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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson Entertains Sold-Out Crowd at Kent State

Posted Sept. 30, 2013 | Cindy Weiss
enter photo description
Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks with Kent State students in
the planetarium at Smith Hall during his Kent State visit.

Neil deGrasse Tyson brought his rock-star charisma and passion for science to Kent State University on Wednesday, Sept. 25, with a freewheeling lecture calling for greater scientific literacy and more national emphasis on research.

Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, was the first Presidential Speaker on campus this academic year. The speaker series brings world-renowned experts to the university to spark discussion about world issues. Tyson has received 18 honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal; he hosts science programs for PBS but is also a frequent, bantering guest on The Colbert Report.

In his Kent State talk, he called himself “a vessel for the universe to express itself,” as he corrected popular misconceptions about science and provided his perspective on how “An Astrophysicist Reads the Newspaper,” the title of his talk.

“He’s reaching out to people who never thought they’d like science,” said Kent State President Lester A. Lefton in his introduction of Tyson.

Tyson poked fun of recent media accounts about the Harvest Moon, such as a headline reading, “How to See the Full Moon on Sept. 18.”

“Do you really need help to find the full moon?” he asked.

And he deflated breathless reports about the “super moon” last summer and pending catastrophe stories, such as alarming reports about asteroid strikes and “close encounters” that miss Earth by 600,000 miles.

“There are always asteroids coming near us,” he said.

The danger of these reports, he said, is that “they will run out of adjectives for the one that’s really going to hit Earth,” the Apophis asteroid that could give Earth a “buzz cut” in 2029 and could hit near Santa Monica, Calif., in 2036.

“We have plans to deflect it,” he said, adding, “This all works on paper – no one has funded it yet.” Even so, the tsunamis and damage that would result are predictable by scientists: “You can calculate this. No one has to die,” he said.

He urged greater attention toward finding engineering solutions to pending problems and focusing the national attention on science. Too often, our “national hubris” or scientific illiteracy prevents us from seeing that science and technology can provide solutions, he said.

Showing a map of the world that inflated the size of countries based on the number of peer-reviewed scientific articles they publish, Tyson pointed to a bloated United States, Japan and Western Europe. But the trend line, from 10 years ago to today, shows a shrunken United States and a burgeoning Western Europe, China, Japan and Brazil.

“The writing is on the wall,” he said of the latter. “This is a map of economic strength.”

Padding around the stage in his socks (he likes to be nimble when he speaks, he said), Tyson engaged an enthusiastic audience, wading into the aisles to take questions and polling it for information. Earlier in the day, he held a question and answer session with students at the Kent State Planetarium.

His passion for science prompted an art major at the lecture to tell him that he looked beautiful when he responded to a question about the best image he’s seen, out of his many observations of the solar system: “I want to see a quark; I want to see an electron,” he answered, reaching out to the questioner.

Citing the late Carl Sagan, who called the Earth “a lonely speck in the great cosmic dark,” Tyson underscored our need to cherish the Earth, deal compassionately with each other, and learn.

The Tyson lecture was co-sponsored by the Division of Research and Sponsored Programs and the College of Arts and Sciences. The next talk in the Presidential Lecture Series, on Nov. 14, will be by authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the first married couple to win a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.