Though he spends most of his time on “Cosmos” talking about outer space, Neil deGrasse Tyson brought his keynote message a little closer to life on Earth for the 9th Annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference at Monona Terrace Monday afternoon.
The national holiday is special for the Institute, whose namesake, former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, is responsible for founding Earth Day. Past keynote speakers at the annual environmental conference include world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall and actress Rosario Dawson.
Tyson’s keynote address, titled “Hard Science, Tough Choices: Shaping the Future on a Rapidly Changing Planet,” tackled a myriad of science issues, namely life on Mars, the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Telescope launch and different ways asteroids and comets could eradicate human life on Earth.
He said it would be an embarrassment for Earth if lack of funding to space programs was the reason asteroids or comets went undetected and ended life as we know it.
The former Princeton University lecturer and director of the Hayden Planetarium also called for college students to forget about their GPA when picking classes.
“Too many students I think go to college and they choose classes based on how easy they are, so that they can get high grades, so they can show people their GPA, when in fact as any adult knows, after your first job no one even cares what your GPA is,” Tyson said.
He especially recommended the hard sciences. “Physics and math can be hard, but learning them can be quite rewarding. They’re windows into how the universe works,” Tyson said. “That can be quite empowering and enlightening. And we should embrace what is hard rather than fear it, because only then do you elevate your capacity to solve problems.”
Approximately 500 college students from the Madison area registered for the conference, according to Steve Pomplun, assistant director of external relations for the Nelson Institute.
“Neil deGrasse Tyson was chosen for the keynote because he’s an outspoken advocate for science, including its essential role in understanding climate change and other environmental issues,” Pomplun said in an email. “We thought he would bring a lot of attention, excitement and inspiration to both UW-Madison and to communities beyond campus, which is one of our goals with each year’s conference.”
Tyson used the address to reach out to communities beyond UW-Madison. He ended the talk by projecting a “pale blue dot” image of the Earth taken by the Cassini Space Voyager and asking for the lights to be turned off. He read a passage by the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan that reflected on the role of humans on Earth in the big picture of the universe.