Science and Politics with Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Renowned astrophysicist, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of recent FOX series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson stopped by the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall yesterday as the penultimate speaker in the Ringling College Library Association TOWN Hall Lecture Series, joining previous speakers such as Dr. Charles Krauthammer and preceding final speaker, Dr. Ben Bernanke. Playing to a crowded hall, Tyson continued his role as the nation’s popular spokesman for science; celebrating the latest scientific achievements, promoting scientific literacy and purveying the scientist’s every-present, ever-important wonder for the unknown. But before taking the stage and defending his role in Pluto’s demotion from full-fledged planet to dwarf planet, People’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” took a moment to field some questions on politics, alien life and his latest television venture StarTalk.

In response to questions regarding U.S. senator and Republican presidential hopeful Ted Cruz’s claim that NASA should not be spending money on Earth and atmospheric studies, Tyson countered that not only were such studies defined in the organization’s charter but that they were crucial areas of interest for the species. “If you’re going to ignore Earth – and no one else is paying attention to Earth the way NASA is – you could be planting the seeds of your own destruction,” said Tyson. “It’d be different if most of [NASA’s budget] was spent on Earth, but that’s not the case.” When asked about Florida governor Rick Scott’s alleged unofficial policy banning official use of such terms as “climate change” and “global warming,” Tyson expressed dismay. “I don’t know if our country has any precedent for emergent scientific truths to be debated on political grounds,” he said. “I’m astonished by that. Astonished and disappointed. I thought as a nation we were above this.”

Believing that a more scientifically engaged and literate electorate can help prevent further politicization of scientific discourse and policy, Tyson has made a second career endeavoring to bring scientific enthusiasm into popular culture through various appearances on shows such as The Colbert Report and with his own shows, like the long-running podcast/radio show StarTalk, which Tyson has recently parlayed into a TV show on the National Geographic Channel. “It will spread the love of the universe, science and science literacy a little more,” said Tyson. “If you jump to another medium, you’re definitely broadening your audience.”

As to the future of scientific exploration, Tyson showed little confidence in the much-hyped Mars colony conceit recently making waves in the private venture world, saying “I have no doubt we could solve any engineering challenge, it’s just a matter of policy and money, always.” What he would like to see in his lifetime? “I want to find life other places than Earth.”

The Ringling College Library Association TOWN Hall Lecture Series concludes Mar. 31 with a presentation from former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke.

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