My friends and family will tell you that I’m a bit of a cultural curmudgeon. I don’t use Snapchat, I can’t name or even identify the Kardashians, and I’d frankly rather be stabbed than use a hashtag. They try to usher me into the modern age, but we all acknowledge that I wouldn’t know cool if it bit me on the nose.
So I suppose it’s no surprise that I was less than excited when it was announced that Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was coming to lecture at MSU on March 4. “That science guy?” I asked a coworker.
Now months later, when a friend ending up having an unexpected extra ticket, I agreed to go to the lecture as a way to avoid studying for midterms. I’m a political scientist who had a very difficult time passing high school chemistry. I have never taken a physics class in my life. I didn’t think that the lecture would contain anything that I could access or understand, and I didn’t think that many MSU students or Bozeman residents would be interested.
Thank goodness I was wrong.
According to the MSU Leadership Institute, tickets to the lecture sold out in under 90 minutes. Held in the fieldhouse and seating nearly 4,000 people, it quickly became the most popular event the Leadership Institute has ever hosted.
Perhaps more notably, Tyson said it was the single largest audience he’d ever addressed. “Were you all rented?” he joked to the crowd. “Is the entire state here?”
Though he is clearly and notoriously intelligent, Tyson also comes across as charismatic, funny, energetic, and unbelievably cool. He gave President Cruzado a big hug as he walked on the stage. In his speech he shifted seamlessly between sidenote anecdotes and lecturing on cosmic perspective.
He began by speaking casually about the non-planetary status of Pluto (“get over it,” he said) and displaying on the giant screens various international currencies depicting scientists. But he progressed to the importance of science in the last century. Before Apollo 8’s famed “Earthrise” photo, the Earth wasn’t depicted culturally as having an atmosphere and clouds, Tyson said. The rise of planetary knowledge coincided with rise of environmentalism.
Though he spoke of the periodic table of elements and his extraordinary work, the lecture was accessible and engaging for the diverse audience of students and community members. He ended by speaking of Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot,” a moment that would give pause to even the most Scrooge-like of hearts.
I walked out of the lecture with a sense of awe. I know there are people who would have gotten more out of the science components in the lecture than I did. And I know there are people who were extremely disappointed to not get to hear their long-time idol speak, and who would have gone to great lengths to get the ticket I so casually accepted. But I can’t help but feel that Tyson’s lecture was directed at people like me. People with their feet firmly on the ground who go through life without an appreciation for the science they interact with each day, let alone greater cosmic perspectives. People who think about the stars as beautiful, but abstract and non-tangible. People who aren’t likely to speak up if NASA funding is stripped, and who don’t read science journals. People who don’t realize science is cool.
Sitting two rows in front of me at the lecture was a small girl who couldn’t be more than 7 or 8 years old. Her parents flanked her on either side, but it was clear she was the one who had dragged them along. For the duration of the lecture she remained on the edge of her seat, and when it concluded she jumped up and cheered as loud as anyone. That sight more than anything made me really, extraordinarily happy. I wanted to find her afterward and rejoice together at how cool science is. I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. But I had to get back to work, and her parents quickly ushered her out.
Even so, it excites me to live in a community that is so enthusiastic to hear an astrophysicist speak. I’m excited to live in a world where he is an international celebrity. “Science is trending,” Tyson noted at the beginning of his speech. Here’s hoping it stays trending for a long time.