Emily Tan
Jun 20, 2014

Science may need marketing now: Neil deGrasse Tyson at Cannes

CANNES - Much as it pains him to admit it, in modern complacent times, science may need marketing lest it risk dying out, said author and celebrity astrophycist Neil deGrasse Tyson at Cannes Lions 2014.

Tyson at the media briefing
Tyson at the media briefing

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“It's not that science has bad marketing—it's had no marketing because it didn't need it,” said Tyson at a press event following his Ogilvy & Inspired talk yesterday. “During the cold war, governments understood the work physical scientists would do in the interest of national security. After the cold war and the wall came down, science got viewed as a luxury activity of a wealthy society.”

For example, a planned supercollider (particle accelerator) project in the late 1980s would have been capable of confirming the existence of the Higgs Bosun. It had three times the power of CERN (the accelerator that eventually 'discovered' the Higgs in 2012). But after the cold war the budget was completely cancelled. “The point is, these activities stimulate economic innovation as well," Tyson said. "STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] can transform a complacent country into an innovation nation.”

The problem, he added, is one of culture. In his talk prior to the media session, Tyson used the example of science in Arabic history as an example of culture killing the drive to innovate.

“After 9/11, W Bush said 'Our God is the God who named the stars,'" Tyson said. "Now, I couldn't save him from that mistake because I wasn't on his rolodex yet. The fact is, two-thirds of star names have Arabic star names,” he said, standing in his socks because he'd taken his shoes off for the talk. “'Algebra' and 'algorithm' are Arabic words, and we still use Arabic numerals. Mathematics, agriculture, engineering... all of that happened while Europe was still disembowling heretics.”

However, in the 11th century a philospher named Al-Ghazali studied what a 'good Muslim' should be and do, and codified rules for practicing Islam, Tyson said. “Part of that was that manipulating numbers was outside of spiritual responsibility, and everything that occurred around you was the will of Allah," Tyson continued. "If something falls and you say, 'Allah did that', if you're content with that, you will not be the one who discovers gravity.”

When it became wrong to question, when everything was attributed to a divine force, the culture removed the curiosity necessary for problem solving. As a result, to date only three Muslims out of 2 billion have Nobel Prizes. In contrast, Jews have 25 per cent of the Nobel Prizes, from a much smaller population, he said.

“I lay awake at night asking, 'How many secrets of the universe lay undiscovered because 2 billion people are no longer participating in that exercise?'" Tyson said. "What problems are no longer being addressed because the intellectual power is no longer being applied?”

Tyson fears that the US is headed in the same direction. “We're losing it," he said. "I read this headline 'Half the schools in the district are below average'. Well, I'm thinking, that's what average is! The country I hail from has headlines like this.”

Tyson noted that many children in the US have a lack of respect for their parents that would never be tolerated in any other culture. On one hand, this may be good because if the young can never challenge the old, then new ideas aren't allowed to exist and innovation doesn't happen. But the other extreme is a lack of structure and discipline. "You can't be creative without any place to stand to be creative," he said. "If we don't have that infrastructure, perhaps we, the US, will fade the way other cultures and nations have faded, unless we start valuing problem solving and new ideas.”

He elaborated further to the press: “We [the US] were riding so high in the 20th century. We thought 'It's our DNA.' And then you start coasting and you forget the actual investments that went into that happening.”

Innovations in the US now are largely around new mobile apps and film technology, said Tyson. “But when I think of moving civilisation forward, I think of solutions to transportation, to energy," he said. “Do you run from the hurricane or do you say, 'That's cyclonic energy, let me manipulate it?'”

The message was clear: People have to value creativity and innovation in order to have it. The desire to be risk-free is stifling both creativity and science. “If you stop making mistakes, you're no longer on the frontier. Because the mistakes you'd be making are mistakes no one would have made before.... And when you succeed, you succeed in ways that make everyone else say, 'How come I didn't think of that?"

More words of wisdom from Neil de Grasse Tyson

On hiring creative talent:

Let's say I'm an architect and two interns come in for a job and they have identical resumes. I ask, "Do you know the height of the spire outside my window?"

The first student says, "It's 133 feet."

I ask, how do you know?

The student responds, "I've memorised all the heights of every tower of significance."

The next candidate, when posed the question, however said, "I don't know, I'll get back to you."

The candidate then goes out and comes back and says, "It's between 130 and 140 feet."

How did you figure that out?

"Well I know my height, so I measured the length of my shadow, measured the shadow of the spire and did some ratios."

I would hire the second person because they figured it out. They had to solve a problem and figured out a way to do it. The last thing I want is someone who says "That's not in my job description, I'm not trained how to do it." Well, learn how to do it. LEARN IT.

On the periodic table of the elements:

The right hand column were mostly discovered by the Brits, and they named these collection of elements 'The Noble Gases' because they don't interact with anybody else. They took their class system and put it in the periodic table of the elements.

On storytelling and the finer details of science:

Not all topics lend themselves equally well to a good story. Not everyone else is as good a storyteller as you need to be to tease out the minutiae in all fields.

Here's a quick example, if I say to you, "Do you know what shape the orbit of the earth is around the sun? It's a circle."

Then you say, "I've heard it's not a circle."

It turns out, you're right, it's not a circle, it's an ellipse. We're closer to the sun sometimes than other times.

"What time of year are we closest?" you ask.

We're closest in January and farthest in July.

"Uhh... wait a minute," you say. "But it's cold in January. How can we be nearer the sun?"

Then I'll tell you, The earth is tipped on an axis and those are the times of the year the northern hemisphere is farther from the sun. Also, our orbit is not actually an ellipse. We have the moon. We and the moon orbit a common centre of gravity that's not in the centre of the earth, it's about a thousand miles beneath earth's crust. So the earth and the moon do a jig through space. It's a loop-de-loop.

This adds another layer of insight and knowledge and level of detail which is interesting once you get there. But if I'd started out "We take loop-de-loops around the sun," it wouldn't work. It's important to get to detail, but you don't have to start with it.

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