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“Carl Sagan of the 21st century” touts importance of “research on the scientific frontier”

Russ White, Neil deGrasse Tyson

“We care about everything that is outside of earth’s atmosphere – so the entire universe beyond the Earth,” astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says in describing what astrophysicists do. “And we apply the laws of physics as we come to learn them on Earth to the processes and phenomena of the universe.”

Time Magazine has called Tyson the “Carl Sagan of the 21st century,” and he’s cool with that.

“What Carl Sagan did in his day is bring science to the public. He wasn’t the first to do it; it had been done spottily before, but no one did it on the scale he did in so many different media available to him at the time. I’m being compared with him, and I find that to be a very high honor. They’re huge shoes to fill. I’m in the swath that he has carved, but I don’t see myself completely filling it. The times are different; the choices of media are different. I, as well as other scientists, perhaps collectively are doing what he did alone 20 or 30 years ago.”

He’s concerned about the short-term thinking of our elected leaders on scientific research, and he says “the engines of economic growth in the 21st century will turn on an axis defined by our investments in science and technology. It’s that simple.

“My hope for the country is that we’ll have the kind of future that we took for granted would always be there but in fact requires a persistent investment.”

Tyson adds that “research on a scientific frontier hardly ever translated into your meal the next day. So why do it? What you find is the act of advancing a scientific frontier stimulates innovations in science, technology, and engineering. It attracts the most brilliant minds that exist in the educational pipeline at any given time. Because the most interesting problems to solve are the ones on the frontier.

“And so what happens is the act of that creates a landscape of innovation that transforms culture and society. We have to ween ourselves off of the expectation and the requirement that next week you’re going to feel the effect of the investment on a frontier research project. You’re not. But later on you will, and your next generation certainly will feel it.

“So the research frontier pays huge dividends to our understanding of our place in the universe and the transformation of how it is we live our lives.”

He feels that “a hugely ambitious national project like the Apollo program back in the 60’s” is necessary to invigorate science education in our country.

Tyson believes MSU’s FRIB project “bodes very well for not only the facility, but for the campus and, of course, for the region. The Lansing area becomes a major draw for the future of high technology in the region.”

He compares Lansing’s potential to transform itself because of this kind of technology to that of Huntsville Alabama when NASA set up shop there to build the Saturn V rocket.

“The transformation can be significant, not only intellectually, but culturally.”

Greening of the Great Lakes airs inside MSU Today Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 94.5 FM and AM 870.

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