Tyson is no Sagan, and neither was an Einstein

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.
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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.

More on Tyson, Sagan or both here, here and here.

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Sources:

http://www.haydenplanetarium.org/tyson/curriculum-vitae#assortedwriting

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

http://www.einstein-website.de/z_physics/wisspub-e.html

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein

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17 Comments

  1. Some problems with the science popularizer are discussed here:

    http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/the-evidence-crisis/

    Part of the problem of having a layer of popularizer between the profession and the general public is that something gets lost in translation. Specifically, the technical details. This is bad because things get decontextualized, and therefore turned into a new context, often significantly different than the real paradigm.

    These kinds of things also tend to become popularity contests for people at top institutions who must show their worth to tenure committees and such. (Notice these popularizers are from Ivy league places, generally). It kind of forms a viscous cycle.

    Also, there is interesting comments in the link above. One in particular talks about how this kind of stuff fills the “religious need” for people that live in our predominantly secular culture. Not that I object to people’s religious needs, not by any means. But using science for this purpose is not good. For one, it’s a big distraction from the real science. As my PhD mentor used to always say, “The devil is in the details”. This seems to me to be one of the most useful rules of thumb for both doing and understanding science, and this key aspect is lost when things get “dumbed down” for the masses.

    Thanks for considering my comments.

    Don

    1. Thanks for the link. It makes a lot of sense. I think that part of the deal when popularizing science is that it loses something indeed simply because is s distillation, but I think that is unavoidable and at least some science is “out there”…

  2. I’m a little pissed at Tyson. He tweeted that the Sun always sets due West for people living on the equator, every day. He has never retracted or apologised for this monumental gaffe.

  3. Popularizers are important. At least Tyson is willing to be in-your-face with his love of science. As a fan of Sagan (with first editions to prove it), there will never be another. I approach Tyson’s work with feelings of what we have missed by losing Sagan so soon. I would also put another popularizer on the list, one we ironically lost so young, and that was Stephen Jay Gould. What truly disturbs me is how far our society has regressed in that Tyson must dumb down Sagan’s work in order to present it to his audience.

    1. I appreciate that religion has been overturned because the one sin that is unforgivable to mankind is suggesting we don’t follow our first impulses. But now religion is flown – do we really need to keep the cultish group fawning aspect of it? Tyson is a cult-of-personality at best; at worst he’s an example that people have such low expectations of black people that this bozo can come along and be considered the next Sagan based on nothing at all. There are better scientists than Tyson. And better black scientists than Tyson.

  4. I would not consider myself to be even brought to mind in comparison to these three. Tyson , to me, fills a communicative role that the other two simply had no comprehension of. So, it is a shame that he is compared in the breach.
    We ARE stupid in many ways while trying to convince ourselves that we are not, which is possibly the stupidest thing that we do.. Plus, I consider that he was being ironic in that remark. Even I avoid people I consider stupid.

  5. I don’t believe Dr.Tyson wants to be included in that league. Whenever I have listened to him during Startalk Radio, I walk away amazed at how well he connects with ‘the everyday person.’ I believe we’re fortunate to have him hosting the new version of Cosmos—the state of science education in the US (although improving) is dismal. And, in my opinion, it isn’t the complete fault of the public education system—many of us have failed (as parents–me included) to pass on the love of science to our own children.

    I personally would not want to be a clone of any one of the individuals –I couldn’t measure up even if I wanted to.

  6. I like Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I think he’s walking a tightrope with public opinion and doing a wonderful job reminding people of how relevant science is to everyday life, and I bet he too would cringe and shake his head at such a comparison 🙂

    1. I actually doubt he would cringe. He seems to like celebrity more than truth. As Dr. Pagan says, he’s a capable science communicator, but he’s no Sagan. But, you know what, I’m a capable science communicator too (if I do say so myself), that alone doesn’t warrant comparing me to people who have contributed to scientific progress in ways as profound as Sagan and Einstein. Tyson just isn’t in the same league. Nor am I in his league, mind you.

    2. I like him sometimes. What bother me a lot is when he disparages humanity as “stupid” (he’s quoted saying that in the context of why we have not been visited by other intelligent life) while riding the wave as a public intellectual. He does have a point, no question… PLUS he got the planarian movement wrong in COSMOS (I know, he most likely never even saw the segment before it went on the air, but still…)

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