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Posted on Apr 8, 2014

The Space Solution

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s April 3 visit to NC State was a celebration of science and of our College of Sciences’ first year. Prior to meeting with students and speaking at the Hunt Library, the Hayden Planetarium director chatted with reporters from Technician and The News & Observer, as well as University Communications staff.

Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of his answers in that interview:

Q: If you called the shots on education policy, what would you do to improve science education in America?

A: I would double or triple NASA’s budget. That’s all you’d need to do. That solves everything. Then NASA can have a budget to go somewhere, to advance the space frontier. And when you do that, you’re making discoveries because you’re advancing a frontier. Any time you advance a frontier, you have to patent new machines, tools, methods, and these discoveries then make headlines because almost any discovery on a frontier is headline-worthy. Most of them are. And people read the headlines and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that was on the far side of the moon.” “Wow, there’s a person going to Mars, and their elementary school is just around the corner. Let me go interview the teacher who had that astronaut as a child.”

So everyone ends up participating: ”Oh, we’re going to mine asteroids for the first time. Wow, so now I not only need mining engineers, but maybe I need some lawyers. What are the legal ramifications of mining asteroids? Who owns an asteroid?”

And the frontier of space is so cool that now people want to specialize in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. You don’t need programs to get people interested. I derive that from the fact that when Sputnik was launched, it put a flame under our rear ends in 1957. People were climbing over one another to take science and engineering classes because there was a challenge in front of us that was making headlines. So once you do that, by my read of history and human conduct and the impact of the space program on the American economy, I know of no more effective force to be brought to bear on that problem than a fully funded NASA.

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Q: It’s surprising how often science communicators write articles that have the wrong facts or that make unsupported speculations about recent technology. What do you think we as science communicators can do to advance our field so that these things don’t happen as often as they do?

A: I’m less concerned about things that are false out there. It may not seem like it because I criticized the movie “Titanic” for having the wrong sky over the sinking ship. And then he (director James Cameron) changed the movie in response to that. So, yes, I do care about detail. But I don’t expect everybody to get everything right all the time.

Practically every article written has misstatements in it. If we’re failing in science in this country, it’s not because the occasional article overpredicts or gets some fact wrong. If you think it’s that, then you’re barking up the wrong tree. It is a way deeper problem than that. I don’t look at the detail sentence by sentence; I ask, are we better off in general because this article even exists, because someone even wrote about the future? That’s better than nobody writing about the future, even if what they wrote has some errors on the edges.

That’s how I look at it. That’s why I’m not so critical of “The Big Bang Theory.” It’s widely criticized for caricatures and how women are portrayed, although I think there’s some overreaction. They’re professional women on the show – there are two Ph.D. women and then the one who lives across the hall, right? The initial worry was that women weren’t portrayed as academic and the other two women were not in the first part of the first season, so that was corrected very early. But the point is you have the public embracing a show that is a window into the geekosphere. And that’s extraordinary, for it to be the No. 1 sitcom on television.

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Q: How can science literacy change the minds of people who reject scientific evidence out of hand?

A: The people who reject scientific evidence out of hand don’t understand how science works. So, I’m not into beating them over the head for not knowing. I’m faulting an education system that hasn’t taught them what science is. And for me, science literacy is not the recitation of what the DNA molecule is or how an internal combustion engine works or what the big-bang theory is. Those surely are aspects of science literacy, but I invented my own definition of science literacy, whether or not anyone cares. Science literacy is knowing how to ask questions. That’s really all it is.

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Posted on Feb 24, 2014

A Leader in His Time

When student leaders urged Eric Moore to run for president of the Student Senate in the spring of 1969, Moore was initially reluctant to take what he considered to be a big leap: entering a race to become NC State’s first African-American student government leader.

Moore, a Durham, N.C., native and Hillside High graduate, came to NC State as an engineering student but eventually graduated in speech communications in December 1970. He went to graduate school at Ohio University and eventually spent more than two decades as a communications instructor at Fayetteville State.

He reflected on his time at NC State in a videotaped interview with the NCSU Libraries Student Leadership Initiative, discussing his role in getting students more involved with administrative decisions, the push to get NC State to offer its first African-American studies classes and other accomplishments during a time of cultural expansion on campus.

When Moore decided to run for Student Senate president, he was a disc jockey at student radio station WKNC, right next door to the office of the Technician student newspaper. Moore discussed his candidacy with Technician editor George Patton, and Patton offered to do Moore a favor.

“A decision was made that my picture would not appear [in Technician] before the election was over, because that might have an impact on whether I might get elected or not,” Moore recalls. “Signs went out: ‘Eric Moore!’ Fortunately, that didn’t sound much like an African-American name.”

Of course, little could have hurt Moore’s candidacy because he was running unopposed in the school’s old two-party election process. At the time, student government was changing its constitution, so Moore was the first NC State student to be elected president of the Student Senate, a position comparable to vice president of the student body.

It was an exciting time for Moore, an active student who played bassoon in the concert band and saxophone in the marching band and was involved in the Society of Afro-American Culture. He also spent time and took classes at St. Augustine’s University and Shaw University, Raleigh’s two historically black colleges. In fact, Moore met his wife at Shaw because she had the competing time slot at her school’s radio station.

Moore was active in the cultural movements of his day, but he never considered himself an activist, and he even subverted a plot to sneak the first African-American candidate for homecoming queen into the annual homecoming parade. Plotters in the SAAC made elaborate plans to sneak her into the parade lineup at a strategically chosen intersection.

Instead, Moore just asked some administrators if she could be in the parade and got a simple yes, with no clandestine plots needed.

“It wasn’t an exclusionary thing but it was almost a case of … we never really thought about this,” Moore says. “[The push for student power] was more just for them to listen to us. We might have something we could contribute to the situation. … There was a constant push to listen to the students.”

During his tenure, Moore developed a good relationship with Alabama-born Chancellor John Caldwell. They hit it off so well that Caldwell helped Moore get into graduate school at Ohio University.

“That was something he would do for people he cared for, and I’ve always appreciated that, because there were strategic folk on campus who would look beyond race and just basically dealt with you as a person, and I’ve always enjoyed that about State,” Moore says.

As Black History Month draws to a close, learn more about NC State’s own fascinating African-American history at the Historical State website.

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