Friday, 28 July 2017

Navigating creation: A Cosmic Perspective with Neil deGrasse Tyson

I recently attended an interesting event at an Auckland venue usually reserved for pop music concerts. An audience in the thousands came to Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Cosmic Perspective, featuring the presenter of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and radio/tv show StarTalk. The 'Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive' presented his brand of science communication to an enormous congregation (forgive the use of the word) of science fans aged from as young as five years old. So was the evening a success? My fellow science buffs certainly seemed to have enjoyed it, so I decided it would be worthwhile to analyse the good doctor's method of large-scale sci-comm.

The evening was split into three sections, the first being the shortest, a primer as to our location in both physical and psychological space-time. After explaining the scale of the universe via a painless explanation of exponents, Dr Tyson used the homespun example of how stacking the 'billions' (which of course he declared to be Carl Sagan's favourite word) of Big Macs so far sold could be stacked many times around the Earth's circumference and even then extend onwards to the Moon and back. Although using such a familiar object in such unusual terrain is a powerful way of taking people outside their comfort territory, there was nothing new about this particular insight, since Dr Tyson has been using it since at least 2009; I assume it was a case of sticking to a tried-and-trusted method, especially when the rest of the evening was (presumably) unscripted.

Billions of Big Macs around the Earth and moon

Having already belittled our location in the universe, the remainder of the first segment appraised our species' smug sense of superiority, questioning whether extra-terrestrials would have any interest in us any more than we show to most of the biota here on Earth. This was a clear attempt to ask the audience to question the assumptions that science fiction, particularly of the Hollywood variety, has been popularising since the dawn of the Space Age. After all, would another civilisation consider us worthy of communicating with, considering how much of our broadcasting displays obvious acts of aggression? In this respect, Neil deGrasse Tyson differs markedly from Carl Sagan, who argued that curiosity would likely be a mutual connection with alien civilisations, despite their vastly superior technology. Perhaps this difference of attitude isn't surprising, considering Sagan's optimism has been negated by both general circumstance and the failure of SETI in the intervening decades.

Dr Tyson also had a few gibes at the worrying trend of over-reliance on high technology in place of basic cognitive skills, describing how after once working out some fairly elementary arithmetic he was asked which mobile app he had used to gain the result! This was to become a central theme of the evening, repeated several times in different guises: that rather than just learning scientific facts, non-scientists can benefit from practising critical thinking in non-STEM situations in everyday life.

Far from concentrating solely on astrophysical matters, Dr Tyson also followed up on topics he had raised in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey regarding environmental issues here on Earth. He used Apollo 8's famous 'Earthrise' photograph (taken on Christmas Eve 1968) as an example of how NASA's lunar landing programme inspired a cosmic perspective, adding that organisation such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were founded during the programme. His thesis was clear: what began with political and strategic causes had fundamental benefits across sectors unrelated to space exploration; or as he put it "We're thinking we're exploring the moon and we discovered the Earth for the first time."

The second and main part of the event was Tyson's discussion with New Zealand-based nanotechnologist and science educator Michelle Dickinson, A.K.A. Nanogirl. I can only assume that there aren't any New Zealand astronomers or astrophysicists as media-savvy as Dr Dickinson, or possibly it's a case of celebrity first and detailed knowledge second, with a scientifically-minded interviewer deemed to have an appropriate enough mindset even if not an expert in the same specialisation.

The discussion/interview was enlightening, especially for someone like myself who knows Neil deGrasse Tyson as a presenter but very little about him as a person. Dr Tyson reminisced how in 1989 he accidentally become a media expert solely on the basis of being an astrophysicist and without reference to him as an Afro-American, counter to the prevailing culture that only featured Afro-Americans to gain their point of view.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Cosmic Perspective

Dr Tyson revealed himself to be both a dreamer and a realist, the two facets achieving a focal point with his passion for a crewed mission to Mars. He has often spoken of this desire to increase NASA's (comparatively small) budget so as reinvigorate the United States via taking humans out from the humdrum comfort zone of low earth orbit. However, his understanding of how dangerous such a mission would be led him to state he would only go to Mars once the pioneering phase was over!

His zeal for his home country was obvious - particularly the missed opportunities and the grass roots rejection of scientific expertise prevalent in the United States - and it would be easy to see his passionate pleas for the world to embrace Apollo-scale STEM projects as naïve and out-of-touch. Yet there is something to be said for such epic schemes; if the USA is to rise out of its present lassitude, then the numerous if unpredictable long-term benefits of, for example, a Mars mission is a potential call-to-arms.

The final part of the evening was devoted to audience questions. As I was aware of most of the STEM and sci-comm components previously discussed this was for me perhaps the most illuminating section of the event. The first question was about quantum mechanics, and so not unnaturally Dr Tyson stated that he wasn't qualified to answer it. Wouldn't it be great if the scientific approach to expertise could be carried across to other areas where people claim expert knowledge that they don't have?

I discussed the negative effects that the cult of celebrity could have on the public attitude towards science back in 2009 so it was extremely interesting to hear questions from several millennials who had grown up with Star Talk and claimed Neil deGrasse Tyson as their idol. Despite having watched the programmes and presumably having read some popular science books, they fell into some common traps, from over-reliance on celebrities as arbiters of truth to assuming that most scientific theories rather than just the cutting edge would be overturned by new discoveries within their own lifetimes.

Dr Tyson went to some lengths to correct this latter notion, describing how Newton's law of universal gravitation for example has become a subset of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Again, this reiterated that science isn't just a body of facts but a series of approaches to understanding nature. The Q&A session also showed that authority figures can have a rather obvious dampening effect on people's initiative to attempt critical analysis for themselves. This suggests a no-win situation: either the public obediently believe everything experts tell them (which leads to such horrors as the MMR vaccine scandal) or they fail to believe anything from STEM professionals, leaving the way open for pseudoscience and other nonsense. Dr Tyson confirmed he wants to teach the public to think critically, reducing gullibility and thus exploitation by snake oil merchants. To this end he follows in the tradition of James 'The Amazing' Randi and Carl Sagan, which is no bad thing in itself.

In addition, by interviewing media celebrities on StarTalk Dr Tyson stated how he can reach a far wider audience than just dedicated science fans. For this alone Neil deGrasse Tyson is a worthy successor to the much-missed Sagan. Let's hope some of those happy fans will be inspired to not just dream, but actively promote the cosmic perspective our species sorely needs if we are to climb out of our current doldrums.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Genius: portraying Albert Einstein as a human being, not a Hollywood stereotype

I recently watched the National Geographic docudrama series Genius, presenting a warts-and-all look at the life and work of Albert Einstein. In these post-truth times in which even a modicum of intellectual thought is often regarded with disdain, it's interesting to see how a scientific icon is portrayed in a high-budget, high-profile series.

A few notable examples excepted, Dr Frankenstein figures still inform much of Hollywood's depiction of STEM practitioners. Inventors are frequently compartmentalised as either patriotic or megalomaniac, often with a love of military hardware; Jurassic Park's misguided and naive Dr John Hammond seemingly a rare exception. As for mathematicians, they are often depicted with more than a touch of insanity, such as in Pi or Fermat's Room.

So does Genius break the mould or follow the public perception of scientists as freaky, geeky, nerdy or plain evil? The script is a fairly sophisticated adaptation of real life events, although the science exposition suffers as a result. Despite some computer graphic sequences interwoven with the live action, the attempts to explore Einstein's thought experiments and theories are suggestive rather than comprehensive, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his scientific legacy. Where the series succeeds is in describing the interaction of all four STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering and mathematics; and the benefits when they overlap. The appalling attitudes prevalent in the academia of his younger years are also brought to vivid life, with such nonsense as not questioning tutors piled onto the usual misogyny and xenophobia.

Albert Einstein

Contrary to the popular conception of the lone genius - and counter to the series' title - the role of Einstein's friends such as Marcel Grossmann and Michele Besso as his sounding boards and mathematical assistants is given a high profile. In addition, the creative aspect of science is brought to the fore in sequences that show how Einstein gained inspiration towards his special and general theories of relativity.

The moral dimension of scientific research is given prominence, from Fritz Haber's development of poison gas to Leo Szilard's persuasion of Einstein to both encourage and later dissuade development of atomic weapons. As much as the scientific enterprise might appear to be separate from the rest of human concern, it is deeply interwoven with society; the term 'laboratory conditions' applies to certain processes, not to provide a wall to isolate science from everything else. Scientists in Genius are shown to have the same human foibles as everyone else, from Einstein's serial adultery (admittedly veering to Hollywood family drama at times, paternal guilt complex etal) to Philipp Lenard's dismissal of Einstein's theories due to his anti-Semitism rather than any scientific evidence. So much for scientific impartiality!

The last few episodes offer a poignant description of how even the greatest of scientific minds lose impetus, passing from creative originality as young rebels to conservative middle age stuck-in-the-muds, out of touch with the cutting edge. General readership books on physics often claim theoretical physicists do their best work before they are thirty, with a common example being that Einstein might as well have spent his last twenty years fishing. Although not as detailed as the portrayal of his early, formative years, Einstein's obsessive (but failed) quest to find fault with quantum mechanics is a good description of how even the finest minds can falter.

All in all, the first series of Genius is a very noble attempt to describe the inspiration and background that led to some revolutionary scientific theories. The irony is that by concentrating on Einstein as a human being it might help the wider public gain a better appreciation, if not comprehensive understanding, of the work of scientists and role of STEM in society. Surely that's no bad thing, especially if it makes Hollywood rethink the lazy stereotype of the crazy-haired scientist seeking world domination. Or even encourages people to listen to trained experts rather than the rants of politicians and religious nutbars. Surely that's not a difficult choice?