A few days ago, I was reading a thread on a site whose name rhymes with “-acebook” about the new Cosmos series. One of the comments said something like “…Tyson is this era’s Einstein”.
Some people are very easily impressed (facepalm).
Neil DeGrasse Tyson (1958-) is a gifted science communicator (when he knows what he is talking about). Although honestly I do not agree with everything that he says, (or EVEN how HE says IT; he is kind of “Kirk-ish”), it is undeniable that he knows and loves science and is very much capable of explaining it beautifully.
However, it is important to differentiate between a practicing scientist and a science communicator. Let me say right away that both science paths are extremely important. In my opinion, they are two of the three pillars that support the scientific endeavor. Scientific research explores nature firsthand and science communication informs the general public about it. The third one is education (at the school and university level).
For the record, I have worked for a number of years on the first and the third aspects mentioned above and just recently, I began communicating science to the public. I am telling you this to make clear how important I consider all these three aspects of science.
But, we have to be very clear about who is what.
Dr. Tyson is a scientist, trained at top institutions, but truth be told, his original scientific contributions are modest at the very best. According to his own website (see below) he lists 13 papers and 12 books. He has published quite a few magazine articles, essays, etc. We’ll just talk about papers and books here. By the way, he had never had a university academic position nor has led his own research group.
Do I have to tell you who Carl Sagan was? I hope not, but just in case, he is only one of the best known scientists of the 20th century.
Just like Tyson, Dr. Sagan (1936-1996) also trained at a top university, knew and loved science as well and was very much capable of explaining it beautifully. After all, he was the original Cosmos host and possible the first celebrity scientist of our era (Note added in Jan, 2016: Incidentally, I did not care that much for Tyson’s Cosmos, but that’s a story for another day…).
Sagan also, published close to 600 (yep!) scientific papers and wrote about 15 books. He also gave us the correct description of the planet Venus’ temperature and atmosphere and was involved with the Pioneer, Voyager, and Viking missions. And, this is just a sample of his original contributions to science. He also was a professor at Harvard and Cornell, had his own research group and many his students have honored him with outstanding careers of their own.
But Sagan was no Einstein.
Now, if I have to tell you who Einstein was, I weep for you and because of you…
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is THE name that comes to mind to most people whenever they think “scientist”. Even if you know nothing besides his name, your life has most likely been influenced by his work. Incidentally, he was not trained at a very top institution… this serves to illustrate that where you train may be important, but your mind is essential.
Einstein wrote close to 300 scientific papers and some books on his thoughts (but he could have only written 4 of these papers and his scientific standing would be unchanged). These four papers were published in the journal Annalen der Physik in 1905 (his so-called miracle year – Annus Mirabilis – ). He was also a Princeton professor and a Nobelist.
Now, here’s my point:
Tyson’s work provides us with much needed public understanding of science. Sagan also did that, plus his scientific output will prove invaluable when we finally venture out of our home planet in a real way; right now, not so much. Now, Einstein’s work changed physics forever (remember E = mc squared?), and by extension our view of the universe, with very much practical applications that are in place today, from atomic power to global positioning systems. Tyson, Sagan and Einstein are worthy contributors to science, each one in his own way.
BTW, there’s very few true scientific peers of Einstein, but this is also a story for another time.
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