By Joshua Madden
On “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” Monday night, Jon Stewart jokingly suggested that Neil deGrasse Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist, should run for president of the United States. While Stewart was largely joking and Tyson is unlikely to actually run, let me ask this question: why not?
Quite frankly, with the possible exception of how much Ron Paul has motivated his supporters, it’s difficult to imagine a candidate who could better excite people about the democratic process than Tyson.
Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. He also serves as a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. He is perhaps best known, however, as a science communicator and fierce advocate for space exploration and scientific funding.
As a libertarian, I usually like to argue against increasing the involvement of government in anything other than national defense, which initially allowed me to be skeptical of some of Tyson’s views. However, as his major issue is increasing the amount of funding for NASA — something that has profound impacts on national defense in terms of research — I have eventually come around to believing that Tyson’s views on the issue are largely compatible with my own on the role of government.
I think it’s important to point out, however, that the major appeal of Tyson would not be his actual political beliefs but more his ability to speak to our greater values. Anyone who has seen an interview with Tyson — particularly his extended interview with Stephen Colbert in 2010 at Montclair Kimberley Academy — understands how great Tyson is at motivating people to believe in a better future.
Tyson pointed out in the interview on “The Daily Show” that while the Cold War served as a motivator to fund scientific research, peace has not provided the same motivation, despite the fact that it is this very research that has made peace in America so much more prosperous and long-standing. I don’t know anyone who could disagree with these points.
Scientific research in America has been lacking; I am frequently surprised to see how few American students are interested in science and technology. Particularly from my viewpoint as a graduate student in information systems, I am fascinated by the seeming lack of interest in something that affects so much of the rest of our lives.
There is a fierce anti-intellectual streak amongst the voting populace that legitimately scares me. I have plenty of disagreements with President Obama, but I still get genuinely upset when people criticize him for having been a professor or being too much of an intellectual. Rick Santorum, for example, has suggested that going to college is not necessarily a positive and that it doesn’t need to be encouraged. Since when did a desire to understand a subject thoroughly become a negative in this country?
This is something deeply upsetting to me because when a populace no longer believes in intellectual pursuits, it becomes a populace no longer capable of pursuing anything and such a populace is doomed to failure. There is no argument to make that being an intellectual is a bad thing — if a leader is out of touch with his constituents because of an intellectual nature, the problem lies not with the leadership, but with the followers.
I believe that Tyson — or someone like him — is capable of changing that in America. This is something that we desperately need to see happen and I believe that someone like Tyson, with the depth of knowledge he has, would be capable of showing us how great we can all be if we are willing to put effort into understanding the world around us.
So Neil deGrasse Tyson 2012? That’s a candidate I could actually see myself voting for.
Joshua Madden is a graduate student from Olathe, Kan., and is the Lariat’s A&E Editor.