Scientists fascinate me. Even though at school, I sat through physics classes with a blank expression on my face; created potentially disastrous and life-threatening situations in the chemistry lab; and wreaked havoc in biology classes with dismembered frogs and other little creatures (thankfully for them, already dead).
But real-life scientists…I admire them intensely. A few years ago, I met the charming, laid-back Jamaican Professor Anthony Chen when I was working on a climate change program. We had a lovely long chat. But when he made his presentation, I was completely lost in less than five minutes. Yes, it’s true, Professor Chen. Sorry. But I love you.
As for astrophysicists… Well, I fall at their feet. How do they explain and understand the endless wonders of the Universe? How do they figure out all those light years (I’ve never been sure what a light year is)? Don’t they get cross-eyed peering through telescopes all the time?
No, that last question was just downright silly. What I really want to say is that astrophysicists are sort of in a realm of their own, to me; their heads are in the stars and galaxies and nebulae. I wish I was up there with them, but I am not. I am just a rather ignorant layman (laywoman, rather).
So, I nearly fell flat on my face when I learned that my absolute favorite scientist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, was to pay a visit to Jamaica courtesy of the U.S. Embassy. I have followed his tweets for quite a while; I tweet back, but my scientist hero doesn’t respond. He is too busy for the likes of me, and maybe my tweets are a little lame. I am in awe, you see.
And there he was, standing a few feet away from me, talking about the importance of science in a country’s development. Yes, he went straight to the heart of the matter, and it needed to be said, and said loud and clear: If Jamaica wants to step into the future, scientific innovation must be a part of that future. We must - must - invest in science and technology. That IS the future.
Make sense? Yes, I thought so. We knew it all along, didn’t we? Then what are we waiting for?
Science is international, says Dr. Tyson. It’s not something countries do all on their own, hiding away in a lab, these days. Scientists from all over the place collaborate on research, share ideas, whizz off to the International Space Station together, make discoveries, hold press conferences, do high fives when they succeed.
It is so exciting. A veritable United Nations of Scientists. Where is Jamaica in this United Nations?
Dr. Kerri-Ann Jones, who joined the discussion at the U.S. Embassy via video-conference, echoed the importance of science for the international community, reminding us that science helps governments make policy decisions. As a biochemist herself, she admitted to being a little “biased.” But really, we should all be biased towards science, shouldn’t we? Well, I believe so.
And Dr. Tyson pointed out that astrophysics, or astronomy as I used to call it, involves every kind of scientist – not just physicists like him. Biologists, geologists, chemists, engineers…“Almost the entire portfolio of scientists is needed in space,” he told us. (It’s funny, when he talked about “space” he made it sound like it is something just down the road. Which it is, in a way. It’s just there).
Dr. Tyson offered some surprising, even disconcerting perspectives. Throughout the twentieth century, he pointed out, global leaders in their arrogance “thought they were living in special times.” With the usual cloak of hubris that we humans love to dress ourselves in, those leaders really believed that they had reached the pinnacle of progress. But. But they “found themselves overtaken by science,” Dr. Tyson pointed out. Even the Wright brothers – yes, the Wright brothers – predicted that “no flying machine will be able to fly.” In 1932, a well-known astronomer expressed the firm belief that man would never land on the Moon. Huh. Neil Armstrong had already been born when he said that. And then, everyone started over-predicting; by now, many of us should be sitting in little colonies on Mars, and who knows what else.
And what motivated us humans to begin space exploration? Well, Dr. Tyson reminds us that it was the Cold War. There was the “Space Race.” First of all, there was Sputnik. Sputnik was the first man-made object to be put into orbit around Planet Earth. It was a pretty small, polished aluminum sphere and it was launched from the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. Aeronautical engineer Sergei Korolev was a major player in the development of the Sputnik and the Soviet Union’s space program. And this was after he suffered terribly during Joseph Stalin‘s “Great Purge,” when he and other scientists were denounced and sent to a Siberian labor camp. Korolev, and many others, were pioneers in the Race.
The Space Race picked up speed. The Russians put Sputnik up in a hurry, as they heard the Americans were going to launch a satellite any minute, now. And so it went on, with, as Dr. Tyson noted, the Soviet Union chalking up a remarkable number of “firsts.” For let’s face it: during the 1960s, “The United States was not driven by discovery” in its quest for the stars. It wanted to get there before its Cold War opponents, the Russians. And vice versa, of course. In fact, President John F. Kennedy actually said: “I’m not that interested in space.”
You have to bear in mind, Dr. Tyson told us, that the Space Race, and the astonishing, galloping scientific progress made during that period, was not some high-minded, noble pursuit in the interests of mankind. On both sides, it was motivated by power politics; by winning. You always want to win the race, don’t you? You want to get there first. So that was it. Things aren’t so different nowadays.
It’s human behavior. It’s the way our minds work. We are competitive as hell, when we put our minds to it. And, as a logical consequence of that, Dr. Tyson warned us, “The militarization of space is inevitable.” We will transpose our warlike, greedy, competitive behavior on Earth into space. “Turf wars” will take place in space, wherever we end up going. Space is just another territory.
But, whatever the motive – geopolitics, greed, economics…“We are moving forward.”
We are not standing still. Dr. Tyson made some rather interesting comments on progress, which he observed, “is not always obvious…In fact, it’s fragile.” Scientific progress doesn’t go in a straight line, if you can imagine mapping it on a graph. For example, airplane development was moving rapidly at one stage, and then stopped: “Planes are no faster than they were forty years ago.” If you look at photographs of airplanes in the seventies, they are basically the same, apart from a few fancy gadgets. We are pretty happy with where they are, for now, so it seems.
And yet, human thought is so peculiar. Who would have thought, Dr. Tyson noted, that in 2013 (oops, that number) there would be buildings in New York where there is no thirteenth floor? And that there are books being seriously sold in our stores with titles such as, “How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction”? We are as superstitious as we ever were.
“Ignorance of science breeds fear,” said Dr. Tyson. This seems absolutely logical to me. Can we not throw away at least some of our traditional superstitions, and embrace the reality of science? Are we really so afraid? And if so, why are we?
“Why do we run from natural disasters?” Dr. Tyson asks. He wants to run towards them – to tap the energy of a volcano, to harness the power of a hurricane. How exciting!
So what of the future for science globally – and specifically, for Jamaica? Dr. Tyson showed us an extraordinary map of the world, based on the level of scientific research in each country or continent. At first, the United States appears fat, Western Europe ballooning, Japan swollen, South America a sliver. Then he showed us another map. Based on current levels of research, the United States has shrunk; Japan is still quite large; China is larger, and Latin America is down to almost nothing apart from Brazil – which has the third largest aerospace industry in the world, by the way. Africa has virtually disappeared. Jamaica, and the Caribbean in general, is nowhere at all.
Those maps spoke for themselves. “There is no excuse any more,” said Dr. Tyson. The technological tools are available. Investment in scientific research is essential for the growth of any nation in the 21st century. A simple, undeniable fact.
OK. Here in Jamaica we can talk about culture. We can praise our National Heroes, our athletes, our musicians. We can make speeches. We can conduct long and rigorous election campaigns. We can preach sermons and pray non-stop. We can chat for hours on our verandahs, on radio talk shows. All that is fine, and lovely, and enjoyable. But none of it is any use at all, unless we invest in the future. And the future is science. And if our culture embraces science, then everyone will participate, and it will grow. Just as it has grown in many parts of Asia today, where science and technology have become a way of life, a bridge to the future, an educational necessity. We have to buy into it. It seems to me that Jamaica is falling way, way behind; when did you last hear a Jamaican politician (even the Education Minister) talk seriously about science as the way forward, the solution to our chronic under-development?
Thank you, Dr. Tyson, for opening our eyes. I wish you could have stayed longer, but I hope those who listened to your talk sat up and took notice. Dr. Tyson was inspired at age nine, he says, when as a schoolboy from the Bronx he stepped inside the Hayden Planetarium. Now, he is the Director. I would love to see young Jamaicans inspired, and moving the country onwards and upwards.
The sky’s the limit. Or the stars.
As a total non-scientist, I truly believe that. So, Jamaica, what are we going to do about it?
Here is one of my favorite Tyson quotes (there are many great ones)…
“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”
And here’s another:
“Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.”
“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”
P.S. If you are like me and don’t know too much…I highly recommend a stunning National Geographic documentary series, “Journey to the Edge of the Universe.” It is just that…step by step, further and further outwards. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the visual effects are almost intoxicating – imaginative but based on solid science of course. A thrilling journey. You can watch the whole thing on line, or buy from Amazon.com.
P.P.S. If you haven’t seen or heard Dr. Tyson on radio or television…He is a true media star. He is funny - very funny. He has even appeared on Bill Maher’s show. And he has written ten books. The latest is “Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier.” There is an Amazon link to all his books below. Oh, and he is also a great dancer, and a former Harvard wrestler of some repute. Just take a look at his amazing bio…
Related articles and websites:
http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/publication/2009/09/20090921142100mlenuhret0.7704846.html#axzz2I3wQV8Po (The View from an Island, by Professor Anthony Chen)
http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/profile/about-neil-degrasse-tyson (Neil deGrasse Tyson profile: Hayden Planetarium)
http://www.amazon.com/Neil-deGrasse-Tyson/e/B001ILIEO4/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1358277275&sr=1-2-ent (Amazon’s Neil deGrasse Tyson Page – all his books are there)
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6998521.stm (Profile: Sergei Korolev – BBC)
http://astroprofspage.com/archives/1035 (Sputnik 1: Astroprof’s Page)
http://www.thespacerace.com (The Space Race.com – on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs)
http://www.nasa.gov (NASA home page)
11 Baller Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes (businessinsider.com)
- Neil deGrasse Tyson: Good at Science, Good at Busting a Groove (io9.com)
- The Significance of Space Race to The Cold War Rivalry (socyberty.com)