Star talks: Neil deGrasse Tyson is coming to Tampa to talk some science into us

If there's one thing renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson does not want to do, it's tell you who to vote for.

While he's well-versed in the role of science literacy and public policy, he's averse to the idea of endorsing any presidential candidate.

As an educator, it is incumbent upon me to educate the electorate so that they make important decisions when the time comes. But I don't see it as my duty at all [to tell people who to vote for],” he said.

The Hayden Planetarium director, host of Cosmos and Star Talk and frequent late-night television guest is coming to Tampa later this month to give a talk on the interplay between science and pop culture, namely film. His talk is called “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies,” and he'll be showing clips and offering “hand-picked assessments of films over the years, how they have treated science and technology, what they've done right and what they've done wrong.”

You'd think that he'd start with 2001: A Space Odyssey and end with The Martian.

But along with scenes from films you might expect — there's perhaps one scene that gets the science right in Star Wars — he includes some unlikely titles.

Like A Bug's Life.

True, it's an animated film about talking bugs and the ants all have four appendages instead of six, but there's at least one phenomenon the film's creators get right: surface tension.

“There are certain cases where you don’t expect deep science literacy,” he said, “and yet it’s there.”

To Tyson, helping spread better understanding of science in general — often with humor — is part of his job.

Months ago, he went on The Nightly Show to refute rapper B.o.B.’s very not-scientific tweets as well as a rap he wrote claiming the earth is flat because the horizon doesn’t curve. Tyson said he felt compelled to set the record straight because the rapper used botched logic that could potentially influence others to discard centuries of established science.

And to cast off key scientific principles is to undermine our collective understanding of how things work and how to progress.

“What you need and want is a scientifically literate electorate, otherwise you no longer have any form of democracy,” he said, especially given how much science is engrained in public policymaking these days. “Because going forward, issues of science will matter on all kinds of decisions relating to energy and poverty and food and climate and transportation. All of these things involve science, technology, engineering and math.”

Which is why, he said, it was a bit disheartening to see a lack of questions about topics like climate change at the presidential debates.

“I’m deeply disappointed that the debates and the media, journalists spent less time in conversation with these candidates about major challenges that confront us that will require a scientific or technological innovations to solve, relative to all the other topics that… ate up all the airtime. So I’m just really disappointed,” he said. “I think the priorities were hijacked… by very important issues that have high media value… At the end of the day, somebody’s got to say, there’s more to be discussed than these tasty headlines.”

On the campaign trail, the two major party presidential nominees incorporate science very differently.

Republican Donald Trump once tweeted that he thinks climate change is a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese. At rallies, he promises clean air and water (while cutting Environmental Protection Agency funding), and in the same breath says he’s going to free up all of the fossil fuels that are stored underground.

Democrat Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has promised to tackle climate change, and during Florida events has said she takes efforts to restore the Everglades seriously.

But the contrast between the two candidates’ environmental policies has been dramatically overshadowed by the rest of the election drama. The same can be said about the candidates’ views on NASA. (Trump recently said at a Florida rally that he wants to expand deep-space exploration via expanded public-private partnerships, and Clinton has said that becoming an astronaut was a childhood dream of hers.)

But in general, the potential for each candidate to live in bubbles where they operate according to their own sets of “facts” — as could be seen as news broke of Clinton’s latest email fiasco on October 28, when Clinton supporters and critics took to social media with their own versions of what was happening — is alarming.

And it doesn’t bode well for democracy.

“Part of science literacy is recognizing when something is an objective truth,” Tyson said. “It’s verifiable outside of the individual. And when it’s outside of the individual, it’s true whether or not you believe it. And people need to come to understand that reality. And if you do not understand that reality, fine, but you should not be put in charge of other people.”

A bright spot in the scandal-driven, often very non-scientific news sphere this year, he said, was the amount of interest in the discovery in October that there’s an earth-like planet in the solar system nearest to us.

“Even in the space of of the Trump-dominated news cycles, that made very good headlines,” he said. “So I think people view the universe as a welcome interruption of everything else that is going on.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson, "An Astrophysicist goes to the Movies," Thurs., Nov. 17, 7:30 p.m., Carol Morsani Hall, David A. Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa, strazcenter.org. Check website for ticket availability. 

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