Neil Tyson speaks truth

By Phil Plait | March 2, 2011 10:14 am

Last week, Chris Mooney interviewed astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson on the podcast Point of Inquiry. Neil is among the best of the people on Earth in showing the public just how amazing science is (Brian Cox is another who comes immediately to mind).

It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and well worth your time to listen in its entirety. But Neil said one thing in particular in the podcast that really made me smile (and was pointed out by Chris in The Intersection as well):

It’s not a predetermined path….Look at for example Phil Plait. Phil Plait is a professional astrophysicist, and then he had a blog, and the blog became a book, and a lot of interest in the book, and he saw the need for skepticism to be addressed in society, and he became a big part of that movement–you don’t pre-script that. It’s hard to prescript it.

My career path–you just don’t pre-script it. You do what you do best, and what you like the most, and you figure out along the way how that best fits into the opportunities of culture and the greater society.

First, thanks to Neil for the shout out!

But he makes a good point. I get emails all the time from people asking me how they can write a blog, how they can communicate science to the public as a career — and they ask me because I’ve been doing it for a while and have made a name for myself. The thing is, Neil’s right: you can’t plan on doing it the way I do. You’d have to be bug-nut insane to set about having a career like I have; it’s been really accidental, just me doing what seemed right at the time, and now here I am (and someday I’ll have to expound on that).

But "accidental" doesn’t mean "impossible". It’s more like "stochastic": an underlying path that’s been punctuated by random events that led to my current position*. But those random events would’ve been ineffective had I not worked pretty hard over the years to get here; you have to be able to grab them when they pop up.

You have to lay the groundwork to do that, and as Neil says one really good way to do that is through writing. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts, and to collect ideas. As you get better, you keep your eyes open and wait for the opportunities that will (hopefully) come along. I’ve actually let a few go by because I wasn’t ready for them at the time, but when they come by and you are ready, boom! It’s a pretty cool feeling.

In fact, I wrote about this over the weekend:

…the equation for luck is really just (hard work + preparation) x (time) x (statistical fluctuations).

In other words? You make your own luck. So you wanna get lucky? Go out there and get to work.


* I suppose you could say you couldn’t intelligently design such a career from the start; you have to let it evolve and naturally select the things that fit best. Say.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Science, Skepticism

Comments (73)

  1. Jason!

    Phil Plait’s career…. You can’t explain that!

  2. JM Shep

    Another variation I’ve heard is: Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. You can have all the opportunities in the world, but if you haven’t worked hard to prepare for them, you’ll never get ‘lucky.’

  3. You wrote a book? :D

    As an aside, my daughter has a copy of Death by Black Hole that she wants to drag down to the Hayden Planitarium when we go there in hopes of getting Neil’s autograph in it.

  4. réalta fuar

    I’d say that the most important step to becoming a first class science communicator is obvious: first become a good scientist. The best communication skills in the world mean nothing if that first hurdle isn’t met. Personally, I find the comparison between Tyson and Brian Cox, well, odious, is a polite word as, to use what I think is a yank expression, Tyson can’t carry Cox’s jock strap in terms of science. Of course, I’m prejudiced in that I find Tyson’s continuous self-promotion extremely grating, so it’s likely I’d dislike him even if he was as good a scientist as Cox. And I’m cognizant of the historical context of how Carl Sagan was viewed by many of his peers but don’t think it’s relevant, as science popularizing isn’t viewed as negatively now (and shouldn’t have been then, of course).

  5. Michael Swanson

    Hard work, talent and luck will build a career like Phil’s. That’s it. The same goes for rock stars, movie stars, novelists, politicians, etc. And of the three? Hard work is the most important. I know this because I’m a talented musician who’s had some luck, but never worked hard enough. My talent has led me to write good music, my luck led me to accomplished people who appreciated my talent but, rightly, judged that I am not dedicated enough to ever “make it.” Talent is the least important of the three ingredients.

    Work, work, work and work some more and get lucky.

  6. The best advice I ever got about writing was just to write things that you feel like writing and see what happens. 90% of what you put down on paper or the web may be total crap to start with, and it maybe won’t develop into anything, but it’s better than the absolute certainty of nothing happening.

    Same goes for doing science, come to think of it. I’ve learned more from desperately trying to pull a recalcitrant project into publishable shape than any amount of safe, computational stamp collecting.

  7. grung0r

    In other words? You make your own luck. So you wanna get lucky? Go out there and get to work.

    This is possibly one of the most privileged things I’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth. You’re american, You’re white, You’re a man, you’re well educated and you ain’t poor. You were born on third base but you think you hit a triple. In the immortal words of Louis CK: How many advantages can one person have?

    Do you think that the 15-25% of people in our country that live below the poverty line just failed “to make their own luck”? They just didn’t work hard enough?

  8. Joshua

    @#7 Grungor: Seriously? Seriously??? True, you have some small percentage of people born to well off families, so they don’t have to work for their fortunes. But for most of us, even if you are “American, white, male, well educated”, you gotta work your ass off to get anywhere. I wish I knew where your fantasy “third base’ is, because let me tell you, being American, white, male, and well educated hasn’t spoonfed me ANYTHING.

  9. grung0r (#7): Look at the equation. I also put in “statistical fluctuations” because that’s where opportunity comes in. Of course for some people that factor will be very low. But in any of these cases, if any of those factors goes to 0 then “luck” won’t happen. And what Joshua said (#8) is true as well. My point is that hard work is generally a necessary but not sufficient condition of success.

    I’ve noticed though that your comments on this blog are almost invariably negative, snide, and insulting. For example, in this comment, you could have taken any number of approaches to make your point, but took the path of attacking me. I am trying here to make a point that people at the very least have to motivate themselves to make a difference, hoping to help them find the inspiration to take that first step. What you are doing is the exact opposite of that.

    And I certainly can’t help but notice the incredibly overwhelming irony of your comment about my white privilege (which I don’t deny) coming in a post about a black man who is our country’s leading science advocate.

  10. Michael Swanson

    Of course white men still have advantages in this country. Unfortunately it will be that way for a long time,since people in power like other people that are most like them. But as far as Phil’s career, there are about a billion other people writing blogs that didn’t get to make a career out it. Maybe their writing wasn’t as good, maybe they didn’t work as hard, maybe they’re not as smart, maybe they weren’t as lucky, and, sure, maybe they weren’t white men. But then again, I don’t recall ever seeing a picture of Phil’s white face on the front page of his blog until after he was successful.

    And if you think he’s ignorant of the advantages that white men get in the country, which he could be, then educate him instead of flinging **** at him, Grungor.

  11. For all of Phil’s so called advantages that he was born into, you have to give him credit for overcoming the fact that he’s a ginger.

    ;)

  12. CB

    @réalta fuar
    I’d say that the most important step to becoming a first class science communicator is obvious: first become a good scientist. The best communication skills in the world mean nothing if that first hurdle isn’t met.

    Of course, I’m prejudiced in that I find Tyson’s continuous self-promotion extremely grating, so it’s likely I’d dislike him even if he was as good a scientist as Cox.

    Hmm… Sounds like you’re saying communication skills — which involves more than just the ability to communicate a point, but also in the ability to control how you are perceived and thus received — are at least as important as the science part.

    I would go further and say that for the purposes of advocating and illuminating science to the masses, the communication skills are much more important than the science cred, and you need only be competent at the science. Feynman was an outlier in that he was both an amazing educator and at the front end of developing many of the ideas he was educating people about. Most of the time it’s enough to simply comprehend the ideas other developed, and be able to convey them to audiences without the background.

  13. uudale

    I know of more than a few white American males who are below the poverty line because they removed (hard work + preparation) from the equation.

    Their choice. Being white, American, and male doesn’t automatically get you anywhere.

    And having some experience dealing with quotas and EEO-type things, I’m not even sure it’s an advantage anymore.

  14. Michael Swanson

    @13. uudale

    “I know of more than a few white American males who are below the poverty line because they removed (hard work + preparation) from the equation.”

    That’s the story of my life. It took me nearly forty years to realize that I couldn’t just hope for things to happen. Because of that, I’m stuck in a job I hate, don’t have nearly the education that I should, have no real savings. I always wanted to be lucky, but I wasn’t lucky enough to be lucky. I should have worked harder!

    I was born poor and white and it looks like I’ll die that way!

  15. Adam_Y

    “I’d say that the most important step to becoming a first class science communicator is obvious: first become a good scientist.”

    My mother actually made fun of this mentality. I used to live next to a pretty prestigious national laboratory. The scientists were pretty dam sharp but were complete and utter failures at communicating their work even though the premise of the tours was to communicate their work to the public at large. They were good scientists and according to your bad logic that is all that matters. It was so bad that my mother actually complemented the NOAA scientists presenting their work said that they were the only people who managed to structure their talk in a manner that she could understand. The ironic fact is that the NOAA scientists nodded and agreed with her. Seriously, where in gods name did you get such a bizarre notion that being a good scienist is the first criteria to being a good science promoter?

  16. Red

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_effect_%28sociology%29

    Yes, hard work is a major factor of success, but there are scores of broke, hard working people (last I checked, roofers in Texas weren’t driving Bentleys). An individual’s success is never the product of solely their own effort. As John Maxwell says “if you’re a self-made man, you haven’t made much”.

  17. Joseph

    @ Phil – I hope you don’t mind, I have quoted your Luck equation and added it to my favorite quotes list.

  18. Robin Byron

    @Michael Swanson – It’s never too late and it sounds as though you’ve already taken the most important step: you recognize your plight, the cause and you wish to do something about it.

    I was in the same boat, I just realized it earlier in life and, thought I’m now retired, I never dreamed I’d be where I am today. Hang in there, my friend and keep your chin up.

  19. grung0r

    Phil:
    But in any of these cases, if any of those factors goes to 0 then “luck” won’t happen

    Do you honestly believe this? Even Joshua, Who doesn’t believe in privilege thinks this is inaccurate( True, you have some small percentage of people born to well off families, so they don’t have to work for their fortunes.). Of course people get lucky without hard work, or being prepared or waiting a long period of time. How could you possibly think anything else?

    I’ve noticed though that your comments on this blog are almost invariably negative, snide, and insulting. For example, in this comment, you could have taken any number of approaches to make your point, but took the path of attacking me

    It is really, honestly, interesting to me that you didn’t call me a dick somewhere in there. If my comments could be the real world example we all clamored for at the time, I’d be honored.

    In any case, I don’t really know how I could have said what I did without being negative or insulting. I thought your post was privileged as hell(and said so). Should I have been more deferential or something? I didn’t call you or your mom names. I stuck to the subject at hand.

    I am trying here to make a point that people at the very least have to motivate themselves to make a difference, hoping to help them find the inspiration to take that first step.

    But what you ended up doing was writing off what is real, honest luck. You were lucky to be born an american white male in the late 20th century with access to first rate education. Everything you ever have done or ever will do depends on those facts, and none of it had anything to do with your hard work. Writing off your privileges as “statistical fluctuations” ignores the fact that YOU are the statistical fluctuation from the norm. You were born into the richest 1% of people that have ever lived, with every door open to you, and yet you persist in believing that hard work is a major component to success. Tell that 80 year old Walmart greeter or Indonesian sweat shop worker you might have been. Tell them they just didn’t work hard enough.

    And I certainly can’t help but notice the incredibly overwhelming irony of your comment about my white privilege (which I don’t deny) coming in a post about a black man who is our country’s leading science advocate.

    Your post wasn’t about Neil deGrasse Tyson, was it?. It was about how hard you work. Even if it where about Tyson, what is the irony, exactly? That you could ignore all the other privileges I mentioned(and that Neil deGrasse Tyson shares)? Yes, That does indeed have a tinge of irony to it….

  20. Christine P.

    I just came here to say – done in one. :-)

  21. JRB

    Ugh, Phil. I think you made some pretty good points in reply to Gungor, but I absolutely cannot believe that you’d state that what Joshua said in #8 was “true”.

    I mean, Joshua either built a ridiculous straw man or completely missed the point of Gungor’s comment .

    Gungor certainly wasn’t saying that white, American males don’t have to work at all for their success. Rather, he was pointing out that you probably don’t have to work as hard as, say, a black woman born into a poor family in Rwanda. I’d say that, all things being equal, she would need a significantly larger amount of hard work to achieve the same level of success that you have.

    To take on a more concrete (and relevant) example, studies continue to show that even in the US a man is more likely than a women to be perceived as competent at his job, regardless of job performance[1]. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to be hired if the person doing the hiring is aware of their sex (at least when it comes to musicians)[2].

    In science in particular, it has been shown that a woman needs to be twice as qualified as a man to receive the same amount as credit as him[3] and a recent meta-study showed that men are significantly more likely to receive a grant over an equally qualified woman[4].

    While none of this means that just because you’re a white male you don’t have to work and everything will just be “spoonfed” to you, it does mean that – on the whole – you are more likely to succeed then someone who puts in the same amount of work but lacks one of the uncontrollable factors that you just happen to have been born with (race, gender, et cetera).

    And being born in a certain time or place or of a certain ethnicity or gender is far more a matter of luck than working hard. And yes, working hard and being prepared are important, but that’s because it means that when one of those lucky breaks comes your way, you’re ready to take advantage of it.
    ——-
    [1] Hekman, David R. et al, “An Examination of Whether and How Racial and Gender Biases Influence Customer Satisfaction” Academy of Management Journal

    [2] Goldin, Claudia, and Cecilia Rouse, “Orchestrating Impartiality: the Impact of Blind Auditions on Female Musicians,” American Economic Review

    [3]Wenneras, Christine and Agnes Wold, “Nepotism and Sexism in Peer-Review.” Nature volume 387

    [4] Lutz Bornmann, Ruediger Mutz, Hans-Dieter Daniel, Gender differences in grant peer review: A meta-analysis, Journal of Infometrics

  22. Joseph G

    Sorry I’m late, my stereo was cranked and I didn’t hear the Troll Alarm go off. Lemme just pressurize my sprayer… There. Can someone point me at the little bugger? No one got bitten yet, I hope?

  23. Keith Bowden

    Sorry, Joseph, I thought I’d installed a better Troll Alarm. I’ll get the rotating red lights fixed pronto!

    But for JRB, everything you said is correct; the whole world is messed up, life isn’t fair, but no one here’s arguing that it is or ever said it was – and it wasn’t the point of Phil’s post. Our not-so-friendly neighborhood troll decided to get his dander up again.

  24. As long as we’re discussing careers, I wonder if anyone has any advice for a very bright person in his early forties who finds himself doing physics and astronomy calculations and self-study in his spare time for fun, but feels shut out of the academic system for various reasons (age bias, non-affirmative action demographic, spotty resume, etc.) My GRE quant score is 800, I have an undergrad physics/math degree and I’m confident that I’m as smart as any astrophysics graduate student, but I really don’t get the sense that I could get accepted to a PhD program with my profile. It seems to me that universities are becoming too bureaucratic and PC for their own good and need to find a place for somewhat eccentric but very smart people who don’t have perfect resumes.

    I believe there needs to be a revolution in education to give someone in my situation an opportunity to excel, and have begun building an online university where students can pursue education in technical fields to the PhD level on their own schedule, regardless of their resumes. My site is called Cosmos University (cosmosuniversity.com) – it is still in the early stages of construction, but I hope to offer study materials in space science and engineering at all levels, from high school to advanced graduate level, so that students may progress from “apprentice” to “master” Astrophysicist, Astronomer, Propulsion Engineer, Astro-Engineer, etc. by passing a series of increasingly challenging online exams. The idea is to make a science/SF version of the online “Grey School of Wizardry”, inspired by people like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke instead of Harry Potter! I hope to make the learning fun, educational and inspirational to attract new generations of creative cosmic explorers. I would be very interested to hear what people here think of this idea.

  25. Sam

    I listened to this earlier this morning. Tyson’s such a good communicator with such passion and elegance. Its thanks to Sagan and Tyson that I initially became scientifically literate (school certainly didn’t despite graduating) Only over the last few years after reading blogs, watching lectures and listening to podcasts (Skeptics guide to the universe is a great one btw) have I really started to appreciate science. Phil Plait, I would also like to show my gratitude, you have done a great job and continue to do so, you really are making a difference to world along with fellow scientific speakers and writers. Cheers

  26. Michael Swanson

    @18. Robin Byron

    “@Michael Swanson – It’s never too late and it sounds as though you’ve already taken the most important step: you recognize your plight, the cause and you wish to do something about it.”

    I am supremely lazy. I would like not to be lazy, but, other than my amazingly good looks, devastating wit and my propensity for lying about my attributes, my defining personality trait is: laziness.

    The closest I’ll probably get to retirement is typing it. Right there, about six words back.

  27. Joshua

    @JRB: gungor basically said that if you’re American, white, male, well educated, you’re automatically awesome (“born on third base”). I disagreed with him and provided him an example. And to you that’s a strawman? He was establishing a stereotype that in my experience is commonly used by those who don’t want to work hard and want to have everything given to them. Not everyone is dealt the same hand in life (Phil’s “statistical fluctuations”), and not every “awesome” hand is automatically a winner. You take what you’re given and make the most of it (hard work + preparation). In other words, third base isn’t always the same – Little League third base is definitely not the same as MLB third base. And it’s a fallacy to compare the two (which gungor apparently thinks we should do). IF gungor was in fact comparing Phil to “Indonesian sweat shop worker”, then yes I missed it, as I assumed he would at least attempt to make a rational argument.

    @gungor: How kind of you to tell me what I do or don’t believe in (“joshua,who doesn’t believe in privilege”), even when I flat out say in my post that some people are born to privilege. I’m so glad we have you around.

  28. JRB

    Joshau (@27) It’s quite clear from the context of gungar’s post that he did not say that being American, white, male, and well educated makes you “awesome”. He said that being American, white, male, and well education gives you certain advantages that a good majority of the world does not receive. That is why I accused you of missing the point/building a strawman, something that you continue to seem to do.

    As I pointed out above, one doesn’t necessarily have to be an Indonesian sweatshop worker in order to have fewer privileges than your average American, white, male. See my above post to see four examples of how Phil being a woman would have made it just a little bit harder to achieve what he has. (Black or Hispanic woman? Even more obstacles. Black/Hispanic woman born in the south instead of D.C.? It just gets worse)

    To summarize, hard work and preparation aren’t luck. Being born a certain ethnicity or gender or in a certain part of the world, or to parent’s who recognize the importance of education, not being hit by a truck at the age of 5, missing a bus and meeting the woman of your dreams while you wait, catching a studio producer in the right mood – all these things are luck. Hard work and dedication? Not luck. They just allow you to make the most of your luck.

    I’m not trying to take away any thing from Phil – he’s achieved what he has because he’s worked hard and done more than a lot of other people in similar situations would be able to.

    @ Keith Bowden (23), I didn’t have a problem with Phil’s original post. My problem came when Phil said that Joshua’s post was “true”.

  29. Joseph G

    @ Michael Swanson: Please tell me you at least have a blog :D

    I am supremely lazy. I would like not to be lazy, but, other than my amazingly good looks, devastating wit and my propensity for lying about my attributes, my defining personality trait is: laziness.

    I think I’ve found my doppelganger.

  30. Charlie

    Nice! I missed Neil when he came to my campus two years ago, I’m making sure not to miss Brian Cox coming on monday.

  31. JLE

    Sorry I am REALLY late to this, but that is the life of a man whose work filters block blogs. Phil nailed this right on. My advising professor and I had this discussion back in the 1990’s when I was in grad. school (man, those were some good days!). We got talking on why some succeed in the program who have all the natural ability. My advisor and friend to this day said “It isn’t a matter of natural or gifted ability, its a matter of hard work and desire. That will open more doors than anything else.”

    I have found that desire and hard work result in not only my own luck, but that when doors open I’m usually ready for that door. Not always, but usually because I often open the door or am seeking for the door that is open. It’s probably a good thing because after about 5 to 8 years of doing the same thing, I find I’m restless and need a change.

  32. Monkey

    Re: be a good scientist, then you will be a good science communicator.

    1) Carl Zimmer. Dig into his background. He is not a scientist, yet he is without question one of the most well written and concise science writers.

    2) Watch any “nature” or “science” DVD that is handed out to school teachers – experts in their field (good scientists) who put kids to sleep faster than enough anaesthetic for an elephant.

    There are always exceptions. I think what Phil wrote was dead on, and I only add these as examples of a no-scientist who is an excellent communicator, and the bevy of scientists who are bad communicators. To teach – because that is what a communicator is – science you need more than expertise. You need to know how to speak to people. You need wit, charm and a little dab of pedagogy. I wil venture to say that this is why my students love…LOVE…when I mention Neils name in class and loved….(Phil note the tense here…think about doing them again in some manner, please!) LOVED Phils astro question bit on youtube way back when. They both have a ‘way with words’ that goes beyond the science skill. The skill may be necessary, but its not the only variable. It still takes work and time and dedication, but when the passion seeps out, it makes the communication all the more effective.

  33. Hazza

    If you want to rely(solely) on luck to take you far in this world, cash in your welfare cheque and get a lotto ticket. If you’d rather be sensible and have a higher chance of getting that “lucky” break, work a few jobs, start a trade/pay your way through higher education and apply yourself to chasing your dream. Sitting round complaining and resigning yourself because someone else got a slightly better head start is just counter-productive which I believe is what Phil was getting at. in summary: You get out what you put in and with a little luck it may be better than you hoped.

  34. grung0r

    Joshua:
    how kind of you to tell me what I do or don’t believe in even when I flat out say in my post that some people are born to privilege.

    Because you didn’t say that. You said some people are born into a fortune without ever having to work at all. That is not the end all be all of privilege, and had nothing to do with what I was saying. If you think that ‘born obscenely wealthy’ is how far privilege extends(and given your bizarre statement that comparing the advantages of two different social classes is irrational, it’s safe to say you do)then you simply do not believe in the concept in any meaningful way.

    JRB:
    I didn’t have a problem with Phil’s original post. My problem came when Phil said that Joshua’s post was “true”.

    I hope you’d reconsidered this, given Phil’s response to me. It wasn’t just that he stated he agreed with Joshua. He clearly really does agree with him. His statement that it was ironic that I should accuse him of privilege when his post mentioned successful black man belies this. This is the exact same mentality as Joshua in different clothing. ‘How after all, could the luck of the draw have anything to do with it, when this particular black guy made it to the top? It’s mostly just hard work.’ It shows, IMHO, that I was dead on in my accusation. Phil really does think he hit a triple, and that everyone else who isn’t as successful just hasn’t worked hard enough, or is one lucky break away if they keep persevering.

    To those who have called me a troll:

    I find it fascinating(yet not at all surprising) that all the time I’ve been here, and all the somewhat inflammatory comments I’ve made, it took calling attention to white male privilege to get me called a troll. Had I instead made a joke about the inappropriateness of Chris Mooney being mentioned within 100 paragraphs of the words ‘good science communication'(a joke worth making, by the way), Phil still would have yelled at me, and then there still would have been a pile on… except it would have been on Phil. There are many threads in the past with just such a scenario. Either you pile on too, or you shut up and get out of the way.

    In short, you people aren’t skeptics. You’re sheep. You don’t care about what’s right or true, only following the leader that offers the postion that most easily fits with your preconceived notions. It’s pathetic.

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @7. grung0r :

    This is possibly one of the most privileged things I’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth. You’re american, You’re white, You’re a man, you’re well educated and you ain’t poor. You were born on third base but you think you hit a triple. In the immortal words of Louis CK: How many advantages can one person have? Do you think that the 15-25% of people in our country that live below the poverty line just failed “to make their own luck”? They just didn’t work hard enough?

    A counter example against your assertion is here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Emerson_Barnard

    One of the greatest astronomers in history who came from an extremely poor (as in poverty-stricken) background.

    ****

    A summarised chronology of E.E. Barnard’s career follows :

    1857 Born in the slums of Nashville, Tennessee, to a poor family.

    1866 Begins work in photographic studio aged nine. He only ever had two months formal schooling but proceeds to teach himself from second hand books.

    1876 Barnard buys his first telescope, a 5-inch refractor, costing eight months worth of his wages.

    1881 Discovers his first comet.

    1883 Obtains scholarship to Vanderbilt university

    1884 August 17th observes the Galaxy now bearing his name.(NGC 6822)

    1887 Barnard shifts to the Lick Observatory of the University of California having graduated with a Bachelors degree in maths and having discovered eight comets.

    1892 Discovers the fifth moon of Jupiter – Amalthea –using the 36 inch Lick refractor. Also in this year, E.E. Barnard makes the first ever photographic discovery of a comet.

    1895 Joins Yerkes observatory staff in Wisconsin and is involved in ground-breaking studies of dark nebulae.

    1916 Barnard discovers the extreme proper motion of Munich 15040 which is then named Barnard’s Star in his honour.

    1919 Publishes the first catalogue of dark nebulae.

    1923 Barnard dies aged 66.

    Barnard made a number of significant discoveries including Jupiter’s moon Amalthea, 16 comets, and over 300 deep sky objects, mostly dark nebulae, but also including the Rosette and California nebulae. He pioneered wide-field astrophotography as well as making the first ever photographic discovery of a comet. E. E. Barnard personally estimated that he had observed every astronomical object possibly visible to him at least 100 times.

    ****

    That’s hard work and great achievements overcoming poverty for you. It can and often has been done.

    Step 1 is to stop being resentful and whining about the hand life dealt you.

    Everyone, I think, has problems and issues in life. Poverty is one of them – and how you react to it and what choices you make to overcome it are the key factors.

    For your other points of so-called unfair advantage, note that there have also been many stories of successful female astronomers – Henrietta Leavitt , Annie Jump Cannon & Caroline Herschel spring immediately to mind and there have been some hard-working successful black /African American astronomers too such as Benjamin Banneker :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Banneker

    These days with Feminism, Political Correctness and “Affirmative Action” (otherwise known as reverse discrimination) is arguably the case that being male and white is now an actual disadvantage. ;-)

    It is also true that there is a sadly large amount of anti-American sentiment in the world.

    So the things you claim are clear-cut unfair advantages (or something) – that’s really just NOT the case.

    @ 34. grung0r : In short, you people aren’t skeptics. You’re sheep. You don’t care about what’s right or true, only following the leader that offers the postion that most easily fits with your preconceived notions. It’s pathetic.

    This is a sheep :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flock_of_sheep.jpg

    Given their hooves and the fact that they are wool-covered quadrupeds that are typically kept outdoors or in sheds you’ll notice that its highly unlikelyany willbe sitting at a computer typing. ;-) ;-P

    Protip : Insulting people = NOT the best way to win them over to your case nor is it constructive for a good, reasonable debate.

  36. Trollinator

    I’m going to engage in a little remote viewing here.
    Let me see… Grungor, I’m getting that you’ve got a Master’s degree from a prestigious institution, but that it’s a degree with “Studies” in the name*, and consequently, you’re finding that your career prospects are limited to the service industry, where you slave away daily alongside similarly un-privileged individuals. So when you see someone with credentials in an actual science – you know, something dealing with quantifiable properties and repeatable experiments – being successful, and popular with the public to boot, it drives you up the friggin’ wall.
    Am I on the right track?

    * “Metrosexual Studies”, “Whiteness Studies”, “Amputee Albino Hydrocephalic Studies”, etc

  37. @grungor

    Firstly let me apologise for being white, male, educated and not poor. Oh, and “Baaaaaa”.

    Secondly, Phil did say that essentially he was here because of some accidental and random events that worked in his favour and some hard work along the way. What exactly is your issue with that? Didn’t he grovel enough?

    Having said that I do find the myth of American exceptionalism cute. That is the myth that if you work hard enough you can do or be anything. Even president!111!!!1!
    I heard it described being like when a poor American sees wealthy person in Rolls Royce drive by he thinks “that could be me one day”. A poor Australian would just see a wanker showing off.

  38. Messier Tidy Upper

    I’m not a huge fan of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, indeed I really dislike him.

    From what I’ve seen of him, (admittedly not all that much – a few doco’s and interviews) he comes across as extremely arrogant and egotistical and cruel as was displayed by his sneering reaction to those who disagreed with him over Pluto’s classification.

    As far as popularisation of & writing about science goes Neil deGrasse Tyson ranks a very long way down on my list – megaparsecs below the greats Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Stephen Jay Gould, Brian Cox, Phil Plait, Fred Watson and others.

    Actually, I rather fear Tyson may have put some people off astronomy by his nasty personality and offensive contempt for his critics again as exemplified by the Pluto Question. (Where he was downright abusively rude to thousands or more schoolchildren who wrote to him begging him to reconsider his views.) :-(

    That noted, in this particular instance, I agree he speaks truth. :-)

  39. Monkey

    @MTU

    I guess we all have opinions, so here continues mine: Tyson>Gould

  40. @MTU
    Pluto is a dwarf planet.
    Let it go MTU, let it go.
    ;-)

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    Not to say that poverty and wealth distribution in the US isn’t of grave concern as this :

    http://www.alternet.org/economy/149918/9_pictures_that_expose_this_country's_obscene_division_of_wealth/?page=entire

    graphically illustrates. :-(

  42. #35 MTU:
    You missed one point about the results of Barnard’s hard work and dedication. In those days, cash prizes were often awarded for discoveries of comets; Barnard won so many of them that he built a house with the proceeds. He later joked that he had “built his house on comets”.
    I believe Joseph von Fraunhofer also had a similarly underprivileged start in life.

  43. DennyMo

    grungor,

    I’d like to thank you for giving me pause to consider what I’ve done with the advantages given me by my existence as a white American male. Then I’d like to dopeslap you for implying that the value of my accomplishments is negated because of that advantage.

    “IMHO”? Really? I don’t detect any humility in any of your posts. Be more honest, please, and drop the “H”.

    Phil never said it was “just hard work”. You apparently took offense to the notion that hard work has anything to do with success. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success, he never said it did. But lack of hard work (combined with a lifestyle of bad decision making) pretty much guarantees failure.

  44. From what I’ve seen of him, (admittedly not all that much – a few doco’s and interviews) he comes across as extremely arrogant and egotistical and cruel as was displayed by his sneering reaction to those who disagreed with him over Pluto’s classification.

    I think you’re watching or listening to some other Neil Degrasse Tyson. Either that, or you are so enamoured of Pluto that you hate him simply for his views on it being a dwarf planet (which, BTW, the IAU agrees with, do you hate all of them as well?).

    I have never seen him be “arrogant and egotistical and cruel”. He speaks excitedly about subjects that he obviously loves and does it in an animated matter.

    He didn’t kill Pluto, so stop trying to hang him for it.

  45. noen

    @Grugnor — “Do you think that the 15-25% of people in our country that live below the poverty line just failed “to make their own luck”? They just didn’t work hard enough?”

    I’m one of those people. I began life as middle class but I’m sure not that now. What I failed at was not hard work, I failed to be straight and others failed to not be prejudiced. I also failed to not be straight in a way that those who were prejudiced against glbt folk could deal with.

    I understand the argument that people should work hard but at times it seems to me that what is happening is all those born on third base are competing against all the others on third base and then blaming those less fortunate than they. I am sure that there is indeed a meritocracy, among third basers, the rest, not so much.

    I suppose that Academia is a meritocracy. The problem though is that the membership is pre-selected for traits unrelated to merit. And it’s only getting worse. In a deeply racist and sexist culture like America it must be very comforting to believe that one’s success is due solely to one’s own personal efforts and that things like race, gender and class can be safely ignored as “random” factors.

  46. Chris A.

    @grungor:
    Go read a book on logic. Pay particular attention to the chapter on logical fallacies, especially the one known as “affirming the consequent.”

    You’ve managed to accuse Phil (who was arguing that working hard increases your chances of succeeding in life) of stating that if you succeed in life, it’s only because of hard work (not the circumstances of your birth).

    It’s the logical equivalent of Phil saying: “When it rains the street gets wet,” whereupon you accuse him of saying “if the street is wet, it must have rained.” Once you understand the difference, come back and play. Until then, go away.

  47. Christine P.

    @Cosmos U – check out the Swinburne Astronomy Online program for one opportunity for advanced study. http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/sao/

  48. Melusine

    Some commenters made this more complicated than necessary regarding privilege and statistics rather than Phil’s merely saying you create (some) of your luck by just getting out there and doing it. I don’t know the chain of events that led to Phil to writing books but he worked hard, got a Phd, and then perhaps decided to start a blog communicating “bad science”, for instance the Moon Hoax theories. He started writing about that, bad science in movies, etc. in an accessible manner, got followers, created a forum, realized a need to explain science, is good at communicating, and so on.

    I found his link by luck and investigation because people saw that Moon Hoax show and believed it, and I wanted to know more. He had to initially decide to start a blog, he has credibilty via his academic achievements, I liked his communication skills, etc., and a NASA kids site linked his blog. He obviously met people who could further add credibility to his blog by linking as they thought he communicated the science well. He had a desire, probably said, “I think I can do this”, and proceeded to work at it and do it. It’s no different with other people who have written blogs that became popular and led to books or giving speeches.

    Regardless of any leg-ups in academics, he still had to put himself out there. Part of it all is innate drive, passion, self-confidence, and smarts that build upon the hard work and successes along the way. A lot of people have self-doubts: “Will anyone find this interesting? Will people like me and like/understand what I have to say?” Some give up before they start, some plug away as at any job and sometimes it works. Some of us are just lazy – if we weren’t the pool would be bigger and Phil could have gotten lost in it. People find niches.

    Poor people who have the high school grades can go to Yale University for free. Sadly this hasn’t been taken advantage of very much. There are some open doors for hard work unrelated to financial or gender status.

    Sorry this is rambling, but btw, I hung out with two guys at a bar last week who both believed in the Moon Hoax. I’ve read so much about it but I’m not that good at communicating all the facts. I thought, “I wish Phil were here!” but ended up saying to them that I could give them some good links to info and to keep an open mind about it. Then I got to see a photo of a UFO (a ring of lights) over my hometown that one of the guys had taken…good lawdy lawdy. They did not believe the “official explanation”. These are otherwise intelligent guys based on other discussions. At least I know some good sites to link to.

  49. grung0r

    Chris a:

    You’ve managed to accuse Phil (who was arguing that working hard increases your chances of succeeding in life) of stating that if you succeed in life, it’s only because of hard work (not the circumstances of your birth).

    Perhaps you need to crack open the old logic book and take a look at ‘strawman’. I never accused Phil of saying it’s only hard work. I accused him of sweeping privilege under the rug as statistical fluctuation. I accused him of thinking some of the things he got by virtue of being born white, male and american were things he worked for, and that then assuming that other people that didn’t have those things therefore didn’t work as hard.

    But hey, applying “affirming the consequent” is hard. Looks to me like you just need a little more practice. Work hard and stick with it, and you’ll be successfully accusing people of making logical fallacies in no time, I’m sure.

  50. grung0r

    Noen:

    In a deeply racist and sexist culture like America it must be very comforting to believe that one’s success is due solely to one’s own personal efforts and that things like race, gender and class can be safely ignored as “random” factors.

    Well said. The reactions of people in this thread to having their privilege challenged even by proxy goes to show how very important it is for people to believe their successes are mostly based on hard work and merit.

    I apologize for not bringing up heterosexual privilege while I was at it. I really wish I had, if only so I could have been called ‘gay’ in addition to all the other things that are apparently fueling my terribly unfair attack on Phil’s privilege. My Masters Degree from a prestigious university with the word “studies” in the name(yeah, no way that’s racist) is my favorite thus far.

  51. Dave Mundt

    Greetings and Salutations
    Got a couple of thoughts here. First off as for Neil Tyson; I do not know him in real life, but, my impression from the public persona he presents is that he can be an excellent communicator, has a deep understanding of the topics he addresses and does a good job of translating some difficult concepts into language that is far more accessible for us “normal” folks. I also get the feeling that he is a person who does not suffer fools gladly, and, is not shy at letting folks know when they have strayed from the path of truth, as he sees it. Quite German, actually…
    Now…as for success in the world and such. While it is true that hard work and dedication to the task at hand is a big block in the foundation of success, there are, these days, too many other blocks that one has no control over. Take me, for example…I came to a parting of the ways with a client of 18+ years last year for several reasons. During that time, I had put in weeks that built up to 80 hours of work at times, and, never went below 30 hours, in spite of being a “part time contractor”. Now…why did I do this? Because I had a lot of faith that the company, if decently run, could become a huge enterprise that would provide great rewards for all of us. Also, I had been promised by the owner of the company when I came on board that I would receive rewards for my time, even though I started out at rather less than I should have been billing. However, thanks to very poor management, that company is augering into the ground and has likely thrown away any chances they had to build into a truly world-class company. I am left struggling along, trying to get more clients to replace them, and, spending the rest of the time dunning them for repayment of a loan I had made years ago.
    Was I foolish? Perhaps so, but, when I throw myself behind a project I get fully committed and am willing to sacrifice short term gain for greater gain in the long term. Also, I allowed myself to believe the lies I was told for too long a period, even, (if truth be told) past the point that I realized they were lying to me, and, I was never going to get anything even vaguely resembling the rewards I had been promised out of the company. However, here is a case where I made a good-faith effort to go beyond the second mile to help these folks, and, because they are eaten up with greed and short-sightedness, I ended up with nothing.
    Pleasant Dreams
    Dave

  52. YaKnow

    @ grung0r

    Perhaps you need to crack open the old logic book and take a look at ‘strawman’. I never accused Phil of saying it’s only hard work.

    Do you think that the 15-25% of people in our country that live below the poverty line just failed “to make their own luck”? They just didn’t work hard enough?

    Nice try, but both logic and recognizing that post history makes it difficult to lie about what you said are not your strong suits. Unless this was just abusing the power of the Question Mark, which would be even more sad.

  53. Weirdly, in a post about communicating science, I’m seeing an awful lot of logical errors in the comments.

    Adam_Y (15): He didn’t say that all scientists will become good communicators, he’s saying all good communicators should start off as scientists. Those are very different things. I might argue that you don’t need to be a scientist to be a good science communicator, but it certainly helps a lot.

    grung0r: Sheesh. You seem to be reading an awful lot of things into my post and comment I never said. The equation I gave is only about luck, not about success. Success would have more terms in it in addition to the ones for luck, like where you start from, and so on. If I’m a success at communicating science, then certainly my being white, educated, etc. play into it since they certainly gave me a head start. I’m well aware of that. But the “luck”, as I’m defining it, is a product of the terms I used, and is only part of being successful.

    And I still think Joshua is correct. Yes, being white, educated, and all that is a huge advantage in this country. But it’s hardly getting to third base; look at the disparity in incomes in the US and that’s glaringly obvious. I’d say it helps getting on base in the first place, if we stick to a baseball analogy.

    All this talk of how hard others have it is true, but not the point I was making. My point was that at a minimum you have to get up and do something if you want to get somewhere. It’s necessary but not necessarily sufficient.

  54. BTW grung0r, YaKnow (52) has you dead to rights. Your first comment was indeed accusing me of saying it’s only luck.

    And to be clear: “luck” (as I’ve defined it) and “success” are two very different things. Success generally depends on that luck (that is, hard work + opportunities) but is not a guarantee.

  55. grung0r

    YaKnow:

    Nice try, but both logic and recognizing that post history makes it difficult to lie about what you said are not your strong suits.

    Since you didn’t say what you are accusing me of(Presumably because it’s so inane), I can only guess as to what your accusation is, so if I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me. I think you are saying that because of the question I asked Phil that you quoted, you feel that I accused him of saying that success” is only hard work”.

    Perhaps you could go borrow Chris A’s logic book once he’s done figuring out what “affirming the consequent” is. What you have done here is quote mining. and bad quote mining at that. You found a sentence I wrote that didn’t explicitly contradict Chris A’s stupid strawman, and then quoted it as though that fact SUPPORTED Chris A’s stupid strawman. I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. Take a tip from the creationists, and use ellipses next time. In fact, the first quote mine is on me: “Phil…this is…Grung0r…You think…that hard work is…the…only…element…of success”. See, at least that supports your dumb proposition. not so hard at all.

  56. grung0r (and, I suppose, everyone else):

    I think I see the heart of this problem. I was making an on-the-fly definition of luck, including hard work, time, and opportunities. I didn’t mean for that to be the entire definition of someone’s situation; I was extracting the part that was up to the individual.

    From what I can see, grung0r, you want to include other things like privilege, and so on. That’s fair enough, but wasn’t the point I was trying to make. You could just as well include things like being born in the late Cenezoic — for an absurd example — and turn my bit of pithy inspirational phrasing into something more like Drake’s Equation. But then the point I was trying to make would be totally lost.

    Perhaps my point wasn’t clear it the OP. There are some factors we can control, and some we can’t. As Neil implied, you can’t plan for any particular random occurrence, just that some will occur, and you have to be prepared for them when they do. If something is within your control then it’s up to you to hone that so that if opportunity presents itself, you’re ready for it.

    Of course, due to circumstance, for some people those random events will never happen, and those circumstances may be beyond their control. I will readily admit that, because it’s obvious. But again, it wasn’t the point I was trying to make.

  57. grung0r (55): It sounds like you’re dissembling here.

    YaKnow’s point was very obvious. In the first he quoted from you, you are claiming you weren’t accusing me of saying it’s just hard work. In the second line, you are accusing me of saying it’s just hard work. As far as I can tell, neither of those quotes is elliptical or out of context. You said something, then denied you said it.

  58. grung0r

    Phil:
    In the first he quoted from you, you are claiming you weren’t accusing me of saying it’s just hard work. In the second line, you are accusing me of saying it’s just hard work.

    Where, dude? How do you possibly extract JUST or ONLY hard work from that sentence? And not out of context? Why did I say “third base” instead of using “home run”? or say you where “born past the finish line”? Why did I quote Louis CK as saying “how many ADVANATGES can one person have”?

  59. Phil is privileged for being born with awesomeness. That’s all I got…

  60. grung0r

    Phil:
    grung0r: Sheesh. You seem to be reading an awful lot of things into my post and comment I never said. The equation I gave is only about luck, not about success. Success would have more terms in it in addition to the ones for luck, like where you start from, and so on.

    I see. That’s really interesting, because in your original response to me, that isn’t what you said. What you said was:

    Look at the equation. I also put in “statistical fluctuations” because that’s where opportunity comes in. Of course for some people that factor will be very low. But in any of these cases, if any of those factors goes to 0 then “luck” won’t happen… My point is that hard work is generally a necessary but not sufficient condition of success.

    Now THAT is an example of “dead to rights”. Perhaps you would like to have a sit down and think about what your post was actully supposed to be about before we continue. I’ll wait.

  61. DLC

    I would say instead, the one who is destined to succeed makes the best of their own luck, the best of their own circumstances and uses a combination of hard work and smart work.

  62. @grungor
    Your original complaint was quote mine. You whined about Phil’s flip final one line summary that had already been spelled out in detail earlier. If that is “possibly one of the most privileged things I’ve ever heard come out of a person’s mouth” you should really get out more.

    I am struggling to understand the point you a trying to make. You sound like you have an almighty chip on your shoulder or is it overly sensitive political correctness gone mad? Way to make a mountain out of mole hill.

    This may help though. Disclaimer for future posts by Phil: All opinions expressed come from a position of privilege. I acknowledge that I have certain advantages that allow me opportunities that due to circumstance and situation other people less fortunate than I will not have. Whenever I mention “luck” or “hard work” I acknowledge that it is addition to the privilege I already have.

    Too patronising?

  63. Gary Ansorge

    Ah, Luck. Where opportunity meets the prepared mind.

    Gary 7

  64. Robert Carnegie

    On the other original point of doing work that you find interesting and enjoyable and watching for opportunities along those lines, I think there is something to be said for choosing a job or a career that brings you plenty of money, even without so much of those other things. In fact, you can probably use the money for things that you find interesting and enjoyable in spare time.

    Furthermore, if you have a hobby interest, turning it into a job can spoil it as a hobby, because you don’t get to do it just for fun, and imperatives apply that can interfere with your enjoyment. For instance, if you enjoy old books, perhaps you dream of becoming a book dealer, but if you do, then books bect!ome less objects of appreciation or love, but just merchandise.

    But I’m not sure how this would apply to professional astronomy, how would that be made dull. Maybe if they say that you need to spend a year looking for asteroids near the Earth or discarded space junk from satellites if that really isn’t what you want to do. imagine if your actual job is to watch Space Shuttle crew on spacewalks through a telescope in case they drop something. For hours. Even when you get home you probably won’t want to spend more time doing the same sort of thing for leisure. Or! Or! They put you in charge of the committee for suitably naming extra-solar planets after statesmen in friendly foreign countries. And they’re demanding that you take Colonel Gaddafi out of the catalogue, when two years ago they demanded that you should put him in.

  65. Michael

    I forget who said it, but one of my favorite sayings is: “Luck favors the well prepared”

  66. JRB

    Phil,

    I know everyone has moved on to more important things by this point, but I still wanted to thank you for clarifying your position. While I did recognize that grungor’s original accusation ignored your larger post, I still couldn’t believe you thought Joshua’s post at #7 was true. With your expanded responses it seems pretty clear that you don’t actually think that it is (despite your second claim that you do).

    I mean, Joshua claims that only the circumstances surrounding a “small percentage” of people’s births could grant them privileges that not everyone shares – when it can be clearly demonstrated that 50% of the population (i.e. women) suffer a number of disadvantages (examples in my post above) just for lacking a Y chromosome.

    As well, he clearly fails to recognize degrees of advantage, making claims that just because someone isn’t born into a “fortune” or hasn’t been “spoonfed” that they couldn’t possibly have a head start over other people born of a different colour or gender or in a different place.

    You‘re pretty explicit in your responses to grungor (#53 & #56) that you don’t actually share those opinions with Joshua. So again, thanks for clarifying – I was worried to see such a brilliant science communicator share the outdated opinions expressed in post #7.

  67. grung0r

    You‘re pretty explicit in your responses to grungor (#53 & #56) that you don’t actually share those opinions with Joshua.

    Expect for the part where he says: And I still think Joshua is correct.

    All Phil did was bloviate and contridict himself(see #60), all while refusing to admit any fault and still being extremely dismissive of the idea of his privilege(If privilege were obvious, it wouldn’t be the same kind of problem, would it?). I guess Phil’s excellent cold reading skills strike again. I mean really, how do you read “I don’t share Joshua’s opinions” into “I still agree with Joshua”? Are you psychic?

  68. Joseph G

    Indeed, grung0r, Phil should have been more sensitive in his post. He completely disregarded the plain and simple fact that some are privileged – for instance, in inherent intelligence, character, or overall likability.
    It was horribly impolite of him to take these powerful advantages (which he was blessed with by virtue of factors beyond his control) for granted, especially when dealing with an individual like yourself, who has the deck stacked against him in so many ways. I’d like to apologize on Phil’s behalf.
    Would you like some ice cream?

  69. grung0r

    Sorry, Jospeh, but you’re not got going to get that pat on the head and the “good job, tyke, you got the bad man!” from Phil you so desire. He probably isn’t coming back to this thread. The reason he isn’t coming back is of course the same reason you choose to respond to my post by completely ignoring what I said: Cognitive dissonance. For posterities sake, I’ll post one more time exactly how Phil, in his rambling, incoherent attempt to explain away his original point, completley contridicted it:

    Phil said this in his orginal response to me:

    Look at the equation. I also put in “statistical fluctuations” because that’s where opportunity comes in. Of course for some people that factor will be very low. But in any of these cases, if any of those factors goes to 0 then “luck” won’t happen… My point is that hard work is generally a necessary but not sufficient condition of success.

    And this is what he said once he realized he messed up:

    Sheesh. You seem to be reading an awful lot of things into my post and comment I never said. The equation I gave is only about luck, not about success. Success would have more terms in it in addition to the ones for luck, like where you start from, and so on

    Do you see it? Of course you do. Phil tells me in his response that he wasn’t talking about success when he used that exact term originally. Phil tells me in his response that had he been talking about success he would have included privilege, when in his original formulation he includes privilege as “statistical fluctuation”(thereby sweeping it under the rug, indecently).

    Will anyone address it? Probably not. I don’t blame you. The fantasy that other’s failure to succeed comes from a failure to work hard(unlike you, of course) can be hard to give up. That the postion cannot be defended rationally by even a professional writer does seem to be giving you all pause. It certainly gave Phil one. That seed of doubt? It’s all I wanted.

  70. Joseph G

    In other words, you “win”, eh?

    I think all the sensible people abandoned this thread long ago. I can probably say whatever stupid stuff I like and no one who cares will ever see it. Wheee!

  71. Facebook type “Like” for Joseph G.

  72. grung0r

    In other words, you “win”, eh?

    Yeah, I do. Your non-response to my clear and well defined challenge demonstrates that quite well. Thanks!

  73. «bønez_brigade»

    Kneel before Neil!

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