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What Makes Neil deGrasse Tyson Such a Special Science Popularizer

His message is rooted in science as a shared human endeavor.


What do physicists think about Neil deGrasse Tyson? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a science popularizer, and one of the few good ones active today.

The main job of physics popularizers is the same as it is for any celebrity: get more famous. Most do this by finding increasingly mindblowing things to say that are just barely justifiable in modern physics, if you turn your head and squint hard enough. So you get sound bites from Brian Cox saying that when he moves some crystal around, all the electrons in the universe respond instantaneously and the whole universe is all one big connected web, or Lawrence Krauss telling us there's definitely no God because the whole universe popped out of nothing, or Hawking declaring that philosophy is dead, or Michio Kaku saying that cyborg hypercube superhumans will mindmeld with topological aliens made out of dark energy Calabi-Yau manifolds (or whatever he's talking about these days). Theoretician popularizers who refuse to go down this road (Steven Weinberg, Sean Carroll, Scott Aaronson, Kip Thorne) don't seem to reach the same level of popularity.

Tyson finds his voice elsewhere. He's effective at talking about science. He stays on top of astronomy and planetary science news, understands the fundamentals of physics and astrophysics, and is good at explaining them. However, his message is not primarily about the content of scientific discoveries. Instead, it's rooted in science as a shared human endeavor. Tyson tells a story of cooperative discovery and exploration, like Sagan did. He recounts history (accuracy of Cosmos not withstanding), talks about modern space exploration, and looks toward where we will go next. That tack separates Cosmos from the endless modern physics documentaries with the fundamental message "Science be trippy, yo!"

I've taught astronomy to teenagers at a summer camp the last two summers, and they all knew and liked Tyson. He inspires children and young adults, advocates for science in society, and is a strong voice on the issues of equity and access for people from all backgrounds that science struggles with today, and will continue to struggle with for a long time. (See Neil deGrasse Tyson on stereotypes, societal expectations, and women and minorities in science.) He's grounded in a time when so few others are, and he makes it work.

I saw Tyson speak sometime when I was in college, maybe a decade ago. He wasn't a household name at that point; I didn't know who he was. It was only some time after he became one of the leading American science popularizers that I realized I had seen him speak.

At the time, I found his delivery offputting. He walked out from behind the podium during his talk, bent over at us with his hands on his knees, and practically shouted when he wanted to emphasize a word. The level and delivery of the talk didn't fit the setting, but ultimately he was effective. I don't remember what the precise event was, who any of the other speakers were, or what they said, but I remember Tyson. He said huge expensive projects like going to the moon or building the pyramids have always been driven by war, religion, or insane dictators. Since there's no war right now, religion doesn't want to go to Mars, and the US doesn't allow insane dictators, we won't be going to Mars. He was almost right, but what he didn't see coming was Elon Musk privatizing insane dictatorship.

I don't see much point in evaluating Tyson as a research scientist, although I understand it's inevitable that physicists will do that. Physicists aren't his audience. He doesn't have Nobel-worthy technical chops or the sparkling creativity of Richard Feynman or George Gamow (or Randall Munroe, for that matter), but that's not the role he's trying to fill. He's a public figurehead for astronomy and space exploration, and he's doing it very well.

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