I laughed a lot, though.
Neil deGrasse Tyson gave the inaugural Dunlap Award lecture over at the University of Toronto on Friday. A couple of tickets dropped into my hands at the last moment, a bit of karma for a minor role I’d played at the recent Toronto Science Festival. They were even VIP tickets, so we got really good seats and didn’t have to line up or anything.
But the talk itself. Hmmm.
I was expecting the man to be interesting and informative. I wasn’t expecting him to be hilarious. And yet, I gotta say; the laughs-per-minute came faster than they usually do on The Daily Show, maybe even as fast as they come on Colbert. They were accessible laughs, too; my date for the evening was only eleven years old, and if anything she howled more than I did. Neil deGrasse Tyson presents as kind of a cross between Jon Stewart and Bill Cosby; I suspect he may have been the class clown back in high school (as it turns out that would be the Bronx High School of Science, the same institution that schooled a guy by the name of Samuel Delany).
Tyson started off by telling everyone to get over the Pluto thing. He moved on to money: showed us a selection of paper currencies from around the world as he cleverly sidled into the relative esteem in which science is held throughout the world’s nations. (Germany came out on top. Their money comes with an honest-to-god Gaussian distribution printed on the back— or at least it did, before the Euro swept that continent. Canada does okay; we’ve got the Canadarm on our fives. The US, well…) He showed us a periodic table in which each element was coded by the country-of-discovery. He ranted about the brain-dead superstition that keeps so many North American elevators from admitting the existence of a thirteenth floor, he praised the willingness of the Germans to use negative numbers in the labeling of underground sublevels. He told us about the Golden Age of Islam, and mourned Dubya’s boneheaded claim in the wake of 9/11 that the ‘Murrican God had “named the stars”, whereas in fact pretty much every star in the visible celestial sphere has an Arabic name.
He did all of this in service of a single point: the power and the influence that any nation can expect to wield has historically correlated to how much they invest in science.
Then he showed us a map of the world in which each nation’s size was weighted by the per-capita production of peer-reviewed scientific papers. Europe swole up like Betelguese. Japan covered half the Pacific. Africa withered down to an umbilical cord dangling off the Med, and Canada— Canada was basically reduced to a wide purple belt cinched across the top of a shrunken-but-still-respectable US.
Then he showed us the same map weighted not by current publication rate, but by trend-line: by the rate at which peer-reviewed research was increasing or declining over time. Once again, Japan and Europe loomed large over the whole damn planet. Brazil was up-and-coming; the US continued to wither. Africa disappeared entirely.
So did Canada.
Tyson wondered why that might be. The audience grumbled with a single furious simmering voice: Harper. At least we’ve got the Canadarm on our $5 bills.
There was a lot of other stuff. He talked about Cosmos a bit. He learned a new word (“euphonious”). He shared hate-mail from third graders, and brushed up against the nonbaryonic. He worked the crowd like the pro he was, found an identical twin and asked her if she’d ever wanted to harvest her sisters organs (yeah, we got into cloning a bit too). He engaged a woman wearing Pluto t-shirt emblazoned with the words: NEVER FORGET. He debated GMO with someone way up in the balcony. He shook hands and high-fived and had us all in the palm of his hand for the whole three hours.
I would have asked him questions— Micropone would have, too— but the moment we turned around to locate the microphones there were already a dozen people piled up behind each. Besides, I had so much to ask. I wanted to ask what he thought of Christof Wetteric’s new model that does away with dark energy and dark matter entirely, claims that the universe is not expanding after all but just getting fat. I wanted to ask what he thought of Tegmark’s take on Digital Physics, whether the universe really is a vast quantum computer, or whether Lee Smolin is on to something with his natural-selection cosmology that not only allows the laws of physics to change, but demands that they do. I wanted to challenge his oft-repeated claim (and repeated again, that night) that scientists are at least partly to blame for the abysmal state of scientific ignorance in North America, that they should be reaching out more and engaging; I wondered what he thought of all those studies showing reason simply doesn’t work when someone’s mind is made up. Even if I’d got to the front of the line, I would never have been able to limit myself to just one question, and it would have been unseemly to hog the mic. So me and the ‘pone, we stayed in our seats.
Beers, though. Man, I’d love to sit Tyson down at a bar and ply him with beers and just ask questions until last call.
I brought my camera, but I can’t show you any pictures of the man in motion; can’t show you any of the slides and maps that had such an impact. Photography and recording devices of all kinds were forbidden. Ostensibly this was to ensure “the enjoyment of the audience”— but given that the talk was neither streamed nor will be made available online, I suspect it might just have been ol’ Neal’s way of making sure that he could give the same talk in a bunch of different venues, without half his audience grumbling that they’d already seen all this stuff on Youtube.
Not that Tyson has anything against Youtube, mind you. In fact, he kept us five minutes late just to show us this clip of his enthused and articulate ode to Isaac Newton— followed by this remix of the same footage, slowed down just enough to turn Neil deGrasse Tyson into the Ultimate Stoner.
It’s the only thing I’m allowed to show you from that night. I think you’ll find it’s time well spent.
Postscript: Oh, wait. Turns out not everyone shares my respect for authority. Here’s a clandestine video of the lot of us watching Tyson watching Tyson. If you look closely a few rows from the front, you can even see me.