Saturday, April 13, 2013

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Of The People

Usually, my posts involve music, movies, and things that interest me about the human condition. Over the past few years, I've really grown to love learning about science and the universe. Quantum theory is a lot of fun to learn about, but at a certain point, there is a lack of connection because I'm not capable of understanding some of the mathematics that are behind the theories. So, I have turned my attention more towards the universe and how interesting it is in all its vastness, glory, and mystery. 

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has inspired me to expand my mind on our origins in the same way that Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris challenged me to expand my mind to conceptualize what life could be like without a deity. It's one thing to hear that "there are more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on the entire planet Earth" and it's another to have someone explain what that means in a practical way. It's all so vast that we sometimes get arrogant about our place in the universe. We can feel as though we are separate from the cosmos, and special in regards to it. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we are a part of the universe. That is inspiring to me, not depressing. Some folks push past the realization that we are OF the universe by ignoring knowledge and filling the gaps in understanding with a god. I do find that a bit depressing. At the edge of understanding, you will find god. But that only lasts until we finally do understand. Through the centuries, Galileo, Newton and others were content to reach the edge of their capacity for understanding and left it to a god from there. Then others came along and added on to what was known and once again, god was pushed further down the line to a new edge. Not to debate the existence of god, that's something I don't have an answer for, but I do know that it's simple and shallow to just assume what we don't understand has to be given over to a god or gods. 

Tyson loves to talk about how much a part of the universe we are. That's inspiring to me. To know that all of this that surrounds us, is, indeed, us! It's like when I finally figured out that people in Iraq, Russia, China, Africa and everywhere else on earth are me. They are the same as me, they just live somewhere else. They are not separate from me, they are my cousins that share a common place in the cosmos. The most common elements (that are not inert, like helium) in the universe (hydrogen, oxygen, carbon) are exactly the same as the most common elements in the human body. Is this an accident? No, because we are the universe. We are star dust. We have been exchanging atoms with the universe since life began on this planet. The atoms in us right now were in something else before us and something else before that and so on. That's fascinating and inspirational. In that way, we truly are immortal. We've always been here in some capacity. For billions of years....all that we are now has existed and will continue to. 

Back to Tyson though. This guy is one of about 6,000 astrophysicists on the planet and he is the only one that has really struck a chord with the mainstream popularity wise. He speaks in an excited tone and offers up the universe in a way that is interesting and full of possibility. He isn't dry and doesn't drone on with huge words and abstract language that is beyond the common persons understanding. I can't recommend him enough to those who are truly interested in grasping the universe outside of the usual dumbed down notion of the cosmos and our place in it. His take on the existence of life in the universe is interesting and exciting in that the vastness of the cosmos implies that life is bountiful and just because we have not seen evidence of it in the VERY, VERY small area we have explored and reached out to makes it no less likely. He says we only really understand about 4% of what there is to know about life, our universes origin, matter, energy and so forth and that leaves a lot of room for exploration and discovery for what is likely to be hundreds of years. Or, with the development and exponential increase in computer power, perhaps it's just decades away when we will have a really firm grasp on how the universe works. Hell, it's likely that there are many universes, especially when you start listening to Tyson talk about the theories of dark matter and dark energy and how empty space is anything but empty! 

So, if you dig this sort of thing, but can't deal with the dry wit of Carl Sagan, the often beyond comprehension language of Susskind or Hawkins, or the long winded, sometimes dull explanations of Brian Greene (all of whom I like, but don't hold a candle to what Tyson brings to the table in the way of communication) then give Neil DeGrasse Tyson a shot at needling your mind and moving you towards a greater understanding of the universe and what it means to be a member of all that exists!