“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
These formidably simple, yet wise words were spoken by today’s astronomy superstar Neil deGrass Tyson. He is to modern science what the Beatles were to music. A worthy ambassador carrying the hopes and messages of his peers, transcending politics, religion and culture.
Tyson is an astrophysicist, a cosmologist and one of the most gifted communicators science has ever counted among its ranks. But his love for science and his unique ability to infect his audience with unparalleled enthusiasm are not as spontaneous and unexplainable as, say… quantum entanglement. There are very distinct elements of his boyhood he recalls that have contributed to making him a contemporary guru of science.
At the age of nine, young Neil visited the Hayden Planetarium in New York. A public planetarium that offers, since 1935, a dazzling look into the wonders of the universe. Accessible, entertaining presentations are given on a daily basis to would-be scientists and their parents.
From that moment on, he knew he would devote his life to science.
After brilliantly going through high school, he would experience yet another defining moment in his young life. In 1975, he received a personal letter from Professor Carl Sagan, the famed author of science-fiction novel Contact. Sagan was a Canadian astrophysicist and a humanist who taught at Cornell University and who dedicated his life to spreading his love for knowledge. One could compare this encounter to that of a young basketball player being invited my Michael Jordan into his home for a ball game.
In his letter, Carl Sagan invited the 17 year old to spend the day with him in Ithica. Sagan had invited Tyson to sleep over for the night if his bus back to the Bronx did not come. Recounting that day Tyson said, “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.”
Learning about science is more than simply knowing that a falling body accelerates at a speed of 9.8 m/s2, or that a living cell multiplies through mitosis. It’s about acquiring a valuable set of skills that help the young minds blossom and expand their horizons. Indeed, critical thinking and the scientific method are universally applicable notions that do wonders in everyday lives. But it doesn’t end there. The core values of science; objectivity and curiosity, are rare and precious goods that need to be promoted and fostered in times of increasing intercultural tensions and a world that is all too often disrupted by the lack of such human values. Finally, science allows us all to put things in perspective and see the world through a more humble prism. Does it really matter that your neighbor drove on your lawn when you know that you can fit one million earths in the sun, and that 9.3 billion suns can fit into the largest known star in the universe?
In Switzerland, a school by the name of Aiglon has set its mind on making sure its students understand the value of science and has gone to great lengths to promote the discipline and implicate everyone in the process. They actually have a “Space Department” that is run jointly by staff and students. Also, thanks to Hani Kalouti, a benefactor and former student’s parent, the Alpine private school has got its very own observatory; The Kalouti Observatory. The Kalouti Observatory is open to public and the school organizes “Star Parties” where students host visitors and gaze at large celestial bodies such as the Moon or Jupiter. It is more about the inclusive and stimulating experience of discovery than it is about the blunt transmission of raw knowledge. And it works wonders.
Hani Kalouti and others just like him have grasped the essence of science and why it is such a fundamental building block of education. There is something bigger than life in the exploration of the unknown. Children have a superb imagination and insatiable curiosity. It is up to us adults, then, to live up to their needs and give them the tools to feed their minds and make sure we don’t kill their thirst for knowledge in the process of education.
“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
― Carl Sagan