Neil deGrasse Tyson Receives NAS Public Welfare Medal

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Neil deGrasse Tyson On Manhattanhenge

On Sunday, April 26, astrophysicist, author, and Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson received the National Academy of Sciences’ highest honor, the Public Welfare Medal, which is given annually to commend the extraordinary use of science for the public good. 

Back in his office after receiving the award at a ceremony in Washington D.C., Tyson was preparing to host the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate and made time to answer a few questions about the award, the importance of science communication, and his new TV show Star Talk, which premiered last week on National Geographic Channel.


The Public Welfare Medal is the highest honor awarded by the National Academy of Sciences. What was on your mind when you received the award?

It’s an affirmation that my community supports my activities, and that’s nice. But at the end of the day, I hope to be defined by the work I’ve done, not the awards that I’ve won.


Did you feel drawn to making outreach such a big part of your career, or was it something unexpected? 

I’m still not necessarily drawn to it, in that I don’t generally seek out the opportunities to do it. Given the choice, I’d probably rather be playing with my kids, or going to the theater with my wife, or in my office working on astrophysics. But I get called by the press and by organizations and universities to share my interest in the universe, and so I do.

There are two exceptions to that, and those are my radio show—now my TV show—“Star Talk” and my Twitter feed. Twitter is nice because it’s a medium for jotting down thoughts I’m having in the course of my day and sharing them. It lets me share what the world looks like through the lens of a scientist and educator, and at its best, that can be an entertaining and insightful point of view.


Are there things that scientists in general need to do to improve how they communicate their work to the public?

In astrophysics, I think we’re better than most fields. The large observatories where lots of work is done have visitor centers, and there are very good amateur astronomy magazines that can help people access the field even if they’re not professionals.

Carl Sagan had a huge impact on the field and how it is represented when he did his first appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. It’s hard to overstate the effect of Sagan appearing not just on TV but on a late-night comedy show. I think every scientific profession should have people who engage with the public in that way. To resist that sort of interaction is not in the best interest of the public, or of science.


You’re doing your own TV show, “Star Talk,” now. Tell us a little about the show, which premiered last week, and what its aim is?

National Geographic carried Cosmos, so we had experience working together and a good relationship, and they were interested in doing more TV—to which I said no. I wasn’t interested in doing more TV, but they kept at it, and we started thinking about how my radio show “Star Talk” could work as a TV show.

Star Talk is a display of science as manifest in the things people think of as science-less, like entertainment and popular culture. The TV show adds another dimension, because people can see the guests, who tend to very animated. And now I get to say “Live from the Cullman Hall of the Universe, it’s “Star Talk”!” And that’s really cool.


Do you have any guests you’d particularly like to get on the show?

I’d like to have a head of state—any head of state of a country would be great, because if you are the leader of a country in the 21st century, you need to have thoughts about science and technology and what role it plays in the future of your people.


What do you wish more people understood about how the process of science works?

My goal is usually not to say something like "learn this." Historically, scientists tend to engage as if they’re working from lesson plans, and that turns people off. In social situations, we tell people not to lecture us, so I try not to do that. For me, the task is about getting you to embrace how and why science is cool, and to empower you to think about the world in a different way. The best way I’ve found to do that is by blending science and pop culture in a way that enhances the appreciation of both.


Is there one thing or one idea in particular you think is important for people trying to understand science today?

What matters to me above all else is that people understand what science is and how it works and why it works. That’s different than say, understanding DNA or a combustion engine. Once you understand how science works, it makes you a more potent participant in democracy.

Stay tuned to this blog for video from the 2015 Isaac Asimov memorial Debate, moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, coming soon!