Monday, May 23, 2011

Another reason to love Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of those people you wish you had for a teacher when you were a kid. That amazing teacher that made any subject exciting and fascinating, even if initially you thought the class would be boring or tedious. Neil is an astrophysicist and hosts the educational science television show NOVA scienceNOW on PBS.

He is also infamous for upsetting a lot of kids (and adults) by declaring Pluto isn't a planet anymore:

Alas, Pluto, which is small and icy and orbits just beyond Neptune and has an eccentric orbit that is tipped out of the plane of the solar system, is none other than a Kuiper belt object—a leftover comet from the solar system’s formation. If Pluto’s orbit were ever altered so that it journeyed as close to the Sun as Earth, Pluto would grow a tail and look like a jumbo comet. No other planet can make this (possibly embarrassing) claim.

"I must vote—with a heavy heart—for demotion."

He got quite a bit of hate mail after that.

At the Center for Inquiry conference, “Secular Society and its Enemies” a talk featuring Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ann Druyan and Victor Stenger, one of the last questions was from a male audience member, “A Larry Summers question. What’s up with chicks in science?”

For those who don't know, Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, claimed that the reason for the low number of women in the fields of science and math was due to our biology and not discrimination, the lack of role models and the open hostility women face when trying to break into male-dominated fields. This view is heartily endorsed by evo-psychologist and author Steven Pinker, who believes IQ tests prove women's inferiority and that reality is sexist so feminists should basically just shut up.

Neil deGrasse Tyson answered the "Larry Summers question", saying:

“I’ve never been female, but I have been black my whole life so let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective because there are many similar social issues related to access to equal opportunity that we find in the black community as well as the community of women in a white male dominated society…

"When I look throughout my life…I got to see how the world reacted to my ambitions. All I can say is the fact that i wanted to be a scientist and astrophysicistist was, hands down, the path of most resistance through the forces of society. Anytime I expressed this interest teachers would say ‘don’t you want to be an athelete?’…

"I wanted to become something outside of the paradigms of expectations of the people in power…Fortunately my depth of interest in the universe was so deep and so fueled and rich that every one of these curveballs that I was thrown and fences built in front of me and hills I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel and I kept going. Now here I am, one of the most visible scientists in the land and I want to look behind me and say ‘where are the others who might have been this?’ and they are not there. And I wonder what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not, simply because of the forces of society that prevented me at EVERY turn, at EVERY turn…”

“So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, when you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them in order to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, we got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunities, then we can have that conversation.”

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