Oct. 3, 2007

Defense, economics and power drive scientific discovery, avers TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson may be one of the only people who can claim to have a seven-inch-thick folder of hate mail from third-graders.

Astrophysicist Tyson was one of the leading scientists who disagreed with Pluto's ranking as the ninth planet, which dismayed many youngsters, inspiring them to write letters of protest and support for the tiny planet, relegated by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to a mere "dwarf planet."

Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and host of NOVA Science NOW on PBS, gave the Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin lecture, Oct. 1, to an overflow crowd in G10 Biotechnology Building. Several hundred others watched him on monitors in Ives Hall.

After dealing with the Pluto issue, Tyson spoke about science and engineering across cultures and through time, as well as in the United States today, in his talk, "Footprints in the Sands of Science."

He said that he had been planning to write a book on the "hundred reasons why people did great, expensive projects," but ended up finding only three reasons, which he calls "funding drivers." These are: defense, promise of economic return and praise of power. Exploration, science and discovery for their own sake, he said, have never been drivers.

"We think we are discoverers, explorers, when in fact, we're just another functioning culture behaving in all the ways previous cultures have behaved," he said.

Other countries seem to value science more than the United States does, he observed. "Whatever successes we've had, it's in spite of our treatment of science, not because of it." He reminded the audience that many people who have worked on major U.S. scientific projects have been from other countries.

"We take it for granted that science happens here, yet we have depended so much on international participation," he said.

He also stressed the cross-disciplinary nature of science, which is critical to progress. He cited as one example the origin of early breast cancer detection: the realization that a program developed to sharpen blurry images from the Hubble Space Telescope could be used to analyze mammogram data to detect breast cancer earlier.

Abbie Morgan '08 is a science writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.