In thinking about celebrities, scientists don’t often come to mind. As a graduate student, I have been starstruck a few times meeting a big name PI at a conference, but most U.S. citizens have probably not shared this experience. Neil deGrasse Tyson is probably the closest thing to a celebrity scientist that exists, and he spoke at Vanderbilt on Tuesday.
Tyson’s talk, titled something like “The Top 10 Out of This World Things You Should Know,” was incredible. Before Tuesday night, I was not particularly interested in astronomy, believing (like a typical developmental biologist) that the most fascinating science is right here on Earth (and has something to do with a vertebrate embryo). How uniformed I was. With the perfect combination of sincerity, silly jokes, and skillful metaphors, Tyson blew my mind.
He seems to have the ability to communicate scope and size more accessibly than any other scientist I’ve heard speak. For instance, Tyson started his top 10 list with a series of illustrations to convey how large the number of stars in the observable universe is. Because he wanted us to “really feel it,” he started with a million and stepped up and up toward the final number, a sextillion. My favorite example he used was that 100 billion hamburgers would wrap around Earth 82 times. We definitely felt it. Also, did you know that (according to NDT) there are more molecules in one cup of water than there are cups of water in the whole world? He brilliantly led everyone in that audience to see, feel, and understand exactly how big (the universe) and how small (molecules) these hard to grasp things are.
Furthermore, he convinced me that we need to put more money into space-related science by talking about an object out there in space on track to hit Earth. We have the technological ability, he said, to disrupt the path of this object, but that program no longer has funding. While I understand that this way to talk about science is somewhat of an alarmist, cheap shot approach, it worked. And isn’t that what all scientists want to be able to do, convince people that their work is relevant, important, and interesting?
Throughout his talk, Tyson made fun of his inner nerd. For instance, he recently helped Superman find his home star. When he showed us the image from the comic, and then, unbuttoning his blazer, said, “That vest is real, and I’m wearing it right now,” applause and laughter filled the room. He also just attended Comic-Con, and said about the attendees that while they obviously cherish their actors, they also know there wouldn’t be any of it without the real science. This ability to be relatable, while at the same time honoring nerds everywhere, has certainly helped make Tyson famous.
With his relative fame comes the ability to fill a hall, be the host of an upcoming TV show, and, most importantly, have people listen when he talks about his priorities. It wouldn’t hurt to have a few more celebrity scientists around, to do great work, be outstanding communicators, and take the time to talk about important ideas (space exploration, science literacy) in terms the masses can understand.