05 April, 2009

Sunday Sensational Science

Q & A with Neil DeGrasse Tyson

At long last, the continuation of Neil DeGrasse Tyson's lecture. Been long enough, hasn't it? But well worth the wait.

Q & A with Neil is an unforgettable experience. No matter how off-the wall the question, Neil had a ready and witty answer. When asked whether there was any factual basis to the 2012 end-of-world rumors, Neil got down on his knees to explain that the myth is true. There will be a precise alignment of our solar system with the galactic center on December 21st, 2012. "What they left out," Neil said of those breathlessly predicting doomsday, "is that it happens every December 21st."

Way to deflate the sails of the doomsday crowd, eh? In case that wasn't enough, here's a point-by-point debunk you can use the next time some woo-woo fan in your life starts spouting off about Doomsday 2012.

Higher math intimidates many people, but Neil's advice to a woman who's taking the plunge may allay some of those fears. "Math is nothing more than the language the universe is using to speak to you," he said. "Are you too stupid to learn Chinese? No.

"People don't view [math] as another language. It is another language. It uses a different kind of alphabet.... View math as a language that allows you to commune with the cosmos."

That's a beautiful way to think about it.

As to the rumor that he might become the next head of NASA, Neil said that it's a "true lie. True that it's a rumor, but that didn't make my becoming the next head of NASA true. I haven't put my hat in the ring." He sees being on the outside as allowing him to be more nimble. Something tells me that Neil isn't a huge fan of huge bureaucracies. Besides, NASA probably wouldn't have let him demote Pluto so easily.

One of the attendees asked him about emotion's role in science. "Emotions are a good recipe for driving you," he answered, but warned that scientists have to be ready to abandon their emotions. "Emotion can't drive data. Refusing to admit data means you're delusional."

True, that.

Asked about his scientific heroes, Neil showed no hesitation. "Isaac Newton," he said. "Once you go Isaac, you never go back." He paused a beat, and then admitted, "Einstein's good." But he believes that if Einstein had been alive in Newton's day, he would've made only about one-third the discoveries that Newton did. "People have made entire careers out of single questions at the ends of [Newton's] books," Neil pointed out. Good enough reason to declare Isaac your hero, I'd say.

Some of the other tidbits and awesome quotes from Neil's Q & A session:

"String theorists aren't that expensive to keep around."

Rules in science: "You want your experiment to be finished before you die."

The fastest rocket we've ever sent into space would take 40,000 years to reach the nearest star.

If you were unprotected in space, you'd freeze so hard your ears would crunch off like a potato chip - "But ignoring that complication," Neil said, "You'd just die of old age" before reaching the nearest star if you were traveling as fast as that rocket.

Pluto is 30% ice, and ice is more than 1/2 of its volume. If its orbit took it close to the sun, it would grow a tail like a comet, which is "no kind of behavior for a planet as far as I'm concerned."

Titan is so cold, water ice is rocks. Methane is liquid. (Imagine methane oceans lapping at water ice pebbles on a "rocky" beach.)

If you ever get a chance to ask Neil a question, I hope this has prepared you for the answer. He's not only a fantastic popularizer of science and a damned good astrophysicist, he's got a light-speed wit. Look him up next time he's round your part of the world. You won't be disappointed.

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