Neil deGrasse Tyson: ‘The Universe Is in Us’
It’s not an easy task to combine comedy and science. The last time I tried to make such a joke, my friend angrily stared at me for a few seconds, slapped me, and told me never to try that again. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson seems to have figured out the right formula, however, and it probably has something to do with the fact that unlike me, he knows what he is talking about.
Stepping onto the Eisenhower Auditorium stage, Tyson slipped off his shoes and relieved the weight from his pockets, prepping himself for an intimate evening. The last of this year’s SPA’s Distinguished Speaker Series, the man who helped turned Pluto “from a planet, to a dirty ice ball,” kept the audience on its toes with his punchline-charged routine “Skepticism,” or as he deemed it, “Brain Droppings of an Astrophysicist.”
Like most scientific masterminds, Tyson’s rhetoric was a little offbeat, full of awkward phrasings and quirky hand gestures. But let’s be honest, public speaking is awkward. His queer demeanor complemented by his casual dress (the man took off his shoes, for god’s sake) only further captivated the eager listeners. Transforming a lecture into a cordial conversation, Tyson even sporadically engaged in brief exchanges with audience shout-outs.
Abruptly surging through an eclectic pool of cosmological hot topics, Tyson voiced his opinions on astronomical misconceptions, adding in a few of his own observations of human customs. While he established that the existence of life on another planet was not on the bill, he touched on claims like UFO sightings and alien abductions. In regards to the latter, Tyson explained that he had no interest in hearing people rant about how blinding lights reeled them away in their sleep. He explained that such occurrences are most likely illusions, a tool of the brain. “Our brain senses are not meant to be entirely accurate, but to keep us alive.” he said. “We find patterns when there are none.” Yet he suggested that if anyone present were to be abducted while being probed, they pull the classic “look over there!” and pocket anything they can get their hands on, even if it is an ash tray. Then he’ll talk to you.
He talked of astrology, snickers bubbling at the very mention of the subject, which synthesized translates into ‘that’s just silly,’ and scoffed at the antics of conspiracy theorists. “The government is terrible at keeping secrets. Look at how much we know about President Clinton’s genitalia,” he said. Reaching beyond his area of expertise, he fascinated that religious individuals who survived terminal cancer are more likely to give their god credit for healing them before recognizing that his or her doctor(s) really just dropped the ball on the diagnosis.
During the second half of his talk, Tyson targeted on dismantling the “Earth Ego” that has sealed humans beneath a veil of conceit. Drawing largely from the novel, Pale Blue Dot, of his former mentor and champion of melding astrophysics and philosophy, Carl Sagan, Tyson displayed a picture of Saturn in which there is a miniscule pale blue dot near the planet’s rings. And that dot is Earth (the picture and excerpt referring to it can be seen here).
He then worked through the only times table I have ever enjoyed (damn you elementary math). Starting with 10^0, Tyson progressed upwards, accompanying each number with an explaining the relevance it holds to human existence. At 50 billion, he explained that when an averagely paid person today sees change on the ground, it is fair to say that it is only a quarter that he or she will pick up every time. For someone who has 50 billion dollars, the equivalent of the quarter’s impact on the averagely paid person would $45,000. Finally, when he reached sextillion (I don’t believe in this number), he stated that this is the number of stars in the observable universe.
Finally, Tyson explained that the cosmic abundances of elements in life on Earth parallels those most prevalent in the Universe. While it is important to remember that we are just a few pixels in comparison to all surrounds us, and that we are made of “common stuff,” in order to monitor the delusions of self-absorption, Tyson believes that we must not believe ourselves to be insignificant.
“When I look at the Universe, I feel quite large. We are a participant in the great cosmic search for truth. That’s when you learn, that’s when you see, that’s when you know that we are not just in the Universe, but the Universe is in us. And that fact alone makes me feel big.”