Learning to Look Up: A Scientist Is Teaching the World to See the Universe

The Futurist, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Learning to Look Up: A Scientist Is Teaching the World to See the Universe


One of cosmology's leading stars is astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Tyson was recently appointed to serve on the nine-member commission on the Implementation of the U.S. Space Exploration Policy (the "Moon, Mars, and Beyond" commission). His book Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with astronomy writer Donald Goldsmith, was published this year by W.W. Norton.

In his teaching, public lectures, and popular writings, Tyson inspires the world with ideas about the universe.

THE FUTURIST: In your new book, Origins, you write that these are "auspicious times for learning what's new in the cosmos." Why is that so?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Enabled by technology, we live in a time when our investigations of the universe unfold simultaneously on five frontiers: extremely large ground-based telescopes, large space-borne telescopes, supercomputing models of cosmic phenomena, space probes to the planets, and particle accelerators, which recreate the conditions of high temperature and pressure in the early universe, just after the big bang.

How does thinking about the universe's destiny relate to thinking about the near-term future and its complex problems?

The universe's destiny has very little to do with the near-term destiny of Earth. But the destiny of the solar system and its constituents is another matter. A rogue asteroid can hit Earth at any time, leaving humans extinct. Mars was once a wet place. But no longer. Something bad happened there. What knobs are we now turning in Earth's ecosystem that may someday leave Earth with the same barren fate? With a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, our "sister" planet, we can ask the same question about global warming.

You write that our atoms are traceable to the big bang, which makes us a part of the universe itself. Why is this concept important for people to understand?

If people knew these facts--really knew them--would they still wage war on one another?

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Learning to Look Up: A Scientist Is Teaching the World to See the Universe
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