Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks science knowledge, media literacy in speech at KSU

Matthew Merchant

More than 900 people packed the Student Center Ballroom and another 400 watched live simulcast in the Kiva as Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and pop culture icon, spoke at Kent State on Wednesday as part of the Presidential Speaker Series.

“We’re just going to chill tonight,” Tyson said as he emptied his pockets and kicked off his shoes. Responding with laughter, the audience applauded the ease at which Tyson made himself comfortable.

The presentation, entitled “An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper,” touched on a wide variety of topics and recent moments from media, including newspaper headlines and deceptively reported articles. It also combined the ignorance of America when it comes to science with the possibilities for a brighter future.

Tyson expressed his frustration with the way in which people in America respond to simple scientific issues in magazines or newspaper articles. Using the example of the full moon, he said the media “make stuff up” in order to gain a reader’s attention. In ignorance, Tyson said, people believe almost anything.

“We are dumb, stupid, ignorant about some really cool things in the universe,” Tyson said. From comets coming close to earth to the farthest planet in the solar system, Pluto, being demoted to a ball of ice, Tyson said the lack of knowledge in basic science is troubling.

“The earth wants to kill you,” he said. “The universe wants to kill you, too.” Tyson said natural disasters on earth and space have a chance to kill humans. He said meteors such as the Rose Bowl-seized Apophis, due to come near to earth in 2029, are what humans should really be focused on.

“Some people,” Tyson said, “look at [potential asteroid strikes] and say, ‘Let’s just blow that sucker up.’” But Tyson said he advocates for a more scientific response, such as dragging potential earth-bound asteroids into a different orbit or mining them for minerals.

After moments of humor, Tyson moved toward more serious topics such as America’s “fading” role in the world as a scientific expert. He used 2005’s Hurricane Katrina as an example.

“Faulty engineering drowned New Orleans, not Katrina,” he said. “Our hubris prevents us from admitting that we are fading fast.”

In a meeting with media earlier in the day, Tyson has expressed his desire to see funding to NASA increase by half a penny from one fourth of a penny per dollar. This small increase, he said, would be enough to reinvent the space agency and provide a sense of hope for the American people.

Tyson described NASA and the American space program as “a force of nature in its ability to inspire people to want to become scientists and engineers.”

At the end of his nearly two-hour presentation, Tyson took time for questions from the audience.

“It was amazing,” said senior nursing major Germaine Stewart, who got Tyson to autograph a copy of his book for her. “It was breathtaking and inspiring and very, very humbling.”

Like Stewart, Nicholas Tietz, who attended the presentation, thought Tyson was encouraging.

“One of the things that was so humbling about it was all the examples of bad science and bad engineering coming out of the U.S.,” Teitz said.“He wasn’t afraid to say it as it is, which is kind of depressing. I would like us to do well at that.”

Stewart said Tyson’s message was loud and clear.

“Among all the humor was a very good point that scientific strides lack in America,” Stewart said, “and we should do something about it.”

Contact Matthew Merchant at [email protected].