Be it from his perch of nearly 7 million Twitter followers, or his spellbinding turn as narrator of National Geographic’s hit series, Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can wax quixotic about, well, anything, anywhere. To wit, he proved such on March 9, as he accepted the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation’s Lincoln Leadership Prize at the organization’s Hilton Hotel-hosted black-tie gala—joining an alumni list of past recipients that range from Bill Clinton and Tim Russert to Doris Kearns Goodwin and Captain James A. Lovell, Jr. (whom presented Tyson with the prestigious honor).
Prior to his acceptance speech, we chatted science, social media, and more with Tyson.
ON IDENTIFYING WITH PAST LINCOLN LEADERSHIP RECIPIENTS
NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: I don’t identify with any of them. They’re in completely different pathways of life. And, I think, in a way, that’s the strength of the award itself: You’re not so much honoring President Lincoln; you’re honoring a legacy of things that came into play because of his presidency, and because his presidency is so fundamental to what became America.
ON TRUTH IN SCIENCE & A GROWING CURIOSITY
NDT: Science doesn’t need, nor should it require, a safe environment. The emergent scientific truths are true whether or not you believe in them, and the power of that fact means at some point you will contend with the emergent scientific truths whether or not you believe in them. So I think science is on the rise, in spite of what may be felt like some indications on the contrary.
ON SCIENCE IN TV SHOWS
NDT: Consider that the original Cosmos in 1980 was on PBS, a documentary in 13 parts. The Cosmos I hosted jumped species and aired on FOX and went around the world on the National Geographic channel in 181 countries, like immediately.
The #1 show on television is the Big Bang Theory, and though they be caricatures, they’re nonetheless portraying PhD scientists having fun. The TV series CSI, now in many incarnations, it’s got many beautiful people playing scientists, and they have home lives and they have boyfriends and girlfriends and children and they’re scientists—it is forensic science that is on display with main characters who are beautiful people. You don’t get that unless science is becoming mainstream. It just doesn’t happen.
ON SCIENCE IN MOVIES
NDT: I have a cameo in Ice Age 5. Why? Because in this particular [movie], it’s Ice Age: Collision Course. They are about to go extinct from an asteroid, and they want to try to save themselves, so I am the character in the head of one of the mammals, feeding them astrophysics information so that they can figure out how to deflect the asteroid. I didn’t tell them to do this; I didn’t twist their arm. I didn’t say, “Oh, you gotta get some science in here or otherwise…” No. They are choosing to do this. Because they’re valuing it.
If you look at three of the top ten grossing films of all time, one of them is Avatar—the highest grossing film of all time. That’s a science fiction story that takes places on a planet with a lead character as an astrobiologist. My gosh. Did I twist James Cameron’s arm to do this? No. He did it. And he’s quite an explorer himself—the undersea world and the space world.
Neil deGrasse Tyson and James A. Lovell, Jr.
ON SCIENCE GOING MAINSTREAM
NDT: Science is mainstreaming and I see that. People 30 years of age and younger, they only know life with a smartphone. And they know how much science and technology goes into their smartphone. They’re not the ones in denial of science. No, it’s older folks—not the millennials.
NDT: On that day, I just thought, I think the world needs something hopeful—you know, we all want to cry from [one] time to time another, part of what it is to cry is to recognize the value of joy that follows. So, it was just an offering for anyone who might have needed it in that moment.
And how often do we even give [ourselves] the excuse to look up? Particularly if you live in a big city, where there are tall buildings, looking up means you’re looking at a building. It doesn’t mean you’re looking at the sky. So I think people need to be reminded of the value of looking up.