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(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks during the Tanner Lecture on Human Values series at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City Wednesday, March 26, 2014. Tickets for the event were massively popular, with people waiting in line around the block. Tyson's lecture was titled “Science as a Way of Knowing."
Pyle: Tyson predicts the future, warns of the past

By George Pyle

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Mar 28 2014 05:01 pm • Last Updated Mar 31 2014 05:16 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson is doing something right.

On the first installment of his new TV series, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," the well-known astrophysicist told us about the Big Bang.

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A few days later, some only slightly less telegenic researchers announced that they had detected a pattern of gravitational waves in deep space that go a long way to verify the accuracy of that version of the origin of all things.

On the second installment, which mostly dealt with the explanation of the evolution of life on earth, Tyson presented a vision of another world, Saturn’s moon Titan, that might have life that evolved in a different way, with different chemicals, say, methane.

A few days later, a researcher from Idaho announced a reading of satellite images suggesting that Titan does, indeed, have lakes of methane, and that they have waves.

On the third installment, Tyson drove home the new scientific consensus, of which he was a small but visible part, that the sphere known as Pluto is not a planet. It is just one of a huge number of relatively tiny comet-like bodies that orbit the sun a way, way out there.

A few days later, some scientists who don’t yet have their own TV show announced that they had pinpointed another Pluto-like body in the same region of space, validating the argument that there is nothing remotely planet-like about all those remote iceballs.

That last announcement happily happened the same day that Tyson packed ‘em in at the annual Tanner Humanities Lecture at the University of Utah. So a guy who looks back over billions of years got to break some news for us, too.

How’s he do that?

Science!


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Questions. Observations. More questions. Guesses. Theories. Revised theories. Proof. Prediction.

It worked for, as Tyson called him, "My man Isaac Newton." For Darwin. For Einstein. People who figured out life, the universe and everything and, for their efforts, get their images on the currency of countries that aren’t the United States.

Every few years, they find stuff that proves that the old duffs were right after all. Even though everyone with a half-written Ph.D. dissertation in his drawer knows that the surest way to a Nobel Prize is to find the evidence that proves they were wrong and you are right.

Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, deservedly gets to be famous to the point of adoration by explaining all this fascinating stuff to folks with the slightest bit of curiosity. And they have the responsibility to also take on the rather more delicate task of dissing those who deny the conclusions of real science, most importantly evolution and climate change.

Tyson — who savages creationism but resists efforts to draft him into the corps of the New Atheists — has a spiel that includes a wonderfully clever American way to make the point.

Instead of picking on Christian deniers of, say, evolution, he picks on a Muslim. A long-dead Muslim. A Muslim who fouled everything up for, mostly, other Muslims by quickly and tragically turning what had been the culture that for centuries sat at the peak of scientific inquiry — inventing algebra and naming the stars — into the poster boy for religious dogma and denial of independent thought.

Dude’s name was Al-Ghazali, and Tyson argues that it was him, not Muhammad or previous leaders of Islam, who somehow managed to turn a huge portion of humanity away from a history of reason and inquiry toward the belief that all knowledge came through prayer and revelation and that to think otherwise was to do the work of the Devil.

Tyson doesn’t out and say that we should guard against Christianity falling into the same trap. He figures we are smart enough to figure it out for ourselves.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, was convinced that he had been malevolently transported to another planet when he first saw the night sky at Arches National Park.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate



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