Neil deGrasse Tyson: What tech pros can learn from America's favorite scientist

The happiest panel at SXSW wasn't about technology or networking, but Neil deGrasse Tyson’s insights can inspire almost anyone.

Just about everybody loves Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I'm no exception. Dr. Tyson's keynote session at SXSW may have been the happiest event on the event's crowded calendar. The packed house ate up his energetic musings on the nature of science and the scientific method, showering the man with warmth and approval, in which he eagerly basked.

Truth be told, I was feeling the love, too, even as I thought about how Dr. Tyson's insights could apply to the world of enterprise technology and networking:

Just because people don't know what you know, that doesn't mean they're stupid. When interviewer Christie Nicholson pointed out that 25% of Americans don't know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, Tyson responded that a few hundred years ago, no one on Earth would have gotten that question right. So maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge our users and customers when they don't understand our products and services.

Some lessons need to be learned first-hand. If you want people to really learn something, let them try it for themselves. We have the urge to tell people what the results of an experiment will be, but that denies the person the value of the experiment. If people don't know how and why something works, they're susceptible to pseudo-scientific explanations that may lead them down the wrong path. Sure, they might break something, but that just means we need "a broken-stuff budget." As Tyson put it, "Education costs money. If you think the cost of college is expensive, try the cost of ignorance."

"I would encourage you not to become too attached to the number of things." Tyson uttered these words in regards to the exclusion of Pluto, changing the number of planets in the solar system, but it applies to all sorts of things. "There is no physics in the number of things," Tyson said, so please don't get mad there are only eight lessons in this blog post.

Think things through. "It's when people don't think things through that frustrates me," Tyson said. In many cases, people can easily test common assumptions but never bother to actually do so:

  • Things fall faster than when they're heavier? You can do that experiment!
  • It's darkest before dawn? No it's not! It's darkest when the sun is farthest from the horizon, that's at local midnight.
  • What goes up, must come down? No, that's because you're not throwing it hard enough. If you throw it at 7 miles per second, that sucker is going to leave Earth and not come back."

Always look at the details and ask the next question. When the big picture isn't entirely clear, examining the little things can often provide hints at what is really going on. And once you find the answer to the question you started with, you are not done. That just enables you to figure out the next question to ask.

"The day you stop thinking about tomorrow is the day you stop innovating." There's more to innovation than just inventing the next app to put on our smartphones, Tyson warned. True innovation is about tackling the huge challenges that face us today and making a long-term investment in the health and wealth of the nation.

There is a role for government in jump-starting large projects. You can't always create capital investment to begin big and expensive projects, Tyson contended, no matter how important they are. Exploration is expensive and dangerous, and you don't know and can't quantify the risks. That's why Columbus was funded by Spain, not some private company. Imagine these questions from a potential business investor thinking about supporting the New World voyage, or space exploration:

  • Is it dangerous? Yes, people will probably die.
  • How much will it cost? I don't know, but it's a lot.
  • What will be the return? I don't know, probably nothing.

Those kinds of investments must be driven by national interests that can afford to have a longer-term interest than the next quarterly report. "Now, once that's done, then private enterprise comes back, and I'm all for it," Tyson said.

The Geeks will inherit the earth - and that's a good thing. "Geek culture is rising up within the broader culture," Tyson said, good people doing good things because they don't fear science. "Science is becoming mainstream... and this community will lead that."

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