Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson’

29 DECEMBER, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read

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How to “glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tysonchampion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers. One reader posed the following question: “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” Adding to history’s notable reading lists — including those by Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Carl Sagan — Tyson offers the following eight essentials, each followed by a short, and sometimes wry, statement about “how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world”:

  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it

Tyson adds:

If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.

(What has driven it, evidently, is also the systematic exclusion of the female perspective. The prototypical “intelligent person” would be remiss not to also read, at the very least, Margaret Fuller’s foundational text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is even available as a free ebook, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, of course, the question of diversity is an infinite one and any list is bound to be pathologically unrepresentative of all of humanity — a challenge I’ve addressed elsewhere — so Tyson’s selections remain indispensable despite their chromosomal lopsidedness. My hope, meanwhile, is that we’ll begin to see more such reading lists by prominent female scientists, philosophers, artists, or writers of the past and present; to my knowledge, none have been made public as of yet — except perhaps Susan Sontag’s diary, which is essentially a lifelong reading list.)

Complement with Nabokov on the six short stories every writer should read, then revisit Tyson on genius and the most humbling fact about the universe.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2013

Do Something Meaningful: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan on Carl Sagan

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“Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others?”

As a boundless admirer of the late and great Carl Sagan, I was thrilled to attend a special event at the Library of Congress celebrating their historic acquisition of his personal papers — 1,705 archival boxes of materials, to be precise — thanks to support from Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s charitable foundation.

Sagan was our civilization’s greatest yenta to the marriage of skepticism and wonder. As Bill “Science Guy” Nye so eloquently put it at the event, “Carl Sagan emboldened us to know our place among the stars, our place in space.” More than that, however, he empowered us to know our place within ourselves — to be our highest selves, to inhabit the stardust of our own ephemeral human lives with the greatest possible eternal light. This enduring aspect of his legacy was most powerfully captured by two exceptional people who share a very different kind of closeness with Sagan: Neil deGrasse Tysonmodern-day cosmic sage, science champion, masterful communicator, unrelenting genius, perhaps our generation’s closest thing to Sagan himself — and Ann Druyan, the love of Sagan’s life and his longtime creative collaborator, who hosted the Library of Congress event and whose own papers are also included in the archive.

Drawing by young Carl Sagan, 1942 (Library of Congress)

Druyan adds to Sagan’s own meditation on the meaning of life with an anecdote that captures the essence of his ethos, and his greatest gift to us:

Referencing the 1997 movie Rebecca, titled after a character who had died before the plot begins, Tyson, with his signature mesmerism of expression, captures Sagan’s undying legacy:

Who are we, if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are! We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be — we are the sum of the influence and impact that we have, in our lives, on others.

Thank you for everything, Carl.

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05 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Art of the Soundbite

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“A few words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite.”

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at the American Museum of Natural History on the topic of popularizing science online, alongside such humbling science communicators as Elise Andrew of I Fucking Love Science, the delightful duo behind AsapSCIENCE (), Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, and Annalee Newitz of io9. As if to draw an audience of 900 science enthusiasts wasn’t enough of a treat, at the end of our talk none other than modern-day cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson made a surprise cameo.

Left to right: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Maria Popova, Elise Andrew, Emily Graslie, Mitchell Moffit, Gregory Brown, Annalee Newitz, and AMNH curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low (Photograph © AMNH/R. Mickens)

After the talk, I got to ask Dr. Tyson — the living antidote to Susan Sontag’s concerns about aphorisms — the following question:

We live in a sort of soundbite culture, where soundbites very frequently become reductionism. And yet you seem so eloquent and articulate, especially on Twitter — a form that does not lend itself to eloquence especially well. How do you balance being very quotable with not being reductionistic?

Apart from the misunderstanding that I’m criticizing his short-form eloquence, when in fact I was complimenting his mastery of the soundbite form, Tyson’s answer is expectedly brilliant, packed with essential media literacy and wisdom for anyone engaged in the art of communication, which is practically everyone with a beating heart and firing neurons. Particularly fantastic is his anecdote of how he learned about the value of the soundbite and taught himself its craft:

Reductionism is one of the words I swore I would never use in my entire life. … I don’t have a problem with soundbites.

[A few] words that are informative, make you smile, and are so tasty you might want to tell someone else — there is the anatomy of a soundbite. And don’t think that soundbites aren’t useful if they don’t contain a curriculum. A soundbite is useful because it triggers interest in someone, who then goes and puts in the effort to learn more. … Take the moment to stimulate interest, and upon doing that you have set a learning path into motion that becomes self-driven because that soundbite was so tasty — why do you think we call them bites?

And it’s kind of what Twitter is — it’s almost like haiku, actually. … When I compose a tweet, I feel like [Rodin] who said, “When I make a sculpture, I just cut away everything that isn’t the man or the woman, and then that’s what’s left.” … You trim, you carve the words such that all that’s left is the most important concept communicated in the simplest, most direct way. And that does not mean using big words. So I don’t have a problem with that.

Is it possible to love the man even more? Oh yes, yes it is — I couldn’t resist whipping this wisdom all up into an animated GIF:

For more of Tyson’s wisdom, see his meditations on the secret of genius and the most important fact about the universe.

Should you choose to treat yourself to a mental stimulation break of the longer kind, watch the entire two-hour talk below, then complement it with Richard Feynman on the role of scientific culture in modern society.

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27 AUGUST, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman on the Secret of Genius

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“You don’t even know what the word ‘vacation’ means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation FROM that is anything BUT a vacation.”

“Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul,” Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson observed in his superb 1990 Kenyon College commencement address, “is a rare achievement.” Indeed, the search for meaning, the life of purpose, the quest to do what makes you come alive — those are the greatest human aspirations. And who better to weigh in on the essence of this grand pursuit than Neil deGrasse Tyson, modern-day philosopher and eloquent cosmic sage, and Neil Gaiman, dedicated writer and champion of answering the daunting call of the creative life? In this short excerpt from the 2012 Connecticut Forum, the Neils answer the question “What makes someone visionary and brilliant?” and remind us that the most important component of genius is, in fact, love and unrelenting cultivation.

Tyson knows that truly fulfilling work never feels like “work”:

If everyone had the luxury to pursue a life of exactly what they love, we would all be ranked as visionary and brilliant. … If you got to spend every day of your life doing what you love, you can’t help but be the best in the world at that. And you get to smile every day for doing so. And you’ll be working at it almost to the exclusion of personal hygiene, and your friends are knocking on your door, saying, “Don’t you need a vacation?!,” and you don’t even know what the word “vacation” means because what you’re doing is what you want to do and a vacation from that is anything but a vacation — that’s the state of mind of somebody who’s doing what others might call visionary and brilliant.

'Do what you love' by Andy J. Miller for the 'Advice to Sink in Slowly' project. Click image for details.

Gaiman echoes the sentiment with laconic self-awareness:

We get to look good because we get to do what we want.

Complement with this timeless anchor for how to find your purpose and do what you love, then revisit Gaiman’s fantastic commencement address on living the creative life.

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17 JUNE, 2013

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Ego and the Cosmic Perspective

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“All you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.”

There is hardly a greater cosmic sage of our age than astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In this sublime, characteristically eloquent short clip from BigThink, he echoes Ptolemy’s awe as he teases apart the misguided tension between our human ego and the immensity of the universe:

There’s something about the cosmic perspective, which for some people is enlightening and for other people it’s terrifying. For those who are terrified by it, they’re here on earth and they have a certain self-identity, and then they learn that earth is tiny and we’re in this void of interplanetary space and then there’s a star that we call the Sun and that’s kind of average and there’s a hundred billion other stars in a galaxy. And our galaxy, the Milky Way, is one of 50 or 100 billion other galaxies in the universe. And with every step, every window that modern astrophysics has opened to our mind, the person who wants to feel like they’re the center of everything ends up shrinking. And for some people they might even find it depressing, I assert that if you were depressed after learning and being exposed to the perspective, you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego. You thought more highly of yourself than in fact the circumstances deserved.

So here’s what you do: You say, “I have no ego at all.” Let’s start that way. “I have no ego, no cause to puff myself up.” Now let’s learn about the cosmic perspective. Yeah, we’re on a planet that’s orbiting a star, and a star is an energy source and it’s giving us energy, and we’re feeling this energy, and life is enabled by this energy in this star. And by the way, there’s a hundred billion other stars that have other planets. There might be other life out there, could be like us. It’s probably not like us, but whatever it is, it’d be fascinating to find out who it is. Can we talk to them? Can we not? Are they more advanced? Are they less advanced? By the way, the atoms of our body are traceable to what stars do.

And all you can do is sit back and bask in your relevance to the cosmos.

So those who see the cosmic perspective as a depressing outlook, they really need to reassess how they think about the world. Because when I look up in the universe, I know I’m small, but I’m also big. I’m big because I’m connected to the universe and the universe is connected to me.

Curiously, the same can be said of life in New York — that tired complaint about being a tiny fish in an immense pond, a nobody in a crowd of somebodies, speaks to that same ego and its stubborn unwillingness to bask in the greater glory of it all rather than wallow in its own smallness. What Anaïs Nin memorably perceived of the self in New York — “Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power.” — is, in turn, equally and immutably true of the self in the universe.

If you haven’t yet read Tyson’s fantastic Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier — one of the best science books of 2012 — do yourself an existential favor.

Swiss Miss

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