Turn on the TV right now, and there is probably an immeasurable number of talk show hosts, experts, former officials, commentators, pundits, etc. espousing their thoughts on the latest international crisis or pop culture phenomenon. Go online, and similarly, you’ll find literally thousands of varying opinions on nearly every subject known to man – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s a privilege to live in a society in which anyone can essentially say anything they want without consequence. But the question remains, are all of these different voices worth hearing? Certainly some of them are, but some have wondered whether the advent of the Internet has allowed every random man-on-the-street to become an expert, thereby qualifying them to hold the title of “public intellectual.”
That mentality in general, however, is more problematic than the issue it attempts to raise. Thinking that so-called “average” citizens aren’t qualified to be participants in an intellectual discussion about the multi-faceted society that we all belong do is decidedly undemocratic. The essay “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual” argues that the idea of the “aristocracy of experts” is an outdated one, and goes against the basic ideals that define America. In this vein, public intellectuals in the traditional sense – that is, those who hold advanced degrees and are actual experts in their fields – should strive to involve the public in their intellectual conversations.
Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson: astrophysicist, Harvard and Columbia graduate, science communicator and all-around likable guy.
Tyson is an ideal example of what the modern public intellectual should strive to emulate. A native of New York City, Tyson’s research, which has taken him to universities and museums throughout the country, mainly focuses on star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the structure of our own galaxy. Though his specialty is astrophysics, Tyson has become a vocal advocate for science in general. He has consistently voiced his belief against intelligent design of the universe, an argument stemming from creationism stating that the structure of the universe and living things is explainable by the intelligent design of a higher power. Tyson himself claims to be agnostic. He also campaigns for science in the political sphere and has expressed support for expanding the operations of NASA.
Tyson has written several books about these topics, in addition to having his work appear in many academic publications. Also, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on two national commissions for scientific research and has been awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal. While all of these accomplishments are extremely impressive and definitively help to establish Tyson, who currently holds an appointment at the Hayden Planetarium, part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as an authority in his field, the thing that makes Tyson stand out among his peers, and among many other public intellectuals, is his wit, his accessibility and his humor.
Aside from his resume of undeniably commendable credentials, Tyson, who has branded himself as an advocate of science in general and federal support of scientific endeavors, has appeared on many late-night television shows, hosted scientific programs on PBS, appeared on a radio talk show and even had TV guest spots on nerd-favorites Stargate Atlantis and The Big Bang Theory. Let’s be honest, charisma is contagious, and Tyson has it. Plus, he’s not afraid to crack a joke once in a while, and any astrophysicist who can hold his own with Stephen Colbert objectively has one over on his colleagues who conform to the “scientists have no social skills” stereotype.
Tyson is conscious of popular culture and the society he hopes to appeal to. He is conscious of his own ignorance but has a way of explaining difficult concepts so that anyone can understand – and undoubtedly, it is for this reason that Tyson has such a large following. If you think about it, it’s difficult for anyone to enjoy something that is hard to understand, but science, and especially the study of outer space, has always been treated a bit differently from other challenging field of study. Historically, people really like space. America and the former Soviet Union were involved in the Space Race, after all. The human spirit is innately interested in the exploration of the unknown (a fact addressed by Tyson here). But if that’s the case, why don’t more college students major in astrophysics, or why aren’t there more astronauts? The answer: it’s hard. It’s not the subject itself that turns people off, it’s the work: the calculations, the equations, the data, the lab reporting. With Tyson eliminating these tedious aspects of astrophysics, there’s nothing stopping anyone from cultivating an interest in the topic. Just because someone doesn’t have a talent for a specific field of study doesn’t mean they should be excluded from partaking in that subject for life. Tyson operates from a perspective that anyone is capable of understanding what is often thought to be one of the most challenging topics to master, and intellectuals should be strive to be understood, right?
But in these modern times, the role of the public intellectual has extended beyond simply stating their views. With the advent of new technologies facilitating interconnectivity, public intellectuals play a much more tangible role in our lives than a decade ago. Tyson recognizes this fact based on his own online presence. Tyson’s Twitter account has more than 1.4 million followers, and he tweets statements like “I’ve never understood those who assert that killing people with chemicals is worse than blowing them to bits with a bomb” and “Hmm. Nissan Altima TV commercial boasts NASA inspired zero-gravity seats. But if you’re in zero gravity, you don’t need seats” daily. Perhaps even more significantly, the man has had a meme created in his honor. That’s when you know you’ve made it.
It’s through these mediums that Tyson is able to relate his message, and incidentally, Tyson has played an important role in major space-related news in recent years. Most notably, he was at the center of the controversy ending in the determination that Pluto is, in fact, not a planet. Tyson was an extremely vocal supporter of revoking Pluto’s planet status – so much so, that he wrote a book about it. The book covers the rise and fall of Pluto and the strong backlash he endured from Pluto fans, including hate mail he received from countless third graders. The fact that his discussion of the controversy covers not only the technical story of how Pluto came to be classified and subsequently declassified as a planet, but also public response to the situation, demonstrates how culturally tuned-in Tyson is. Though he takes on the role of objective scientist, Tyson understands and seems to even praise the public’s personal connection to the non-planet, evidence of the relationship with science that Tyson seems to be attempting to cultivate among the Americans in the context of the present.
Aside from partaking in debates within the scientific community, Tyson has also caused a few controversies of his own in popular culture. When over-the-top director James Cameron released his epic Titanic, Tyson commented not on the riveting love story between two virtual strangers doomed to meet a tragic end. His focus was directed upwards – at the sky. When the character Rose famously gazes up at the night sky as she awaits rescue in the dark waters of the Atlantic, Tyson felt compelled to point out that the stars she was looking at were not the right ones. Tyson said that the stars in that area would have looked differently in 1912, when the real Titanic had sunk, and since Cameron is a perfectionist when it comes to his blockbusters, he asked that Tyson provide the correct star map and included it in DVD releases of the film. Now, does the astrophysics community really care that much about the correctness of stars in a Hollywood film? Probably not. But do average people care about box office hits like Titanic? You bet. Though it might seem like Tyson inserted himself into a field that he doesn’t belong in for no apparent reason, he certainly achieved his goal of being a “science communicator.” He brought the concept of astronomy where it hadn’t been before, and probably educated a few thousand Hollywood fanatics in the process.
Essentially, Tyson is a scientist, researcher and vocal advocate of the field of astrophysics and public interest in science in general. Thrust into the public eye as an expert, he used his role and visibility to connect with an audience often removed from issues in his expertise. Tyson clearly has the qualifications, publications and appointments to hold the title of public intellectual. In “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual,” the author argues that what matters about the public intellectual is the work that he or she does. Tyson’s work is wholly in the interest of the public, which makes him such a unique intellectual figure. The essay also discusses public intellectuals belonging to their own class, a concept that doesn’t practically work because it removes the intellectual from the society they theorize about. Tyson seems to be more part of society than above it. His commitment to bringing his scientific knowledge to the general public also further validates his belief system and expertise because he seems to have a vested interest in the topic. He doesn’t just banter back and forth with fellow scientists from across a desk on a major news network every week; he actually tries to engage with average people. Case and point: Tyson spoke at USC to a capacity crowd of students last semester.
As far as the decline of the public intellectual goes, maybe only a type of thinker is in decline – the kind who is unable to relate to or participate in the society that is the subject of their hypotheses.