With the re-launch of the beloved scientific spectacle, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has been all over the media hocking his wares, which makes sense considering he’s the host of the show. I’ve been aware of NDT in the sense that I knew there was a guy on this planet, who likes other planets, whose name is Neil deGrasse Tyson, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I knew much about him or had an opinion of him. That is, until last week when I heard him speaking to Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast. I’ve listened to a number of episodes of the popular podcast, and this being NDT’s third visit to the show, is hands down, my favorite episode of them all. NDT’s enthusiasm for science is infectious and I couldn’t help but be lured in by his charm.
The term that follows NDT around is “science popularist.” Spend five minutes listening to him speak on a myriad of topics that the scientifically illiterate know nothing about and you’ll understand why. NDT has the ability to discuss any number of high-minded scientific subjects and translate them into terms anyone can joyfully understand. Let me share an example.
In the first few minutes of his Nerdist interview, NDT, and I’m paraphrasing here, explained that the idea that humanity was too stupid to unlock the secrets of the universe kept him up at night. NDT’s grief centered on the fact that humans ASSUME we’re the smartest creatures on the planet because we’ve rigged the system that way. We established the rubric by which we measure what intelligence is. Of course we think we’re smart, we’ve set the rules that way. But if you look at humans from an evolutionary standpoint, we fall short compared to other creatures like the newt. The newt has figured out how to regenerate missing limbs. If it comes down to survival, who’s better equipped, the guy that can re-grow an arm, or the guy that can’t?
I am sure there is a philosophical idea behind NDT’s thinking that I know nothing about, but the concept has really stuck with me. Just how smart are we really, and does it even matter? After watching the first two episodes of Cosmos, I’ve decided it does matter and does not matter, equally. The spectacle of Cosmos, and I do mean spectacle, is that people who will never see the stars in their lifetime are given an opportunity to travel to the farthest reaches of what we know and explore planets and galaxies from the comfort of home. It is very important that scientists, especially young scientists keep pushing the boundaries of science to that one day we may explore those far reaches of space from the cockpit of space shuttle and see them with our own eyes and not through our telescopes. On the same token, Cosmos shows us just how little we truly are. We are tiny little specks on a speck within a larger speck, and so on. The idea of humanity exploring beyond the our galaxy seems daunting to me and there is a feeling of inevitable disappointment. We will never know just how big everything really is.
With the universe being so great, it’s humbling to see just how small we really are. Cosmos reminded me of that the way swimming in the ocean does. The ocean ebbs and flows, the universe expands, planets rotate. The universe doesn’t care about me, or my problems. It doesn’t care about my existential crises or if I’m late paying my bills. It occurs to me that caring about life, caring about my life, my relationships, and my responsibilities falls solely on me. The ocean can swallow me whole without ever changing its tide and the universe can shift us, and throw us or destroy us as it continues to expand without ever caring we were in its way.
I am fortunate to live in such a time that through the wonders of technology, I get to explore beyond Earth’s skies to see what only my five-year-old brain could ever imagine, and be old enough to see just how small we all really are. Simply put, nothing is ever going to notice that we were ever here so it’s up to us to make the best of what we have when we have it. Love your planet, love your neighbor, love your spouse, and love your kids. Don’t be a dick.