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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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From NC State to Outer Space

NC State alumna Christina Hammock is among eight members of NASA’s 2013 class of astronaut candidates.

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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Martian Mission

NC State senior Charles Parrish is in the running to put down roots on the red planet.

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 Mar 31, 2014

North Carolina Literary Festival Reading List

The 2014 North Carolina Literary Festival will bring dozens of authors from across the nation to NC State’s Hunt Library for a weekend of readings, performances, panel discussions and more. For a taste of what’s on tap, check out these capsule reviews of just a few of the books by the best-selling, award-winning authors you’ll see at the festival.

oscar-wao-ftrThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz

What kind of reader are you? Are you the kind who likes an intimate, frankly revealing narrative about the torments of adolescence, à la Catcher in the Rye? Perhaps you enjoy books by people who write about immigrant experiences, like Bharati Mukherjee, or books by Hispanic authors, like Sandra Cisneros. Or maybe you just like novels about smart people who are way too much into comic books, like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If any or all of the above apply to you, then you’ll love The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz’s richly entertaining story of a chubby Dominican boy, his family and friends, and the centuries-old fukú (curse) that has afflicted an island and its children all the way down to the present day.

sportswriter-ftrThe Sportswriter, Richard Ford

“Life is not always ascendant.” This line from The Sportswriter could serve as an encapsulation of the novel’s themes: life is not always ascendant, and sometimes that’s your fault and sometimes it’s not, and what matters is what you do about it. In some ways the novel is just that straightforward as it follows the mostly unremarkable life of divorced sportswriter Frank Bascombe over a single weekend. He interviews a former football player, he takes his girlfriend with him on a business trip, he hangs out with other divorced men, he talks with his ex-wife. But everywhere he brushes up against the aftermath—or the threat—of loss: Frank’s young son died a few years back, and that former football player is in a wheelchair now, and the relationship with his girlfriend becomes increasingly precarious, and a divorced friend of his is not doing well in the mental health department. Ford’s observant eye and well-crafted prose lend a luminous touch to this tale of the everyday.


Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, is a household name — a fate that would have thrilled the young army officer who had yet to publish a single short story in 1918, when he met Zelda Sayre, the woman who would become his wife. Zelda was a beautiful, intelligent, talented, headstrong woman who left her Alabama upbringing behind and plunged headlong into a world of artistic salons, literary rivalries and jazz age decadence. In the process, she acquired a reputation as Scott’s wild, mentally disturbed wife, but Z sidesteps the stereotypes to tell Zelda’s story with psychological nuance and literary flair without sacrificing historical accuracy. Fowler holds a master of fine arts degree from NC State. Her deft descriptive touches and skillful evocation of the period bring Zelda to life.

magicians-ftrThe Magicians and The Magician King, Lev Grossman

Imagine, if you will, that the wizard school in the Harry Potter books has a real-world higher-ed counterpart, an elite, secret college for magicians in upstate New York. Imagine also that one of the students who gets admitted to this school has always loved an old series of British fantasy novels similar to the Chronicles of Narnia, but set in a magical land called Fillory. This student, a teenage boy named Quentin, has always wanted to believe that magic is real because he loves the Fillory books so much. He gets his heart’s desire when he finds out that magic is real and he can do it himself. Then he finds out that Fillory itself is also real. Heart’s desire times two, right? The truth turns out to be vastly more complicated than that in The Magicians and The Magician King, the first two novels in a trilogy that provides a decidedly adult take on two classic young adult series.

good-lord-bird-ftrThe Good Lord Bird, James McBride

John Brown’s attempt to end slavery by raiding a federal arms depot in Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859 has inspired many authors to write about it, but none have done so with the flair and panache of James McBride. His novel The Good Lord Bird is told by Henry, a slave boy swept up in Brown’s wake during nasty fighting between “Pro Slavers” and “Free Staters” in Kansas Territory. The small, smock-wearing Henry is mistaken for a girl, “Henrietta,” and he doesn’t correct the misconception, lending a surreal air to events that are already much larger than normal life. This darkly funny novel has drawn comparisons to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Henry’s rich narrative voice imparts a full-blooded humanity to a violent, absurd, important chapter in our nation’s history.

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