In a conversation last week, I asked Tyson about American curiosity toward space, what needs to be done to save NASA, and how he's been able to make
science accessible to the general public.
focuses on the future of space exploration and America's interest in it. What do you think inspires children and students to want to learn about
science and technology?
What I have found is that people who really need the science education are the adults. Adults outnumber children. They're in charge. They wield
resources. They vote. All of the things that shape the society in which we live are conducted by adults.
Kids are born curious about the world. What adults primarily do in the presence of kids is unwittingly thwart the curiosity of children. Let's say, for
example, a kid wants to jump into a muddy puddle. What does the parent say? "No, don't do that. You'll get your clothing dirty." Well, that's how
craters are formed on the Moon! This experiment has now been halted on the premise that it would get something dirty, when it otherwise it would've
been a science experiment with interesting, illuminating consequences.
The challenge has never been children. The challenge has been adults. I don't think you have to do anything special to get kids interested in science,
other than to get out of their way when they're expressing that curiosity.
All the adults are saying, "We need to improve science in the world. Let's train the kids." I've never heard an adult say, "We need more science
in the world. Train me." I've never heard an adult say that. It's the adults that need the science literacy, the kind of literacy that can transform
the nation practically overnight.
In your book, though, you mention the difficulties of keeping students interested in science -- that it doesn't work to stand in front of a high
school class and ask, "Who wants to design a vehicle that's 20 percent more fuel-efficient than they one your parents built?" If that's the case,
what needs to be done to attract their curiosity?
While all kids are scientists, they reach a point, a benchmark, when puberty sets in and social life starts getting complicated. Then it's time to
consider how their interests will manifest through the transition. At that point, I would step in and offer an ambitious goal for them to reach for, so
that while they're continuing (or initiating) their studies of science, they know they have a place to land when they get out of the pipeline.
You're right. If I say, "Design me a plane that's more fuel-efficient, because the country needs that now," you're not going to get any truly
transformative, innovative solutions. Instead, if I say, "Who wants to build an air foil that'll navigate the rarified atmosphere of Mars?" or "We're
about to go to Mars. Who wants to study life forms that are yet to be understood that we may discover?" I'm going to get the best engineers, I'm going
to get the best biologists. I'm going to get the best of those categories because it's a goal befitting the depth of ambitions of students.