Springfield, IL- Renown astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson visited the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Friday, March 10, 2017. Prior to giving an inspiring, informative and animated presentation to the public, Dr. Tyson conducted a brief interview session with local media organizations, including Jesse Durdel, founder of CHAOSPIRATIONS. A transcript is available below the video.
[Dr. Tyson]: Hi press!
Look at how much energy we spend complaining about who our leaders are and no time can be spent complaining about ourselves, who are doing the voting.
So, that’s why you don’t see me beating elected leaders over the head, because somebody put them in office.
As an educator, I think to protect our democracy what we need is as informed a public as we possibly can generate.
That would be the task of the educators and the school systems and the school boards.
And when you do this then you can have some hope that when people vote when people pass legislation, especially in the twenty first century, where so much depends on your understanding of the science with regard to energy climate transportation housing food… all these major sectors of our society in the future will require insights and innovations and STEM fields.
So, this is where literacy in those fields matters.
So as an educator I think we need as informed an electorate as possible, lest we unravel this thing we call a democracy.
What matters to me is not whether someone is scientifically illiterate, Actually, it’s a free country… You can be scientifically illiterate. There’s no law against that. But, if you were scientifically illiterate and you’re in a position of power, then that… that doesn’t work. So we need to pay close attention to the level at which science matters among people who are in positions of making important decisions.
And I can tell you this as a democracy, and as a capitalist democracy, it seems to be an easy set-up when you remind people that innovations in science and technology are the engines of tomorrow’s economy. The growth engines, we’ve known this since the industrial revolution.
So the extent to which you deny what role science and technology can play in our
civilization, this is a recipe for the unraveling for everything we knew this country to be. And, by the way, the world will still go on. Other countries know this. And the United States will fade on the world stage, no longer relevant to important decisions about the future of the planet made by others. And I grew up in a United States where we were kind of leading the way in making those kinds of decisions. So I find that a bit disappointing that I don’t see that today, but that’s what I’m working to do… that’s why I’m here and other places.
I think somewhere in K-12, somewhere in there. What is the education system? We think of it as… we’re all vessels… empty vessels, and the teacher pours information into that vessel, close it up and say now you’re… here’s your diploma. I think, you know… it’s missing something. That’s an important part of education, but it’s not the only part.
Perhaps a more important part is understanding how and why things are, understanding what science is and how and why it works. Because our civilization pivots on that.
So the solution again, may be simplified. …In the educational system, somewhere in there, we need to learn what this is. Because if you don’t then you become an adult that doesn’t know what it is, but that’s the problem. Science literacy I think… when you look in a book and say well do you know what a DNA molecule is what is it or what is the Big Bang or the internal combustion engine? Yes, it’s an aspect of science literacy.
I think the most important part of science literacy, is how is your brain wired for thought? So when someone wants to sell you something do you just… that’s kind of hard to believe? Right? Here I have these crystals and you rub them and they heal all of your ailments… right? So… do you just reject it outright? That’s not being scientifically literate. Scientifically literate would be… you always gotta ask the question. If you reject it outright or accept it outright, each of those lines of behavior are equally intellectually lazy.
It’s a little harder to introduce a line of questioning. Where’d you get the crystals? What are they made of? How much do they cost? Do you have evidence of them working? What is it that they cure? How quickly do they work? Ask these questions! That is science literacy, and that is the manifestation of curiosity.
What happens in our school systems? Curiosity gets beaten out of us. Little children are curious. They’re born scientists. Somewhere in there I don’t know what grade, seventh or eighth. You spend all these years teaching them how to walk and talk, and those two years telling them how to shut up and sit down. And that… when you do that… you are squashing the curiosity and the ultimate creativity of an entire generation. And so.. the future is in the hands of how we train the next generation. But, adults are in charge right now. And so I care deeply when adults don’t understand science and how and why it works.
Not many people know… I didn’t even know until a couple of years ago… how much science infused President Lincoln’s thinking. Do you know President Lincoln is the only President to hold a patent? Only President to hold a patent.
Do you know, in 1863 when they clearly had other priorities on the docket he signed into law the creation of the National Academy of Sciences? Which to this day, has been charged with advising the Executive branch and others on all the ways that the emerging discoveries of science can and should impact policy.
This gets overshadowed, understandably, by the war and by slavery and by freedom and all the other things that bubble to the top of the list of things we think of when we think of Lincoln.
But there’s other things going on in there as well and I was given the Lincoln Leadership Award, I was shocked initially and then I did my homework and thought wow, somebody’s noticing my work and they’re connecting it with a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s profile.
And in this way, the greater public can better appreciate it… that there’s much more going on with that guy (Lincoln) than being President of the United States.
[COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR]: We’ve got time for one more.
[Chaospirations writer Jesse Durdel]: Dr. Tyson, what book would you recommend every American read,
Not just school-aged children, what book would you recommend (or books)?
[Dr. Tyson]: Wow, occasionally every few years I get asked that. And then I type up a list, there’s a list online… there are eight books that are on line. I think it was the New York Times, somebody asked me that.
[chaospirations writer Jesse Durdel]: Has that list changed in light of current events?
[Dr. Tyson]: No no no… the eight books, I would… I’d keep them. Those eight books.
There’s a book that… I didn’t write, a physicist colleague of mine, Richard Moller, “Physics for Future Presidents” or some title like that. It’s like… here’s some science, if you’re going to run the country, keep this next to you.
[Chaospirations writer Jesse Durdel]: That’s actually a class.
[Dr. Tyson]: That’d be a great class. You know what would be cool, if every member of congress, and the executive branch, and judges all have to take some science classes.
Look at what you have to do to do other things in life… you gotta take driver’s ed to get a driver’s license, you know things that you consider important. So, wouldn’t that be interesting? Because you don’t need them to be scientists, you just need them to have a sense of the awesome power to shape not only our nation, but out health, our wealth, our security, but also the direction of our civilization itself.
[Portions of the interview session were omitted due to inaudible dialogue.]
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