[UPDATE: Neil’s above explanation is apparently erroneous! Erroneous! Legendary star blogger Phil Plait kindly sent me an “Oh, you knuckleheads” and a noogie via email informing me that while the illusion is real, the mechanism behind the apparent size differences of the moon is not due to the foreground elements per se. He wrote a fascinating article about the Ponzo Illusion and how it affects our perception of the moon on his blog. Meanwhile, I will correct the comic as soon as I get a chance. Thanks Phil!]
The man is brilliant, charming, a pillar of science education, and a glutton for punishment. But I think he secretly revels in it. What am I talking about?
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, and a Research Associate in the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. (Now THAT’S a title). Between his work at the AMNH and his appearances on TV shows such as Nova, Jeopardy, the Daily Show, and the Colbert Report, he has shaped himself into the fun, positive face of science and science education. He also championed the cause to reclassify Pluto from a planet into the new ‘dwarf planet’ category. Which was a disaster if you happened to be a fan of tiny, icy chunks of rock in oddly elliptical orbits that shared names with Disney characters.
The former has garnered him praise and admiration, the latter got him angry letters from 3rd graders. But it’s the latter act, and its hilarious consequences, that has earned him a place in Sci-ənce! as the deliverer of inconvenient, unpopular truths. We salute his sacrifice, and giggle all the way. Because this comic runs on the tears and grief of 3rd graders, who, lets be honest, were goaded into writing those letters by their nerdy Pluto fanboy/girl of a teacher.
But this comic addresses another issue. Every skeptic and scientist at some point or another is faced with the following statement:
“Why do you have to know about how everything works? Why ruin the magic of a sunset?”
I remember the first time I was served this question, and I remember the Carl Sagan quote I had loaded in the barrel. BAM. SAGAN.
It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. -Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)
Similarly, Astrophysicist-turned-Chef Nathan Myhrvold, asks us, “Why does it ruin the experience…? When you drive over a bridge, don’t you hope the civil engineer knows why bridges stand up?” It doesn’t ruin the experience, and I would love to learn from that civil engineer why his bridge stands up. Because with that understanding comes a new appreciation. For me, knowing that a beam of light split into its component wavelengths into the biggest damn double rainbow you’ve ever cried on a Youtube video over just reminds me that the universe is a complex, beautiful place where each new level of understanding provides even more wonder.
So next time your significant other points out the intricate lattice of a dragonfly wing or marvels at how a creature that begins life as a vicious, aquatic predator with H.R. Giger-like extendable jaws matures into a delicate, winged creature that can’t even walk, MAKE OUT WITH THEM. For Sci-ənce!
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