how to talk about science to people who don't know about science. For the ladies: he was a formidable athlete, knows how to dance, loves fine wine, and in 2000 People magazine named him "The Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive".

Given his "geek credentials": Harvard and Columbia graduate, director of the Hayden Planetarium, author of eight books, and it was he (pay attention, all you GSAT students) who determined that Pluto was not the ninth planet; TIME Magazine, in a 2008 interview asked him the following question: "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?"

His answer, and I dare you to watch the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWZ5v35J54A) without bawling, was this:

"The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable. In their later years they collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself.

"These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us.

"When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small because they're small and the universe is big — but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There's a level of connectivity. That's really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you. That's precisely what we are, just by being alive..."

Those very last few sentences are phenomenal: "There's a level of connectivity. That's really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you . That's precisely what we are, just by being alive..."

Dr Tyson is inspirational, and I hope that when he's done talking to the who's who and the what not, he's allowed to talk to rooms full of young men who never will make it to the ambassador's residence or into a planetarium or science lab even. I hope he tells them that theirs is a miraculous life, and that we are all each other's keeper, and that there is so much hope for them if they just realise that each and every one of them has a valuable contribution to make to this life just by being alive and staying alive.

And he has a message for the politicians too. In his book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, Tyson says: "To govern a society shared by people of emotion, people of reason, and everybody in-between — as well as people who think their actions are shaped by logic but in fact are shaped by feelings and nonempirical philosophies — you need politics. At its best, politics navigates all the minds-states for the sake of the greater good, alert to the rocky shoals of community, identity, and the economy. At its worst, politics thrives on the incomplete disclosure or misrepresentation of data required by an electorate to make informed decisions, whether arrived at logically or emotionally."

We look forward to your visit, Dr Tyson.





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