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Neil deGrasse Tyson's battle cry for STEM

Neil Degrasse Tyson addresses a crowd of cadets, faculty and STEM conference attendees on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)

Yes, even astrophysicists must attend jury duty. Even well-known astrophysicists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and host of the PBS program NOVA ScienceNOW. On Tyson's most recent trip to the courts, he was part of a dwindling pool of potential jurors on a drug bust case. He and 15 of his fellow citizens listened intently as the judge read aloud the case.

"The defendant has been charged with possession of 3000 milligrams of cocaine," the judge stated. When he finished reading, the judge asked the panel if they had any questions before proceeding. Tyson raised his hand. "Your Honor, why 3000 milligrams? Why not just say 3 grams?\ The judge, caught off-guard by Tyson's retort, told him "Well, I hum, hum, because that is what is written on this paper.\" So Tyson responded, \"But nobody talks like that, your Honor. It would be like me telling a friend I'll meet them in 10 billion nanoseconds."

Tyson said it sounded like the prosecution was trying to make more out of the amount than it actually was, adding that "Three grams is less than the weight of a dime."

He was dismissed from jury duty that day, noting that his comments likely got most of the other potential jurors dismissed that day as well. "I may have contaminated the entire panel," he sheepishly told an audience of STEM educators and military cadets gathered to hear him speak on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia. Tyson was the keynote speaker for a 3-day STEM conference hosted by VMI in early October.

Tyson's jury duty experience was one of many examples he gave to highlight the growing problem with math and science literacy in the United States.

He showed the audience news headlines with poor math: "Half the schools in the district are below average" and an advertisement that doesn't understand basic physics: "Try to get them interested in why lighter things fall faster than heavier things." And his personal favorite, spoken by a lawmaker: "I've changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.\" Tyson got a big laugh from the audience on this last one. "What's scary is suppose the politician actually understood what he was saying and wanted to fool everyone else into thinking he'd changed his mind but didn't. Is that better or worse then simply not knowing what 360 degrees is, I'm not sure," he said.

The headline bloopers were laughable, but the underlying issue that Tyson was getting at is no laughing matter. U.S. students rank 25th in math and 17th in science out of 31 countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 25 years ago, the U.S. led the world in high school and college graduation rates. Today, the U.S. has dropped to 20th and 16th. American students are falling behind in the essential subjects of math and science, putting the the U.S.'s position in the global economy at serious risk.

Tyson grew up in a time when the U.S. was on top and "everyone wanted to be apart of getting us to the moon.\" He recalls students clamoring to get into physics classes. Now, he says, catastrophic infrastructure failures that used to happen "in developing countries far away" are happening at home.

He reminded the audience that Hurricane Katrina didn't level the city of New Orleans, faulty engineering was the culprit. "How could we let our man-made levees break," he said. Tyson went further on: "I live in New York City where a steam pipe blew up recently. People died. What? We don't know how to move steam from one place to another? Haven't we been doing this for close to a century now? A section of a bridge collapses on Minnesota's I-35, people die. Trains colliding, crane collapses, more people die. Another man-made failure with disastrous results, the Gulf oil spill." It's time to wake up and look at what's going on, Tyson said, adding that the decline isn't an approaching cliff that we can clearly see, but a slow gradual downward trend that we hardly even feel.

Going back to the topic of Hurricane Katrina, Tyson offered a suggestion: "We don't know how yet to stop a hurricane, it would be cool one day if we did. Perhaps we could put some device inside of a hurricane that taps its energy and use it to drive the city that the hurricane would otherwise level. Who thinks that way? STEM people, that's who. They say here is a problem I am going to find a way to solve it."

An asteroid is heading toward Earth, what do you do? Are you the person that runs away or are you the STEM person who tries to stop it, he asked the audience. The dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, they had an excuse, "no opposable thumbs and peanut brains." "We don't have that excuse. I don't want to be the embarrassment of the galaxy as a culture that actually knew how to deflect an asteroid, that knew in advance it was coming, and did nothing about it," he said.

Tyson appealed to the cadets in the audience to pursue STEM fields or at the very least to be math and scientifically literate, \"because you are just better off as a citizen.\" He reminded them that "The fruits of STEM create financial security for the nation, because you invent things that become the foundation of tomorrow's economy. You contribute to our geopolitical strength, national security, human longevity, the control of nature... and of course the simple thrill of discovery, which attracts me."

And somewhere along the way, Tyson added, you might get an asteroid named after you.

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Neil Degrasse Tyson addresses a crowd of cadets, faculty and STEM conference attendees on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute. (Photo: Peggy Mihelich/AAAS)
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