Neil deGrasse Tyson spearheads ‘mutual enlightening’

Riley Konsella '17 and Andrew Cassarino '18 interview astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson after his meet and greet. (Courtesy of Erin Wade)

Union students were able to attend the lecture of famous astrophysicist, cosmologist, author and “Cosmos” narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson at Schenectady’s Proctors Theatre Monday, April 11.

At the promise of tickets to the event, students lined up as early as 6 a.m. outside the door of Student Activities, waiting until sign-ups began at 7:30 to reserve their complimentary seats.

Before the event took place at 8 p.m. on April 11, Gretchel Hathaway, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, and Judith Gardner Ainlay arranged for Tyson to hold a meet and greet for Union students from 3-4 p.m. in Nott Memorial. During the meet and greet, the Nott’s first floor was packed with students, faculty and staff of the college.

Among those in attendance was President Stephen C. Ainlay, who stated, “We are delighted that (Tyson) is here. We are delighted that he would give us time for an informal gathering. For students to have intimate conversation and talk that way is very exciting.”

Tyson began the meet and greet with a brief question and answer session, emphasizing that time spent “mutually enlightening each other” would be better than simply taking pictures.

Tyson’s first words onstage were, jokingly, “Now I know what the inside of this building looks like.” He proceeded to answer student questions from the crowd. When asked about his favorite book, Tyson listed several, giving meaning behind each book on the list.

He stressed his appreciation for the play “An Enemy of the People,” which had majorly impacted him since first reading it in the 8th grade. “It was my first exposure to irrational adults. To this day when I see adults behaving in an irrational way, I can’t blame them. It is some way of thinking that they have never been taught,” Tyson explained, emphasizing that his opinion of the book is a direct result of his role as an educator.

Tyson answered another question, reflecting on his current work-in-progress: a novel that he considers to be a “half-baked” compilation of his thoughts, at this point in the writing process.

He did, however, provide Union students and faculty with a hint of what is to come in his new work: “The reason that anyone cheats on an exam is because the system values your grade more than you value learning.”

Tyson reminded the audience that most great and successful societal figures did not finish or attend college, claiming that grades cannot measure performance and intelligence, nor can they measure ambition or creativity. “We have to find a better way to measure who is a good student and who isn’t,” said Tyson.

After Tyson answered this question, administrators tried to end the Q&A, but Tyson urged them to give him additional time so he could answer more questions, committed to the “mutual enlightenment” he had emphasized earlier.

When asked about what he thought was beyond the event horizon of a black hole, Tyson said that the only thing he could be certain about was death, giving an in-depth description of what it would be like to die in a black hole.

For the conclusion of his talk, Tyson addressed a student question about Stephen Hawking’s claim that humans are just “advanced apes.”

Tyson stated that he believes it is mere hubris to think of ourselves as advanced or superior at all, because if monkeys made such a list, they would pity the fact that we could not swing on trees. Similarly, we could be as intellectually inferior to another species that exists outside of our planet as dogs are to us.

It is possibly for this reason, said Tyson, that we have not yet been visited by extraterrestrials: “Because they see no intelligent life on earth.” He concluded: “We would not be capable of contemplating their simplest thoughts.”

Students who participated in the Q&A session and took pictures with Tyson described the event positively and with enthusiasm.

Akshay Kashyap ’18 described it as “a great experience. I had no idea my mind could be blown so much in such a short amount of time.” Alec Lesniewski ’19 seconded this statement, calling his interaction with Tyson “a dream come true. He called me dorky but it was worth it.”

After the meet-and-greet, Tyson gave the Concordiensis a 25-minute interview in Nott Memorial.

The interview began with a question about who Tyson would want leading a new “Committee on Exoplanetary Affairs,” should humans come into contact with extraterrestrial life.

Tyson argued that any alien civilization with which we would come into contact was likely to be of such superior intelligence that any communication on our part would be meaningless. “Imagine,” he observed, “what would a committee of worms put forth to try to communicate with humans?”

Though, he conceded that if we were communicating with these extraterrestrial life forms, any committee would need members from very different backgrounds to help represent us as a species. “That’s humanity,” he finished. “No one person is humanity.”

Continuing on, Tyson was asked how he views certain presidential candidates’ rejection of science, and whether that rejection is a reflection of the candidates’ personal beliefs or is a manifestation of the beliefs of their followers. “To reject emergent scientific truths and believe you have reason and cause to do so is one of the greatest measures of the failure of our educational system,” he said.

Tyson argued that a successful science education for the average citizen would cause them to expect scientific literacy in anyone who runs for office. He acknowledged that the education system needs to focus on producing adults who understand science, not merely educating children. “The problem with the world is not scientifically illiterate children, it’s scientifically illiterate adults.”

Tyson stated, “If you want your leaders to make informed decisions, you want them to base it on objective realities, not on some perception of what is true. If you lean politically left or politically right and it is based off some scientific truth, that is a genuine scientific dialogue.”

Finally, when asked whether this is the issue in today’s society that concerns him the most, he provided a different answer. “What keeps me up at night is knowing that there are entire swaths of the human population that are not participants on the frontier of discovery.” He lamented the fact that many people cannot join the search for discovery because they do not have access to food or because their particular society prevents them in one way or another. “To realize that there are billions of people specifically excluded from that, that’s the tragedy.”

Following his meet-and-greet and interview at Union, Tyson headed to Proctors to give his lecture to a packed house. The title of the talk? “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.”

Tyson, clad in a suit and socks — but no shoes — kept the entire theater laughing for almost two-and-a-half hours, including the Q&A he held for theatergoers after his lecture concluded. During the Q&A, he said that he’d invited all five presidential hopefuls to appear on his podcast — StarTalk — to discuss science policy, though he has not yet received any responses.

Andrew Cassarino, 807 Union St. Editor, contributed reporting.


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