Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has a history of aggravating third graders, but the group of students seemed friendly toward him Tuesday.
He still has the angry letters from about a decade ago, one written in red crayon from a third grader, about his declassification of Pluto as a planet.
A few minutes into his chat with the group of area students at Mississippi State University’s Raspet Flight Research Laboratory, Tyson still defended his decision to take away Pluto’s status as a planet by saying it was smaller than seven different moons. He added that Pluto has a “tail,” making it more similar to a comet.
“Pluto is a nice fat comet in the solar system,” the intergalactic authority said. “I think it’s very happy as king of the comets instead of puniest of the planets.”
As if this Pluto business wasn’t enough, Tyson didn’t flinch while casually mentioning the globs of plasma from the sun headed toward earth.
“It will hit everything,” Tyson said. “Running will not help you, but your atmosphere will.”
After relieving the students of this threat, he went on to explain how the sun plasma creates northern lights, a process involving bright light displays in the sky.
Tyson—host of PBS’s “NOVA science NOW,” director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and bestselling author—visited the area to help inspire more people to take an interest in science. Sponsored by MSU’s Bagley College of Engineering, Tyson visited with elementary and middle school students before speaking to an estimated crowd of a few thousand at Humphrey Coliseum later in the evening.
Hearing about the sun spots headed for the earth, most students seemed interested in hearing more.
“Is he serious?” one student asked someone sitting next to her.
He went on to answer plenty of questions in rapid fire by the group of students. “Do you believe in the Big Bounce theory?” one asked. “What do you know about the Sombrero galaxy?” asked another.
A frequent guest on national news programs along with news comedy programs “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Tyson defends the federal agency NASA during a time of record federal deficits and acknowledges the decline in influence by the United States in science and innovation. He sees support for science research as important for supporting curiosity in children.
“There’s no greater adventure than scientific discovery,” he said after speaking to the students.
However, Tyson also defends science research as something necessary for financial strength.
“If you care about economic growth you must care about research and innovation,” he said. “Innovation in science and technology drive the economic growth of our nation.”
He noted that NASA research helped create technology to minimize electronic devices such as smart phones, Lasik surgery and other innovations.
Often cited for his ability to make complex scientific topics understandable and interesting to the general public, the New York City native with a Harvard degree and a doctorate from Columbia said science can help solve complex problems in an increasingly challenging world.
Residing four blocks from the World Trade Center, Tyson witnessed one of the greatest tragedies in U.S. history. When asked how science can help shape a post-9/11 world, he paused for a few seconds and answered.
“Science can bring a level of rational discourse to an irrational world,” he said.