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The World is Getting Stupider

Neil deGrasse Tyson delivered a spitfire speech at Mount Holyoke College’s 175th Commencement Ceremony this Sunday, and I was proud to be one of the graduating seniors to which he gave his plea for help. Below is a transcript of the speech, choice quotes are bolded for your pleasure.

“I’m not unmindful that I am in the shade and you are not, so we’ll keep this short, plus you have a commencement speeker to follow. A real commencement speaker.

You should know, I think, that black cloth absorbs 98% of all incident sunlight upon it, which makes graduation robes good for cold, dank, British boarding schools and bad for outdoor graduations, I just want to tell you that.

That’s a tweet, right there, isn’t that? Just a moment, excuse me. I feel compelled to textify. Hold on. Black cloth, absorbs 98%… graduation robes good for cold dank British prep schools, bad for outdoor graduations.

I just want to make this quick because, I’m tired. I’m tired of trying to fix the world. I need the rest of you to help me fix the world. The world is getting stupider. It is not good when the world starts getting stupid. So yes, even on John Stewart, the opening credits, rotating globe is turning the wrong direction. I told him this.

And in tall buildings, you realize 80% of them don’t have a 13th floor. This, the 21st century America, there are people afraid of the number 13, I need help!

I need help when a member of congress said “I have changed my views 360 degrees on that issue.” I need help!

I need help when I see newspaper headlines lamenting the state of the school system and they complain half the schools are below average. I’m thinking, that’s kind of what an average is, sort of, you kind of need half below! I can’t keep doing this!

Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?! What’s that about? And why do people think the world is going to end this year? They study the Mayan calendar and they believe that the Mayans somehow knew more about Astrophysics than I do! What they didn’t tell you is that the Mayans somehow actually, in their ability to predict the future, didn’t see the end of their own civilization coming.

And then the people who don’t like high-tech, or space… you’re having a conversation with them, and they’re like “Oh, wait a minute, I have a call on my cell phone to get the GPS coordinates of where the sattellite photos are going to be so that we can hold a party when it’s not raining.” These are the people who don’t like technology. Who are these people?! And why do they even exist with that going on in their mind? You have to fix these people!

Cause you know what we need here? I want to make the world smart again, and I need you to be a part of the community of people who help make this happen, because, only then can you invent the future. You don’t discover a preexisting future, you create the future. I want you to create the future that you would be proud to bequeath and honored to inherit.”

Things to Think About Thursday

Each Thursday I post the most interesting science-related tidbits I run across on the internet for your enjoyment! I will gladly take recommendations or requests at whatisaplunk[at]gmail[dot]com!

So sorry for my extended absence! I’ve been very busy making graduate school decisions, and I’ve fallen behind on other obligations. Have no fear, however, I have some wonderful upcoming posts! For now, I’ll start you off with my new favorite desktop wallpaper, and some interesting reads from the past week!

The constellation Monocerous (the unicorn!). Click through for the original, larger image.

  • George Musser of Scientific American does a fantastic job explaining the Vasiliev Theory of higher-spin fields, a baffling theory that could be the next step in the unification of physics.
  • The first results from ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) are in! Their first published data reveals an interesting planetary system orbiting around Fomalhaut.
  • If anyone has the desire to buy me something, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles will do quite nicely.
  • Lifehacker provides some excellent advice for students dealing with debt.
  • This may be slightly off the topic of science, but since the personality statistics within science are so dramatically skewed towards introverted, I think it’s relevant. Matador Network writer Carlo Alcos explains his revelation that being introverted is OK too.
  • Another book to put on your “To Read” list, Breaking into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women might not be celebrated by Athene Donald, but it sounds like an interesting read.
  • Athene Donald hit it out of the park last week, and examined an RSE report of the position of women in STEM fields in Scotland. Her analysis is impecible, and you should read her explanation of why we need to start focusing our efforts on young girls.
Even most practicing female scientists, myself included, still find an unconscious tendency to associate words associated with science more with men than women.

Until we next meet again, happy Thursday!

Outreach Opportunity: NOVA Science Cafés

I’m sure many of my readers have heard about the long-running PBS television series entitled NOVA; I know that from a young age I was shown clips from this popular science show in my classrooms and after-school activities. Even more popular these days is the newsmagazine version of the show, NOVA ScienceNOW, which has been hosted by (as you all know by now, my personal favorite popular scientist), Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In 2006, NOVA ScienceNOW began, a website to unify the efforts of the handfuls of Science Cafés popping up nationwide. Science Cafés have long been organized as an informal way to get those interested in science together for talks, panels, and discussions, as well as delicious food, coffee, and drinks, and by creating a community around what used to be disconnected events, NOVA ScienceNOW made the Cafés more accessible and, ultimately, more widespread.

Wait a second, what is a Science Café?

Science Cafés are small, informal events which bring together members of the community, whether professionally involved in science or not, to learn about and discuss a topic in science. They can be organized by anyone who is interested, whether a professor, a student, or simply a member of society who happens to love both science and community. There is no such thing as a “typical” format, but every Café does revolve around some form of a presentation from an “expert” on the topic. I use the word “expert” loosely, because, obviously, not every event is going to be able to bring in the leading researchers on any given topic. I’ve heard of talks with speakers who are local band directors, private practice doctors, organic farmers and, of course, research scientists.

The events are usually held in a small local venue such as a coffee shop, locally owned pub, restaurant, or even tea house! The organizer works with their venue to help plan out a date and time that works for both the owner and the projected audience, and to negotiate some sort of compensation. This compensation is, interestingly enough, not typically money. Because the event usually brings in somewhere between 40 and 100 customers over the course of two hours, the venue will most likely bring in more revenue than they would had then been operating normally. For larger events, sometimes held at restaurants or hotel banquet halls, the venue may even offer to provide appetizers or discounts on drinks!

So, it’s just a two hour-long lecture in a pub? That doesn’t sound very enticing…

Oh, most certainly not! The point of Science Cafés is to bring together a community in discussion, not in boredom! The point of bringing in the experts is simply to get those creative juices flowing. There are many popular structures for Science Cafés, and none of them involve extended lectures;

  • The expert gives a 15-30 minute presentation; they introduce the topic and how they relate to the topic (through teaching, research, writing, etc.), and give a brief description of some relevant issues within the topic. After a 5-10 minute break for attendees to refill drinks and talk amongst themselves, the floor is then open for questions and discussion.
  • A brief NOVA ScienceNOW segment on the topic at-hand is played via projector, and an expert on the topic offers their services as a discussion moderator/question answerer.
  • A small panel of experts introduces themselves, their area of expertise, and their relation to the topic at hand, and then the floor is (as always) opened up!

As you can see, the one thing that is consistent across the board is the focus on everyone in the room getting involved! The moderator (typically the organizer of the event), serves to make sure that no one person dominates the discussion, especially the expert.

What topics do Science Cafés cover?

Whatever topic you want! For example, a Science Café in Daytona Florida held a “Life Beyond Earth” café that focused on the “Goldilocks” planets that are just right for life. Denton, TX’s Café focuses on humans in flight each month, and typically involves a “This Month in Science” segment, and they hold a raffle during each event. The Café Scientifique in Burlington, VT held a café entitled “Food Pathogens: is there an app for that?” and brought in local organic farmers, as well as food scientists, to fuel the discussion. The Marin Science Seminar brought in a doctor who focuses on addiction science to do a talk entitled “The Neurological Processes of Alcohol Addiction.”

As you can see, there is no limit to the topics that you can base your Science Café around. But if you’re a little stuck trying to figure out where to start, NOVA ScienceNOW has started suggesting themes for your cafe.

Cosmic Cafés focus around the NOVA series entitled “The Fabric of the Cosmos” on their website, they give a heap of suggestions for topics, such as “How we measure time” and “Dark Energy: Detecting and studying the invisible.”

Finding Life Beyond Earth is a theme which envelops such topics as “the formation of the solar system, the search for life in the universe, and what astronomy and cosmology tell us about reality and…ourselves”.

Making Stuff Cafés are about… well… making stuff! The themes focus on materials science topics, and can range from the engineering of nanotechnology to creating greener electronics and fuels.

Ok ok… you’ve got me convinced. So how do I get involved?

Believe it or not, it’s easier than you might think! NOVA ScienceNOW provides every resource you could ever need to get going; from sample timelines for planning a Café, to suggested ways to contact potential venues and speakers, they cover all aspects of planning an event. Once the gears have gotten rolling, they also give you tips for advertising and finding funding, and even have grants available to cover the costs of starting a new Café. There are lists of scientists who have given Science Café talks in your area before, as well as tips for speakers who haven’t.

Overall, Science Cafés are incredibly simple to organize and accessible ways to bring your community together over science. I, along with a few peers at Mount Holyoke, plan on working towards getting our own going, and I will chronicle our journey here.

If you were to organize your own Science Café, would you focus it around a theme? What kinds of Café topics would you be most attracted to? What kind of venue do you think is best – coffee shop? Pub? Restaurant?

I can’t wait to hear some of your feedback! Until then, Happy Monday!

Things to Think About Thursday

Each Thursday I post the most interesting science-related tidbits I run across on the internet for your enjoyment! I will gladly take recommendations or requests at whatisaplunk[at]gmail[dot]com!

  • In a world where everyone has a useless Twitter account and posts way too many incriminating photos on Facebook (I am guilty of both), it’s nice to hear some advice about how to (or not to) wreck your career with social media
  • FemaleScienceProfessor is one of my favorite blogs to read because of how aware she is of women’s stance in STEM academia. Her short post entitled Girl’s Corner is infuriating, but also inspiring – she reminds us that it’s time to push back at these little naiveties about women in science.
  • Chad Orzel discusses a question about which course at his university is the most difficult one, a harder question than the asker thought. I’ll be tackling this question soon as well.
  • The 2013FY budget is out, and NASA funding is being cut again. Along with a huge cut to the Mars Program, funding for educational and outreach programs was cut from $136M to $100M, seriously depleting the pot for scholarships for underprivileged students who want to pursue science. Are you enraged yet?
  • In poking around some Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes (no, I’m not obsessed, why do you ask?) I found a blurb about him in a NYT article entitled “If I were President…” Several links later I ran across another article entitled “Why don’t Americans elect scientists as president?” It’s a well-written examination, and I encourage you to read it. Two of the quotes really rang my bell; one addresses the consistent discomfort that the majority of constituents feel for scientists, and the other specifically addresses why it is crucial that scientific minds become a larger part of the policy-making process.

“For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even while publicly paying lip service to them.”

“but scientifically literate government leaders who push for evidence-based policies and demonstrate a scientific outlook are needed more than glib panderers with attitude.”

Happy Thursday, lovelies!

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Science’s Biggest Fan

Recently I received an email from the 2012 class board at Mount Holyoke announcing the speakers for our commencement ceremony this year. Among Mallika Dutt, a Mount Holyoke Alum and the executive director of Breakthrough, a global human rights organization, Bernard LaFayette Jr., the co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Azar Nafisis, the author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” we will be hear a speech from, and awarding an honorary degree to, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Needless to say, I am over the moon in excitement. Dr. Tyson is not only a scientist, but also scientific literacy’s biggest advocate. He is a wonderful author and speaker, and someone I think everyone can look up to. The second I heard that he would be at commencement I shot off a few emails essentially pleading to have the chance to interview him. I have not yet received an answer, however regardless of whether or not I get to meet Dr. Tyson, I plan on doing an extensive profile of him here.

To start off with, though, let me share with you one of the most wonderful interviews that I feel Dr. Tyson has ever given. I don’t yet know why Neil deGrasse Tyson was giving an interview with Stephen Colbert (out of character) at the Kimberly Academy in Montclair, NJ, but I am so glad that he did. Below the video are some of my favorite quotes from the video. Yes, it is a long interview, but I implore you to take the time out of your day, or even several days, if you watch in chunks, to really pay attention to what Dr. Tyson has to say. Whether or not you are interested in science, many of the things that he emphasizes ring true across disciplines.

I recommend that you jump to around 6:15 for the actual start of the interview.

Choice Tyson quotes from the video:

“Science is a way of equipping yourself to interpret what is happening around you.”


“People don’t detect the time-delay between the frontier of research and how it is going to change your life later down the line.”


“There comes a point when the weapons are not as useful as the brain of the scientist who you could bring to bear on the problem.”


“The investment in science isn’t going to boost the economy next quarter, it has a time horizon longer than most people have the patience for, and most politicians have the reelection cycle to be tolerant of.”


“What I want is a level of scientific and cultural literacy that will allow the public to be able to think beyond the election cycle.”

And with all of these wonderful things to think about, I will also leave you with a drawing done by a friend. I sent out a call on Facebook for “a picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson wearing a wrestling singlet and a Batman utility belt for undisclosed purposes.” If you have watched that interview, you too will know why.

Happy Sunday!


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