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Bill Gates at TED 09: How do you make a teacher great?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Astrophysicist & communicator extraordinaire

Neiltyson1 If you do not know who Neil deGrasse Tyson is then you're in for a treat. Dr. Tyson is an American astrophysicist with a degree in physics from Harvard and a Ph.D in astrophysics from Columbia University. In addition to hosting Nova Science Now on PBS and appearing on numerous TV talk shows in the US, his day job is serving as Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. You might think that such an intelligent, highly educated scientist would be a bit dry — you'd be wrong. Out-of-this-universe wrong. Tyson is an extraordinary communicator.

What makes Dr. Tyson great is not only that he is smart and amazingly knowledgeable, what makes him so remarkable and compelling is that he's knowledgeable and excited and passionate and eager to share. Share? Astrophysics? Science? You bet. He demonstrates his great intellect when he speaks, yet he doesn't make you feel dumb, instead he makes you want more; he stimulates your curiosity, a curiosity perhaps you didn't even known you had. He needs a lot of work with his visuals (when he uses them), but putting that aside, this scientist is an amazing speaker. He's equally engaging in interviews as he is at the podium. Below is part of a 45-minute interview he did for Time (he was on Time's Top-100 Most Influential people in 2007 list). You can listen to the entire audio interview on iTunes here or download it here from Time.

10 Questions for Neil deGrasse Tyson

At about the 19-minute mark of the audio version of this Time interview, I was blown away by his ideas concerning education and communication, on teaching and answering questions about the universe:

"...I bring to bear [to a person's question] all that I know about the science, but also about communicating that science...and then I see their eyes light up because they learned something new. And they didn't just learn a fact — 'cause if it's just about facts then hand over an encyclopedia — go read the facts. There's more to enlightenment then how many facts you can recite. There's the empowerment of the idea behind the fact. I take it as a personal mission that if I am ever replying to a question, you're going to get some extra information as part of the answer, a way for you to think about the problem in a new way. Empowering you with a depth of thought greater than you had before, greater than perhaps you thought possible within you. If I succeed at that, that's a beautiful thing."

                                                — Neil deGrasse Tyson

At the lectern
Many people think of Tyson as the Carl Sagan of our time. That's a compliment for certain. (I wrote about Sagan's ability to excite and educate the public about science in 2007, it was later reprinted in the CAP — Communicating Astronomy to the Public — Journal. You can download the pdf here.) Below is just part of a talk where Tyson demonstrates his passion for his mission as he shares a cosmic perspective. He has a different style than Sagan, but he excites people just the same (and surely makes some people question their assumptions as well). It's raw and from the gut...and it's real.

"It's not simply that we're in the universe...the universe is in us."

                                              — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Apophis: Tyson gives visual description
Below in another interview on stage before a live audience, Tyson discusses with humor and clarity what the consequences would be in the (very unlikely) event of an Apophis asteroid impact. You can see the entire interview here.


In other news

Logo Tomorrow I leave Osaka via Tokyo for the long flight to Los Angels and the five-day TED 2009 Conference in Long Beach. There are a lot of great presentations planned during the week at TED — you can see the schedule here. I'm most excited to see Bill Gates, Seth Godin, and Rosamund Zander (and of course, Herbie Hancock.) I'm not planning to blog here on the PZ site about the event, but if you're interested you can follow my reports of sorts from TED with photos, videos, etc. on my posterous site. All posterous updates appear automatically on Twitter so it's easier just to follow from there if you like. I hope to learn a ton and share it with you along the way.


Jon Thomas

Enjoy TED! You know many of your readers are extremely jealous.


I can't exactly put my finger on why, but I have to say I find deGrasse's style artificially animated and contrived, so I have a great deal of difficulty listen to him speak.

Robert Brown

From your link near the top "when he uses them", I loved this bit towards the end:

'One interesting story that came up was a TV interview that Tyson had recently done. He was asked by the reporter "How can you justify spending 3 billion on a trip to Saturn in these times?" Tyson said he corrected him by pointing out that first that amount was spread out over 12 years so it was really only about 300 million a year and that was actually less money than Americans spent on lip balm. This left the interviewer at a loss for words and he just turned the mike back to the other reporter. Tyson related that as he was leaving the studio that he was unaware that the interview had been piped to the exit area of the Rockefeller Plaza and that when he left he was greeted by applause and people waving their lip balm and shouting "We want to go to Saturn." Way to go Neil!'

Being able to put very large (or very small) numbers into perspective so that literally the man on the street can understand them, is an essential part of presenting technical information.

John Spence

I found these interviews and talks by Neil incredibly entertaining and educational. When I see him talk I feel I'm looking at is someone who:

A. Is profoundly passionate about the subject.

B. Is extremely intelligent.

C. Has spent more than 20 years of his life in rigorous intellectual examination of the subject of his study... but possibly more important, due to his years on mountain tops staring at the skies in the dark, the chance to really think about his thoughts and what they mean to him -- in a way that allows him to verbalize them in a very deep, meaningful and connected way. To me it is only individuals who have had this level of introspection and study on a topic that can say such profound and enlightening things seemingly off the top of their head. A real joy to see his passion and dedication to a topic he feel so deeply about. John Spence

Rajat Jayn

Looking forward to you speaking at TED, Garr.
Please put up the link soon.

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