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The Profile Dossier: Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Curious Starman
As a complement to the regular Sunday newsletter, the Profile Dossier is a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. The dossier editions are only available to paying subscribers.
For several years, I mentored a high school student at The Laboratory School of Finance & Technology in the Bronx. When I attended her graduation in 2017, my jaw dropped when they announced the speaker.
It was Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famed astrophysicist known for his ability to distill complex scientific concepts into simple terms the average person can understand. His speech was beyond captivating, but this is the quote that stayed with me long after that day in 2017.
"Curiosity makes you an independent thinker. It's the harder route. Embrace it,” he said. “If you are curious in life, no one will ever be able to hand you your opinion."
Tyson’s style is often compared to that of Mister Rogers. He aims to simplify rather than confuse. But, he emphasizes, the onus is also on the individual to get more curious about the world he inhabits.
His philosophy is simple: Take the time and energy to ask what you do not understand. “I have renewed hope that society can shed its superstitions and embrace the enlightenment that comes from just a basic understanding of how the universe works,” he says.
Photo credit: Michael Caterina
‘Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Starman:’ Tyson is in part so successful because he uses pop culture and everyday life references to help us better understand the universe. In other words, he meets people where they are, rather than seeking to raise them to where he is. In this 2014 profile, Tyson discusses growing up in the Bronx as a curious kid fascinated by astronomy. It’s one of the most interesting profiles I’ve read in a while. Read.
‘The Sky Is Not the Limit:’ Even though he’s better known for popular books like Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, his memoir reveals how his scientific curiosity allowed him to make sense of the chaotic world he lived in. He explains that logic is not inherent to the human mind, but staying ignorant is also inexcusable. “There is no shame in not knowing,” he says. “The problem arises when irrational thought and attendant behavior fill the vacuum left by ignorance.”Read.
‘I Am Neil deGrasse Tyson, Your Personal Astrophysicist:’ In this Reddit AMA, Tyson answers questions about the future of space travel, comprehending the vastness of the universe, and one thing he’s learned that blew his mind. When you’re feeling particularly small, here’s what he recommends remembering: “Why should knowing we are indeed small in time, space, and size have anything to do with insignificance? Bacteria surely don't feel that way and they are billions of times smaller than us. Why not instead think of how awesome it is that our 3-pound human brain matter actually figured all this out?” Lots to think about in here.Read.
On making sense of the universe: This is a mind-blowing one-hour tour of the universe. You’ll learn about everything from storms on Jupiter to runaway stars to dwarf galaxies. Tyson is a master storyteller who can explain the seemingly unexplainable in a humorous manner you’ll enjoy. Never did I think a joke about Earth’s low pressure systems would make me laugh so hard. Watch.
On dealing with impending disaster: In this TIME video from 2008, Tyson answers 10 reader questions ranging from, “What is the most astounding fact about the universe?” to “What keeps you up at night?” But his answer to a question about the notion that a catastrophic event could end human life as we know it is especially relevant today. Watch.
On learning concepts that stick: This interview is lighter on the science, but it’s heavy on how Tyson applies scientific principles to his everyday life. He explains how he approaches new concepts as though he’s in a fog. As he begins familiarizing himself with a new subject, the fog begins to dissipate until he can see clearly. “So many people think they gotta know something instantly to be good at it rather than achieve something, realize there are hurdles, and work at it.” Watch.
On overcoming adversity: In this podcast episode, Tyson dives into how we can get along better with those whose views we disagree with and even those who try to derail us from our desired trajectories. Tyson believes you can develop a system of defenses around people who actively try to keep you from your goals. “From the era in which I grew up, I don’t give a rat’s ass what you say to me,” he says. When people reveal their racist or sexist biases, he says, they hand you the map you need to figure out how to get around them. Tyson adds that he learned this lesson from his dad: It’s not enough to be right. You need to be effective. This is a really good one. Listen.
On stimulating curiosity: Students should be taught how to ask good questions. To do that, Tyson believes scientific principles should thread through all academic subjects in a school’s curriculum. Open-ended questions are the ones that stimulate curiosity, but that’s not how our current education system is structured. Free inquiry is the key. Listen.
TECHNIQUES TO TRY TODAY.
Invoke the Scientific Method in your own life: Tyson says that many people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not. He believes that we need to be constantly in search of the objective truths in life. “Do whatever it takes ensure you do not fool yourself into thinking something is true that is actually false, or that something is false which is actually true,” he says. That involves observing, asking questions, testing your hypotheses, and coming to a logical conclusion.
Don’t be intellectually lazy: If someone tries to sell you crystals that promise to cure all your ailments, what would you do? Believe it outright or reject it immediately? Those are both intellectually lazy responses, Tyson says. The best defense against sloppy thinking is skepticism, which requires asking probing questions to get to the root of whether there’s supporting proof to back up the claim. “A proper skeptic questions what they’re unsure of but recognizes when valid evidence is presented to change their mind,” he says. “It’s a path of inquiry toward the truth.”
Don’t fall prey to unconscious distortions: Everyone has blinders in the form of cognitive biases. If you only read books or articles that confirm your existing beliefs, you live in a box, he says. You can avoid these biases by training yourself away from your knee-jerk beliefs by poking holes, seeking out data, and admitting defeat. “If you want to get closer to objective truths, you have to be able to say to yourself, ‘I was wrong,’” he says.
Get your mind blown at least once a week: Tyson has a prescription for igniting curiosity. You should be on the hunt for a single piece of information that astonishes and delights you at least once per week.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
“You can keep believing it, but your belief in it does not make it true. The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it.”
“Curious that we spend more time congratulating people who have succeeded than encouraging people who have not.”
“I’m a fan of the edict: If an argument lasts more than five minutes, both sides are wrong.”
“Ninety percent of the sentences that come out of my mouth [are ones that] I have previously written down.”
“There are no limits when you are surrounded by people who believe in you, or by people whose expectations are not set by the short-sighted attitudes of society, or by people who help to open doors of opportunity, not close them.”
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