Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the ‘cosmic perspective’

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

In a world where people listen every time a pop star or reality television personality opens his or her mouth, it’s reassuring that an astrophysicist has enough charisma and star power to entertain a national audience.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a bestselling author, radio and television host, doctor of astrophysics and the recipient of 18 additional honorary doctorates.

In addition to hosting the 2014 documentary series “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” he regularly speaks to audiences about the universe, the United States and the state of the planet. He will speak at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor on Wednesday and at the Fox Theatre in Detroit the following night.

The appearances are being billed as a family friendly multimedia event. Tyson will speak about modern science and the cosmos, and will take questions from the audience.

His experience in Washington, D.C., and with NASA, and his position as a pop culture personality, who is active on social media, puts him in a unique position as a highly educated scientist who also has the allure of a celebrity.

He calls this unique position the “cosmic perspective.”

“There’re all these pieces in the intersection between science and civilization, pop culture, our country, our ambitions,” he says. “Are we spacefaring? Are we not? What does that mean? Why? There’s a whole other aspect to this that I can bring to the table, and that I do bring to the table. In that, we can construct what any one of my colleagues would call a cosmic perspective.”

He says looking at the greater picture may help people see beyond the “daily grind” or look behind physical or geographical differences.

“A cosmic perspective allows the citizen of the Earth to have a deeper, more enlightened sense of who we are and what our place is in nature and what our place is in this universe,” he said.

Tyson spoke to The Detroit News earlier this year from his office at the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City. He said that when he interviews people for his radio show “StarTalk,” he likes to find his guests’ “inner geek.”

“(Bill Clinton) told of a story in the oval office where they have this big meeting table — we’ve all seen photos of some important people sitting around that table — he said occasionally there’d be some impasse that they had to get through and that what he would do is he’d tell everyone to pause and look at the rock on the table which he had on loan from NASA,” says Tyson. “It’s a moon rock and he’d say ‘people, that rock is from the moon and it’s four and a half billion years old, OK, so let’s just pause on that for a moment and then continue the conversation.’ ”

“So the cosmic perspective is a way of benchmarking any conversation you could possibly have that involves conflict,” says Tyson.

One area that breeds conflict is the upcoming presidential election. Tyson says that “science literacy” is important going forward in regard to climate change, fracking, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and energy policy.

“You can’t stand in denial of what scientists are telling you regarding climate,” he says. “How do you handle things that will typically have a partisan angle to it. Do you have carbon credits? Do you put tariffs on Chinese solar panels? Do you refit power plants? To make the most informed kind of policy decisions you need to understand the science that’s behind it.”

“By the way,” he adds. “I don’t even require that as a candidate you understand the science... what’s more important is that if you don’t know it — the science — you should at least know that you don’t know and have advisers. A good leader knows how to lead and knows how to be advised.”

That’s good advice for politicians and leaders, but what can the average person do to help the environment? Tyson’s advice is to spread scientific literacy and call out ignorance when you see it.

“If you know something and you see someone who has power saying something scientifically ignorant, basically everyone is in a position to challenge it at this point. You can post a tweet, you can blog it, you can write an op-ed. ... and that’s kind of what’s been happening.”

“That’s what (former ‘Daily Show’ host) Jon Stewart had spent so many years (doing) — as well as Stephen Colbert. You see something and then you say something about it. If you see something that is somehow an abuse of science, or someone shows a deep ignorance of how science works, you call it out and become part of the force, the restoring force, of a scientifically literate society.”

For those who want to become more scientifically literate, particularly children, Tyson says that money or access shouldn’t be a factor or barrier in learning. In addition to televison and the Internet, he recommends visiting local libraries, aquariums and musuems.

“There’s tons of science programming on television now, so if you want to stay stoked for what science can do for you, TV access is there and of course there are libraries... and Internet — whether you have it or not, your library has it.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

7:30 p.m. March 23

Hill Auditorium

825 N. University, Ann Arbor

(734) 763-8587


7:30 p.m. March 24

Fox Theatre

2211 Woodward, Detroit

(313) 471-6611


Tyson’s Tweets

The 5 million people who follow Tyson on Twitter have grown accustom to his funny, inspiring and interesting quips. He uses this social media platform to interact with fans, and in January he famously corrected rapper B.o.B who claimed the Earth was flat. Here are some of Tyson’s Twitter highlights:

■“I occasionally wonder whether the entire Universe is nothing more than a snow-globe on the living room mantle of an Alien.”

■“A Cinematic Hypothesis: the more film festivals that a movie wins, the fewer guns, chase scenes and explosions it contains.”

■“I’m simultaneously flattered and disturbed when, after posting various tweets, people tweet back wondering if I’m on drugs.”

■“From Venus? Then you’re Venusian. But the proper term is Venereal. Unfortunately doctors nabbed it before astrophysicists did.”

■“I hear that the flat-Earth movement may be gaining momentum all around the globe.”

■“Who would Jesus vote for? To him walls, wealth and torture are non-starters, so probably the Jewish New Yorker from Vermont.”

■“In @StarWars #TheForceAwakens, BB-8, a smooth rolling metal spherical ball, would have skidded uncontrollably on sand.”

■“Now that robots move their limbs smoothly and with grace, I wonder how we’re supposed to imitate them on the dance floor.”