Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke twice during the GRAIL NASATweetup in September, once during the afternoon of lectures after our tour and once the next day, after the scrubbed launch attempt. Other speakers on Wednesday included Charlie Bolden, NASA administrator; Maria Zuber of MIT, the head scientist behind the GRAIL mission; Jim Adams, a planetary scientist at NASA; and Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame [Lt. Uhura], who–and this was a surprise to me–spent time recruiting female and minority astronauts in the 70s and 80s.
Tyson would talk all day if you let him, and if he were talking to you, you probably would. Very engaging speaker, and he interacts with the audience a lot more than other speakers (which is part of why he’s the only one I got pictures of on Wednesday–I also should have just turned on flash and set my camera to auto, but oh well). He was the only one who came into the audience, which gave us in the back a good chance to shoot photos…including one of him dragging an audience member out of his seat in illustration of a point about providing evidence for your claims… 😛
At the end of the talk on Thursday, Sept. 8, Tyson made the comment that scientists have to “love the questions themselves.” It’s a quote straight out of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I got really excited to hear him say it; it’s not that common for people to cross the boundary between art and science naturally, without making a fuss about it, and I’ve since seen a video in which he used it in another talk. I believe he knew the reference he was making, which is both very cool (scientist quoting poet) and very odd (Rilke goes on to say “do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you”). There may be ways of interpreting Rilke’s statement such that Tyson’s use of it doesn’t mean “don’t try to answer the scientific questions that seem very difficult,” but that tension is there. Yes, live the questions, as the poet said, but don’t let that stop you from seeking answers.