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Monday 2 May 2016

The Joy of Discovery, or How Not to Criticise Somebody Without Being a Dick


Something terrible happened to me in webspace. All I can remember are the last few moments, my calm fading to a speck as my indignation broke free from its moorings, my usually calm demeanour shutting down, the ire...

In this post, I want to talk about discovery. I'm not necessarily talking about discovery in the sense of a scientist learning something that nobody has learned before, although much of what I want to say applies equally there.

I was motivated to write this after coming across an article in Wired magazine lambasting astrophysicist and director of the Haydn Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson

The piece, written by one Sam Kriss, was entitled Neil deGrasse Tyson is a Black Hole, Sucking the Fun Out of the Universe.

Setting aside what should have been a blindingly obvious possible implication in that title (I note that the original title, appearing on the author's blog, was Neil deGrasse Tyson: Pedantry in Space), sufficient to give anybody with more than two functioning neurons pause in the wake of hard-won gains in the war against bigotry, the content of the article itself is, I feel, horribly irresponsible, particularly when vented in a widely-read publication. I feel somewhat ill-qualified to deal with those implications, even as an Irish man who grew up in England in the '70s and '80s when having about the most obvious Irish name around made one the target of some pretty vile bigotry. In any event, those implications have been substantially tackled by somebody far more qualified than I (article by Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein). My concerns here in this missive are the overall tenor and message of the article, and the effect that this might have on something that really is dear to me; the interest in - and the progress of - science.

Kriss' post comes across - to me, at least - as little more than bloviation, no doubt intended to be click-bait, and I suspect it was at least moderately successful in this regard. Nothing is more appealing to the unwashed masses than a hatchet-job on a public figure

The content of the article is largely a tale about demolished fantasy, citing examples of Tyson's critiques of movies, among other things.  Certainly, Tyson has been known to talk about physics cock-ups in films but, then, that's a fairly popular pastime in most circles. In fact, I've been known to do it myself. Kriss suggests that this amounts to no more than pedantry, and that it takes away from the joy. I disagree, and that's really the central topic of this article.

Just to pick an example at random, here's the first:
Something terrible happened to you in outer space. All you can remember are the last few moments, the sun fading to a speck as you and your crew broke free from the solar system, the ship’s systems suddenly shutting down, the panic and blackness inside, shouting and sobbing, outside the phosphorescent fringes of the wormhole as it opened up in front of you – and then you woke up, sweat-slick in your own bed at sunrise, with the birds singing outside, in another universe. You are trapped in the world of the popular TV astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and you know this, because here the sunrise isn’t a sunrise at all. In fact, the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun, so the sun does not in any sense actually ‘rise’ – it’s just that you happen to be positioned right on the moving line, known as the ‘terminator’, that separates the illuminated portion of the planet from its dark side.

The message here, in case it isn't yet clear, is that understanding the mechanics of the sunrise somehow detracts from its beauty and wonder. Setting aside the factually incorrect description (the 'sunrise' doesn't occur 'because the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun' but because the Earth is a sphere that rotates on its axis), this view is about as palsied a view as ignorance can generate.

Here I'm going to defer to the man who was, in my view, probably the greatest educator in the history of modern science. I really don't do heroes, but if I had a hero in the sciences, it would be this man; Richard Feynman, strip-club bongo-player, maverick, safe-cracker. Feynman was the man who circumvented the attempted whitewash of the Challenger disaster, by applying rigorous science to the problem, and showing that the accident was caused by gasket failure due to the gasket being inelastic at low temperatures. He was also one of the men most responsible for the speed at which the first atomic bomb was constructed, by devising a parallel method for getting through the ridiculous calculations required, shaving months, at least, off the process.

This clip comes from a brilliant documentary from Auntie Beeb entitled The Fantastic Mr Feynman and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The point here is, of course, that understanding that the sunrise is an illusion of perspective doesn't remotely detract from its beauty and wonder, it adds to it. Not only am I awed by the marvellous play of incandescent colour in the sky, I'm also awed by knowing that the beautiful red colour is a result of additional filtration by the atmosphere resulting in most of the photons with higher wavelengths corresponding to the colour blue being attenuated, so that only those photons with wavelengths toward the longer, red end of the colour spectrum make it through to my eyes. Is Kriss seriously suggesting that my understanding has less wonder in it than his?


A favourite film, as somebody educated in a boarding school, is Dead Poets' Society. In said flick, the pupils are enjoined, one-by-one, to come to the front of the class and stand on the master's desk, so that they can see the world from a different perspective - I highly recommend to anybody who's never done this to do it now; the world really does look completely different from up there. I had a teacher like this (Derek Thornberry, of Woolverstone Hall - although he didn't ever encourage us to bugger off to a cave in the middle of the night), and I hugely thank him for instilling this lesson in me (as well as his instilling in me of a love of language - my passion, and a love of singing - my profession). This is what science does, namely to give us an elevated position from which to view the world; a whole new perspective. Our previous perspectives haven't been taken away in any sense, they've been added to. The addition of each new perspective not only adds to the wonder, it gives us a more accurate picture.

With his most egregious appraisal of Tyson, here's Kriss again:

Neil deGrasse Tyson is, supposedly, an educator and a populariser of science; it’s his job to excite people about the mysteries of the universe, communicate information, and correct popular misconceptions. This is a noble, arduous, and thankless job, which might be why he doesn’t do it. What he actually does is make the universe boring, tell people things that they already know, and dispel misconceptions that nobody actually holds.

The insinuation here is crystal clear, namely that Tyson doesn't, in this commentator's view, engage in the noble, arduous and thankless job of exciting people about the mysteries of the universe. He really couldn't be much further off the mark were he Gareth Southgate in a penalty shootout (sorry, Gareth; you're quite rightly one of the greats of English football).

Tyson is one of the great public proponents of science in the world today, not least because of his commentary on scientific mistakes in film.

As somebody who has spent considerable time elucidating difficult scientific concepts, both online and in meatspace and, indeed, as an educator in other subjects (music and music technology, primarily), one of the things I'm most keenly aware of is the difficulty in generating points of reference. Points of reference are incredibly important to educators, because they serve as an existing base of knowledge upon which new knowledge can be constructed. It's one of the reasons we still teach Newtonian mechanics, for example, despite the fact that Newton was wrong. Terry Pratchett referred to it as 'lies-to-children' which, although it might get the backs of some educators up, is an accurate appraisal of how science is taught, because the incorrect information serves as a foundation for the correct information.

The greatest joy a scientist can feel is working something out that nobody else has ever known. For a science educator or, indeed, for any educator, the greatest joy is seeing the light of discovery in somebody else's eyes. That moment when you explain something and the student fully groks it for the first time. Sending a young person home to their parents armed with something like that is one of the most wonderful rewards, and it's mostly why we become educators. While I can understand a crusty cynic such as Kriss not grokking this (not least because I'm a crusty cynic myself), that doesn't remotely detract from the fact that teachers need this like rockstars need applause, or junkies need junk. That joy is often the source of the enthusiasm educators feel for their topics, along with the wonder that Kriss suggests is nothing more than dusty, dry pedanticism. What a joyless world this man lives in.

My old teacher, mentioned above, the smallest giant in Suffolk, was among the best I ever encountered at this. I recall an instance, some years after leaving school, when I took my then young son (10 years old, or thereabouts), to Norwich Cathedral for a tour, led by Mr Thornberry. He told us about the architect responsible for the design of the nave of the cathedral, one Walter Lyhart. He pointed out a boss in the roof of the nave, of a hart lying down next to a stream (hart lying next to water), which generated an immediate point of reference. My son still remembers who designed that nave, despite never having been back since.

Tyson, in addressing errors in popular films, is taking advantage of extant points of reference, knowing full well that such an approach is more likely to stick, not least because we live in a culture of 'favourite' films, and those films will be watched again and again.

Coming back to the ill-advised attack on Tyson, and touching upon something I dealt with in an earlier post, one of the most difficult challenges science faces today is public interest, and especially the interest of young people, not least because that public interest is precisely the sort of thing that will lead to the next Einstein, or Dirac, or Feynman or, in fact Tyson. This article, flippantly dismissing Tyson's contribution as 'pedantry in space', does such a disservice to science as to be worthy of ridicule and contempt.

Kriss is clearly a gifted writer, and engages the reader in well-crafted imagery in the process of inserting the blade. I've done a bit of looking around for other work by Kriss and, for the most part, he comes across as practised, calculated blowhard cynic. Of course, those who know me well will spot that I can be a bit like this myself, when occasion demands. I'm also keenly aware that, when writing in fora in which I'm not well-known, or when newcomers enter my familiar turf, my approach can come across as a bit dickish. That's not really my concern here, although it should serve as something of a caveat. 

I'm quite experienced in dealing with irresponsible journalism pertaining to science, but it's usually in sensationalising results unnecessarily, or to the point of being misleading. In this instance, the disservice being done to science is not in reporting some mundane result in such a way as to make it seem sensational or more significant than it is, it's in vilifying one of modern science's great assets, a brilliant ambassador in the public understanding of science, and wholly inaccurately painting him as something dull.

The dullness, Mr Kriss, is yours and yours alone, and such dullness as makes me want to come and beat you about the head with my copy of Dawkins' Unweaving The Rainbow

ETA: Since posting this and sharing on Twitter, I've received the following message from the author:


Somewhat informative... 

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