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Soaking Up Wisdom From Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson poses backstage at the Television Academy's Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 12, 2015, in Los Angeles. Dan Steinberg/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dan Steinberg/AP

Neil deGrasse Tyson poses backstage at the Television Academy's Creative Arts Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater on Sept. 12, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Dan Steinberg/AP

For the holidays, I bought my science-loving 11-year-old tickets to "An evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson" at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. The big night was last Friday.

Some intellectuals bring out the immense complexity behind simple phenomena and others, like the estimable Dr. Tyson, excel at bringing complicated ideas down to earth. My son and I are both Cosmos fans but, still, we didn't really know what to expect.

It was an extraordinary presentation from an extraordinary man. He lectured without interruption for more than two hours. This was Neil deGrasse Tyson in concert. He lumbered on the stage, flipped off his shoes and got to work.

He kept the audience rapt as he reviewed, as he dubbed them, our national delusions about space travel. The Wright brothers thought it would be another 200 years before we could fly across the ocean. Some futurists predicted there would be 50,000 people living in space by the year 2000 and, others, that there would be colonies on Mars by the 1980s.

From a certain point of the view, the themes of the evening were mostly negative: It was the Cold War that got us into space and it was our victory that has, for all intents and purposes, gotten us out of it. America is caught up, he argued, in Apollo necrophilia: We don't think of old radios, TVs or cell phones as bad ass — but we do think that 40-year-old spaceships are. That's because we stopped making progress after that; when it comes to spaceships (as with the Concord supersonic passenger jet), we just haven't gotten more bad ass. He showed a film of the 20-something engineers at SpaceX celebrating their successes in commercial space travel, but pointed out how far the work they're doing is from the sorts of genuinely pioneering advances that were made more than a generation earlier. He bemoaned the negative knock-on effects for the whole economy and for technological innovations that have been concomitant with the lack of full-bore government commitment to space exploration. And he suggested that our best hope for reinvigorating space exploration might be if there were to be a rumor started that the Chinese had plans for a military installation on Mars.

Among his many illuminating ideas, one in particular had to do with space and culture. Space, the very idea of space and space exploration, shaped culture. Cars in the late 50s had fins, he suggested, because the V-2 rocket had fins. The image of earth rising over the horizon of the moon taken by astronauts on Apollo 11, an image that showed the earth as it looks from space, transformed the way we think about ourselves and our planet. It is no accident, he proposed, that those special years of U.S. contribution to space exploration (the five years or so after 1968) saw the birth nationally and internationally of the environmental movement (or so he claimed). (Perhaps he missed an opportunity to mention David Bowie.)

Tyson is a fabulous speaker. He growls and dances and shouts and he plays with the audience. But what made the evening memorable for me, and for my son, was the excitement and affection he produced in what can only be described as his fans. He is a beloved person who seems, at least for this audience, to personify science itself and embody its very clarity and its very beauty. And, so, for all that he chose to regale us with stories of 'Muurica's delusions about itself and about space travel, in the end his message was resoundingly positive: Space travel is an engine for research, innovation and economic vitality; the obstacles we face are not technological but political and these can be overcome.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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