Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, science advocate, author, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is one of my favorite human beings currently walking the earth. I am not ashamed to say that I have signed copies of four of his books and am a giant NDT fangirl. No shame whatsoever. Let me just make a short list of reasons why he’s kind of an incredible BAMF:
1. He’s a strong, unapologetic advocate for science education and scientific literacy, making compelling and charismatic arguments for the place of science in society. These things make society not just better-informed, but better overall. To quote him:
What should happen, which we should all embrace and value, is that as a minimum people are scientifically literate. So that as an electorate you can make informed decisions about issues that rise up, where your knowledge of science impacts how you might vote on one issue or another, or on important decisions related to the future of society, its economy, the environment. All of these, at their core, involve scientific fluency. So, everyone should be scientifically literate.
He also believes that scientific literacy serves to protect us from those that would pull the wool over our eyes, safeguards us from charlatanism in all its forms. Put another way: To wrap this point up, perhaps my favorite thing about him is that he understands that the root of scientific literacy is science education and that parochial or political concerns shouldn’t stand in the way of that education. That’s crucial.
2. He’s a great role model for young African-Americans (all people, really, but specifically African-Americans) who want to pursue a career in a STEM field. When I was growing up, I wanted to be a scientist, specifically an astrochemist, and NDT was one of my biggest role models. It was so inspiring to see a modern prominent black scientist, and one that did not see his heritage as incidental to his success. That didn’t go as planned, (I left the “hard sciences” for behavioral and political ones) but he still had a profound effect on how I identified with my academic pursuits. To that point, though, he has a rather compelling view on the subject of role models:
I think the concept of role model is overrated. If I required a black person who became a scientist who grew up in the Bronx to have come before me, I would have never become what I am. Role models work if you want to work your way into well-represented professions, or professions in which the black community is highly represented. Astrophysics is not among them.
If you have the time, here’s a video about how Neil sort of relates his work to his culture and what it means to be a black scientist. It’s twelve quality minutes.
Try watching around 2:25, when he really gets at the heart of the conflict. He breaks down the notion that the black community cannot afford for its best and brightest, its talented tenth, if you will, to pursue careers like astrophysics.
3. He’s hilarious. He’s famously witty, and regularly goes toe-to-toe with the greatest scientific and comedic minds of his generation. You can see him sassing the living bejeezus out of Jon Stewart, as he reminds us that the universe is trying to kill us.
This is at least the third time he’s appeared on the Daily Show. NDT and Jon Stewart have a great rapport going, if you don’t count how Dr. Tyson is always taking the show to task for the direction and speed of the earth in the show’s intro. The whole thing is brilliant, but it becomes truly beautiful at about 3:49. And then, finally, there is…
4. …the sheer audacity of his fashion sense. I mean, who else could get away with wearing these?
If that’s not enough for you, check him out talking about “My man, Isaac Newton,” as he puts it: