As much as I love “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” there’s a big problem with it: Host Neil deGrasse Tyson never really gets to be Neil deGrasse Tyson.
People saw the real Tyson this week in responses to rapper B.o.B’s thoughts about how the Earth is really flat. Most notably, in this response on Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”:
In a nutshell: B.o.B tweeted a bunch of stuff about how the Earth is really flat. Tyson responded with tweets containing actual science. B.o.B, not liking the truth, made a diss track accusing Tyson being in the pocket of the round Earth conspiracy, and name-dropping a prominent Holocaust denier.
The above video says it best by the best person to say it. It’s hard to remove the optimistic, enraptured tone to Tyson’s voice, but there was a tinge of righteously angry Samuel Jackson as he ended an about 2-minute speech name-dropping Isaac Newton and saying, “When you stand on the shoulders of those who came before, you might just see far enough to realize the Earth isn’t fucking flat.”
I would have LOVED to hear a line like that in “Cosmos.” Like I said, I loved the show. But Tyson was just reading lines — important, educational lines that provided some of the best primetime science teaching ever seen. Those lines, written by Ann Druyan in the spirit of her husband, Carl Sagan, were simply delivered by Tyson. Read off a script.
With Tyson showing none of the passion that we saw in the video above.
“Cosmos” is just one platform that Tyson has appeared on. He’s also featured on the “StarTalk” podcast and related National Geographic Channel show. His “The Inexplicable Universe” series is one of my favorite things to watch on Netflix. And the number of cameos and speeches that make their way to popular shows and social networks reveal just how strongly he feels about science — especially his tweets about movies.
You know, that system of observation and deduction that is supposed to be free from emotion and bias.
That’s why Tyson resonates so strongly with me: He shows that it is OK to get excited about science. And for good reason: The discoveries help define our universe a little bit more clearly each day. While the results of science have the power to cause tremendous damage, more often they improve and extend our quality of life — as well as our literal lives.
I got goosebumps when Tyson talked about how science, and an anti-intellectual strain that fights against some of its more obvious yet politically unpopular conclusions, is important to freedom.
“If you want to think the world is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the world is flat, and you have influence over others – as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates – then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry. Discovery and exploration got us out of the caves, and each generation benefits from what previous generations have learned.”
The way he delievered that? Damn! I would have loved to hear him talk like that in “Cosmos” when he’s discussing how the simple existence of the Crab Nebula effectively disproves the notion that the Earth is about 6,000 years old. Instead we got Mr. Boring Science Teacher:
These are times when we NEED to be passionate about science. Out there, right now, are a group of people making a political issue out of climate change, fighting desperately to keep a status quo that an overwhelming, almost total, number of scientists say is threatening human life. There are people trying to program our children that the explanation of life’s creation in the Bible, written by humans thousands of years ago, is just as scientifically accurate as Darwin’s evolutionary theory. These people play with fire without any understanding of how the fire is created.
And their main weapon is an appeal to emotion. Because actual data isn’t on their side. They have to appeal to hearts, not minds.
That’s why it’s important that Tyson showed so much heart about a rapper’s weird idea about a flat earth. Science is filled with awesome things worth getting excited about. Sharing that excitement can inspire further investigation, new discoveries and life-changing ideas. The flap between Tyson and B.o.B got quickly relegated to the same cultural meme drawer as Kanye West’s beef with Wiz Khalifa. But it was so much more important, because of how strongly Tyson believed in his facts.