By now, unless they’ve been watching “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” on repeat, most Americans are familiar with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson – especially after his appearance on Fox’s “Cosmos” TV series last season. Dr. Tyson recently riled up the religious right on Christmas Day with a number of posts on Twitter basically pointing out that not everyone celebrated the holiday, nor was it a birthday confined solely to Jesus when it came to important historical figures. If they hadn’t heard of him before that, Neil deGrasse Tyson was firmly on the radar of religious conservatives without a sense of humor, even though he was known to rest of us long before that.
First, a little background from Wikipedia on Neil deGrasse Tyson, just in case you didn’t already know who he was:
“American astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator. He is currently the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. From 2006 to 2011, he hosted the educational science television show NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and has been a frequent guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Real Time with Bill Maher. Since 2009, he has hosted the weekly radio show Star Talk. In 2014, Tyson hosted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) television series.” (Source)
So how has Neil deGrasse Tyson made science cool again? Why Dr. Tyson and not the thousands of other astrophysicists, cosmologists, and other scientists out there? It’s simple – he has star (no pun intended) appeal. Back in the 1990s, Bill Nye had the “Bill Nye The Science Guy” educational TV show on PBS for kids, but that ended in 1998. Until Neil deGrasse Tyson became a part of pop culture, there wasn’t any type of science persona out there for anyone other than those of us who consider ourselves “geeks” or “nerds.”
Science has predominately given attention to men of European descent. Albert Einstein (my great-aunt’s good friend), Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, these are but a few of the many scientists and inventors that we hear about. While I in no way intend to dismiss or belittle their contributions to science and technology, where’s everyone else? The face of science, until now, has been mostly…white, and dare I say it, stuffy and intimidating to those who think of science as a world of white lab coats and complex equations written on a chalkboard in a cold classroom.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has made science more accessible, more approachable and even “badass.” In fact, he’s made it cool to be a nerd in a culture full of vapid celebrity gossip and reality TV shows like the recently-canceled “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo,” or fake documentaries on Discovery Channel. Our celebrity culture has focused on dumb things, controversy and doing whatever it takes to stay in the spotlight, anything to extend those 15 minutes of fame. This combination of attention-seeking celebrity narcissism and ginned-up controversy has also become become a very unfortunate part of our political process. We’re spending more time being outraged by the latest intentionally stupid or horrifying remark from a politician or media figure than we do on the the actual issues – but Neil deGrasse Tyson has started to bring the discussion of science and astronomy back into pop culture.
Dr. Tyson has shown kids of this generation, and adults, that you can be both cool and an intellectual badass. In fact, there’s a number of Facebook fan pages devoted to Dr. Tyson including my favorite, Tysonism, which is humorously labeled as a “secular religion based on the philosophy of astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson.” He’s also not willing to bend to the current wave of pseudoscience and fad diets that try to scare consumers into buying products based off scientific ignorance and fear-mongering, the current anti-GMO/Monsanto hysteria being a prime example.
Our society needs more pop culture icons with substance and brains. It needs people with more to offer than a short stint on Disney before turning into an adult and tabloid fodder. More Neil deGrasse Tyson and less Miley Cyrus? Yes, please.
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