Sermon on the Cosmic Mount

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 3/23/16. He is backed by a NASA image of Earth as seen from Saturn.


There was a time for me when the right words came from the Pledge of Allegiance. When a younger pious me served a Mormon mission, the right words came from scripture. The best examples would be The Doctrine and Covenants Section 4, followed immediately by The Standard of Truth, itself an excerpt from Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter. I remember for a couple of years in my teens, the right words came from the Boy Scout Oath. I memorized each of these and, for a time at least, regarded them as gospel.

In adulthood, I’ve known an actor who took a special joy in rereading the first paragraph of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is a marvelous passage evoking the protagonist’s urge to go to sea. It is worth repeating and celebrating. I took pleasure in hearing my actor friend read it aloud because I could hear in his voice how deeply the passage inspired him.

Be it a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, an entire speech or chapter, there are passages of literature that achieve a level of adoration in their readers best understood as sacred. People memorize them, recite them, and the collective words generate a religious fervor among true believers.

For many devotees of science, especially astronomy, the best example would be Carl Sagan’s remarks accompanied to the famed Pale Blue Dot image taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  If you are not familiar, no problem. Go to YouTube and search the following terms together: carl sagan pale blue dot. You will find multiple versions, at least a couple with hundreds of thousands of views.

The Pale Blue Dot is a famous NASA image–a picture of Earth, looking back from near the edge of our solar system. Inspired by the image’s humbling qualities, Sagan crafted words now treasured by many of us.

Last week I attended An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson, held at Hill Auditorium on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. For me, it was the culmination of years of enthusiasm for this celebrity educator–time spent reading several of his books and being a loyal listener to StarTalk Radio. Not at all surprisingly, after his multimedia presentation Dr. Tyson put up a Pale Blue Dot image. This one, more recent than the 1990 image taken by Voyager, comes from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. My distant balcony view can be seen above.

Tyson said he was going to read us a passage from “The Book of Carl.” The lights dimmed and Tyson read Sagan’s celebrated remarks about the Pale Blue Dot. We found ourselves all together, made tiny and precious by the perspective of space travel and the reflective literature of a master educator.

A Foundational Quote

“It was an end that no prophet had ever foreseen–an end that repudiated optimism and pessimism alike.

“Yet it was fitting: it had the sublime inevitability of a great work of art. … For the road to the stars was a road that forked in two directions, and neither led to a goal that took any account of human hopes or fears.”

–Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End

Thus Saith the Headline

“What we have are two groups of researchers who are battling it out in the technical literature. Was it an impact or was it not an impact?

“What I see when that is happening is that every time one group publishes a study, it gets reported as if that’s a definitive answer.”

–Steven Novella

The above quote speaks to a broader issue to which I am sensitive. The writing style used to cover science usually employs bold or catchy headlines and may favor declamatory source quotes. I am also reminded of training I received in criticism during college. For example, when writing a movie review a critic may feel pressure to give an unambiguous thumbs up or thumbs down. But what if their feelings about the movie are genuinely in between these absolutist reactions?

Whether in journalism or review writing, especially in the Internet age there is pressure to be simple, brief, and dramatic for attention-grabbing sake. Such stylistic mandates can slant or embellish what ought to be a nuanced, necessarily equivocal rendering of scientific findings.

It may be worth thinking in terms of the inverted pyramid format, wherein the salient points of a story are at the top. Similarly, a science news story may start out sounding like a definitive discovery in the headline and first paragraph. Toward the end though, it might reveal itself to be inconclusive with language that hedges. The burden settles on the audience to read carefully and completely. Now please excuse me so I can go read about any given exoplanet “discovery.”

For the complete story from which the above quote was pulled, visit NASA’s website.

Sceptics’ Guide Host Believes Science Communication Mostly Mediocre

340 Days Equals a Hashtag, Not a Year

In classic nitpicker fashion, when Astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth on March 1st after a much celebrated “Year in Space”, I found myself less than fully inspired. I was like…93% inspired. But I was about 7% grumbling. I thought to myself, um…he was only up there 340 days. That’s not a year. In fact, that’s closer to 11 months than 12.

The “Year in Space” Mission Patch, Image Credit: NASA

A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals the above mission patch to be only 93% accurate. Take it from an English Major.

Nevertheless, I joined my fellow space tweeps in welcoming Commander Kelly and Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko home. I tweeted out, “So ends the #YearInSpace. Let’s do it again soon.” And with that I joined many others in giving credence to a marketing slogan that is in fact not accurate.

What is accurate? Kelly now has over 500 days of time in space, an American record. Also of note, a great deal of research will now be done on the data collected over the course of the mission. This means increased knowledge about the effects of long-term stays in space, with obvious implications for moon bases, Mars missions, and deep space travel.

Still…340 ain’t 365. I can only speak for the reality of Twitter. The hashtag to follow has always been #YearInSpace. The week of Kelly’s return is too late to switch to a less catchy #340DaysInSpace. This may be one of those times a scientific community knows the marketing slogan proved inaccurate but doesn’t need nor care to dwell on the fact. No one is being deceived here. Everyone is using an accurate day count. Besides, the real science deserves all the celebration it can get.

Why did Kelly and Kornienko come back shy of a full year? For that I send you to Tech Insider and a to-the-point piece by reporter Rebecca Harrington:

This is why Scott Kelly’s ‘year in space’ wasn’t actually a full year

Kudos also to NBC’s editors for picking a similarly details-oriented headline:

After Nearly A Year in Space, NASA’s Scott Kelly Is Back on Earth

Lastly, one from NASA. It isn’t really claiming a year if you are only citing the hashtag, right?

Looking Back at the #YearInSpace

Now, if I wanted to overdo my nitpicking I’d say the NASA Editor apparently wants us to look back at the hashtag, not the mission. Okay…I’m stopping now. And do head to the NASA article for a great music video and a rundown of the mission highlights.

The Allure of Telescopic Rhetoric

“After years of preparatory studies, NASA is formally starting an astrophysics mission designed to help unlock the secrets of the universe — the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).”

—NASA Press Release, Feb. 18, 2016 (emphasis added)

Illustration of NASA’s WFIRST Telescope, Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Conceptual Image Lab

Is the universe deliberately keeping things from us? If so, what is it not telling us? Why does the universe keep the truth locked away?

The more I ask questions that ascribe motives to the universe, the less scientific I sound. Yet, as the above NASA quote shows, the rhetoric of scientific publicity often summons metaphorical language. The engineering required to build, deploy, and operate the above space telescope may be the application of pure science. The language used to promote and justify its funding to politicians, journalists, and tax payers, is not purely scientific.

Elsewhere in the press release that includes the above quote, NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld uses the phrase “unravel the mysteries” to describe the telescope’s capabilities. Late in the release, project scientist Neil Gehrels uses the term “treasure trove” to describe the anticipated scientific return from the telescope’s data.

Such language is alluring, plays to our innate sense of curiosity, and includes a catchy alliteration to boot. Speaking as a biased space enthusiast, I think these stimulating phrases are quite appropriate to the cause of justifying the considerable undertaking of deploying a space telescope.

However, it is a good reminder that if we are to be wise and effective citizens of a technological society, we need not only develop scientific and engineering conversance. We also need to be well-practiced in written and spoken rhetoric which science pulls from our literary traditions.

Here is a link to the entire press release:

Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Crisis, Thy Name is Muse

There will be grave consequences if you do not read this blog post in its entirety.

Actually there may not be any consequences at all. But I am thinking about the question of how a speaker creates a sense of urgency in his audience. How does he or she make the listener truly listen? And once he has his audience’s full attention, how does he persuade them to change their thinking, or to act on his entreaties?

Portrait of Charles Bolden, NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Credits: NASA/Bill Ingalls

For NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, who on July 8, 2009 addressed a Senate Committee which would decide if he could become NASA’s Administrator, the writer’s strategy involved invoking a sense of crisis. Here is a link to PDF copy of Bolden’s speech:

Statement of Charles Bolden
Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
July 8, 2009

After acknowledgments and a brief personal history of how Bolden broke through racial barriers to secure a career as an officer in the Marine Corps, he uses the word “crises” for the first time in his speech. He does so speaking of missions in which soldiers in his charge provided humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa. Later from a speeding perch in Low Earth Orbit, he witnessed environmental crisis in the Amazon Rain Forest. He also reflects on civil rights crises and anti-war strife in the 1960s.

Next he quotes Dr. Shirley Jackson of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who speaks of “…a quiet crisis building in the United States—a crisis that could jeopardize the nation’s pre-eminence and well-being.” Bolden quotes an entire paragraph of Jackson’s remarks in which she uses the word crisis four times. The crisis involves a disparity between the demand for trained scientists and engineers and the inadequate rate at which the United States generates them.

After listing four challenges the nation must confront, Bolden returns to the word crisis. “Today we face a crisis of opportunity.” Yet, this is also the final time Bolden invokes this dissembling term before the Senate Committee charged with confirming or denying his appointment to oversee NASA. For by this point, Bolden has begun using a term he favors for the remainder of his remarks: challenge.

Where crisis comes in the form of threatening developments—violence and suffering in particular—challenge binds itself more likably to the notion of opportunity. A speech that focused its thesis initially around a solidly negative idea, now transforms itself into something motivational.

“Today we face a crisis of opportunity. We can either confront the aforementioned challenges of technological leadership that ensure our nation’s safety and security or cede that leadership and prestige to other nations. I ask each of you to help NASA turn these challenges into opportunities.” —Charles Bolden

From here to the end of his remarks, Bolden weaves the notion of worthy challenges into the ongoing and well-established aerospace efforts of NASA. All of these Bolden frames within well-worn nationalism and a desire to keep our country exceptional. A speech that early on grounds itself in the imagery of crisis ends in a call to meet challenges which NASA was founded to overcome.