The University of Texas at Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Astrophysicist draws thousands through Maverick Speakers Series

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, mesmerized a Texas Hall crowd of more than 2,000 Tuesday night with his presentation on “The Cosmic Perspective: How the astrophysicists view life, the universe and everything.”

Unloading his pockets on the lectern and shedding his boots, Tyson began by saying he wanted to get comfortable so he could “talk about the universe for a while.” Tyson also is host of the PBS educational television show "NOVA scienceNOW and a frequent guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Here’s what he said:

The greatest scientist of all time was Isaac Newton. “Hands down. Darwin and those other guys pale by comparison. Newton is the reason we have seat belts, because he proved objects in motion stay in motion. If you ask people in cars who are not wearing seat belts if they ever took a college class in physics they say no, every single time.”

About using math illiteracy to distort truth, Tyson said he was called for jury duty and the defendant was charged with possession of 6,000 milligrams of a controlled substance.

“Why would you say that? Six thousand milligrams is 6 grams, about the weight of a dime,” he said. When a newspaper headline proclaims half of the children at a school are below average on a test, he said, no one stops to think that’s what average means.”

Neil deGrasse TysonOn the importance the media places on celebrity news, Tyson showed a newspaper cover with a near full-page cover story on entertainer Michael Jackson and two important news stories teased in small boxes above the fold. Tyson said the country suffers from a “warped sense of what is important.”

Great scientific discoveries have not come about because people are interested in science, Tyson said. Just like the voyage of Columbus, funded by Queen Isabella of Spain, discovery is spurred by wars, cold wars and economic gain, he said. The only other inspiration for counties to spend lots of money is to celebrate royalty or deities, like with the Pyramids or the great cathedrals in Italy.

“We live in a country where people are afraid of the number 13. It’s delusional,” Tyson said, pointing to a book titled, “How to Protect Yourself from Alien Invasion” and the hysteria a few years ago with the Mars Hoax, with lots of science fiction circulating because Mars came closer to Earth than it had in 60,000 years. The widely circulated reports overlooked the fact that Mars was just a few inches closer and that was completely insignificant, Tyson said.

Tyson also called The Planetarium at UT Arlington superior to most similar facilities that that serve large metropolitan areas. He said the center is a regional asset that needs to be supported and updated continually.

The Maverick Speaker Series continues at 7 p.m. March 3, 2009, with a lecture on diversity by Lani Guinier in the University Center’s Rosebud Theatre. Guinier is a Harvard Law School professor and civil rights expert. Tickets are free, but required.