Monday, July 6, 2009

Kepler mission - Tyson of NOVA science NOW

Monday, July 6, 2009
Through his numerous TV appearances and books (including the recently released The Pluto Files), astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has shared his infectious enthusiasm for discovery with worldwide audiences. Tyson's show on WGBH, NOVA scienceNOW, kicks off its fourth season on Tuesday night at 9:00, and we talked to him beforehand to get his thoughts on the state of science education and space exploration.

What challenges do you face in trying to engage people in science? People always think about kids, right? But adults far outnumber children, adults vote, and adults run for office. So one of the overlooked concerns is science literacy in the adult population, as well as the urge to promote science literacy in children.

How have you tried to take on those challenges with NOVA scienceNOW?I've gotten many emails from parents who say, “My kid, who never watches TV with us, looked over my shoulder and saw the program, and now we all put NOVA scienceNOW on our calendar.” I'm pleased to learn that this has become a family event, and impressed that there is a TV show that has promoted that kind of response.

Whether or not TV is important to you as a source of learning science, it can be a source of inspiring you to learn science. That's an underappreciated value of television as a medium. But with the show, we've also made a candid effort to put in a web presence, so if you want to go beyond the show content, there are plenty of places to visit.

Did you find that the controversy over demoting Pluto actually helped you interest people in the scientific process?I'd rather it have been a different subject to trigger that level of interest, because in the end it was about vocabulary, not ideas. But everyone stopped the presses and asked, “What's a planet?”

As an educator and a scientist, though, I'm also pragmatic enough to take whatever I can get. If it gets people thinking about the universe, I'll take it.

With all of the economic concerns right now, make your case for the space program.The space program is a visible target of people's urges to save money. But it's visible not because it's expensive compared to the federal budget, but because it's people engaged in an epic adventure of exploration—of places and ideas. That combination is, dare I say, unique, in the enterprise of human activities. That alone should give it priority.

But pull back a moment and realize that the actual budget allocation for NASA is only six-tenths of one penny per tax dollar. To take that money from NASA and put it somewhere else is naïve, when you consider what role NASA plays to the people in the educational pipeline, to people who dream of becoming scientists, engineers, and technologists.

Are there any upcoming NASA projects you think are especially significant?The search for life in the universe is going on in our cosmic backyard, starting with Mars. The chance to do the experiment to know whether Mars had life is just a couple of years away, with the Mars Science Laboratory.

Also, there's the Kepler mission [launched in March], which will look at the nearest 100,000 stars, to see if any have Earth-like planets. That assumes that in looking for life, you'll find it on an Earth-like planet, rather than some exotic form of life that you can't imagine what type of surface it would thrive on.

With China and India, for example, becoming increasingly influential, do you imagine a time when the US is no longer the dominant space power?China has stated a goal to land a man on the moon; with India, people assume that's the case, but they haven't launched their first astronaut. The rhetoric is more meaningful if you've already put a person into orbit. India, however, has a strong need to monitor the climate, and has a very eager agenda for Earth monitoring in their access to space.

And that could be another advantage of space exploration, presenting opportunities to take on challenges which interest all of us, such as Earth monitoring and the origins of life.I think that's an under-celebrated feature of this adventure. People always say, “How will this put food on the plate?” They're being very specific, without thinking much more broadly and globally. So I agree.


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