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Culture & Religion

Neil Degrasse Tyson: Science is in Our DNA

What’s the Big Idea?

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes in the power of science — so much so that he gets hate mail for it. From children. As director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson made the controversial decision to remove references to Pluto as the ninth planet in the museum’s exhibits. To the chagrin of fifth graders everywhere, My Very Excellent Mother would no longer be Serving Up Nine Pizzas. “When you conduct science, it is the natural world that is the ultimate decider in what is true and what is not,” he says.

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Which is exactly the reason science has had such a profound influence on history. Universities may describe music, literature, and painting as “the humanities,” but no activity is more fundamentally human than science, says Tyson. “We explore our environment more than we are compelled to utter poetry when we’re toddlers.”

What’s the Significance?

His big idea? Every child is born a scientist. As soon as we learn to walk, we begin asking questions, turning over rocks, plucking the petals off of flowers. The drive to curiosity is in our DNA. It’s curiosity that first compels us to explore the world around us, and it’s the joy of discovery that sustains that desire. Finally, the need to understand our discoveries leads us to experiment and analysis.

Even the distinction between art and science is practically illusory, says Tyson. “The only difference is that when you do science you can’t make up anything and assert that it’s true. If you’re writing a novel you can pretty much make up what you want as long as people will buy it literally and figuratively, buy the storyline, buy the book with that storyline, fine.”

As a result, in many cultures the arts have an individualistic bent, celebrating the singular vision of a masterful auteur. No one but Van Gogh was ever going to paint Sunflowers in just that way. Who but Joyce could have written the passionate, personal, and semi-autobiographical Ulysses

Science, on the other hand, is an anonymous enterprise — a collective cultivation of our innate and global humanity. “If I discover a scientific idea, surely someone else would have discovered the same idea had I not done so,” explains Tyson. “That’s what we do as human beings, and we do that more thoroughly and better than any other species on earth that we have yet encountered.”

There’s a reason math is known as the universal language, binary code is comprised of numerals, and the first robots were designed to look and act like people. Science and technology are forms of expression which help us pursue truth. And fortunately, we’re beginning to be sophisticated enough to move past our fears about what we might create. “This notion that a robot might turn on us… that’s not the robots we’re creating.Sky Net coming online and achieving consciousness? Okay, keep doing the movies,” says Tyson. “I already have access to information — it’s on my smart phone a few fingertips away — from all gathered knowledge of the human species on earth.It’s called the Internet.I’m already there.”

How can technology enhance, rather than take away from our humanity? Big Think has posed this question in an online Expo called Humanizing Technology, which seeks to identify the technologies that do the best job of fulfilling our core human needs. You can view the series here

Image courtesy of Andrea Danti/


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