Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Neil deGrasse Tyson’

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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25 APRIL, 2013

What Is Nothing? A Mind-Bending Debate about the Universe Moderated by Neil deGrasse Tyson

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“You can’t assert an answer just because it’s not something else.”

Isaac Asimovsage of science, champion of creativity in education, visionary of the future, lover of libraries, Muppet friend — endures as one of the most visionary scientific minds in modern history. Every year, the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, of which Asimov had been a tenacious supporter, hosts the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, inviting some of the greatest minds of our time to discuss monumental unanswered questions at the frontier of science. The 2013 installment explored the existence of nothing in a mind-bending conversation between science journalist Jim Holt, who has previously pondered why the world exists, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who has explored the science of “something” and “nothing,” Princeton astrophysics professor J. Richard Gott, NYU journalism professor Charles Seife, and Stanford physicist Eva Silverstein, moderated by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson. The wide-ranging conversation spans such subjects as quantum mechanics, space-time, black holes, and string theory.

Holt considers Leibniz and the invention of the calculus as a radical turning point in the history of science and philosophy:

The crucial notion of the calculus is the notion of the infinitesimal — the infinitely small. And what is the infinitesimal? It’s not nothing — but it’s not quite something, either. It somehow mediates between finitude and nothingness. … You have to have a temperamental attraction to dangerous ideas, and the infinitesimal is considered to be an extremely dangerous idea, and there was a great resistance to the calculus because of it.

One apparent universal the panel points out is the ubiquity of creation myths across civilizations, bespeaking some fundamental human need to understand how nothing became something — but Holt points to a curious exception:

The creation myth is always about how the world we live in came into existence. … There’s an Amazon tribe called the Pirahã, who are the only civilization known that doesn’t have any creation myth at all. When they ask about the world, they say, “It’s always been like this.”

But the soundbite of the night comes from Tyson himself, in answering an audience question about science vs. religion — which is really a meditation on the fundamentals of critical thinking and what science is:

There can be alternatives that are not always religious. That’s an interesting false dichotomy that’s often set up: If it’s not this, it must be religious. No: If it’s not this, it could be other stuff you haven’t thought of yet. You can’t assert an answer just because it’s not something else. That’s a false argument that’s been made throughout time, and the better scientists that move forward never assume anything just because one thing is wrong.

Complement with what it’s like to live in a universe of 10 dimensions and John Updike on why there is something rather than nothing.

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