Tag Archives: Neil deGrasse Tyson

On the Origins of Chemophobia – Part 1

800px-the_earth_seen_from_apollo_17
“The Blue Marble” is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon.

The rise of the environmental movement is most often attributed to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, which demonised chemicals as it introduced them to the public:

“Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death” – Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, 1962

Later that decade, the Apollo missions and the six moon landings between 1969 and 1972 gave us a new perspective of planet Earth that was so profound that we felt a sudden compulsion to protect its natural beauty. Watch Neil deGrasse Tyson argue this point below.

In 1970, we are still going to the moon, we are still going until 1972, so watch these sequence of events. In 1970, the comprehensive Clean Air Act is passed… Earth Day was birthed in March 1970. The EPA was founded in 1970… Doctors Without Borders was founded in 1971… DDT gets banned in 1972, and we are still going to the moon. We’re still looking back at Earth. The clean water act 1971, 1972 the endangered species act, the catalytic converted gets put in in 1973, and unleaded gas gets introduced in 1973… That is space operating on our culture and you cannot even put a price on that. – Neil deGrasse Tyson in April 2012

Together, Rachel Carson and the Apollo missions made the public in Western countries quickly aware of the Earth and its natural beauty. Humans were portrayed as selfish destructors of a planet that was supposedly most ‘beautiful’ when in its ‘natural’ state. The field of toxicology was spawned in wake of this concern, and had the goal of analysing the toxicity of different chemicals on humans and the environment. As the first edition of Human and Experimental Toxicology stated:

“Politicians cannot be expected to come to rational and acceptable decisions without adequate impartial and objective information, and toxicologists have grave responsibilities to produce such information”. – Human and Experimental Toxicology

While the field of toxicology accumulated a wealth of scientific evidence about ‘chemicals’, this evidence largely hasn’t trickled down to the public and certainly hasn’t allayed their fears. There remains a lingering skepticism about chemicals, especially artificial chemicals, which some people still feel are more harmful than those found in nature.

Take the Think Dirty iOS app, for example, which gives cosmetic ingredients a safety rating out of 9. According to the app’s creators, “Fragrance” gets the worst possible rating (9), while “Natural Fragrance” gets the best rating (1). Black-and-white ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ decision-making such as this is completely unfounded and ignores toxicological evidence. This kind of thinking is misleading, has no scientific basis and sometimes causes consumers to make harmful conclusions – no matter how benign their intentions. (More on this in future posts.)

This simplistic thinking is a remnant of the environmental movement back in the 1970s: that ‘selfish’ humans were destroying a ‘pristine’ planet Earth. While the ‘natural/good’ vs ‘artificial/bad’ dichotomy was an effective solution to short-term environmental problems of the time, this black-and-white thinking is actually leading people to make bad decisions today. We can no longer assume that “natural” is always “best”: the issue is actually far more complex than that. Toxicological evidence needs to be made public and easy to digest so that consumers can make more enlightened decisions.

This post is part 1 of a weekly series on Chemophobia. More next week.

Neil deGrasse Tyson – Space as Culture transcript

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Coming to Australia!

An Evening with Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson in Melbourne August 7th 2015

Think Inc as officially announced Neil deGrasse Tyson’s 2015 Australian tour.

Buy tickets to see Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Melbourne MCEC here.

You might remember when I put Neil deGrasse Tyson’s viral video The Most Astounding Fact up on this website. I love that video because it communicates the importance of Science at a level deeper than any other. It’s a video I try to play to all my classes just once at an appropriate time in the year because it teaches what Tyson calls the Cosmic Perspective.

I’m thrilled to say that Think Inc has announced this week that the legendary Neil deGrasse Tyson, passionate science communicator and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, is doing a four-stop tour of Australia including Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra from August 7th-23rd 2015.

See the organisers’ official announcement here.

The Most Astounding Fact

I love this speech. Neil deGrasse Tyson was interviewed by a TIME journalist for their 10 questions page, and was asked by one reader: “What is the most astounding fact that you can share with us about the universe?” Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response was as lucid and as awe-inspiring as always. He answered the question in a relatively modest three minutes, starting with:

“The most astounding fact… is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth—the atoms that make up the human body—are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core…”

Tyson is a world-famous astrophysicist and currently serves as director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. He’s very popular on social media and recently hosted the hit TV series Cosmos, which had the biggest launch day in TV history (and featured a 30-second introduction speech by Barack Obama).

I love Neil deGrasse Tyson’s videos because they inspire people to pursue Science. I show one or two Tyson videos to as many of my students as I can, usually at the beginning of the year. Happy New Year.

Here are some of my other favourite Tyson videos on YouTube: