Much like Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, astrophysicist, APS Lifetime Fellow, Hayden Planetarium director, science advocate and Washington outsider Neil deGrasse Tyson took center stage when he addressed a packed house on Wednesday in the Coolidge Auditorium of the historic Library of Congress.
He was there to help launch a new Congressional Caucus on Science and National Labs with Congressman Randy Hultgren (R-Il). But instead of preaching to corrupt senators about lady liberty and the Constitution, Dr. Tyson expounded on science. Specifically, why science matters.
To an audience of members of Congress, House staff, invited guests and members of the public, Dr. Tyson delivered a free-ranging address, bobbing, weaving and gesticulating like the combination of a prizefighter and a talk show host. He eschewed the podium for a handheld mic; paced the stage; and bantered with the audience.
He spoke about how our perception of the earth as a cartoonish blue marble was changed forever once the Apollo 8 mission returned with Astronaut William Anders’ famous “Earthrise” photo depicting the third rock from the Sun as it appeared from space. He added that the photo and future space exploration missions, even more than Rachel Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, helped launch the environmental movement by showing Earth-dwellers the beauty and fragility of our planet and the need to respect and protect it.
But most of all, Dr. Tyson hammered home why, in an era of declining budgets, and in a post-Cold War world, science funding must be propelled by the need to innovate and compete economically. He expressed his frustration at complaints often voiced about how we cannot afford to fund federal science budgets at the NSF, DOE or NASA. Indeed, he opined, we cannot afford NOT to fund science for fear of meeting our economic demise.
“Science and technology is the engine of tomorrow’s economy,” he said. The flier for the event quoted him similarly: “When you innovate, you are responsible for birthing entire new economies that direct your nation’s wealth.”
Speaking directly to members of Congress in the audience, Dr. Tyson talked about how the discovery of the Higgs Boson occurred in Europe instead of in the U.S. at the Tevatron. He added that other big scientific discoveries would continue to occur outside the U.S. if Congress does not continue to fund science.
Bringing the point home, he touched on why the federal government and not the private sector must fund basic scientific research by quoting English scientist Michael Faraday, whose experiments in electromagnetism and electrochemistry led to our ability to have modern electric lighting, among other innovations. When asked by Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone “why he insisted on wasting money on his experiments,” Faraday replied that he didn’t know what value his experiments may ultimately have, but whatever the result, the Chancellor would be able to tax it.
Undoubtedly, the new House Science and National Labs caucus will underscore that point by “promoting scientific exploration and educating other Members of Congress on the importance of our national federal investment in science.”
In Dr. Tyson’s words, “If you have a healthy science program, you guarantee your economic future.”