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Thursday night, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson strode onto the basketball court at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester to a celebrity's welcome. His day job is leading the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. But he is a superstar in many respects.
He updated Carl Sagan's iconic documentary series "Cosmos," which aired on FOX earlier this year. He was the first planetarium director to demote Pluto from its planet status. And he was the first scientist to identify Krypton, the planet of Superman's ancestry.
"I just want to have fun with science literacy," he says, "and I want to broaden what people normally think of as science literacy from the memorization of a satchel of science facts to an understanding of how to query nature when there's something about it that you don't understand."
Tyson hates it when the media or Hollywood get the principles of science wrong, and he often steps in to commend or correct the record. He tweeted praise of how physics is depicted in the movie "Interstellar" and about errors in the movie "Gravity."
As part of an endowed lecture series at College of the Holy Cross called the Hanify-Howland Memorial Lecture, Tyson spoke to a crowd of 2,000 people, most of them college students, about the scientific method, planets, comets, black holes and more. Tyson loves science, and he wants the rest of us to love it as much as he does.
After the lecture, the ever-energetic Tyson took questions from the audience, including a 6-year-old girl with blonde pigtails wearing an oversized black t-shirt depicting Einstein riding a bicycle on an image of a galaxy.
"Wait, how old are you first," Tyson asked as he leaned down toward her.
"Six," she replied.
"You're six! That is just so --" Tyson became giddy, almost boyish with excitement, practically turning into a pirouette. "That is awesome!"
She asked him, in a meek voice and with a slight lisp, "How can first graders help the earth?"
Tyson paused, lowered himself to the ground, crossed his legs, and answered with a tangible example.
"Have you ever opened the cabinets, and pulled out the pots and pans and started banging on them? Isn't that cool? That's fun, right? Did your parents stop you? Tell them to not stop you next time! Okay?" Tyson chuckled.
"Because you're just being a kid and you like to explore things, and your parents don't like it because it gets the pots and pans dirty and because it's noisy. But for you it's fun and you're actually doing experiments. What does the wooden spoon sound like on the aluminum pot, or the metal ladle sound like on the steel pot, and they all make different sounds. And it's fun, right?"
Tyson brings that level of enthusiasm to every project, and he tailors his message to each audience in a way that is accessible and fun. He spoke with WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer about scientific literacy, education and innovation.
- "If you went in there with no ego at all and then you saw the grandeur of the universe, recognizing that our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy, then you would see the universe as something you participate in, as this great unfolding of a cosmic story. And that, I think, should make you feel large, not small."
- “As children we all wonder — we wonder all the time. And that gets lost in adulthood. It gets beaten out, it gets filtered out or diluted out. And I’d like to think that ‘Cosmos,’ for all ages — anyone with a beating heart. ... Because we know deep down within you there’s a flame that maybe had gone dormant that we can fan or ignite in case it had blown out. This is the flame of curiosity, the flame of wonder, of awe, of all the things that make you want to learn something more tomorrow than you knew today.”
- "Wednesday's historic landing came after hours of tension, as the ESA awaited signs from Philae and its parent craft, the orbiter Rosetta, that the robotic lander had arrived on the comet's surface and was able to function."
This segment aired on November 14, 2014.
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