Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson wrapped up his lecture at UCA on Thursday night by reciting what is probably the most compelling argument made so far about how understanding our place in the universe forces us to also understand our common humanity.
Best described as a celebrity scientist and professional astrophysicist, Tyson is a vocal advocate for science and critical thinking. He is the Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and is a regular guest on political and variety TV and radio shows.
Reynolds Performance Hall was sold out for his lecture, which was simulcast at other auditoriums around the campus. Governor Mike Beebe was there with his family, taking in an extra helping of rational thought and well-reasoned argument after two weeks of private option discussions in Little Rock.
A centerpiece of Tyson’s lecture was his reading of Carl Sagan’s "Pale Blue Dot" essay. This is fitting, because Tyson has in many ways become Sagan’s successor as the de-facto popular voice of science and astronomy in America. In 1990 the deep-space probe Voyager 1 was commanded by NASA to turn back, at the request of Carl Sagan, and take a final picture of Earth as it left the solar system. Sagan’s essay has become inextricably tied to the photo, in which Earth occupies only a few pixels.
"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest," Tyson said, reciting Sagan’s essay. "But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
"The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known."
Introduced officially Thursday night by the UCA Astronomy and Physics Department as a "bad[three-letter expletive]," Tyson’s lectures and books are funny and approachable while also covering the technical bases. He gave his lecture in coat and tie, but also wearing jeans and socks, and described the "Pale Blue Dot" photo as a "selfie," (a smartphone picture of one’s self, usually from arm’s length — and a word generally associated with younger people).
Much of Tyson’s lecture was about recent advances in astronomy and astrophysics. This week, it was announced that scientists using the Kepler space telescope had identified 715 new planets, which is unprecedented and exciting, Tyson said. Also, Tyson said, it is growing increasingly likely through discoveries made in the last decade’s rover missions that liquid water may exist beneath the surface of Mars, as it almost certainly does beneath the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa. He also discussed how Saturn’s moon Titan, which has seas and rivers of supercooled liquid methane, is a candidate for life if we allow for the possibility that liquid water isn’t the cornerstone on which life is built, but rather the state of liquid itself.
Tyson will be hosting the television series "Cosmos: A Space-Time Oddysey," which builds on Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage." The show airs on March 9.
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)