Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysicist

In the House of Representatives, people who have similar interests will often form a caucus, or a group of people to promote that particular cause.  The topic is limited only by the imagination, so groups range from the Congressional Black Caucus to the Congressional Spina Bifida Caucus to the Minor League Baseball Caucus.  The newest entry is a Science and the National Labs Caucus, and their lead-off event was a talk by Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  One of the Fellows shared the event anouncement, so a group of us navigated the underground tunnels from the Senate office buildings through the Capitol Visitor’s Center to the Library of Congress where the event was held.

Dr. Tyson is an extremely engaging speaker who happens to have a million Twitter followers.  His talk was to illustrate the importance of science to society in general, but it was told in a series of stories that each built off each other.  I will do my best to do him justice.

The genesis of his talk began when Columbia University did a project on the History of the World.  They had asked Carl Sagan to contribute a chapter, but when Sagan was unable to help due to health problems, they asked Tyson.  Nothing like having big shoes to fill!

Tyson chose as his theme, “Discovery,” figuring that that should take him easily through dozens of pages.  He wanted to explore our historical transition from the discovery of places to the discovery of ideas.  Sometimes the two have worked hand in hand, such as Columbus’ journey and the probes sent to Mars.  Upon reflection, Tyson realized that he could only identify three motivations or drives for nations and states to do great things:

1)      I don’t want to die.

This motivation is particularly strong during war and spawned projects such as the construction of the Great Wall of China and the WWII Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.  As Tyson put it, “During war, money flows like a river.”

2)      Promise of economic return

This driver is significant during peacetime, as seen by the explorations of Columbus and of Lewis and Clark

3)      Praise of royalty or deity

Although this motivation is less significant today, it was the driver for the construction of the great cathedrals and of the pyramids.

Going back to the first motivation, Tyson reflected on the connecting between physics and war.  He suggested that war, reduced to its most fundamental component, is physics.  Physicists are experts in matter, motion, and energy.  In war, the goal is to move energy and matter from a starting point to a target.  Yes, that does ignore all of the emotions and politics of war, but it was an interesting observation.

The field of physics often advances extremely rapidly, one might say explosively, during wartime, but the end of that “I don’t want to die” motivator tends to bring progress to an abrupt halt.  In 1989, when peace broke out in Europe, suddenly the question was asked, “Why are we spending so much money on physics?” and the budget for particle physics was immediately cut to zero.

At that time, there was a particle physics project called the Supercollider that was in progress, and stripping the funding killed the project.  As a result the Higgs Boson was discovered in 2012 at the CERN supercollider in Europe rather than in the US.  If the Supercollider had gone forward, the discovery would have been made in the US some 20 years earlier.

For the non-physicists in the audience, Tyson went on to describe the Higgs Boson, which is the long elusive particle that grants mass to other particles.  It is often called the “God Particle,” since as Tyson explained, “If you hand out mass, you’re in charge!”

Some projects simply cannot be accomplished outside of government funding, often because the pay-off is not fast enough for corporations or industry.  Government generally has a longer timescale, although there is always a group of people who want to see a rapid conversion of the research into profit, invoking the second motivation for doing great things, seeing an economic return.  Tyson would love to see Congress required to pass at least one law every year that has a timescale longer than the next election cycle.  He went to give a number of examples of the substantial time delay between a number of fundamental discoveries and their transforming effect on society.

The first example began with Newton, who in the 1700’s understood heat but not energy.  As Faraday was experimenting to gain an understanding of energy in the 1800’s, a government minister stopped by and asked him what was the purpose and application of his study.  Faraday replied, “I don’t know what use this will be someday, but I’m sure you will tax it!”

Of quantum physics in the 1920’s, Tyson commented, “You don’t get crazier than that!”  Fifty years later, that basic research developed into information technology.  Tyson’s own research advisor studies gas clouds between starts, and his work in astrophysics, cross-pollinated with other areas of science, laid the groundwork for magnetic resonance, including the NMR used in chemistry and the MRI used in medical imaging.  Einstein’s work led to lasers and then to barcodes.  Mathematician Gauss’s method of least squares was developed into the ability to track and predict the path of asteroids. Without these basic research explorations, the technology would never have been developed.

In response to the inevitable question, “Why am I learning this?” the answer in basic research is often, “I don’t know yet.”  (But as Michael Faraday said, it will probably be taxed at some point in the future.)  Tyson argued that a healthy science program guarantees a healthy economic future, and we really can’t afford not to invest in our science programs.

At this point, he took out a dollar bill and held it up to the audience. He said if you take a pair of scissors and cut off the white strip at the right hand side of the bill – without touching the ink, and then do the same to the left hand side of the bill, those two white strips represent the portion of the Federal budget devoted to scientific research and development.  Not very much.

The launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 became a huge driver of science and technology development in the United States.  Tyson found that exploration is an insignificant driver of great acts; NASA was created in reaction to the threat of superior technology and its destructive potential.  It was understood that the country that controlled the skies, controlled the Earth.  Putting a man on the moon, that dream at the other end of the pipeline, not only spurred innovation, but also inspired people to rise to meet their academic and intellectual potential.

The publication of Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring” in 1962 is often credited with launching the environmental movement, but Tyson argued persuasively that the start of that transformation was another event entirely.


the Earth without clouds

the Earth without clouds


At Christmas in 1968, Apollo 8 took the first men around the moon and back.  As they were coming around from behind the moon, they took the iconic photograph, “Earth rise,” which was published far and wide.  In that photograph, there were no boundaries between countries.  It also became apparent how much of the Earth’s atmosphere is occupied by clouds; prior to that photograph, the Earth was most commonly drawn without clouds.  The view of the Earth has been the most striking memory of the astronauts from that historic mission to the Moon.  The innate fragility of that colored sphere in the vast blackness of space also had an immediate impact on the Earth’s inhabitants.

Earth Rise, taken from Apollo 8

Earth Rise, taken from Apollo 8

In the following year, the use of the word “environment” in books tripled.  In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was created and the first Earth Day was celebrated.  The international humanitarian aid group Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971.  The following year, DDT was banned for use as a pesticide.  In 1973, catalytic converters were added to automobiles to reduce their pollution emissions.

NASA is the poster child for what science can do for society.  Tyson argues that that single photographic image, made possible through a remarkable effort to expand the frontiers of place and idea through science, transformed who we are, how we relate to each other and how we move forward.


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