Earlier this year I reviewed every episode of TV show Cosmos and so when I came across another video with Neil deGrasse Tyson I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t a post-Cosmos appearance and he talked on completely different topics but it was nevertheless fascinating and thought provoking, and closely related to the subject of atheism I’ve been going on for about a week now.
The youtube video (below) is titled The Most Outstanding Fact of Life and A Fascinatingly Disturbing Thought but there were lots of smaller points in there to sparkle our brains.
But first – who is Neil deGrasse Tyson? He presents himself as a scientist, never forgetting to say things like “we, scientists.” but he is more of a “popularizer of science” than actual astrophysicist. His last paper was submitted in 1998, sixteen years ago, and he has been a showman since. Evil tongues say that even his doctorate is dodgy – he was kicked out of his first program and on his second attempt he was awarded the degree to keep that particular institution statistics up – they just couldn’t let someone to sit in the same class for three years without graduating. Official biographies, of course, disagree with evil tongues, so a grain of salt must be added. Actual factual astrophysicists also have no idea what exactly he has contributed to the field but that really doesn’t matter – he knows how science works and that’s more than enough for his current engagements.
As a “science communicator” he does a very good job and got a large and faithful following, hanging onto his each word or tweet. Even in that youtube video he comes across as a very likable and even charming guy. You naturally want to agree with that kind of people, devotees not excluded. We think we are “stronk” and our dedication to Kṛṣṇa cannot be shaken but meeting charismatic people is as dangerous as meeting women, we better stay away from them rather than test our devotion. Humility in face of challenges like that goes a long way.
As a science communicator he doesn’t need to do actual science and doesn’t have to submit himself to peer review and that leads to sloppiness. Internet is full of criticism of his ideas and presentations, he often gets caught saying all kinds of factual nonsense, checking his sources is not his forte, something I mentioned many times in those Cosmos reviews.
He got burned at stake for totally screwing the story of Giordano Bruno, for example. Not that he cares, but that particular episode got a fairly wide coverage. Well, in that case he could have blamed it on show producers and editors, he was just reading the script, but still. It’s appalling how they said all the right things like “Bruno was not a scientist” but buried them under heaps of expectations and general “here is the birth of modern science” exuberant delivery. Not cool.
That blog, btw, has some sort of NdGT fetish because they went after him on several more occasions, from misrepresenting history in another Cosmos episode about Hooke, Haley, and Newton, to making silly claims and origins of lb for pound or BC/AD for dating. It seems NdGT clearly loves to talk and does not left facts get in the way of his stories.
As far as popularizing science, it works, but whether it’s actual science that he presents is a different matter, which isn’t really important because those who will go into science will quickly find out for themselves, and it’s not like they will lose their faith in atheism just because NdGT slipped a couple of times. We, as devotees, however, should take note, because it’s one thing to have an intelligent opponent and it’s quite another to face someone who is ready to fool people if it suits his case. I mean that he doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously and cannot be trusted, everything he says needs to be double checked, and because he says quite a lot of different things it would become a thankless task. Better to avoid altogether, it’s only a showmanship, not actual arguments.
Anyway, in this particular video he talked about basic ingredients of the universe. Our life on Earth is carbon based and I, personally, had a vague idea that lives in other worlds can be based on any other element. We know that on the Sun bodies are made of fire, for example, maybe something like this would work in empirically observable universe, too. Nope, not according to Tyson. He very eloquently described uniqueness of carbon from chemical point of view. In the periodic system it takes a very sweet spot – it’s fairly simple and therefore very wide spread, and it’s very versatile in forming all kinds of molecules necessary for our kind of life.
Good point, and it goes to science. In the process, however, Tyson introduced panspermia, a hypothesis that life could be transmitted via meteors and he talked about it as if it was a settled thing. Granted, the possibility is there, and it’s a very interesting one, but it is not factual. He says that it’s plausible that long long ago, when there was life on Mars, some asteroids hit its surface with such force that they blew bits of Martian rock into space. These rocks could have space resistant bacteria on them and then landed here on Earth. It’s a stuff of science fiction, not science, and it comes equipped with the usual “we haven’t found yet but in the future we will” and “life is just a right combination of chemicals” but, despite of that NdGT is actually very close to the truth there.
Life DOES travel from planet to planet but, of course, it has nothing to do with meteors, though souls falling from heavenly planets down to Earth with drops of rain is pretty close.
There’s another case of irony in NdGT presentations – multiverse. It doesn’t feature in this video but it was included in Cosmos‘ Giordano Bruno episode. Bruno was seen as a lunatic and a heretic for insisting on all the stuff that came with it but it wasn’t actually his idea, he lifted it from one of his predecessors, Nicholas of Cusa. Nowadays multiverse is a stuff of mostly science fiction but Tyson again presents it as real science. Granted, real scientists lent some thought to this idea, too, but nothing serious came out of it, certainly nothing empirically verifiable. There’s simply no dat to base this hypothesis on, only imagination, and, of course, it’s true – there are innumerable universes coming out of the pores on Mahā-Viṣṇu’s body.
Proponents of mutliverse didn’t get the idea from Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, of course, but that doesn’t make it wrong. Philosophically, our understanding of how it works is no different from theirs – there’s an infinite number of combinations the life can progress in other universes but they all follow the same set of laws so there are clear similarities.
Philosophy, btw, is another red flag on Tyson’s credibility – he doesn’t like it. He argues against it, says that’s its dead and useless, not that he would give up his PhD, doctor of philosophy title. Personally, I think it’s very dangerous because it lifts all restraints on his flight of imagination. Unaware of his restraints he naively thinks everything is possible just because science. Philosophy of science, however, is what should lead intelligent people to reject the whole idea of scientific progress as futile and nor worthy of wasting human form of life on. Here’s a blog article by on of NdGT’s friends trying to help him understand importance of philosophy but, apparently, he just don’t care, he is too busy chasing his next high, his next invention of yet another possibility for the next scientific revolution. He has no time to pause and consider real problems of life.
Finally, in the second part of the video Tyson talks about how only 1% of DNA difference elevates us, humans, over chimpanzees. What if another species, maybe even the same chimps, got another 1% change that would elevate them over us? What if living beings on other planets already have 1-10-50% advantage over humans? What if all we can so proudly state about our scientific achievements is learned by alien toddlers without any effort at all?
Again, he has no idea how close he is to the truth. We, as devotees, accept it as given and we follow the footsteps of those unlimitedly smart sages. They know the universe inside out, including everything that happens in each Kali yuga, and they conclude that simply chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa is the best for us. On that note – we have plenty of descriptions of Kali yuga in the scriptures but I don’t remember any credit given to science. Perhaps it’s because by Vedic standards our scientific achievements are, indeed, primitive. It’s not like they’ve never had rockets, Moon landings, or Rosetta Stone asteroid harpoons in previous Kali yugas. That happens, like, a thousand times in a day of Brahmā, and it always ends the same, every Kali yuga does.
Hopefully, understanding that last point should be enough for me to stop paying attention to people like Neil deGrassee Tyson and concentrate on chanting instead. But then what would I write my blog about?
Here’s the video: