Neil deGrasse Tyson

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I was regretting my own ignorance when it came to men and women of color who served as examples of the ideals I hold dear; rational thought, outspoken in defense of honesty, humility in the face of their mistakes.

Fellow blogger Ken, of Emerging Worshiper, suggested that I take a look at Neil deGrasse Tyson, a noted astrophysicist.

And so I did. I have to say that my life was the poorer for not having known about Dr. Tyson prior to this week. Tip of the hat to Ken!

Let’s look at what I’ve found in just an hour or so of research. First, apparently another intellectual hero of mine, Carl Sagan, attempted to recruit Tyson to Cornell, but Tyson chose Harvard, instead.

Dr. Tyson is currently the Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the best science museum in the world, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in New York City.

And apparently Dr. Tyson is critical of “string theory”, which he views as not having any predictive ability, and so, not being true, falsifiable science, a stance that I find personally satisfying if only because it shows healthy skepticism and a conservative view of the philosophy of science.

I have to be honest, when Ken, an outspoken Christian, brought my attention to Dr. Tyson and his work, I wondered if Dr. Tyson would be someone who abbrogated his rational and scientific views in favor of more religious views. I am pleased to find two essays by Dr. Tyson in wihch he discusses his views on spirtuality, “The Perimeter of Ignorance” and “Holy Wars”. In them, and especially the latter, he follows Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of Science and Religion having separate purposes for humans, which is a view I can argue against but still respect.

Tyson, however, gives me, at least, the impression that he does not necessarily see those spheres of influence as being exactly equal:

“My personal views are entirely pragmatic, and partly resonate with those of Galileo who, during his trial, is credited with saying, “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Galileo further noted, in a 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, “In my mind God wrote two books. The first book is the Bible, where humans can find the answers to their questions on values and morals. The second book of God is the book of nature, which allows humans to use observation and experiment to answer our own questions about the universe.”

I simply go with what works. And what works is the healthy skepticism embodied in scientific method. Believe me, if the Bible had ever been shown to be a rich source of scientific answers and understanding, we would be mining it daily for cosmic discovery. Yet my vocabulary of scientific inspiration strongly overlaps with that of religious enthusiasts. I, like Ptolemy, am humbled in the presence of our clockwork universe. When I am on the cosmic frontier, and I touch the laws of physics with my pen, or when I look upon the endless sky from a observatory on a mountaintop, I well up with an admiration for its splendor. But I do so knowing and accepting that if I propose a God beyond that horizon, one who graces our valley of collective ignorance, the day will come when our sphere of knowledge will have grown so large that I will have no need of that hypothesis.”

Finally, one thing that I like to look for in people I call “heroes” appears to be lacking – the quality of humilty, of being able to admit mistakes. Dr. Tyson comes close to that in his above quote, in that he admits that he does not and may not know everything… and he hints at that quality as being important in the pursuit of science, as when he discusses the tendency of scientists at the very edge of knowledge to either invoke God, or to press on and push back the boundaries.

I fully admit, though, that I have only read a few essays and done less than an hours worth of surfing to introduce myself to the man, so the lack is my own lack of knowledge. Certainly Neil deGrasse Tyson is a scientist and educator who bears further reading and research.