Smart Science Talk

YouTube hosts a wonderful gem in which Stephen Colbert* interviews Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and in the same class as Carl Sagan when it comes to explaining complex science topics to a general audience. The result is a smart, funny, and very entertaining discussion.

They cover a variety of topics but I especially love Tyson’s assessment of our academic system.

Our academic system rewards people who know a lot of stuff, and generally we call those people “smart”. But at the end of the day, who do you want, the person who can figure stuff out that they’ve never seen before, or the person who can rattle off a bunch of facts? At the end of the day, I want the person who can figure stuff out.

During the audience questions, someone asks about how he would improve the scientific literacy of American society. His answer includes the advice that parents need to allow and encourage their children to experiment and explore the world around them, even if it does get a little messy at times.

In the schools, I don’t have a problem with the fact memorizing, but don’t equate that with what it is to be wise or what it is to be smart. Smart should be some combination of facts, yes, but also what is your lens on the world? How do you figure things out? You promote that by stimulating curiosity.  I don’t see enough stimulating curiosity in this world.

The whole thing (from January 2010) is well worth an hour or so of your time. Watch.

*As himself, not Stephen Colbert the character