An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

 

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Neil knows science…but, does he know its history?

Dear Neil (if I may)-

When I was a kid, I had a coloring book with pictures of the possible jobs I could have when I grew up – fireman, cook, doctor and so forth. One page had a picture of scientist. I can still see it – classic and stereotypical image of a guy in a lab coat holding a beaker. Anyway – I liked that one picture so much, I refused to color on it. I was only about 8 but I already wanted to be a scientist.1

So, like you, I love science.

I grew up during the last decades of the Cold War. I still remember the fear and anxiety I felt when I watched The Day After in 1983. I also still remember the televised town hall meeting that ABC broadcast after the show ended. Among all the voices I heard that night, the one I trusted most was Carl Sagan.

As a teen, Carl Sagan was my hero. His was a voice of calm, reason, and compassion at a time when the adult world seemed out of control. I loved Cosmos.

This brings me to my disappointment with you – in a recent issue of the weekly newspaper supplement Parade, you made some remarks about scientists. To wit – you said, “You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists…” 

I don’t wish to pile on you here, but your statement is simply wrong. Consider just one university — Caltech. Its Physics Department was entirely militarized during World War Two and churned out over 1 million of bombardment rockets. Caltech’s Willy Fowler (Nobel Prize, 1983) did pioneering work on nuclear reactions in stars; he also led a secret 1951 study to promote the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the event of a Soviet attack. Speaking of nuclear weapons – J. Robert Oppenheimer did astrophysics. So did Hans Bethe (Nobel Prize, 1967), Stirling Colgate, and scores of others who also helped design nuclear weapons. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, there was Yakov Zel’dovich (AAS Bruce Medalist) who made major contributions to astrophysics – and to designing weapons of mass destruction for a murderous totalitarian regime. Some might say this isn’t the same as scientists leading armies into battle. Well, chemist Fritz Haber took the lead in introducing poison gas at the front during World War One.2

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Fritz Haber, directing a chlorine gas attack at Ypres, 1915 (my thanks to Alex Wellerstein for sharing this image)

Now, perhaps, you were trying to make a larger point about the positive role that scientists play in contemporary society, a role that helps counterbalance the irrational forces of religious intolerance and superstition. I’m with you there. Like I said, like you, I love science.

But what really distresses me is that your statement is a total disservice to Carl Sagan’s career and beliefs. Sagan, perhaps more than other scientists of his generation, understood and witnessed how his fellow scientists – especially physicists – had contributed to the arms race. We see this in his warnings about nuclear winter and in his protests of the arms race. Sagan used Cosmos as a warning for how science – as wonderful as it can be – can also be an awful awesome tool when misused or applied without any sense of humanistic temper.

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Sagan, shown here in the early 1990s, speaking out about climate change and nuclear winter

So – as you assume Carl Sagan’s mantle with the re-launching of Cosmos, I’d like you to approach this with some humility or at least some historical awareness. The anti-science forces get their power through their manufacture of doubt, their denial and ignorance of the facts. Don’t be like them.  As Spider Man says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Cosmos and its promotion is going to give you a big bully pulpit. Use it wisely. Use it like Carl Sagan would have.

Sincerely,

Patrick McCray

 

 

  1. Eventually, I did this [Ph.D., 1996, materials science and engineering]. But I also wanted to combine my fascination with science with my long-standing interest in the humanities. So, I became a historian of modern science and technology. I research and write mostly about physics and astronomy during the Cold War. Neil, you would like my book on amateur astronomers during the Cold War, given your own promotion of citizen science. []
  2. True, Haber was a chemist. OK. But there was also astrophysicist Karl Schwarzschild who served on the front lines, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the Germany artillery corps. Should we talk about Herman Kahn (physicist and RAND strategic theorist? What about all the scientists who serve(d) on JASON…I know of at least one astrophysicist who is a current member. German Chancellor Angela Merkel – trained as a physicist – sent troops to Afghanistan. Three decades earlier, Margaret Thatcher (chemistry, Oxford) sent the British fleet to the Falklands. My thanks to Alex Wellerstein, Erik Conway, Charles Day, and other colleagues who provided me with a plethora of counter-examples. Responsibility for this post’s comment is entirely mine however. []

30 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson

  1. Margaret Thatcher (née Roberts) graduated in chemistry at Oxford University and worked as a research chemist for BX Plastics and later for JL Lyons. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom she started the Falklands War.

    Angela Merkel (née Kasner) graduated in physics from Leipzig University and holds a doctorate in physical chemistry a discipline in which she worked. As Chancellor of Germany she sent German troops to serve in Afghanistan.

  2. Well, also Einstein should be mentioned because of the Einstein–Szilárd letter that trigered the Manhattan project. It is unfortunate that weaponry is a great source of employment for scientists, but certainly, given the the choice between developing an ICBM or a rocket to take us to the moon, they would choose the second.

    • Jhonny-
      Yes, Einstein signed the letter penned by Szilard. But it was actually the Frisch-Peierls memo and MAUD report that spurred the US effort into high gear. So far as “certainly” when given a choice…well, history answers that.
      PM

  3. Now that NOVA has degraded to being a Koch Industries Mouthpiece spouting military recruiting tinsel, you have about all that is left of Science On TV. I know that you like a light touch. But you need to get into some real stuff. Whether or not there is life on Mars doesn’t come close to Wether or not we will get through the next 50 years with a civilization intact. Those satellites look down too. And what they see is global warming and drought in California.

    Get Real.

    Soon!

    JP

  4. Phil, Argentina did indeed invade the Malvinas, their name for the Falkland Islands, over which they had long claimed sovereignty. However the Falklands War between The United Kingdom and Argentina was started when Thatcher sent a British military task force to attack the Argentinian forces effectively declaring war on Argentina.

  5. If you walk into MIT Building 10 (the Great Dome), you will see a memorial that reads “To the memory of the brave men of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who gave their lives in the great war.” There are well over a hundred names inscribed, and I have no doubt more served and lived. Scientists did and do serve in the military, and yes, they sometimes lead.

  6. I think It goes all the way back to Archimedes and his weapons of boat destruction (better known as the Claw of Archimedes). But let us not forget Edward Teller, Philip Morse (and operational research for military operations. The whole field of operational research was done created by physicists. And what about Patrick Blackett? “In August 1940 Blackett became scientific adviser to Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Pile, Commander in Chief of Anti-Aircraft Command and thus began the work that resulted in the field of study known as operational research” ). And who went to the Mariana Island to secure the bombs? Astrophysicist Phillip Morrison: <>. And I am sure I can dig out many more examples. We physicists have known sin (Oppy dix it).

  7. Gee. For some reason my quote from NYTimes did not show : it read, In 1945, Dr. Morrison was among the scientists of the Manhattan Project preparing to try to detonate the world’s first nuclear explosion. A lieutenant of his former graduate school teacher, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the project, Dr. Morrison rode in the back seat of a car from Los Alamos – where the physicists were working – to the Trinity test site, in Alamogordo, N.M., with the bomb’s plutonium core beside him in a special carrying case studded with rubber bumpers.

    A little later, when he poked his head up from behind a sand dune in time to catch sight of the explosion, he was surprised not by its brightness but by its heat, he later recalled. Shortly afterward Dr. Morrison was one of a handful of physicists sent to the island of Tinian to assemble the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. A month later, he was part of a team that toured the city.

  8. Left out Edward Teller and for that matter Leonardo DaVinci since he designed weapons for use in war that were far ahead of the time period.

  9. You raise an excellent point. I think it is easy for people who love science and learning to view themselves (and people like themselves) through an idealized lens. There is a lot a ignorance out there, and I suppose if you spend your life trying to beat it back, you might begin to see yourself as somehow more civilized than the masses, and come to associate other “uncivilized” things like war with other people. But lets not kid ourselves, war isn’t just for other people. A great many learned folks have done more than their fair share to perpetuate it. That being said, while I think NdGT’s comments might be off base here, I still think he’s a real force for good in the world, since inspiring tomorrows leaders to be interested in science and the joys of learning is really important work (as we can see from Mr. Sagan’s legacy). So I’m going to keep wearing my Neil deGrasse Tyson shirt with pride: http://monstersofgrok.com/design/neildegrassetyson/

    • Excellent comment and thanks for sharing it. As I hope was clear in my post, I have respect for NdGT and hope he steps up to fill (if any one actually can) Sagan’s shoes. Tyson has enormous potential to reach large numbers of people and his words will carry a lot of weight. Suggesting scientists are inherently above the political/military fray undermines the need for them to take social responsibility.

  10. I don’t have much to add, but I’m glad you brought this up, Patrick. I’m actually shocked that Tyson said “You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t.” Amazing. The history of the Cold War (not to mention modern history) is replete with scientists, academics, and engineers deeply involved in military enterprises. And this is the case today too, of course. I do admire Tyson very much, especially his capacity to balance starry-eyed dreaming with cold harsh realities. [There is the speech he has been giving for many many years now about the "delusions of space enthusiasts," which is based on his readings of history]. But this kinda shows that he’s either willfully ignoring the evidence or just doesn’t know. Either way, it’s bad!

    And….I think it also suggests that we, as historians of science and technology, may have failed to communicate the results of our work with the communities outside of academia. The work on Cold War science is vast as you know, and while we academics can spout off the work of Paul Forman, Roger Geiger, Dan Kevles, Bill Leslie, and many others, has all this work had any impact on public awareness of the recent history of science?

    • Thanks, Asif, for the comment. As you know, I’m a big supporter of trying to find ways to get our research – and ideas around this Tyson thing are pretty basic – to a wider audience. I suspect Tyson misspoke in some ways but I also wonder the degree to which he believes the sentiment – scientists are only about seeking the truth – his statement expressed.

  11. N. D. T. apparently doesn’t pay any attention to what ,most scientists do for a living or he could hardly have missed the many who have been hired to produce weapons, weapons delivery systems. even the AI that is going into making robot drones that can “decide” independently of human oversight to bomb the hell out of places and kill people. He deserves to lose any credibility over such a stupid statement.

  12. I’ve been both a military officer and a scientist. Yes, there are men who do both, but in general they are different kinds of cats. If you think everyone is the same then you miss some of the beauty of life in how people can be different.

    P.s. My old man was a 19yo ensign in WW2. (these are true sea stories), He met with Navships to propose “centrifuging uranium to separate the isotopes and build and explosive from U-235″. They asked him if he wanted to do R&D in an undisclosed site…or go where his orders were (South Pacific). He went to the war and got medals and all doing amphib landings. He actually transshipped a bomb from the Indianopolis to Tinian on his little amphib boat. Was a squad of marines onboard with shoot to kill orders if anyone touched the crate. He was one guy who was not surprised when the devices were used on Japan.

  13. While I do not support the use of science and technology of war-making machines, I understand as a fellow scientist that we have to make a living and earn money. Most of us cannot live on grants and university funding alone. I think this is the unfortunate side of science, however many of my fellow scientists that I work with do not disagree with Mr. Tyson. I, however, do. This is simply based on the fact that us scientists need to make a living like the rest of the community. Unfortunately, that means that some of us will end up using their science for war-making machines. This is probably the first time that I have ever disagreed with Mr. Tyson, and hopefully this will be the last. I really enjoy his talks and lectures and hope one day that I might be lucky enough to meet or have a conversation with him.

  14. Has anyone asked Neil Tyson if the quotes from Parade are an accurate accounting of what he actually said and, indeed, what he meant to say? After all, in his personal memoir he states that his father-in-law “is an MIT engineer with a scientific pedigree traceable to the post-World War II nuclear arms effort.” [The Sky is Not the Limit, p. 126]

    • David-
      I don’t know…if the memoir is true, it makes NdGT’s statement all the more perplexing. Of more concern – to me anyway – is the imagined parallel between Sagan and Tyson. The former was a popularizer, the latter appears more of a showman and salesman.
      PM

      • I think the key difference between the two is that Sagan was an outspoken activist and Neil’s just… Neil. Sagan not only spoke out against the proliferation of nuclear arms, but he also advocated for the legalization of medical marijuana, argued against great apes being used for invasive research, etc. Neil seems a lot more concerned about his self-image. I’ve listened to a lot of his radio shows and a lot of his interviews, and he’s always playing the moderate centrist, refusing to take a hardline stance on pretty much everything except for NASA funding. He just wants to be liked by everyone, it seems.

  15. And on the other side of the battle of the battle of Ypres, a Canadian Chemist who had an officers commission was also leading troops into battle. He was the one who figured out that the gas was chlorine gas and improvised a countermeasure (urinating in a handkerchief and holding it over your mouth).

  16. Fritz Haber is an interestingly tragic story actually. When he started his research into poison gas for the german high command, his wife who was one of the first women in germany to receive a PHD in science, committed suicide. Later on he was grudgingly given the nobel prize in 1918 for the Haber Process for synthesizing ammonia (one of the key discoveries leading to the agricultural revolution of the 20th century). Said that “In peace a scientist belongs to the world, in war he belongs to his country.” Unfortunately, he was Jewish, and was forced to leave Germany in the early 1930s. Should be a movie.

  17. Mr. deGrasse Tyson’s comments have been taken entirely out of context here.

    While wars that are in process obviously employ the best scientific resources available to each side (as well as all other cultural, intellectual, industrial, and natural resources) the point is the “leading armies into battle” portion of the “You will never find scientists leading armies into battle” quote, that scientists aren’t the ones starting wars, it’s politicians and those who stand to benefit economically (Church, business, etc) that are leading/starting the wars. The scientists are involved after the fact to aid in the victory (which may as ignoble).

  18. I think that in his comment, Tyson was preaching to a part of his choir. The progressive camp in US politics has had a large pacifist fraction for about 100 years. Tyson is a progressive, and had presented most of the points you could expect to see one make. He, no doubt, has been to soirees as money-raisers for his planetarium, where he would have to accommodate pacifists who might be donors soon, if they like what he says. By now, that statement may be a pure knee-jerk reaction, in spite of the real history.

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