Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke about the practicality of accumulating a “library” of knowledge and experiences during his talk Monday night for the 35th anniversary of the Stony Brook Graduate Student Organization.
Over 2,600 people packed into the Island Federal Credit Union Arena to hear Tyson summarize his journey from Bronx nerd to director of the Hayden Planetarium to Twitter and television celebrity. His secret? Following his natural passion.
“There are these things I did in life that I simply enjoyed,” Tyson said.
His favorite endeavors included turning his bathroom into a photography lab, buying his first telescope with money made from walking dogs and visiting Stonehenge.
“These joys of mine found ways to manifest, and I’m reminded of what a library is,” Tyson said. “So I remember thinking when I was growing up, I want to know as much as I can about as many things, because I don’t know later on what I’m going to draw on.”
From that advice, Tyson dove into a number of humorous stories about his life, including when he was relieved of his jury duty for questioning the reliability of eyewitness accounts. But he especially expressed how his passion fueled him to success from a young age, even when the academic system estimated otherwise.
Tyson said his fourth and fifth-grade teachers would say on his report cards that he was too social or needed more school work. Tyson replied by arguing that being social or being a mediocre student is not a bad thing, because academics are rarely a true indication of one’s worth. So when his elementary school noted his growth later on and called him back for a speech, he had powerful words for them.
“I am where I am not because of you but in spite of you,” Tyson exclaimed, drawing laughter and clapping from the crowd. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to assess the promise and performance of someone by their GPA when they have the rest of their life to lead, you’re going to be missing some people for sure.”
To help make his point, Tyson called up Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley Jr. to the stage to ask him, “When’s the last time someone asked what your GPA was?” When President Stanley said it’s been a long time, Tyson said, “Exactly!”
Vice President of GSO Max Katz said Tyson’s name was thrown around a lot as a potential speaker because he exemplifies Stony Brook’s goals as a research institution.
“He’s a very good scientist, but he’s also very good at connecting with people and finding ways in pop culture to connect what’s going on in science to that,” Katz said. “That’s why I think he best captures what we’re all about here.”
Sophomore computer science major Gustavo Poscidonio said his favorite characteristic of Tyson’s is his charisma and how he can bring science even to those who have no scientific background.
“I think he’s got this crazy ability to simplify the most extraordinary scientific concepts,” Poscidonio said. “I think it was Einstein who said ‘if you can’t explain it simply you don’t know it well enough’ and I think he understands it well enough.”
Stanley commended GSO for their hard work in getting Tyson to come to Stony Brook and had similar feelings about his appeal.
“I think he takes a look at a lot of issues and approaches them in a really rational and thoughtful way,” Stanley said. “I also appreciate the fact that he’s a champion for science and for bringing science to the masses to help them understand it and appreciate how amazing this universe is.”
But as Tyson said over and over in his speech, science is not about answers. In fact, he said conclusions are just the “tip of the tip of the iceberg” in the scientific community. His passion for science is not attributed to the discovery of the what, but the pursuit of the why and how.
“You need to love the act of doing it,” Tyson said. “That’s what science is, the investigation.”