By Brenlee Coates
Students and the public were treated to a lecture from world-renowned astrophysicist, television personality and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson in March as part of the University of Manitoba’s Dream Big event.
Tyson’s informal way of discussing science has mass appeal, and there was clear evidence of this in the packed bleachers at Investors Group Athletic Centre at the U of M.
He was greeted with whoops and cheers as he took centre stage at the university at his first public lecture in Canada.
“I’m continually impressed by the energy for space that I see in Canada,” said Tyson.
He used the platform not only to make cracks about his widely known takedown of Pluto as a planet, “Pluto is finally getting some attention that it long never deserved,” joked Tyson, but to stimulate thoughts and provide some healthy criticism of the space program’s progress.
He hoped his lecture would serve as “a warning sign for how potentially people don’t think about (space) in the right way.”
“It’s a call to action but it’s also a call to look at the dangers of inaction,” said Tyson.
Tyson spoke about the pitfalls of people thinking about the world as though “what’s around them is already the pinnacle of everything,” so that nothing is ever improved.
“Apollo worship is like necrophilia. You don’t worship the first of anything,” said Tyson, who showed slides of the first automobile, planes and cell phones to illustrate his point.
He also cited the hype that is created after a big breakthrough – like the one that followed the Apollo program’s success – can lead to unrealistic expectations of progression as well.
For instance, the Wall Street Journal predicted that man would walk on Mars by 1985.
These critiques seemed to aim to motivate the next generation of astrophysicists, and he gave a practical example of upcoming potential for disaster if no action is taken.
The near-earth asteroid Apothis will become the closest to Earth it has ever been in 2029. On April 13, which happens to be a Friday, Tyson noted.
“It’ll be the biggest, closest thing ever measured to come by Earth. We will learn on that pass whether the asteroid will hit us seven years later,” he said. “This is basically a buzz cut.”
With the records of its passing, scientists will be able to determine whether or not the asteroid will strike Earth in 2036; they already know where it would hit.
“Seven years later, if it hits us, it will hit the West Coast of the United States in the ocean… it’ll create a tsunami five storeys tall.”
“It’ll basically wipe clean the entire West Coast of the United States, and North America. So up in Canada, you’ll feel some of this.”
“But nobody has to die, all you have to do is evacuate the entire West Coast of North America at the right time,” said Tyson, which elicited laughter. However, he rightfully points out the way people dismiss these kinds of phenomena, even though there are relatively frequent examples of destruction.
For instance, he pointed out that the asteroid that struck in Russia in 2013 was “the greatest disaster you could have without anybody dying.”
About 1,500 people were injured because of flying glass. The shock wave created from the asteroid blasted through windows in the city, knocked down walls, and broke ceilings.
Largely, it was reported that people glanced out their windows when they saw the brilliantly luminescent meteor.
“This Steven Spielberg, E.T.-brightness light comes in their window out of nowhere, so what do they do?
They get up from the chair, go to the window, look out the window.”
They forgot their Physics 101 tip that light travels faster than sound, said Tyson, and leaned in for the collision. “Had it exploded above ground, none of the witnesses would have lived.”
It is this kind of scientific and mathematical illiteracy that Tyson seems out to combat.
Tyson’s lecture was an elaboration of his essential point that: “Earth is really just trying to kill us all. And it’s really not just Earth, but the universe wants to kill us as well.”
Though he isn’t trying to be absolutely morbid, but motivational to the future of science.
“Asteroids are nature’s way of asking ‘How’s the space program coming along?’” joked Tyson.
Though he Tweeted it somewhat facetiously, Tyson recalled writing, “I don’t want to be the laughing stock of aliens in the Milky Way galaxy if they ended up learning that we went extinct from an asteroid, even though we have a space program that could’ve done something about it.”
Tyson is known for targeting a demographic that is largely disinterested in science, or people that never imagined they could be captivated by it.
His newest project, a documentary television show called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” follows his usual recipe of being compelling to a wide audience, and is even executive produced by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane.
One of Tyson’s well-timed jokes was the image of a comedy of human errors being observed by aliens after our extinction: “They ruled the Earth, (but) they were too stupid to fund their space program,” he joked, which earned him enthusiastic applause from the crowd.