Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gives keynote address at SXSW


If the star power of legendary astrophysicist, author and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson is any indication, science is becoming cool again.

Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, a television series that first debuted with Carl Sagan as host, premiers tonight on Fox in 170 countries and 45 languages, the largest television rollout in history. The astrophysicist, who has accumulated more than 1.69 million Twitter followers, told the audience at his keynote address yesterday at South By Southwest Interactive he had just learned that President Barack Obama would give an introduction at the beginning of the series.

"With the President of the United States participating in the rollout of a scientific adventure, I think there is no better evidence that we do have a future that we can dream of," he said. 

Tyson’s popularity can arguably be attributed to his ability to make science accessible to the masses, using humor and storytelling to explain his ideas. It is not unusual to see a steady stream of SXSW attendees leaving during the middle of keynote addresses in search of free food or more interesting panels. Tyson, however, held an exhibit hall of 3500 people spellbound as he talked about the wonders of the universe.

Tyson acknowledged his celebrity and the considerable media attention Cosmos is receiving.

“It must mean that there is a hunger out there and it has not been filled,” he said. “Comos is landing on fertile ground and science is becoming mainstream."

While it may be becoming mainstream, there is still an alarming amount of misconceptions about science and lack of knowledge. Journalist Christie Nicholson, who moderated Tyson’s keynote, asked for his thoughts on a recent National Science Foundation study that found about 25 percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth.

Tyson said this is a sign of the education system’s failure to empower people to learn some of the most fundamental principals of basic science. However, he doesn’t think people should have to possess a large body of knowledge about science, and prefers to define science literacy by how much one still wonders about the world around them.

He emphasized the importance of skepticism, curiosity and the ability to “question” rather than “believe.”

“You can't just choose what is true and what isn't. That's not the way the world works, or how science works,” Tyson said.

Always quick to shoot down scientific misconceptions, Tyson did not hold back his thoughts on Pluto. He has little sympathy for its demotion from planet to dwarf planet, and even less for the people who are still angry about Pluto’s omission from the solar system.

"There is not physics in the number of things... so all you nine-planet people, get over it," he said.

Tyson said having a cosmic perspective reorders what is important in the world. And while space can render us extinct, it also inspires and affects our culture in a way that turns us into people who think about tomorrow. They day you stop thinking about tomorrow is the day you stop innovating, Tyson said.

In the final thoughts he shared with the crowd before receiving a standing ovation, Tyson explained that this urge to explore is part of the human condition.

 “Humans are small,” he said. “There’s very little that distinguishes us, except for our capacity to wonder. To be curious. It’s been suggested that humans among all animals are the only ones completely comfortable sleeping on our backs. Well, if you sleep on your back and you’re outdoors and look up, what do you see? You see the lights of the sky. Our cosmos.”