At first glance, it might seem safe to assume that a documentary series about the science of the universe — from the tiniest atoms to the most distant galaxies — wouldn’t intersect much with feminism or social justice. But that assumption would be wrong if you’re talking about Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and its spectacular host, Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Cosmos is a follow-up to the massively popular 1980 PBS documentary series by Carl Sagan, this time hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, and both of which were written and produced in large part by a woman, Ann Druyan. Tyson, if you don’t yet know, is an astrophysicist, the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, and a total bad-ass. He is an amazing communicator (seriously, follow him on twitter – NDT’s got jokes!), and in addition to bringing the kind of science knowledge you’d expect from someone of his stature, he brings his life experience — that of a black man from the Bronx who’s faced his fair share of obstacles in getting to where he’s at today. This no doubt informs Cosmos‘ stories about whose hard work and research has gone into telling us what we know about the world today: they’re rarely divorced from contexts of power, and in fact often highlight the ways people challenged it.
Neil deGrasse Tyson (I like to just call him NDT, let’s go with that from now on) has been famous to us nerdy folk since before Cosmos, but lately he’s really been stealing my heart. Here’s five times my heart went pitter-patter for the coolest astrophysicist around:
1. When he highlighted the unsung women astronomers who taught us important things about the stars
In last Sunday’s episode, NDT told us about all about stars and what they’re made of — and the women who were integral to making those discoveries. He focused particularly on Annie Jump Cannon, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and Cecilia H. Payne, and did not shy away from highlighting the sexism they faced as women astronomers in the early 20th century. Not only that, he takes time to highlight these women scientists’ relationships of mentorship, solidarity, and resistance. Tyson discusses the work of Cecilia Payne at length, whose seminal doctoral thesis in astronomy proposed an explanation of the composition of the stars. Her story is sadly reflective of ways that women’s work continues to be undermined even today, both in and out of the academy. Henry Norris Russell, the astronomer who reviewed her dissertation, dissuaded her from contradicting the accepted wisdom at the time, convincing her to undermine her work and conclusions. It wouldn’t be until years later, when he came to the same conclusion on his own, that he would change his mind. And though Tyson notes that he gave Payne credit for her earlier discovery, Russell was often credited for it. This is the first episode of the eight that have aired so far to feature women in science; I really, really hope there’s more.
2. When he wondered about all the brilliant minds lost to systemic inequality
In “Hiding in the Light,” Cosmos’ 5th episode, NDT goes into the life of Joseph von Fraunhofer, who is responsible for the discovery of dark absorption lines in the sun’s spectrum of light. Fraunhofer was orphaned at an early age and worked as a servant when the building he was working in collapsed and he was caught in the rubble. The rescue operation happened to have been led by the Bavarian Prince, who would take an interest in the boy, providing him with books, education, and the conditions necessary to thrive. Basically, through a set of lucky coincidences, this young, poor orphan came to be regarded as a national scientific treasure. NDT makes no bones about what this means, wondering how many brilliant minds have been robbed of the conditions necessary to fully thrive because of inequity.
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops. - Stephen Jay Gould
3. When he kind of skewered capitalism
One of my favorite episodes in the series so far is “The Clean Room,” where I feel like NDT is giving capitalism the read of a lifetime. Ok, so maybe it’s my anti-capitalist dreams getting ahead of me right now, but he really does spend a lot of time talking about how wealth has served as an obstacle to progress and justice. The main theme of the episode is lead: its role in determining the age of the earth, and its mining and toxicity to humans. Most importantly, he spends a lot of time talking about how the interests of the wealthy kept lead around for so long even after we knew it has harming us. NDT details how this happened back in Roman times, when folks knew that lead was poisonous but didn’t care because the folks most exposed to it (i.e. miners) were poor and considered expendable, and lead was good to work with — its continued use contributing , NDT claims, to the downfall of Rome. He also spends a lot of time talking about how hard the lead lobby fought against the banning of lead paints and gasoline despite mounting evidence of its toxicity. Throughout the episode these stories serve as not-so-subtle parallels to a current struggle in which financial interests are really undermining solid scientific evidence that we need to get our act together or otherwise we might be talking the end of life as we know it.
4. When he answered some asshole’s question about women in science brilliantly
This video of Neil deGrasse Tyson answering what might be the most stupidly-asked question of all time by someone definitely old enough to know better (“What’s up with chicks and science?” — seriously???) is NDT gold. It’s a little older, but it’s been making the rounds recently with his enhanced Cosmos fame.
Transcript below. Relevant portion begins at 1:01:31.
Audience member: Um, the Lawrence Summers question? What’s up with chicks and science?
Moderator: Slightly off-topic, nonetheless interesting…
Audience member: It’s science education!
Panelist: Does anyone wanna field, maybe, if there are genetic differences between men and women that explain why more men are in science? Anyone wanna touch that?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I’ve never been female. But I have been black my whole life. And so, let me perhaps offer some insight from that perspective, because there are many similar social issues related to access, to equal opportunity that we find in the black community and the community of women in a male dominated — white male dominated — society. And I’ll be brief because I wanna get to more questions. When I look at, throughout my life, I’ve known that I wanted to do astrophysics since I was 9 years old, my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium. I was a little younger than Victor at the time, although he did it before I did. So I got to see how the world around me reacted to my expression of these ambitions. And all I can say is, the fact that I wanted to be a scientist, an astrophysicist, was hands down the path of most resistance through the forces of society. Anytime I expressed this interest teachers would say “Don’t you want to be an athlete?” I wanted to become something that was outside the paradigms of expectation of the people in power. And so fortunately my depth of interest in the universe was so deep and so fuel-enriched that every one of these curveballs thrown at me and fences built in front of me and hills that I had to climb, I just reached for more fuel and I kept going. Now here I am, one, I think, one of the most visible scientists in the land, and I want to look behind me say, well, where are the others who might have been this and they’re not there? And I wonder. what is the blood on the tracks that I happened to survive that others did not? Simply because of the forces of society that prevent it at every turn. At every turn. To the point that I have security guards following me as I go through department stores presuming that I am a thief…I walked out of a store one time and the alarm went off, so they came running to me. I walked through the gate at the same time a white male walked through the gate. And that guy just walked off with the stolen goods, knowing that they would stop me, and not him. That’s an interesting sort of exploitation, what a scam that was…I think people should do that more often! [laughs] So my life experience tells me that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, when you don’t find women in the sciences, I know that these forces are real, and I had to survive them to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you’ve got to come up with a system where there’s equal opportunity. Then we can have that conversation.
5. THIS PICTURE
All I have to say is: OMG.