Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Communicating the Cosmos, and the Role of Science
Neil deGrasse Tyson 'saints of science' illustration by Steven Hughes
I enjoyed this interview by Stephen Colbert (himself, not his character) of Neil deGrasse Tyson. I watched - or rather, listened to, the whole thing. It wasn't that it revealed a great deal of new science (though they do touch on some recent discoveries), it was simply a wide ranging, interesting conversation by gifted communicators.
I particularly enjoyed hearing how he came to astrophysics, through the shock of actually seeing the stars when he finally made a trip out of the Bronx. Also, his feelings about movies and interactions with James Cameron are both hilarious and make perfect sense. I know that I can handle self-consistent science fiction even when it plays fast and loose with science, but am irked by allegedly accurate SF which isn't. For instance, I was perfectly happy with the highly speculative premise behind Cameron's Avatar of mapping one's mind onto an alien body but irked (*spoiler alert, in case you somehow have not seen the movie*) that the plot centered around the inability to mine something without spoiling the surface environment, which is such a simple problem to solve. We have directional drilling now, here on Earth, which allows resource extraction kilometers away laterally, as well as deep. For a science nerd like Cameron, this seemed just sloppy to me. I'm not trying to imply that mining has no environmental impact (which would be absurd); I'm saying that the specific problem he used is something we already have the technology to avoid. It wouldn't have been hard to come up with a more convincing-to-earth-scientists problem. I'm sure people who don't know anything about drilling into planets would be mystified by this annoyance of mine (though I'm pretty sure the chemists find the imaginary target of the mining, 'unobtanium' hilarious at best and infuriating at worst). In the end, though, science in entertainment isn't a pressing issue, tempting as it may be to employ the power of blockbuster movies made by science enthusiasts to spread knowledge. Far more important, of course, is the cogent argument for a scientifically literate populace, who can question things for themselves, and who comprehend what science is and what it is not.