Tag Archives: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

I don’t know much about astronomy, but I am a scientist and I know this. One key scientific concept that is rarely grasped by non scientists but at the same time drives much of science itself is variation.

Indeed, the understanding that variation is key is one of the characteristics that separates the ancients, who may have engaged in what looks like science but rarely advanced true understanding, and the moderns (to oversimplify greatly, ironically).

The moon and other celestial bodies always do the same thing, never change in their course or appearance, and once one has finished cataloguing them, there is nothing else to see.

Or is there? Isn’t there in fact change all the time? Isn’t change itself the essence of the universe? Is it not true that a star is a dynamic thing that has a birth, stages of life, a death, and from its remnants come other things? Isn’t this how astronomers like Neil DeGrasse Tyson are able to utter such brilliances as “I am made of star dust”??? Don’t planets form, collide with things or things with them, cool, change dramatically across the surface, even break lose form their orbits now and then? Continue reading Why Neil deGrasse Tyson is Wrong about the Supermoon

New Neil deGrasse Tyson Book Out Now

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by NdGT is now available.

What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.

While you wait for your morning coffee to brew, for the bus, the train, or a plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.

Give a listen to my interview with NdGT, from a few years back. Which, by the way, was a great interview, because I did two things to prepare. First, I checked out several other interviews done of him, and vowed to not ask any of those questions. Second, I read all his books and looked into his professional and academic background, and mostly asked him questions about his area of research. Do you know what his specific research area is? Most people don’t. Find out.

His new book is actually more about his research are than many of his other books are.

#Cosmos with @neiltyson – The first episode is a win.

If you missed the first (or later any) episode of Cosmos 2014, you can get it on Amazon Prime streaming (for a fee). It’s worth it. Here are a few comments I jotted down (then lightly edited) while watching the first episode.

Neil does have his own spaceship, like Carl did. That’s important because it lets him fly to interesting places. It is one of those spaceships of the imagination. Everybody should have one.

The visuals are amazing and informative and seem to be scientifically accurate to the extent possible. There is quite a bit of attention to scale, and how perspective shifts with changing scales, throughout the episode.

The predominant metaphor is that of a journey, starting with Earth which Neil takes little time to leave, where he quickly covers the details of the solar system. He spends a lot of time on Jupiter but barely touches on Uranus. Uranus and Neptune are the outermost planets. Then “beyond the outermost planet there is a swarm of tens of thousands of frozen worlds. And Pluto is one of them.” (Made me laugh.)

Then Voyager One, which reminds me of a story. Neil notes that this spacecraft, the one that has gone farthest of any we’ve launched, bears a message to distant and future possible recipients that includes “the music we made.”

One day in the Ituri Forest, living in a camp with the Efe Pygmies, we had a tape player and a few cassettes (a pre-iTunes device using plastic ribbons on which sounds could be stored). The music was playing, and Happiness Is A Warm Gun by the Beatles came on. About the time Mother Superior jumped the gun, the Efe guy who was one of our main informants, who also turned out to be something of a shaman, came running over.

“Turn that off, turn that off,” he said. He was perturbed.

“Why?” I replied, switching off the machine, thinking that he had heard something out in the forest, perhaps a herd of elephants heading our way, which had been a concern lately since they were in the neighborhood.

“That music is evil. It will make it rain, really bad.”

“Oh, OK.”

“Thunder and ligtning and floods!”

“OK, Ok.”

“Don’t play that again!”

I never played that tape again while in the Ituri.

But it occurs to me now that something similar could happen a billion years from now when Voyager One is finally discovered by intelligent beings from some other planet. How do we know that what we think of as music, with all it’s meaning and lack thereof, a thing that expresses cultural depth but usually enjoyed with no reference to meaning at all, will be seen in the same way by the Blorgons, or whoever it is that discovers it? Maybe they will think it is powerful magic and they will want more. Maybe they fight with music and will see it as a challenge. Maybe to them it will be a mating call. Either way, we could be screwed.

OK, back to Cosmos.

I’ve noticed that so far Neil has used the terms “countless” and “numberless” and “trillion” but not yet Billions. Just sayin’

Wait wait there it is! Approximately countdown 34:33 from the end. Billions of something. Orts.

Now on to other stars’ planets, and the new post-original-Cosmos scientific fact: Planets outnumber the stars. Carl may have guessed that but he didn’t know. Now we know. Also, that there are rogue planets, that are not in orbit around any sun. There are billions of them in our galaxy. Another post-Sagan fact. Possible places for life.

Life: What is it? We only know about Earth Life.

And now on to the spectrographic analysis of the universe. This is a theme Neil has written about and that we chatted about in our interview in 2011 (here). How astronomers see. Very interesting stuff. I’ll bet he’ll do a lot of that in the series.

Eventually, we’re outside the Milky Way Galaxy, and looking at other galaxies. Helpful text overlays give us the key terminology. And more with scale; the tiny dots are stars, then the tiny dots are galaxies. Then all this wiggly wobbly stuff that is the stuff of the universe. Super mind blowing cosmic fact: There are parts of the universe that are too far away to see because there hasn’t been time for the light from those regions to reach us. So how do we see cosmic background radiation which comes from the entire universe? Aha. That will probably be covered later.

Then the Multiverse. Looks a bit like Niagara Falls.

Now back to a brief history of human thinking about the cosmos. All that wrong stuff that we eventually climbed out of. Giordano Bruno, back to earth, Neil is on the streets of Italy.

Here we see animated cartoon graphics. I love the fact that the basic style of the cartoons is a serious version of the Scooby Doo style.

Copernicus, Giodna Brno, Galileo, the search for a better understanding of the universe. Reference to Lucretius, “On the nature of things” which includes the metaphor of shooting an arrow out beyond the edge of the universe. That reminds me of a story.

Again, back to the Ituri Forest. My friend Steve Winn told me this story, while we were both in the Ituri. Most of the researchers who went there had a similar experience in that we were expected to tell the story of our journey from home to the forest. One of the elements of that journey is, for most, crossing the ocean in a plane. But in the Ituri, there are only tiny planes that are rarely seen and the largest bodies of water are medium size rivers and large swamps. It is almost impossible to convey the vastness of even a mid-sized ocean like the North Atlantic.

So one day Steve tried this, when talking about the journey across the sea.

“Imagine standing on the edge of the Uele river,” pointing down to the nearby, rather small, river. “And shooting across an arrow. That would be easy.”

Nods of assent from the Efe men listening to the story.

“Now imagine a larger river that most people couldn’t shoot across.”


“Now imagine the strongest archer with the strongest bow shooting the straightest arrow across the water and it can never reach the other side.”

Eyes widening.

“The ocean is much much bigger than that.”

Personally, I don’t think that conveys the size of the ocean, but it does serve to begin to break the barrier at the edge of knowable experience. Did the Efe men really understand the size of the ocean from that story? Do the watchers of Cosmos really understand the vastness of the Universe by Neil’s reference to some of it being so far away that the light from it has not reached us yet?

Anyway, Brno had a hallucinogenic dream that the sun was only one of many stars. Got in all sorts of trouble. I guess he didn’t expect the Italian Inquisition. Good version of the story of the first realizations of the nature of the universe.

And now, finally, the Cosmic Calendar, Neil deGrasse Tyson style. Here comes the Big Bang. Better put on sunglasses.

It would be interesting to do a day by day comparison between Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar and Neil’s to compare what we now know vs. then, what is emphasized, and the styles. Any volunteers?

Anyway, “We are made of starstuff.” Scrape that moment out and put it in Memeland.

Tides. Turns out you can explain them. Life. And sex is invented. It must be getting December.

The KT extinction event totally made me laugh. Contingently.

Sagan did not have the Laetoli footprints but Neil does.

And the introductory episode, which is bookended by appropriate references to Sagan, ends with a very quick summary of human history, the invention of astronomy, writing, and science. And finally the Sagan-Tyson link is made, which you would know if you read Neil’s autobiography but if you don’t you’ll enjoy hearing about it here. You’ll get all choked up.

Cosmos 2014 is coming

This is an interesting interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, writer/producer Ann Druyan, and Cosmos Studio president Mitchell Cannold about the new series Cosmos 2014. I am very much looking forward to this series, and it is very much time to make a new Cosmos, and entirely appropriate to do so.

I pretty much agree with everything they say, and I especially like the fact that cosmos 2014 is being produced in part as a reaction to three decades of anti-science activism and propaganda.

I was very disappointed with one thing Ann Druyan said. She made the unqualified (and undocumented) claim that science is taught very poorly and therefore nobody gets it. I wish the world was so simple. In many, many instances science is taught as well as it can be given the resources available to science teachers. Vicariously through my wife, a high school science teacher, directly through my own guest appearances in various science classes, and as an oft-time teacher of college introductory classes, I know that many kids get turned on to science in high school, and not because they suffer a “grueling and horrendous experience” as Ann Druyan labels it. Science teaching in this country is under assault from the very anti-science forces that she claims, quite correctly, abound. Tossing science teaching under the buss wholesale is not helpful. Neil also speaks of how horrible science education is, and he has valid points, but he refers mainly to public science communication and TV documentaries, etc. Which does, indeed, mostly suck.

There is more here on space.com

Ironic that this is a FOX news corp production. But then again, so are most of the National Geographic specials.

Space Chronicles: Neil deGrasse Tyson's New Book

i-7bd390062f3760739898800fe36380e2-9780393082104_custom.jpgNeil deGrasse Tyson has a new book out: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. It is (as one might guess) about space exploration, and assembles earlier speeches and writings with some new stuff. This is an interesting time to be talking about the space program, as NASA seems to be producing new results ever week, there are large and small space robots on their way to distant orbs, or soon to be launched, we are on the verge of understanding the potential of life on Mars on a basic level, we are finding more earth-ish Exoplanets and at the same time the sky is falling, or at least, trashed with litter from one of the most significant, direct and obvious side effects of the space program: We humans get to ruin not just the air and the sea and the land, but also, near space!

From a recent NPR interview:
Continue reading Space Chronicles: Neil deGrasse Tyson's New Book