Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Global Ideas from Pluto's Challenger

on May 21, 2009

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the first director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. Its mission “is to bring the frontier of astrophysics to the public via exhibitry, books, public programs and online resources,” according to the planetarium’s Web site.

I first became a fan of Tyson’s work when I listened to interviews between the astrophysicist and National Public Radio's "Science Friday" host Ira Flatow. Touted as famed-astronomer Carl Sagan’s successor, deGrasse's opinions about improving science education and the planetary status of Pluto immediately grabbed my interest. After reading his book, The Pluto Files, I was hooked.

Professionally, Tyson's research interests include star formation, exploding stars, the structure of our Milky Way and dwarf galaxies. He obtains his data not only from the Hubble Space Telescope, but he also obtains data from telescopes in California, New Mexico, Arizona and the Andes mountain range in Chile.

It was a somewhat daunting task to create interview questions to ask an astrophysicist. The more I researched, the more I became amazed. Dr. Tyson's accomplishments include: obtaining his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard University and holding a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University; being appointed in 2001 by President Bush to serve on the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry; being appointed again in 2004 to the Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond; and receiving nine honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal.

He is witty, timely and brilliant, and we are thrilled to have had an opportunity to hear what he thinks about science, the environment and education.

Q: What does it mean to be scientifically literate?
When most people think of science literacy, they think: "Can you recite how the internal combustion engine in the car works? Do you know how your microwave oven works?"

Knowing how things work is important, but I think that's an incomplete view of what science literacy is or, at least, should be. Science literacy is an outlook. It's more of a lens through which you observe what goes on around you.

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