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Neil Tyson at Penn State: Embrace Skepticism; Don't Buy into UFO Hype

on April 07, 2011 11:13 AM

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson didn't come to Penn State to talk about astrophysics.

The university already has top-flight experts in that field, faculty members who can shed light on and talk about cosmic discovery any time, he said.

And so, Tyson -- an Ivy League-educated author, researcher and television personality -- delved instead into what he called his "brain droppings" Wednesday night at Eisenhower Auditorium.

He spoke for nearly two hours on "Brain Droppings of an Astrophysicist," a part-science, part-comedy presentation that emphasized the value of skepticism, critical thinking and scientific grounding from day-to-day life to society at large.

Early on, Tyson brought a rhetorical knife to cut down popular mythology over purported alien visits and unidentified flying objects.

Imagine, he said, if you see "lights in the sky and don't what they are."

"If you don't know what it is, you don't know know what it is. You don't make stuff up" just to support theories that lack evidence, Tyson said. " ... The human brain is one of the most deceptive data-taking (devices) there is."

After all, it's designed primarily to keep us alive, not to run scientific analyses, he said.

One by one, he flayed subjects that have gained traction in popular culture: astrology, Swami levitation, aliens on Mars, the "supermoon" and conspiracy theories suggesting government cover-ups of alien activity.

Tyson, who has served on federal commissions studying the aerospace industry and space exploration, said he knows how the government works.

"The government is really bad at keeping secrets," he said, laughing off cover-up theories about alien activity. " ... The government is not that organized. Look at how much we know about President Clinton's genitalia. ... Think about it."

As his comedic high notes began to wind down, Tyson waxed more philosophical. Humans aren't simply in the universe; the universe is also "in us," he said.

"That fact alone -- that fact alone -- makes me feel large without the baggage of ego," he said.

Human ego, Tyson said, shows through in those who believe that we must be the only life form in the universe. He said stars in the observable universe number one sextillion -- a figure involving no fewer than 37 digits.

An estimated 1,800 people attended and gave Tyson a standing ovation at the free event, part of the Penn State Distinguished Speaker Series and the Waynick Memorial Lecture Series. A native of New York City, Tyson grew up in the city and went on to earn degrees at Harvard and Columbia universities. His research has centered in part on the formation of stars, on dwarf gallaxies and on the Milky Way.  Tyson also has served on the NASA Advisory Council.

He may be best known for his nine books -- including "The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist" -- and for his work hosting "NOVA" and "NOVA scienceNOW" on PBS. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, as well.

In an opening riff Wednesday night, he said he "knew (State College) was remote," but didn't realize exactly how remote until he saw a front-page Collegian headline about cockroaches having been found at University Park.

"I'm thinking: 'Why is this news?'" Tyson told the audience. "It may be that this 300-million-year-old species finally found this town."

Earlier, in a pre-talk visit with local reporters Wednesday, Tyson said he wanted his talk to illustrate the importance of skepticism, including skepticism of those who are not skeptical themselves. He lamented the relative lack of an information filter in the Information Age, which he said makes it easy to jump "into a sandbox with others who think exactly like you do."

"There's no way to provide assurance to know what you're looking at has validity -- unless you're equipped" with a healthy dose of critical-thinking skills, Tyson said.

At the same time, he said, the Information Age provides people with remarkable tools to investigate the gigantic, overarching questions that people have pondered for centuries: What else is out there? What's the meaning of it all?

Asked what he believes to be "the meaning of it all," Tyson was thoughtful.

The people who've found the greatest meaning in life, he said, are those who've "created the meaning themselves."

And in his own life, he said, he finds meaning in spreading knowledge and insight to others.

"One of my great goals has always been to lessen the suffering of others," and that includes intellectual suffering, Tyson said. " ... I find my meaning by creating it around me."

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