Neil deGrasse Tyson On US Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson - Las Vegas, 2008 Last night we saw astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at the Ohio Theatre on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. Connie won tickets from the library, one of the sponsors of the event. It was about 2 hours, including Q&A. I saw a more erasable side of his personality than comes across on Nova scienceNow. For one, he was very firm in his opinions on terraforming – it seems he thinks the Mars terraforming advocates have some form of mental illness, because we can’t predict climate changes a week out on Earth, but they want to manipulate the climate of a whole planet. He thinks it will take too long to be relevant right now.

Surprisingly to me, the main theme of his talk was not black holes, cosmology, or string theory. Instead, he had a point to make: the United States is on a serious scientific decline, leaning into a slide towards global irrelevancy. He said that today the US publishes fewer scientific papers than we did 10 years ago, while our global competitors have increased their output. He likened the current state of affairs to the decline of Arabic science around 1100 which he says occurs after an influential Islamic scholar codified what it meant to be a member of the Islamic religion by saying in part that manipulating numbers was the work of the devil. (I haven’t verified this, I’m just reporting what he said.)

He attempts to make a patriotic argument that goes something like this: the United States discovered plutonium, and a few years later dropped a bomb made of it on Nagasaki. We then proceeded to isolate the rest of those high-numbered elements on that bottom row of the periodic table of elements. Those were the golden days of American scientific and military prowess, and it’s not a coincidence those are linked. People in the military are always interested in science, because being able to manipulate matter is powerful.

Making this link between hard science and military power is nothing new – Galileo did as much on his cover letters to the regional powers of his day. I haven’t heard it applied with contemporary US patriotism however. And is this the message it takes to get US citizens to support science funding education? With his specific military examples, I interpret Tyson as saying that if only we could have more science in the US we could blow things up and conquer the world!

One of the very things Tyson complains about current Islamic culture is its closed nature compared to the openness of its scientific heyday. But he advances some level of xenophobia with a plea for our continued world dominance. Why do we need to dominate if not out of fear?

It seems pretty clear to me that lately power has been skewed heavily toward the “American island” compared to the rest of the world. We have had (and still have) a very high standard of living, and we consume an enormous amount of energy to sustain it without much thought to what this does to the rest of the planet. Why is science being presented as a competition between nations? It would go much further to promote global stability to advocate developing scientific prowess that we could use to help people all over the world, not just ourselves, linked to every citizen on the planet.

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