ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
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Ill tell you how small! he shouted. To make Pluto the size of a car relative to Saturn the car,
it would have to be the size of a matchbox car sitting on the curb. He squeezed his fingers. Like that.
There are six moons in the solar system bigger than Plutoincluding Earth’s moon.
Past, Present, and Future of NASA
U.S. Senate Testimony by Neil deGrasse Tyson
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work,
but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.Antoine St. Exupery
7 March 2012
Currently, NASAs Mars science exploration budget is being decimated, we are not going back to the Moon, and plans for astronauts to visit Mars are delayed until the 2030son funding not yet allocated, overseen by a congress and president to be named later.
During the late 1950s through the early 1970s, every few weeks an article, cover story, or headline would extol the city of tomorrow, the home of tomorrow, the transportation of tomorrow. Despite such optimism, that period was one of the gloomiest in U.S. history, with a level of unrest not seen since the Civil War. The Cold War threatened total annihilation, a hot war killed a hundred servicemen each week, the civil rights movement played out in daily confrontations, and multiple assassinations and urban riots poisoned the landscape.
The only people doing much dreaming back then were scientists, engineers, and technologists. Their visions of tomorrow derive from their formal training as discoverers. And what inspired them was Americas bold and visible investment on the space frontier.
Exploration of the unknown might not strike everyone as a priority. Yet audacious visions have the power to alter mind-statesto change assumptions of what is possible. When a nation permits itself to dream big, those dreams pervade its citizens ambitions. They energize the electorate. During the Apollo era, you didnt need government programs to convince people that doing science and engineering was good for the country. It was self-evident. And even those not formally trained in technical fields embraced what those fields meant for the collective national future.
For a while there, the United States led the world in nearly every metric of economic strength that mattered. Scientific and technological innovation is the engine of economic growtha pattern that has been especially true since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Thats the climate out of which the New York Worlds Fair emerged, with its iconic Unispheredisplaying three ringsevoking the three orbits of John Glenn in his Friendship 7 capsule.
During this age of space exploration, any jobs that went overseas were the kind nobody wanted anyway. Those that stayed in this country were the consequence of persistent streams of innovation that could not be outsourced, because other nations could not compete at our level. In fact, most of the worlds nations stood awestruck by our accomplishments.
Lets be honest with one anther. We went to the Moon because we were at war with the Soviet Union. To think otherwise is delusion, leading some to suppose the only reason were not on Mars already is the absence of visionary leaders, or of political will, or of money. No. When you perceive your security to be at risk, money flows like rivers to protect us.
But there exists another driver of great ambitions, almost as potent as war. Thats the promise of wealth. Fully funded missions to Mars and beyond, commanded by astronauts who, today, are in middle school, would reboot Americas capacity to innovate as no other force in society can. What matters here are not spin-offs (although I could list a few: Accurate affordable Lasik surgery, Scratch resistant lenses, Cordless power tools, Tempurfoam, Cochlear implants, the drive to miniaturize of electronics ) but cultural shifts in how the electorate views the role of science and technology in our daily lives.
As the 1970s drew to a close, we stopped advancing a space frontier. The tomorrow articles faded. And we spent the next several decades coasting on the innovations conceived by earlier dreamers. They knew that seemingly impossible things were possiblethe older among them had enabled, and the younger among them had witnessed the Apollo voyages to the Moonthe greatest adventure there ever was. If all you do is coast, eventually you slow down, while others catch up and pass you by.
All these piecemeal symptoms that we see and feelthe nation is going broke, its mired in debt, we dont have as many scientists, jobs are going overseasare not isolated problems. Theyre part of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams. Space is a multidimensional enterprise that taps the frontiers of many disciplines: biology, chemistry, physics, astrophysics, geology, atmospherics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering. These classic subjects are the foundation of the STEM fieldsscience, technology, engineering, and mathand they are all represented in the NASA portfolio.
Epic space adventures plant seeds of economic growth, because doing whats never been done before is intellectually seductive (whether deemed practical or not), and innovation follows, just as day follows night. When you innovate, you lead the world, you keep your jobs, and concerns over tariffs and trade imbalances evaporate. The call for this adventure would echo loudly across society and down the educational pipeline.
At what cost? The spending portfolio of the United States currently allocates fifty times as much money to social programs and education than it does to NASA. The 2008 bank bailout of $750 billion was greater than all the money NASA had received in its half-century history; two years U.S. military spending exceeds it as well. Right now, NASAs annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice thata penny on a dollarwe can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th century birthright to dream of tomorrow.
How much would you pay to launch our economy? How much would you pay for the universe?
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King of the Cosmos: A Profile of Neil deGrasse TysonCarl Zimmer1 January 2012For three hours, Tyson keeps his audience staring so hard at the heavens he cramps their necks. He speaks of galaxies and the delusions of astrology, how to calculate latitude, the fate of the universe. It is not a lecture. He delivers something more akin to a solo concert. Although he is a card-carrying astrophysicist with a long list of scientific papers in publications like Astrophysical Journal, Tyson has turned himself into a rock-star scientist. He plays to sold-out houses. He appears on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, on the New York Times bestseller list, on Twitter (@neiltyson, with 242,400 followers as I write this). He is now shooting a remake of Carl Sagans classic Cosmos series, which will air on Fox in 2013.
Tyson spreads himself so wide for two reasons. One is that theres so much in the sky to talk about. The other reason is down here on earth. For all the spectacular advances American science has made over the past centurynot just in astrophysics but in biology, engineering, and other disciplinesthe best days of American science may be behind us. And as American science declines, so does America. So here, in the dark, under the stars, Tyson is going to try to save the future, one neck cramp at a time.
Tyson first saw the Milky Way when he was nine, projected across the ceiling of New Yorks Hayden Planetarium. He thought it was a hoax. From the roof of the Skyview Apartments in the Bronx, where he grew up, he could only see a few bright stars. When Tyson turned eleven, a friend loaned him a pair of 7×35 binoculars. They werent powerful enough to reveal the Milky Way in the Bronx sky. But they did let him make out the craters on the moon. That was enough to convince him that the sky was worth looking at.
He began to work his way up through a series of telescopes. For his twelfth birthday, he got a 2.4-inch refractor with three eyepieces and a solar projection screen. Dog walking earned him a five-foot-long Newtonian with an electric clock for tracking stars. Tyson would run an extension cord across the Skyviews two-acre roof into a friends apartment window. Fairly often, someone would call the police. He charmed the cops with the rings of Saturn.
Tyson took classes at the Hayden Planetarium and then began to travel to darker places to look more closely at the heavens. In 1973, at age fourteen, he went to the Mojave Desert for an astronomy summer camp. Comet Kahoutek had appeared earlier in the year, and Tyson spent much of his time in the Mojave taking pictures of its long-tailed entry into the solar system. After a month he emerged from the desert, an astronomer to the bone.
It was a good time for a plunge into astronomy. Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon four years earlier. In 1973, NASA launched Pioneer 11, and the space probe began its journey to the asteroid belt and then onward to the outer Solar System. At the suggestion of Carl Sagan, NASA had bolted a plaque to Pioneer, showing a naked man and woman, along with a cosmic map of Earths location, should an alien civilization encounter the probe after it left our neighborhood.
Tyson learned how astronomy could also bring out the crazies. As Kahoutek got closer to Earth, a cult called the Children of God warned it was an omen that the world was about to be destroyed. Psychics declared that the comet disrupted the psychomagnetic equilibrium of the planets and would cause mass violence. Timothy Leary had a happier opinion of Kahoutek, which he preferred to call Starseed. It comes, Leary said, at the right time to return light to the planet earth.”
In the face of this superstition, Tyson wished he could talk to people about the beauty of the universe. At age fifteen, he was invited to talk to a continuing education class. He delivered an hour-long lecture to fifty adults, showing them his pictures of planets, stars and Kahoutek. As he stood before his first audience, he didnt know that he would be doing this sort of thing for the rest of his life. But it certainly felt right. For me, Tyson later wrote, talking about the universe was like breathing.
Tyson graduated from Bronx High School of Science in 1976 and went to Harvard. He wrestled, tutored prisoners in math, and studied astrophysics. In his sophomore year, he was talking with a fellow black student, a senior who was about to start a Rhode scholarship. The senior was appalled to hear Tyson talk about astrophysics. Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being wasted on astrophysics, he declared.
It was as if Tyson had been stung by a hornet. The stinger buried itself so deep inside him that it took nine years to work its way out. By then, Tyson was finishing his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia. During graduate school, he became the departments go-to person when reporters called to ask about something weird in the sky. He began answering questions readers sent to StarDate magazine. One day, a satellite recorded explosions on the surface of the sun, and a local television station asked Tyson if he would talk about it on camera. After the filming, he went home and watched himself on television. It was the first time he could recall ever seeing a black scientist speaking as an expert on American television. His college shame fell away.
By the time Tyson finished his Ph.D. and took a job at Princeton, he had turned his StarDate columns into his first book, Merlins Guide to the Universe. And it was that willingness to engage the public that brought him a visit from representatives from the American Museum of Natural History. They wanted to talk to him about the Hayden Planetarium. Pushing sixty, it was in bad need of a renovation.
They were really just coasting on the glory days of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, Tyson told me. I said, Change out all the exhibits. Oh, and by the way, you should start a research department there.
Tyson began to split his time between teaching at Princeton and working as a staff scientist at the Hayden planetarium, helping to plan its redesign. It went beyond just a facelift, he said. It was an entire reworking of the architecture, which involved demolition and reconstruction.
Tyson held out until Frederick Rose, a New York developer and philanthropist, put twenty million dollars on the table for a renovated planetarium and a department of astrophysics. Where do I sign? Tyson recalled thinking. In 1996, he was appointed the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium. He could still recall being mesmerized by the Milky Way the first time he stepped foot in this building, as a nine year old. Four decades later, he was in charge.
When the Rose Center finally opened in 2000, it startled a city grown blasé about new buildings. Paul Goldberger, the New Yorker architecture critic, wrote that the building is a temple of serene geometries, perhaps the purest piece of monumental architecture built in the United States since the Washington Monument went up on the Mall.
A decade later, on a bright Sunday morning in 2010, a smattering of kids and their parents gathered to celebrate the Rose Centers 10th anniversary. By 11 am, every chair was occupied. Tyson climbed onto the dais dressed in a dark suit and bright tie covered in Renaissance drawings of the sky. He welcomed the crowd. Just a show of handswho has come from far away? A few hands went up. How far? he asked one person. Oregon? He pointed to someone else. Florida? Thats also far. Welcome. You should stay here because pretty soon all of Florida is going to be underwater. So this is good up here in the Northeast, as sea levels rise.
He talked about the design of the center, how he and his colleagues had replicas of the planets arrayed around the giant planetariums signature sphere. Eight of them.
Pluto is a planet! a boy in the back shouted. The crowd rumbled.
Apparently, people are still angry about this, Tyson replied with a smile.
Tysons decision to kick Pluto out of the league of planets may be the most famous thing hes done so far. Yet he didnt make a big deal of it at the time. In the late 1990s, astronomers were beginning to discover a vast belt of giant hunks of ice at the Solar Systems outer edge.
Pluto and they look more alike than any one of them looks like anything else in the solar system, Tyson explained to the crowd. Thats a good excuse to group them. Thats how you make categories. Thats all we did.
Tysons demotion of Pluto only came to the publics attention when Kenneth Chang, a New York Times reporter, noticed there were only eight planets featured at the Rose Center. When Chang asked other astronomers to comment, they called the decision absurd. Letters of protest poured into the museum. But Tyson held firm, and in the years that followed, astronomers discovered other icy bodies at the edge of the solar system that were even bigger than Pluto. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union decided to classify it as a dwarf planet.
By the way, Tyson said, scanning the crowd. Who’s the kid who said, Pluto is a planet? What’s your name?
The boy answered, Sebastian.
Sebastian, a question for you. You know Pluto is small, right?
Do you know how small it is?
No, you don’t know how small it is! Tyson roared. When he works a crowd, he doesnt maintain a cool composure, like his hero Carl Sagan. He has a touch of Chris Rock. So how can you say Pluto must be a planet? For example, if the planet Saturn were a car, how big a car would Pluto be sitting next to it? Do you have any idea? If Saturn, the car, were like Saturn the planet, how little would you have to make a car to be the size of Pluto? Do you have any idea? Would it be like a Mini Cooper? Or what’s that, the Smart Car? That little stubby car that’s got no butt? Tyson sidled around on stage, as the crowd laughed at the living essence of a car without a butt. That little thing? You’ve seen those. Great for parking. You think it’s that small, maybe?
Tyson stood tall again. Ill tell you how small! he shouted. To make Pluto the size of a car relative to Saturn the car, it would have to be the size of a matchbox car sitting on the curb. He squeezed his fingers. Like that. There are six moons in the solar system bigger than Plutoincluding Earth’s moon. And practically everybody I know saying Pluto must be a planet, did not know that. Did you also know that Pluto is mostly ice by volume? So that if you slid it into where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice and it would grow a tail. That’s no kind of behavior for a planet, I wouldn’t think. There’s a word for things with tails. What do we call them?
The crowd answered, Comets!
Comets, thank you. No, I think Pluto is happier now as the king of the comets, instead of being a pipsqueak planet.
Tyson glared again at Sebastian. So you agree with me? You admit it?
Sebastian, arms folded, gave a nod.
We have a convert, right there, Tyson declared.
To write about scientists, you first have to sit down with them and talk for a long time. Its usually not too hard to arrange this, since you can reliably find them at their office desk, at their observatory, or in their favorite swamp. Tyson is a moving target. At the Rose Center anniversary, I had to trot to keep up with him as he strode through the museum for assorted appointments with astronauts and a cappella singing groups. I interviewed him in cabs and subways. The longest stretch of time I got with Tyson was not in New York at all, in fact, but in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been invited to give a talk at a 2300-seat auditorium.
The evening before the talk, I found Tyson in his room at the Ambassador Hotel. He wore a black sleeveless T-shirt on which was written, What part of followed by a hideously long scientific formula, dont you understand? He sat in a chair, with a stack of boxes to one side. Out of the boxes he pulled one book after another, setting each one on another chair in order to sign it.
Tyson was in the middle of a frantic week. Two days earlier he had been in Los Angeles, to film a cameo on The Big Bang Theory, the remarkably successful sitcom revolving around the lives of two socially awkward physicists. At one point, Tyson said, after one of the takes, a guy comes up to me and said, Youre suffering from Nova-itis. Youre professing your lines instead of just speaking them. (Tyson has been the host of a string of Nova programs on public television.) I only have three lines but I dont know if Im delusionally biased, but I think they were sort of a meaningful three lines.
I later called Bill Prady, the co-creator and executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, to ask about Tysons visit to the show. Prady is a fan of Tysons from way back. I had Mister Wizard and Carl Sagan growing up, Prady said. There were science celebrities. And I think thats something there should be more of. Someone like Neil comes on television, hes friendly, hes funny, hes a good teacher. More people like him would represent a positive shift in the culture.haydenplanetarium
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By Jamal Joseph
In the 1960s he exhorted students at Columbia University to burn their college to the ground. Today hes chair of their School of the Arts film division. Jamal Josephs personal odysseyfrom the streets of Harlem to Rikers Island and Leavenworth to the halls of Columbiais as gripping as it is inspiring. Eddie Joseph was a high school honor student, slated to graduate early and begin college. But this was the late 1960s in Bronxs black ghetto, and fifteen-year-old Eddie was introduced to the tenets of the Black Panther Party, which was just gaining a national foothold. By sixteen, his devotion to the cause landed him in prison on the infamous Rikers Islandcharged with conspiracy as one of the Panther 21 in one of the most emblematic criminal cases of the sixties. When exonerated, Eddienow called Jamalbecame the youngest spokesperson and leader of the Panthers New York chapter. He joined the revolutionary underground, later landing back in prison.
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By Neil deGrasse Tyson
A thought-provoking and humorous collection on NASA and the future of space travel. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rare breed of astrophysicist, one who can speak as easily and brilliantly with popular audiences as with professional scientists. Now that NASA has put human space flight effectively on holdwith a five- or possibly ten-year delay until the next launch of astronauts from U.S. soilTysons views on the future of space travel and Americas role in that future are especially timely and urgent. This book represents the best of Tysons commentary, including a candid new introductory essay on NASA and partisan politics, giving us an eye-opening manifesto on the importance of space exploration for Americas economy, security, and morale. Thanks to Tysons fresh voice and trademark humor, his insights are as delightful as they are provocative, on topics that range from the missteps that shaped our recent history of space travel to how aliens, if they existed, might go about finding us.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 1 April 2012