By Stephen Ostrowski | March 15, 2017 | People
We caught up with Neil deGrasse Tyson as he accepted the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation’s Lincoln Leadership Prize to talk about identifying with his fellow recipients, science in popular movies and TV shows, and why we all need to look up every once in a while.
Neil deGrasse Tyson at the podium.
Be it from his perch of nearly 7 million Twitter followers, or his spellbinding turn as narrator of National Geographic’s hit series, Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can wax quixotic about, well, anything, anywhere. To wit, he proved such on March 9, as he accepted the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation’s Lincoln Leadership Prize at the organization’s Hilton Hotel-hosted black-tie gala—joining an alumni list of past recipients that range from Bill Clinton and Tim Russert to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Captain James A. Lovell, Jr. (whom presented Tyson with the prestigious honor).
Prior to his acceptance speech, Michigan Avenue chatted science, social media, and more with Tyson.
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I don’t identify with any of them. They’re in completely different pathways of life. And, I think, in a way, that’s the strength of the award itself: You’re not so much honoring President Lincoln; you’re honoring a legacy of things that came into play because of his presidency, and because his presidency is so fundamental to what became America.
NDT: Science doesn’t need, nor should it require, a safe environment. The emergent scientific truths are true whether or not you believe in them, and the power of that fact means at some point you will contend with the emergent scientific truths whether or not you believe in them. So I think science is on the rise, in spite of what may be felt like some indications on the contrary.
NDT: Consider that the original Cosmos in 1980 was on PBS, a documentary in 13 parts. The Cosmos I hosted jumped species and aired on FOX and went around the world on the National Geographic channel in 181 countries, like immediately.
The #1 show on television is the Big Bang Theory, and though they be caricatures, they’re nonetheless portraying PhD scientists having fun. The TV series CSI, now in many incarnations, it’s got many beautiful people playing scientists, and they have home lives and they have boyfriends and girlfriends and children and they’re scientists—it is forensic science that is on display with main characters who are beautiful people. You don’t get that unless science is becoming mainstream. It just doesn’t happen.
NDT: I have a cameo in Ice Age 5. Why? Because in this particular [movie], it’s Ice Age: Collision Course. They are about to go extinct from an asteroid, and they want to try to save themselves, so I am the character in the head of one of the mammals, feeding them astrophysics information so that they can figure out how to deflect the asteroid. I didn’t tell them to do this; I didn’t twist their arm. I didn’t say, “Oh, you gotta get some science in here or otherwise…” No. They are choosing to do this. Because they’re valuing it.
If you look at three of the top ten grossing films of all time, one of them is Avatar—the highest grossing film of all time. That’s a science fiction story that takes places on a planet with a lead character as an astrobiologist. My gosh. Did I twist James Cameron’s arm to do this? No. He did it. And he’s quite an explorer himself—the undersea world and the space world.
Neil deGrasse Tyson and James A. Lovell, Jr.
NDT: Science is mainstreaming and I see that. People 30 years of age and younger, they only know life with a smartphone. And they know how much science and technology goes into their smartphone. They’re not the ones in denial of science. No, it’s older folks—not the millennials.
NDT: I’m not going to require that people to go visit a planetarium relative to other things they might also visit. Chicago, especially in certain stretches of streets, is rich in destinations, not only for school groups, of course.
You should get out and drink in all the talented adults who have figured out what to do with and for our culture. So it’s not only the exploration of the universe as manifested in the Adler Planetarium (the first planetarium in the United States, by the way).
But also, the science and technology of the Museum of Science and Industry, the art in your art museums, the theater, all of this. They are all destinations that are not only part of civilization; they’re part of how curiosity manifests when people have the freedom to do so. And that’s the world we should be fostering, I think, because that’s just a more interesting world. And somewhere in there, you want to make sure you gather some science literacy, because science matters.
You cannot create a functioning government, a functioning country if you are making decisions that are either under-informed or misinformed, about how to layer politics on top of fundamental scientific truths that will shape our future.
NDT: On that day, I just thought, I think the world needs something hopeful—you know, we all want to cry from [one] time to time another, part of what it is to cry is to recognize the value of joy that follows. So, it was just an offering for anyone who might have needed it in that moment.
And how often do we even give [ourselves] the excuse to look up? Particularly if you live in a big city, where there are tall buildings, looking up means you’re looking at a building. It doesn’t mean you’re looking at the sky. So I think people need to be reminded of the value of looking up.