Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Art of Communicating Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson, world-renowned astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium and host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” spoke to a sold-out crowd in Ryan Auditorium at Northwestern University last week. The talk was the sixth annual public lecture sponsored by the university’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).

“This event has been a long time coming,” said Vicky Kalogera, director of CIERA. “Motivated by the enthusiasm of a group of physics and astronomy undergraduates who approached us a couple of years ago, CIERA started a serious effort—led by CIERA’s Assistant Director of Operations John Everett—to figure out how to make the visit happen.”

In an energetic two-hour talk to members of the Northwestern community, Tyson covered everything from the Higgs boson to Pluto to science in the media.

He opened by discussing his series “Cosmos,” which premiered in primetime in March 2014 and was broadcast in 181 countries. The extensive reach and popularity of the 13-episode series indicates that science is trending, Tyson said.

“More evidence of mainstream: we have science in the movies,” he said. “Not just science in the movies, but scientists in the movies.” Tyson pointed to recent blockbuster films, such as “Interstellar,” “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory of Everything,” for which actor Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar.

“We’ve given an Academy Award for best actor portraying people who are military generals, or politicians, or famous artists, not for scientists; that’s a first,” he said.

In both his talk and a separate interview with Science in Society, Tyson spoke extensively about how he uses pop culture to engage the public in science.

“I found myself with a foot in pop culture and a foot in my field,” he said. “And, the referencing to pop culture I have found to be particularly potent in its capacity to convey other information that’s not pop culture.”

Tyson said pop culture provides an established landscape on which to learn, offering educators a vocabulary that is already understood and embraced.

“Think of it as a communication scaffold,” he said. “Now you have information in your field that you then attach to that scaffold, and the person just receives it without hesitation and without jumping over hurdles.”

Tyson, who is active on social media, cited a few of his tweets from past Super Bowls as examples of effectively weaving pop culture and science together.

“A 50-yd field goal, in the University of Phoenix Stadium, deflects about one-third inch to the right due to Earth’s rotation,” he tweeted in February during Super Bowl XLIX. The tweet was retweeted more than 4,000 times and favorited by nearly 6,000 people.

Anchoring science in pop culture allows Tyson to engage the public in dialogue about science without over-simplifying the content.

“Any good educator can find ways to translate something complex into something accessible,” he said. “This is what defines whether you’re a good educator. And, the task I think is to do it in a way that’s not dumbing down.”

Though Tyson doesn’t claim “special expertise” in science communication, he does have self-taught strategies that have helped him grow into an engaging and effective communicator. The author of 10 books, Tyson credits writing with helping him hone his ability to eloquently and effectively communicate complicated scientific topics.

“What an audience might not know is that practically every sentence that comes out of my mouth in a public setting I’ve previously written down,” he said. “When you write something down, and you care about what you’re doing as you write it down, you’re forced to think about words and what they mean. And, you raise it to a level above a Wiki page or an encyclopedia entry, where you want your sentence to have flavor interest. You want your sentence to rise up off the page and have the reader not only reach for it, but then want more.”

Tyson said he encourages scientists to be creative with their writing and to think about the rhythm of their words. “Then you develop this portfolio, this utility belt of communication tools that serve the writing and can serve your speaking,” he said.

The energy in Ryan Auditorium that night was palpable, proof of Tyson’s skillful ability to engage his listeners.

“The feedback from the audience following the lecture is the best evidence of how much Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson connects with the audience and what kind of a following he has,” Kalogera said. “The excitement could be felt throughout the room that evening, and we are very excited we were able to bring this event to the Northwestern and local community.” 

Originally published in HELIX Magazine on May 20, 2015