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Neil deGrasse Tyson talks space, innovation and science in popular culture

Sarah Elliott
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist and media personality Neil deGrasse Tyson was in central New York this week, talking to audiences about the most recent discoveries in space. Between speeches, he spoke with WRVO's Gino Geruntino about how innovation impacts the future, how space exploration relates to STEM learning and the role of science in American mainstream culture. In 2014, Tyson will host the show Cosmos on FOX, a reboot of Carl Sagan's program.

GG: Can you talk a little bit about some of those advancements in space and in science you feel are the most important for not only New York, but for the country?

NDT: It would be inherently shortsighted to specify an advance that we think would come or that we might want. The most fertile research environments are those where there is a freedom to explore wherever the frontier is. That frontier could be in any discipline, but provided there is enough cross-pollination among discoveries, you can arrive at extraordinarily potent new understandings of not only deep questions like where are we in this universe and where are we going, but technological solutions and chemical solutions to problems that have challenged us over the generations.

GG: So astrophysics, chemistry and technology can all work together in an interdisciplinary nature?

NDT: Astrophysics in particular... let me broaden that to just space and space exploration in general. When we go rummage the soils of Mars, I kind of want a geologist next to me. And if I'm going to be looking for life, I want a biologist next to me. And if I'm going to talk to a space station parked in orbit, I need the mechanical engineers, the structural engineers and the aerospace engineers who might have built the thing. The exploration of space is STEM writ large. It's the entire portfolio of science, technology, engineering and math manifest every day a discovery is made. When you look at the way the Apollo program had stoked the entire technological culture of our nation at the time, it was all about tomorrow. And the tomorrow that you dream comes about by the creativity of the scientists, technologists and engineers of the present.

GG: Being on a national channel, a huge network, this has to really elevate the whole idea of using science as this building block to create conversation and to create debate.

NDT: Well, I'm not alone in this exposure. When you add in the viewership of the number one sitcom on television, which is the "Big Bang Theory," all the banter among themselves is basically accurate physics and accurate engineering. The whiteboards that surround each room; they have accurate equations on it. Those producers care enough to want to get that correct, and they're wrapping it in a comedic frame. That's brilliant and I'm very happy for them. CSI, and all of its reincarnations, has actors portraying real believable human beings who are scientists, not the wire-haired, lab coat donning, socially-inept scientist behind the test tube. Science in the last decade has become mainstream. And when it mainstreams, it has access to all the nooks and crannies of pop culture. And therefore, it's not science being held up on a pedestal, it is the recognition that science is all around you at all times.