Neil Tyson's congressional testimony

By Phil Plait | March 31, 2012 11:00 am

My old friend and colleague Neil Tyson has long been an advocate for exploration, for basic investment in science, and for pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. In early March, he got a chance to make his stand official: he testified before the Senate.

Here’s what he said:

Not bad, not bad at all. His passion for this is clear, and his thinking true. There is a lot of room for the devil in the details — he and I agree that doubling NASA’s budget would be A Good Thing, but there would have to be a requisite increase in oversight, and many more administrative details. But that’s not the point when you’re talking to Congress about inspiration: you’re there to inspire. He’s trying to make a much larger point and not get bogged down in details.

And his main point, I think, rings true. After all, "How much would you pay for the Universe?"


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Congress, Neil Tyson

Comments (41)

Links to this Post

  1. This Week's Skeptilinks of NoteSkeptinerd | March 31, 2012
  1. I think you need to trademark “A Good ThingTM” in cases like this.

  2. lewikee

    Great speech, and and amazing quote by Saint-Exupéry that I had forgotten. What specifically is the decision before the Senate here? Is it just a general “How much should we put into NASA next fiscal year?”

  3. Chris

    So Congress votes to keep the $24 billion over 10 years in tax breaks to the oil companies, but can’t find a few billion more for NASA. Depressing.

    Great speech, unfortunately it probably fell on deaf ears. Even if the greatest orator in history showed up to say why NASA and science should have more investment, a big fraction of Congress would still vote no.

  4. kat wagner

    Tyson made the most amazing plea for NASA on The Daily Show a few months back, and Jon Stewart was all, like, “THIS GUY FOR PRESIDENT!” It was the most impassioned speech for science I’d ever heard and made me all goose bumpy.

    As a sidebar, I just read on CNN about the new term “blerds” – black nerds. Comedy Central has that new show Key and Peele; they said Pres. Obama was the best thing to happen for black nerds – before him, they only had Urkel. So now, African Americans don’t have to aspire to be just sport heroes or rappers. They can be really cool nerds like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

  5. @Chris (#3), you can’t even begin to imagine how true that last depressing part of your post it…
    If you want to be depressed, check out this study showing how conservatives seem to actively distrust science much more than they did 30-40 years ago: http://www.asanet.org/images/journals/docs/pdf/asr/Apr12ASRFeature.pdf

    The table on the page marked 175 (page 9 in the PDF) says it all….

  6. Quatguy

    Here here! Well said.

  7. Infinite123Lifer

    Way to keep up the fight for the future, Mr. Plait, Mr. Tyson, hats off to you guys & others who share the vision. I hope the word fight in that sentence rings true to others. . . people have always had to Fight for what they believe in, maybe someday people will obtain & use their ability to reason once greed takes a back seat to empathy perhaps. For now though, on some issues, I feel like we are still in the stone, bronze or iron age. With all of our progress and innovation ancient ways of control still remain prevalent.

    Who knows what the future may bring, but I hope whatever it is, it is brought by folks such as yourselves. Just because the blood, sweat & tears were not shown in the video here does not mean this wasn’t a fight. Mr Tyson was engaged in a battle. A battle to question, a battle for reason, the battle to grow.

  8. Gary Ansorge

    8. Infinite123Lifer

    Nice sentiments however, just a small detail. In the USA, out of respect, we generally refer to people with PhDs as “Doctor” so and so. I figure anyone who had to spend 20 plus years in advanced education earned their title.

    Gary 7

  9. Infinite123Lifer

    I wholeheartedly agree Gary Ansorge (probably just did it again)

    Not to take anything away from the gentlemen, my apologies, Dr. Phil Plait, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, hats are off.

  10. Jojo

    I was happy to see some mention of the advances other countries are making in space while we sit back worrying about deficits, woman’s contraceptives, gay marriage and other distractions.

    It is criminal that we have retired the shuttle w/o having a replacement vehicle and must hitchhike rides with Russia to get to the ISS. It is criminal that we have turned over space development to the private sector.

    I am further amazed that the military-industrial complex sat back and allowed this to happen. If not out of patriotism, what about the good old government contracts and greed?

    Let’s say one or more of the countries mentioned decides to attack our satellites or drop nuke bombs from orbit. What exactly are we going to mount to fight back? Borrow Virgin’s toy ships? Puh-leez!

    Given the history of the humans on Urth, a space faring country NEEDS military and police capability in space. We need hot dog ships that can fight and defend our interests while protecting passenger traffic from pirate ships. Borrowing or commandeering tourist ships for that job is not going to cut the mustard!

  11. frankenstein monster

    “How much would you pay for the Universe?”

    some people would pay everything.
    some people think it is worthless.
    some people would even pay to prevent anyone from reaching it.

    And if we wait for approval from the other two groups, we will never get there.

  12. Karl-Heinz

    GREAT speech! Sad budget development: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA#Annual_budget.2C_1958-2012 – from 4.41% of federal budget down to .48%. However, still much better than Europe: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Space_Agency#Member_countries_and_budget where we only have a fourth of the NASA budget. We need people like Tyson and Plait over here in Europe!
    But at least the ESA budget is growing, so it has the right direction.

  13. Jim Rix

    For a long time China had the capability to explore the Pacific Ocean. They didn’t. Looks like the USA is following in China’s footsteps.

  14. Gary Ansorge

    15. Jim Rix

    Exactly. China started that exploration, then turned around and went home. If they hadn’t, the entire planet would likely be speaking Mandarin today.

    Gary 7
    PS 10. Infinite123Lifer. Cool and I haven’t earned my PhD…yet.

  15. Neil Tyson: “How much would I pay for the universe? ”
    Plenty. I just wouldn’t pay NASA a dime because their record as delivery agents is terrible.

    Jojo: “It is criminal that we have turned over space development to the private sector.”
    NASA spaceflight have been promising great things, but all they’ve managed to do for the past 40 years is build four hindenburgs, two of which blew up, and none of which ever got more than 300 miles from their hanger. How about we try something else? Only people actually trying something else is SpaceX.

  16. Jojo

    @ANTI carrot – I hear you and I agree about NASA. Maybe we needed a whole new agency. Maybe we needed to have less Congress involvement in NASA decisions.

    BUT regardless, I don’t see how the SpaceX folks (or similar companies) are going to build anything capable of taking on military class ships from countries like China or Russia.

    Also (again), we’ve had pirates on the sea for probably as long as people have been sailing the seas. What makes you think that we won’t need pirate protection in space? And that has to be a function of government, who need to have bigger and badder ships and armaments than the pirates have.

  17. B

    “9. Gary Ansorge Says:
    Nice sentiments however, just a small detail. In the USA, out of respect, we generally refer to people with PhDs as “Doctor” so and so. I figure anyone who had to spend 20 plus years in advanced education earned their title.”

    That sounds wonderfully pompous.

    To anyone here that doesn’t have a PhD, Doctors put their pants on just like the rest of us. Don’t feel compelled to call them “Doctor” out of respect. They should only invoke their title in conversation if they’re hitting on someone at a bar and they think it improves their odds.

  18. Thomas Siefert

    I agree with B. I thought that only Germans loved titles like that.
    Besides, how are you supposed to know which titles to prefix their names with? Are they walking around with their framed diplomas under their arms or do they have a badge they can flash?

  19. Jon

    Re. 19 & 20 in re. @9…

    It’s not a compulsion. It is that we wish to display respect for their learning and accomplishments.

    And they should invoke their title when their subject matter is at hand.

    In medicine, I would prefer to be inspected by Dr. Smith, M.D. over Mr. Smith, college dropout who lives in his Mom’s basement. It is not unreasonable for a Medical Doctor to rush to the aid of an injured man and say, “I am a Doctor!”.

    If you and a handful of friends are puzzling over some esoterica in astrophysics, it’s not unreasonable for someone to preface their opinion with the detail that they happen to have a PhD in astrophysics.

    It is worth noting, however, that they may not be transferrable. A Juris Doctor (J.D.) may know nothing of astrophysics and less of medicine, and so simply saying “I’m a doctor!” will carry no weight in either of the preceding examples.

    Finally, it is their right. They have earned the title through extensive study, including (for a PhD, anyhow) extensive research that *had not been done before*.

    As far as knowing? That’s trickier, but few will take offense unless you’re directly importuning their expertise in their field. For @8, there was that little sign in front of the screen for the whole show that said, “Dr” on it, so one might have hoped in at least this case it would have been obvious.

    Anyhow,

    Mr. Jon

  20. Jon

    PS – Do people properly addressed as Mrs and Miss also carry little flashcards? Or do you have to peer around and inspect their hands for rings before risking offense? J.

  21. B

    @ 21. Jon

    Hey, if you know he’s a PhD and it gets you off honoring him with the title of “Dr,” then have at it. I’m just saying there’s no need to correct someone who calls him “Mr.” Respect is best conferred with action, not titles and platitudes.

    An MD running into a room to save a life shouts “doctor” to alert people that he’s most qualified and make space so he can help. Neil is testifying before Congress. His credentials are already known. Reiterating that he’s a doctor because you felt he wasn’t given due respect is just pompous.

  22. Infinite123Lifer

    Really?

    I would prefer to just stay out of this but since I am the one that goofed, well, since we are here and everything . . .

    I said Mr because I was talking about following people into the future, to me it seemed a bit more human, and a bit more personable, as I don’t just follow them because they are Dr.’s, but more because of the type of person they are. I would rather follow someone with a sturdy mixture of heart and mind than just mind, which is why I left off the Dr. Not saying Dr.’s don’t have hearts, I am just saying that I am a bit sentimental and Dr just seems too sterile sometimes, for me (that might sound weird but this whole post has gotten kinda weird so there it is). I do see Mr. Ansorge’s point however, and wish to convey my respect to those who have worked so hard to attain such an achievement. The only reason I did not is because in my mind I was catering to something other than academic achievement.

    I grew up loving baseball. My favorite player for years was Will Clark. I am 34 years old and if I had the opportunity to just sit and chat about Life with Dr. Plait or Dr. Tyson or play some chess or talk about whatever the space these guys might wanna talk about . . . I guarantee you I would be leaving with an autographed Milky Way Galaxy poster, going “holy cow I just beat Dr. Plait at chess!” :) Sometimes you just like what people say and do and I like what these gentlemen say and do.

    Move over autographed Will Clark baseball card and make way for the Milky Way

  23. Autumn

    I almost feel bad for wanting Dr. Tyson to spend more time doing this sort of thing. I’m sure that he didn’t get into the field thinking, “one day I would like to be a profound orator,” but he’s just so darned good at it.

  24. Jojo

    Do Discover threads always degenerate into arguing over stupid crap like what title someone should be addressed with?

    Or maybe this “Mr. Jon” person is just a hired troll assigned to take this important discussion off-track? Stop feeding the troll.

  25. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    How much would you pay for the Universe?

    My asking price is 20,000 planets of diamond. Make me an offer.

    ;-)

  26. Nigel Depledge

    Jon (21) said:

    In medicine, I would prefer to be inspected by Dr. Smith, M.D. over Mr. Smith, college dropout who lives in his Mom’s basement.

    [nitpick mode on]
    You would never write a person’s title & name as “Dr Smith, MD” – they’d either be “Dr Smith” (in which the context ought to clarify what kind of doctor they are), or be known as “John Smith, MD” (or whatever).

    The name plate on my office door says “Dr Nigel Depledge” not “Dr Nigel Depledge, PhD” because the context makes the kind of doctorate obvious. And my colleagues all call me Nigel. I’d find it weird if they started calling me “Dr Depledge”.

    Outside of a professional context, however, I’m more often just Mr Depledge, because a PhD is irrelevant. When I buy car insurance, there’s no need to have them call me “Dr Depledge”, because in that context “Mr Depledge” conveys essentially the same measure of respect.

    In the situation with Neil Tyson, eveyone knows who he is and knows he’s a scientist (and has a PhD), so the “Dr” becomes irrelevant.

    [nitpick mode off]

    [OFF, I said nitpick mode OFF . . . ]

    [Aw, crap]

  27. Nigel Depledge

    Jojo (26) said:

    Do Discover threads always degenerate into arguing over stupid crap like what title someone should be addressed with?

    No.

    But there is often pedantry sooner or later.

  28. Nigel Depledge

    Karl-Heinz (13) said:

    We need people like Tyson and Plait over here in Europe!

    Hey, we have Brian Cox and Patrick Moore.

    Not to mention Marcus du Sautoy and Jim al-Khalili (mathematician and physicist respectively).

    And that’s just among native English-speaking scientists. I have no idea about science popularisers among the native German / French / Polish / Spanish -speaking science communities.

  29. Nigel Depledge

    ANTIcarrot (17) said:

    NASA spaceflight have been promising great things, but all they’ve managed to do for the past 40 years is build four hindenburgs, two of which blew up, and none of which ever got more than 300 miles from their hanger.

    Wait. When did the Earth’s diameter shrink to less than 300 miles?

    I put it to you that every Shuttle Orbiter to fly in space got at least 12,500 km from its hangar.

  30. Nigel Depledge

    Jojo (18) said:

    Also (again), we’ve had pirates on the sea for probably as long as people have been sailing the seas. What makes you think that we won’t need pirate protection in space? And that has to be a function of government, who need to have bigger and badder ships and armaments than the pirates have.

    Wait a second. When did “we came in peace for all mankind” become “we need bigger guns”?

  31. Stathis Dimopoulos

    Nigel Depledge (30) said:

    Hey, we have Brian Cox and Patrick Moore.

    Don’t forget the special 55 years anniversary Sky At Night today.

  32. Gary Ansorge

    Gee, sometimes my pedantic switch gets stuck…but then I DO have German ancestry…

    Gary 7

  33. Jeff

    http://www.booktv.org/Watch/13308/quotSpace+Chronicles+Facing+the+Ultimate+Frontierquot.aspx

    he did a long talk at BookTV above, watch it, it is good. He is doing a good job laying out the history and rationale for spaceflight in a way that inspires people. That is what is needed. The details bore most of the public, but not the vision. And visions can change societies. Today’s media is dominated by people trying to peddle their own products and not get a society behind a goal, other than shopping at their store/website.

  34. Lorena

    “watch out, we got a badass over here” XD XD

  35. Jon

    Hi again. Let’s see… Hm. Okay, let’s go:

    1) @B, 23: The respect is indeed due to action, not title. The title is awarded because there has been action. It’s past tense, not future.

    2) @Infinite123Lifer, 24: Thanks for clarifying, and although I disagree that ‘Dr’ is cold and sterile (I think it’s as warm as any title, Mr. or Ms. included), I can see your point. Unfortunately, my chess isn’t so good – Perhaps I can wallop Dr. Plait at backgammon sometime. ;-)

    3) @Jojo, 26: Dangit!! I can get paid for this?!? Where do I send the invoice?

    4) @Nigel Depledge, 28: You’re right, I was being redundant and unclear talking about “Dr. Smith, M.D.”, but the point was that in medicine, an M.D. is a doctor in the subject at hand while a “Dr. Smith, PhD in geology (e.g.)” isn’t.

    You make a point that your colleagues call you Nigel, and that’s perfectly reasonable for them, but it presumes a familiarity with you that I do not have. So for the moment I’ll address you as Dr. Depledge, even in the context of selling you a used car (Want a 20-year old Mercedes? Runs great! Sold as is – no warranty.).

    Again, the point is the professional context. Doctors of astrophysics have earned, through action, the title of Doctor of Philosophy, Astrophysics. Doctors of medicine and jurisprudence likewise, and they have already earned those titles, and (one hopes) deserve them, in their respective fields.

    Finally, to get back on track, it was remarkable testimony. Unfortunately, and parts of the video didn’t help (the guy casually wandering through the background), I’m cynical enough to feel that despite Dr. Tyson’s obvious passion for the subject (which I share!) the representatives of the people he was addressing probably won’t care. If they do, they won’t be effectual. It’s a sad state, really, and I am not optimistic.

    Allow me to leave you with this quote, attributed to a sign at an Occupy Wall Street protest,

    “If voting could change anything, it already would have”.

    Jon

  36. Jon

    PS – Take Me To Your Leader. This Message Comes To You From Outer Space (well, geosynchronous orbit – close enough!). J.

  37. kat wagner

    Followup! In last night’s intro to The Daily Show, Jon Stewart talked about an engineering contest. A team from the GW School of Engineering won for building a Bamboo Bicycle and one of the team members asked Jon if he would ask Neil to speak at their commencement. SOO, Jon said to the audience, Neil “consider yourself asked.” How cool is that? I mean, the team won for building a BAMBOO BICYCLE.

  38. bigdaddyhen

    Not sure of a better place to put this, but just came across this article on EW.com about the Dr, and how he prodded to James Cameron to correct the stars visible in the sky during the pivotal end scenes of Titanic in the newly released 3D version of the movie. Thought this would hit home with your original BA website.

    http://popwatch.ew.com/2012/04/02/popwatch-confessional-titanic-starmap/

  39. Carlos

    I’ve always like this quote from Randall Munroe the creator of the webcomic xkcd: “The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space– each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.”

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