A couple weeks ago, my fiance and I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson speak at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. I honestly cannot describe how awesome this event was; as I sit here trying to think of works to properly convey everything, emotions are welling up inside of me. Where to begin….
The event was scheduled to begin at 7 PM, so I arrived at the Nutter Center around 4:50PM. Even then there was a sizable line down the sidewalk. As we waited for the doors to open at 6, more and more people began to show up and the line grew longer and longer…
Eventually the line progressed to circle the parking lot (pictured above) and go clear back beyond the tree line in the distance, along the sidewalk. Before I go on, I must say that seeing so many people arrive and wait in this long line was and AWESOME sight! This was something you’d only see at a rock concert or perhaps die-hard sport fans waiting to enter an arena. This is unprecedented when it comes to seeing a scientist! This gave me chills down every inch of my body. I was absolutely amazed to see such a turnout to see one of the greatest science communicators of our time.
We eventually made it inside a little after 6PM and was ushered to the front of the non-reserved seating (my fiance had a twisted ankle and was on crutches). We sat, rather impatiently I might add, while everyone got seated. There were more people than they anticipated and so they had overflow into an adjacent room where they had TVs to live broadcast the event. OVER FLOW FOR A SCIENTIST. Can you believe that?! So, we waited. 7PM rolled around before we knew it and out Dr. Tyson came to a marvelous standing ovation. Seriously, the atmosphere rivaled the biggest concert you’ll ever go to.
So the talk begins, and let me tell you not a word was uttered when Dr. Tyson started to speak. I could sit here and tell you about everything that was said, but it would be a long endeavor. I will, however, leave you with a motivation poster I put together with a quote from that night. I hope you enjoy it 🙂
The Apollo missions were the result of a political response to the Cold War with Soviet Russia, this everyone knows. But if not for this reason would we have gone at all? Would we have gone by now? This question is certainly unknown and quite possibly unknowable altogether. It’s frustrating that such endeavors were the result of super-powers flexing their political muscles instead of genuine curiosity about the universe, but nonetheless, it got us to space and has spurred many missions since. In fact, the first (and subsequent only) scientist on an Apollo mission was the very last one sent up the night of December 7th, 1972.
Forty years since we had lost interest in going back to the Moon. Until now. Various privately owned companies have expressed interest in sending missions to the Moon and beyond; NASA announced of its plans to head back, including missions to Mars by 2030. But will this happen? I can honestly say that I believe it will. Thanks to the help of great promoters like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and many others, the public’s interest in space has never been so high.
Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy), who is a BIG fan of science, has great sway with prime-time television. He has personally backed the reboot of Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. He’s teamed up with Ann Druyan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and has convinced Fox to air all new episodes on their prime-time viewing hours. This is absolutely unprecedented! Science programs have pretty much been limited to the Discovery Networks, PBS or various other strictly educational channels…. But not any more!
I think that this will be a turning point in TV programming, I really do. You know how major networks are – they always compete with each other. One airs a new show about police detectives and the other responds with their own version. I think that the very same will happen once Cosmos airs, and I really hope that other networks will respond and jump on the bandwagon.
I know this entry has been pretty scatter-brained, but this is something that excites me. I look forward to the public getting bombarded with more science and less reality TV, which I think is the reason why we’ve become a dumbed-down society.
At 10:32 p.m. PDT on August 6th, the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) spacecraft successfully placed a mini car-sized rover named Curiosity on the surface of Mars. It’s location is Gale Crater, a 154 kilometer (96 miles) wide, 3.5 billion year old hole in the ground, whose origin is not yet fully understood. In the center of the crater stands the five-and-a-half kilometer (18,000 feet) high mountain, Aeolis Mons (commonly referred to as “Mount Sharp”).
The trip to Mars spanned over 350 million miles, requiring an 8-month lonely voyage. Getting Curiosity to Mars was the easy part; landing the nearly one-ton rover was another game all together. Unlike its predecessors, Opportunity and Spirit, Curiosity could not use the ‘air-bag’ approach to landing because of its immense size. Instead, Curiosity employed a retro-rocket to slow its decent after entry and was lowered onto the ground via a “Sky-Crane” (See video below).
Over the next Martian year (686 Earth days), Curiosity – which is powered by the nuclear decay of plutonium – will do a multitude of experiments with various scientific tools, cameras, a weather station, a robotic arm with a power drill, a laser that can zap distant rocks, a chemistry lab to search for the chemical building blocks of life and a detector to measure dangerous radiation on the surface – just to name a few.
I can’t wait to see what new discoveries are around the corner. Something incredible is waiting to be known.
Finally, I leave you with a quote from the late Carl Sagan, recorded only months before his untimely death.
Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.
How lucky we are to live in this time; the first moment in human history when we are, in fact, visiting other worlds.”
Carl Sagan said these words in his hit TV series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which first aired on PBS in 1980. 30 years later, not only is Cosmos still one of the most-watched PBS series, but these words still ring true as our exploration of the universe continues. What was once a fantastic idea, purely in the realm of fantasy and wishful thinking, is now upon us. With new explorations come new discoveries. I may not personally have a direct connection with these missions, but the emotional connection one gets through the act of collective discovery is immense. The sense of elation for me is no different than for those who pour through the data collected; I’ve shared in celebrating wonderful successes to mourning when something goes wrong.
I, like Dr. Sagan, consider myself very lucky to be alive at this point in time where we are learning new and exciting things and probing the unknown. Even though we’ve been at this for a number of years, space exploration is still technically in its infancy and will only grow from here. How wonderful would it be if I could share with my grand kids some day that I was around when we discovered life on another world? We’ve already discovered thousands of other planets orbiting other stars, what will be next?
There’s nothing like the idea of telling these stories to the next generation and being able to say, “Yeah, and I was there when it happened”.
When we grow up we’re typically told the facts about the world around us without ever really getting involved with discovering for ourselves. I remember looking through a book on planets and space complete with illustrations and pictures of various celestial objects when I was young and being fascinated. But again, everything was learned facts and some were expected to be regurgitated on tests later on. While this is just the style of accepted education, it is far less superior to actual involvement from the students/child.
Let me explain what I mean: For example, take this picture of Saturn. Yes, we’re taught that Saturn is a planet and is very far away (1.2-1.6 billion kilometers from Earth). We are also taught that it is a very large planet – you can easily fit 763 Earth-sized planets inside. These are easy facts to throw around, but for it to really ‘drive home’ the scale of distance vs. size, there’s nothing like viewing Saturn (or any other planet!) for yourself through a telescope. I remember pointing my newly minted 8″ Dobsonian reflector at the distant world named after the God of Time and being absolutely captivated. I had suddenly grasped a new perspective; it wasn’t a picture in a book, it wasn’t just inked out facts, I was looking at the real thing for myself.
It was through the motions of personal involvement that I finally understood the immense distances and sizes involved. I must have followed Saturn for hours, enjoying my new sense of perspective on things.
This easily translates to just about any subject one wishes to address – such as history. One more example…
When teaching young children about the United States Constitution, there are a couple different ways of going about it. When I was in grade school we were taught the facts of what happened and required to regurgitate them later on exams. There was no involvement at all, and so thorough understanding of why things went the way they did was lost.
There is one method which would not only teach what the constitution says, but why it did and did not do certain things. The following is an excerpt from Carl Sagan’s “Demon-Haunted World” describing the Kunitz Method:
“Want the students to understand the Constitution of the United States? You could have them read it, Article by Article, and then discuss it in class but, sadly, this will put most of them to sleep. Or you could try the Kunitz method: you forbid the students to read the Constitution. Instead, you assign them, two for each state, to attend a Constitutional Convention. You brief each of the thirteen teams in detail on the particular interests of their state and region. The South Carolina delegation, say, would be told of the primacy of cotton, the necessity and morality of the slave trade, the danger posed by the industrial north, and so on. The thirteen delegations assemble, and with a little faculty guidance, but mainly on their own, over some weeks write a constitution. Then they read the real Constitution. The students have reserved war-making powers to the President. The delegates of 1787 assigned them to Congress. Why? The students have freed the slaves. The original Constitutional Convention did not. Why? This takes more preparation by the teachers and more work by the students, but the experience is unforgettable. It’s hard not to think that the nations of the Earth would be in better shape if every citizen went through a comparable experience.”
Involvement is a far better tool for teaching and understanding the world around us. Perspectives can be shifted from knowing something to understanding something if we put a little more effort into education.
“Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”