Seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson at Kingsbury Hall on Wednesday, March 26, felt a lot like going to see one of my favorite bands when I was 17. Rightfully so, as he was introduced as "the science equivalent to a rock star" and walked on stage to a standing ovation at Kingsbury Hall.
For those of you unfamiliar with Neil deGrasse Tyson, he is an astrophysicist. Tyson is the Director of the Hayden Planetarium and a member of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He directs the scientific research efforts of the Hayden Planetarium and serves as a visiting researcher at Princeton University. He was appointed by President Bush to serve on multiple committees that studied Aerospace and Space Exploration. He is an established author with eight books under his belt, he is the host of StarTalk Radio, and recently began hosting PBS-NOVA’s spinoff of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
Ultimately, Tyson is an advocate for The Universe, the actual Universe. He is a champion in inspiring us to learn and explore who we are and where we came from. He is the Millennial Generation’s Carl Sagan. Tyson has gained so much popularity over the past few years, that it’s almost a cool thing to like him, but that’s ok.
Tyson was invited by the University of Utah to speak at this year’s Tanner Lecture of Human Values, an annual series that highlights the educational and scientific discussions related to human values. When he was announced as the speaker, word spread like a wildfire, tickets immediately sold out, and the University was implored to live stream the lecture to three other locations, which I found later on in the evening were packed full.
He began his lecture entitled “The Cosmic Perspective” by taking off his shoes and joking about the beehive as Utah’s state emblem, ultimately empowering the women in the crowd because he compared the women of Utah to the Queen Bees of a beehive. "So the women here must have all the power," he said. He described the time he was flying over SLC and how he felt as if he had actually "named" the city based upon seeing the Salt Flats from the dried up lake and the city next to it from high up in the plane. He then told the story about buying his infamous sun and moon vest right off the back of a Clark Planetarium employee when he was visiting a few years ago.
Then he got down to business. Tyson is a lighthearted guy who likes to joke around, but something he takes very seriously is the state of our country. One phrase that has stuck with me since discovering Neil deGrasse is "we stopped dreaming."
Tyson took us down a path to a time when the money of Europe once featured scientists and inventors such as Tesla, Copernicus and Volta. The money featured an esteemed person of importance and for Europe, the important ones were the inventors, the scientists, who got us to where we are today. Then he pulled up a picture of a $100 bill. Sure, it features Benjamin Franklin, but how many of the Generation Z of Americans are going to look at that bill and immediately know that Franklin was also a scientist and inventor of the lightning rod and bifocals, and not just a Founding Father?
We looked at images from the 1960s when everyone was raving about the "World of Tomorrow" and imagining floating highways and bubble cars. He reminded us that we once dreamed together as a community, as a country. So, what happened? "We stopped dreaming."
"Our country is being run by scientifically illiterate adults who lack curiosity," Tyson exclaimed when answering a mother’s question during the Q&A. She asked him for advice on raising her 4-year-old to grow, question and learn, and Tyson simply stated, "Let them break things, let them be curious."
Our society has placed restriction after restriction, stigma after stigma on what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, and in Tyson’s eyes, that won’t fly. The leaders of this oh so great and mighty country of ours have set a nation-wide death trap. There are days when it seems as if more than half of the nation has fallen into it. Where are the dreamers? Where are the fighters? That’s exactly what Tyson is trying to figure out.
"I don’t recognize America today… this is not the America I grew up in," he quietly stated as he walked across the stage.
It’s hard to get his point across to a crowd without ultimately deflating the ego of America, but he doesn’t do it out of spite, he does it to ignite a fire under our asses—to make us stand up and question everything. We have been stagnant for too long. We know more about movie stars than we do the stars in our own solar system or the fish in the sea. We care more about the state of our Facebook and Instagram than the state of our own country.
"What country is this?" Neil questioned over and over again throughout the night. But seriously, what country is this? We, the United States of America, are really good at claiming to be the best, because we’re free, but what exactly does that freedom look like in your eyes? Did you know that the reason why we cannot put our foot down on Russia amidst this Ukrainian invasion shitstorm is because we use Russian spacecrafts to get to our very own Space Station? Question everything.
We might not ever understand the Universe on the same level as Neil does, but that should not stop anyone from trying. "Question everything" is another infamous phrase from Neil that was etched into my brain the moment I heard it.
Neil continued the lecture, lightly touching on the events of 9-11 and the bold statement our “lovely and educated” George Bush made two days after the Twin Towers came down. "Our God named the stars," Bush exclaimed. Neil went on to explain exactly why this was such a bold statement, pulling up a list of the star names, and pointing out the fact that over two-thirds of the stars in the “heavens” were actually named by Arabic astronomers. He explained how Algebra and Algorithms came about in Baghdad between 800 and 1100 AD, and how one man’s claims that computing numbers was of the Devil in 1200 AD has suppressed over 1.4 billion people since.
Why was Neil explaining this? Because the light the media and our own government shines on the Middle East is a very dark one, when in all reality, without their accomplishments during that time, the world might not be where it is today. Do you think the majority of American’s know that?
Our God, their God, on and on. In Tyson’s eyes, we are all one people. We are all connected. Our actions, and lack of action, affect one another.
Tyson’s next step was showing us a map that reflected where we would be in 10 years as far as scientific study goes. If we continue at the rate we are going, Japan and Europe will outgrow the U.S. in no time. We are rapidly becoming a country that has no drive, bullshit education, no aspirations to explore, learn or grow. "We are voting ourselves back into the Stone-Age," he stated.
Another thing I found Tyson discussing both in this lecture and in other conversations is how small we really are. We think we are so high and mighty because we are humans, the “supreme species.” However, in the Tree of Life study, which sampled rRNA sequences from 3,000 species throughout the Tree of Life and the thousands of other species that live on this Earth, humans take up a micro-sized section of the tree.
He finished his lecture by pulling up an image that the Cassini spacecraft had taken of Earth from behind one of Saturn’s rings, to truly put our size into perspective. He asked for the lights to be dimmed and announced that he was going to be reading from the book of Carl [Sagan], and read a passage from Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Over the years, Tyson has taught me to never stand still, to never stop learning, to fight for what you believe in. Don’t wait for someone else to do something—get up and do it. Don’t ever stop dreaming. Don’t ever accept something just because someone tells you that’s how it is. Most importantly, question everything.