Making science even sexier

14 July 2017

Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson's Auckland show was on Sunday 9 July
Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson's Auckland show was on Sunday 9 July

'He is to the sky what David Attenborough is to nature.'

'The sexiest astrophysicist alive.'

Just two of the superlative accolades bestowed on Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson: astrophysicist, cosmologist, best-selling author, Emmy® Award-winning TV producer and host, science communicator, and recipient of 19 honorary doctorates. Phew.

It’s safe to say the excitement around Dr Tyson’s first visit to New Zealand was at fever pitch. And rightly so.

The world-renowned expert on star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the make-up of the Milky Way is passionate about bringing science to the masses. His New Zealand tour (he also performed in Christchurch) was part of his tireless efforts to educate people about the wonders of science and our universe.

At a time when terms like ‘fake news’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ have crept in to common parlance, Dr Tyson’s mission to develop a more rational society equipped to deal with the problems of the future has never been more important.

"The most dangerous people in a free society are those who don't know," he has been quoted as saying.

"It's okay to not know. But if you don't know and think you do know, that is dangerous. Those are the signs of the end of an informed democracy."

And so, in a near-capacity Spark Arena, Dr Tyson informed his audience – with grace and humour – of the importance of learning to make critical judgements for themselves.

"We need to be taught not just what to know, but how to think", he said.

When many believe that the world is rapidly approaching the singularity (the hypothesis that rapid technological progress, particularly the invention of artificial superintelligence, will be the ‘tipping point’ when machines become smarter than humans), it was refreshing to hear Dr Tyson extol the virtues of relying on our own brain power and capacity for rational thought:

“What app did you use? The brain app!”, he quipped.

Our very own theoretical cosmologist and head of Physics, Professor Richard Easther, proclaimed A Cosmic Perspective “a masterclass in science communication.”

“The most exciting part of the event was getting to watch Tyson create a personal connection with his audience,” he enthuses.

“As an astrophysicist it was a great reminder that, while my discipline is a small part of the overall scientific community, it has an outsize role to play in fostering public engagement with science.

“This is both an opportunity and an obligation for everyone in the field.”

Professor Cather Simpson, of the School of Chemical Sciences and the Department of Physics, agrees.

“The size of the crowd and the level of their active and enthusiastic engagement with Dr Tyson's presentation was inspiring. I had no idea there were so many optimistic, happy nerds in New Zealand!

“Tyson has a captivating presence, especially for his target audience of young people. We sat behind a row of University of Auckland students who spent the time waiting for the show to start by engaging in a rousing argument about what the fifth root of i would be!”

Following his presentation, Dr Tyson shared the stage with Nanogirl Dr Michelle Dickinson for more personal science chat, including his perception on diversity in science.

Professor Easther says, “He shared a lot of stories but, for me, the one that really hit home was his account of the first time he appeared on TV.

“When he was a PhD student at Columbia University he ended up fielding a phone call from a reporter, which led to an invitation to appear on camera.

“When he watched the broadcast later, he realised that it was the first time he had seen an African-American being interviewed about a topic that had nothing to do with sports, or being African-American.”

Dr Tyson summed up the importance of representation in science with the simple – and often overlooked – statement: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

In New Zealand we’re lucky we can often see the stars. Because, you know, we’re all stars. We’re all made of stardust.