Tyson in the Ring

Didn’t Kill him.  Didn’t hug him.

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.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday March 24 2014at 10:03 am , filed under ink on art, reviews, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

10 Responses to “Tyson in the Ring”

  1. And to think, I knew him when he was just “Neil”…

  2. Here’s a more open link Wetterich’s model.

    http://www.nature.com/news/cosmologist-claims-universe-may-not-be-expanding-1.13379

  3. I’m no tyson but I can take a stab at a couple of those: I’m pretty sure cosmological natural selection is disfavoured, as it predicts that the universe should be optimised for black hole generation. I’m sure I came across a couple of papers a few years ago that can be summarised as “As far as we can tell, it isn’t”.

    Tegmarks ideas are interesting but inherently untestable. The only prediction he makes is that the universe will continue to behave in an internally consistent manner that can be described by some sort of mathematics, which is what most people expect to happen anyway.

  4. hey look – your experience was more unique than you give him credit for – that leaked video made huffpost science *and* comedy today. love it. I struggle with presenting science (and medicine) to the public… (Cat owner on Friday, ‘If she were a human you’d know what was wrong with her without doing an ultrasound.”). Humor is a great start! I also wish more women were role models for STEM fields.

  5. Scott Aaronson’s engagement with Max Tegmark on his MUH is the politest, most technical, and most productive discussion I’ve ever seen in the comment section of a blog.

    http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=1753

  6. As an aside, I was sitting down to eat lunch and grabbed “Crysis:Legion” pretty much at random. I had forgotten how funny and great it is. Please write more sci-fic war porn in the future [feature request]

  7. I’m curious how he handled the GMO topic, Peter.

    Scientists debating outside their area of expertise can sound pretty uninformed. (And I’ve started to listen attentively into Cosmos’ direction ever since they glorified some medieval madman who argued from religious doctrine into a champion of science: http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=8741)

  8. Some friends and I sat down to watch the first episode of the Tyson rebooted ‘Cosmos’. We all gagged. First of all, a show that’s supposed to be “science Yay!” should get basic facts right, such as that neither the asteroid belt nor the Kuiper belt are dense clouds of rocks like in Star Wars. The non-sciencey but receptive common folk who are, I suppose, the show’s target demographic, ought not to be misled by the standard Holywood misconceptions! Secondly, any theists who want to argue that “Science” is just another religion, with its own dogmas and dubious sainthood-stories, need only point to this show.

    Certainly there *is* a “secular church”, much more widespread and deeply felt than Christianity nowadays, whose prinicipal tenet is that (technological) Progress can only lead to better things. Carl Sagan was, wittingly or not, a pontiff of that church, and Tyson his successor. One of the reasons I like Mr. Watts’ novels is that he knows better.

  9. dpb: I’m no tyson but I can take a stab at a couple of those: I’m pretty sure cosmological natural selection is disfavoured, as it predicts that the universe should be optimised for black hole generation. I’m sure I came across a couple of papers a few years ago that can be summarised as “As far as we can tell, it isn’t”.

    My understanding is that Smolin’s next book actually answers those critiques. But of course, I’m in no position to pass judgment on either side…

    Steve: Scott Aaronson’s engagement with Max Tegmark on his MUH is the politest, most technical, and most productive discussion I’ve ever seen in the comment section of a blog.

    Wow. No way do I have time to dig through all 264 comments, but I see what you mean. Man, if only all scientific disagreements were like this.

    Esebian: I’m curious how he handled the GMO topic, Peter.

    He trotted out the usual “make sure you understand what you’re critiquing before you critique it” line — which is utterly true, of course, but the woman up in the gallery didn’t actually have a chance to get specific about her objections so Tyson came across as a wee bit condescending. The whole selective-breeding-of-dogs-and-corn-is-genetic-engineering, and twins-are-clones-so-begone-with-your-concerns-about-the-ethics-of-cloning shtick. Personally, I think there’s a significant difference between breeding cats for cuteness over generations vs. injection a synthetic gene for gasoline production into an organism that’s never had that before. You’re basically creating chimeras in the space of a single generation, and you’re not just mixing up extant genetic material, you’re adding new stuff that hasn’t existed anywhere else in the clade before. Much as I love cats, I am not convinced.

    Still, a lot of the naysayers are pretty uninformed. Just going by the odds, Tyson’s approach might have been the best for avoiding and extended and unproductive argument.

    a scruffian: Some friends and I sat down to watch the first episode of the Tyson rebooted ‘Cosmos’. We all gagged. First of all, a show that’s supposed to be “science Yay!” should get basic facts right, such as that neither the asteroid belt nor the Kuiper belt are dense clouds of rocks like in Star Wars.

    Yeah, I noticed that too. I also noticed Brannon Braga’s name all over the credits, which explains the incredibly Star Trek:Voyagery title sequence. Still, you work with what you’ve got; and given that a majority of Americans think we should be “teaching the controversy”, I’m not gonna complain about spectacularly-inaccurate FX if they do serve to bring a bit of enlightenment into the darkness on balance.

    BTW, best-ever cinematic portrayal of a spaceship passing through the asteroid belt? 2001: A Space Odyssey. You get a brief glimpse of a couple of rocks tumbling through space with Discovery in the distance, and that’s it.\

  10. Seruko (Free Candy Inside Van):
    As an aside, I was sitting down to eat lunch and grabbed “Crysis:Legion” pretty much at random. I had forgotten how funny and great it is. Please write more sci-fic war porn in the future [feature request]

    I’d be happy to, if they wanted. There was actually an option for me to write another Crysis book, but they went with someone else. I think Cevat got a bit pissed off at a couple of the things I managed to slip under his guard the first time around. Pretty much what you’d expect from someone whose personal archetype of “dark sf” is Iron Man…