On March 13, the line of over 3,000 people waiting to see Neil deGrasse Tyson’s free public lecture at the U of M’s Investors Group Athletic Centre, wound around the outside of the building, down the street, and passed in front of the Investors Group Field stadium.
Tyson, a Knight Distinguished Visitor, is a world-famous astrophysicist who has been called both “the world’s most beloved scientist” and the “sexiest astrophysicist alive.” The Bronx-born scholar has authored 10 books, including New York Times bestseller Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries. Tyson also holds degrees in physics from Harvard, astrophysics from Columbia, as well as 18 honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal – the highest award NASA can give to non-government citizens.
This was Tyson’s first public lecture in Canada and he spoke as the featured guest for the week-long Dream Big event, hosted by the office of Student Life. For students on the Bannatyne campus, a livestream was available in Theatre B.
“Believe it or not, there is over a year of planning involved in bringing [Tyson here] and maybe hundreds of emails,” said Student Life coordinator David Grad. Judging by the full gymnasium turn-out, the effort was worth it.
Introducing Dr. Tyson was Winnipeg’s own General Walter Natynczyk, who holds the highest military rank awarded in Canada as former Chief of the Defence Staff, and who is the current president of the Canadian Space Agency. Natynczyk spoke about Canada’s recent space policy, its love of space, and how valuable space was to the economy before giving the floor to Tyson.
Tyson started his address by acknowledging that he has “a checkered relationship with [the ex-planet] Pluto,” saying he wanted to put some of that debate to rest before “getting to the meat of the talk.” Tyson described himself as “an accessory” to Pluto’s demotion, having driven “the getaway car.” This resulted in six years of “hate mail from elementary children.” Tyson went on to explain some of Pluto’s planetary “misbehaviour” and why it needed to be reclassified. He assured the audience that Pluto was probably “happier” in its new category, and finished the topic off by frankly telling the audience to “get over it.”
The scientist went on to emphasise how dangerous space is. “There’s an asteroid the size of [the Investors Group stadium] out there named Apophis” he said. Orbit calculations reveal that Apophis is set to insect Earth’s orbit, and will have a “close approach in 2029,” on a date, Tyson pointed out, that is “April 13 – which is a Friday.”
“[The asteroid] will come close enough [to] dip below our orbiting satellites,” and only then will we learn whether “[it] will hit us, seven years later.” And if it did, Tyson continued, “it would create a tsunami five storeys tall [that] will basically wipe clean the entire west coast of the United States.”
“The universe wants to kill us, and we have a space program to do something about it,” he stressed. “I don’t want to be the laughing stock of aliens in the Milky Way galaxy if they ended up learning that we went extinct from an asteroid even though we had a space program that could have done something about it.” He admitted the last comment as being said jokingly, but that it also sadly underpinned the main message of his lecture, which was “a call to action, but also [ . . . ] to look at the dangers of inaction.”
Tyson went on to condemn the culture of “Apollo worship” as “necrophilia,” warning against the peril of revering the past instead of working toward building a new future. Bringing out slide examples of foreign paper currency, Tyson showed how certain countries decorated their money with engineering and scientific imagery. Our five dollar bill was one example, with its depiction of the Canadarm – a remote system of robotic arms engineered in Canada for use in NASA’s Space Shuttle program.
Tyson worried that without easy access to the sciences, or similar inspiring imagery, “that there [would] be a cost to society.” He added, “You can’t just say: ‘let’s go to space.’ You have to build that [ . . . ] You have to earn it in your educational system.” By supporting space programs, it enables people to dream about the future “[and] then the dream-state goes to another place; [that] tomorrow is what technology and science can bring us.”
The lecture came to an end with a reading from the book Pale Blue Dot, authored by the late cosmologist Carl Sagan. The passage was a sobering and humble reminder of humanity’s place in the universe.
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all of this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
General Natynczyk had this to say to the Gradzette following the presentation, “I was absolutely inspired by what Dr. Tyson laid out here. And again, I’m just a new student myself to space, my background really isn’t in space [ . . . ] We need to energize the intellectual horsepower that was in this gym today, in order to give them the sense of this need to have a vision and to achieve that vision. To be proud of what has happened in the past, that’s all terrific, but really, we need to focus on the future – that’s a powerful message.”
Other events intended to energize and inspire were the rest of the presentations making up the Dream Big event that ran March 10-13. Guests of note who spoke on campus included Zac Trolley, Mars One crew candidate; Guy Bujold, the former Canadian Space Agency president; as well as local professionals, including Igor Telichev, Winnipeg science writer and UFO expert. U of M post-doctoral fellow Harsha Kumar; U of W assistant professor of physics, Andrew Frey; and U of M assistant professor of engineering, Chris Rutkowski, represented the academic side of presentations – each hosting an individual talk.
The topics and events covered during Dream Big week ranged from a Q&A on possible careers in space, the Canadian Space Society Fair—hosting displays by the Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Studies and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, among others—to demonstrations of “vomit comets” by Dario Schor of Magellan Aerospace, and exploratory discourse on UFOs and the origins of life through cosmic explosions.