Neil deGrasse Tyson gives NC Science Festival lecture

Correction:  Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article stated that UNC did not contribute funds to the NC Science Festival. UNC contributed funds to the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center for the festival.

Science isn’t about what to think — it’s about learning how to think.

Neil deGrasse Tyson gave this and many other lessons to a sold-out crowd in Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday night. Part of the second annual NC Science Festival, Tyson’s talk was one of the statewide program’s signature events.

Tyson is an astrophysicist well-known for making science fun and understandable. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

His talk focused on “10 things everybody should know about the universe,” ranging from “the Universe has a shipload of stars” to “Earth wants to kill you.”

Tyson gave many examples of hard-to-grasp concepts, such as the largeness of the universe and the smallness of molecules.

“There are more molecules of water in a cup of water than there are cups of water in all the world’s oceans,” he said.

“You are drinking molecules of water that passed through the kidney of Genghis Khan.”

He also brought up a point familiar to those who follow Tyson, that the chemical elements that make up people were forged in high-mass stars that “exploded their guts” into the galaxy.

“Not only are we part of the universe, but the universe is part of us.”

“We are stardust,” he said, ending the lecture with the famous line to cheers from the audience.

The event then moved into a question and answer session, which ranged from an old grudge from one audience member to life advice to multiple children.

One man asked for an update on a promise from the Hayden Planetarium. When he was 11, the man said he placed his name on a list for a ride to the moon. He said he was now 74 and still waiting.

Tyson admitted it had been a great marketing ploy of the planetarium.

“I forgive you,” the man replied.

Others asked how to encourage science in politics, education and culture. Tyson emphasized that it’s not about reaching the politicians, because they change from year to year. Instead, the focus should be on the electorate.

“It is our mandate that defines (politicians’) conduct,” he said.

He said education should focus not on memorization, but instead the concepts of the scientific method.

“The problem is most of education is telling you what to think rather than how to think it,” he said.

“Science is a method of inquiry,” he added.

“It’s the capacity to judge. That’s the scientifically literate mind.”

Children also asked questions, one even about the multiverse and gamma radiation.

The last to step to the microphone was a 9 year-old girl. Before asking her question, Tyson sat down on stage and spoke about his own childhood.

He said since he was 11 years old, he knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist. But when adults had found out, they had typically walked in the opposite direction, he said, jokingly.

Tyson then asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“An astrophysicist,” she responded.

Tyson burst out laughing.

“What is the best thing about being an astrophysicist?” she asked.

“Every day that I wake up I know there’s something in the universe I don’t know yet,” Tyson answered.

“If you want to remain a scientist, you have to learn to love the questions themselves,” he added.

Jonathan Frederick, director of the NC Science Festival, said he felt joy when he found out Tyson had an opening in his schedule for the festival.

“We made a shortlist of people (we wanted as speakers) — it was Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neil deGrasse Tyson,” he said.

Frederick said the festival paid a speaking free to bring in Tyson. The festival is produced by the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and is funded through multiple sources, including corporate sponsors and UNC, he said.  Ticket sales from the event, which had no student tickets, also helped pay for Tyson’s visit.

Caitlin Saraphis, a faculty member in the History Department at UNC-Greensboro, said the event was amazing.
She said she liked his commentary on how citizens are empowered to change things, not just structures such as governments.

“I liked his fostering of the spirit of inquiry,” she said.

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