Neil deGrasse Tyson on Van Gogh's Role in Space Exploration and Other Great Tales of Science

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 1 2013 2:34 PM

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Van Gogh's Role in Space Exploration and Other Great Tales of Science

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Tracy Day, Brian Greene (standing), Ira Flatow, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neal Stephenson at Arizona State University for the Origins Project's Origins Stories weekend.

Photo by Andy DeLisle/Arizona State University

Science panels don’t normally involve a striptease, even a G-rated one.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

But on Saturday, March 30, Neil deGrasse Tyson took off his shirt to prove a point about the stars, science, and art.

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It happened at Arizona State University during “The Science of Storytelling,” a panel featuring Tyson, Science Friday’s Ira Flatow, World Science Festival Executive Director Tracy Day, physicist Brian Greene, atheism rock star Richard Dawkins, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and host Lawrence Krauss.

ASU’s Origins Project, which is directed by Krauss, sponsored the panel as part of a series of weekend events celebrating science, reason, and stories. (Disclosure: ASU is a partner with Slate and the New America Foundation in Future Tense, and Krauss is a regular Future Tense contributor.) As part of the festivities, the radio show Science Friday broadcast live from ASU, and there was also a Friday night screening of and discussion about The Unbelievers, a documentary following Krauss and Dawkins as they travel the world to promote atheism and skeptical thinking. Cameron Diaz, who appears briefly in The Unbelievers, even took to the stage with Krauss, Dawkins, and authors Ian McEwan and Cormac McCarthy to discuss the film. (Upon introducing Diaz to the audience, Krauss remarked that he initially met her at World Science Fest a few years back—and during their first conversation, he apologized to her for having been surprised to see her there.)

In his opening remarks at “The Science of Storytelling” on Saturday, Krauss said, “One of the things I like to tell students … not all the problems are solved. There’s still an incredible need to understand things in the universe.” By telling the human stories behind the science, we can stop making it feel like something that was “done by dead white men.” Accordingly, each panelist told a tale (or several) about science—and that’s where Tyson’s shirt comes in.

Tyson was riffing on a familiar theme: art’s relationship with science. For eons, he said, artists had a responsibility to paint primarily what they saw. But with the advent of photography—science!—“it was no longer the obligation of the artist to capture reality.” That’s when he shucked his beige button-down to display a T-shirt bearing Van Gogh’s Starry Night. (Tyson’s office at the American Museum of Natural History boasts both a Starry Night print and a Starry Night pillow, which he showed off in a Science Friday video in March 2012.)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson shows off his Starry Night shirt as Brian Greene and Ira Flatow look on.

Photo by Andy DeLisle/Arizona State University

Van Gogh, he said,

didn’t call the painting Sleepy Village, Cypress Tree, Church Steeple, Hills. It is the first painting that I know of … [in which] the background is the subject of the painting, and that background is the night sky, and it [has] elevated the cosmos to become fair game to the artist. I submit to you that science, scientific discovery, especially cosmic discovery, does not become mainstream until the artists embrace the fruits of those discoveries. So I applaud Vincent van Gogh for thinking that the sky is what mattered more than anything in the foreground for this painting.
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Brian Greene, Ira Flatow, and Lawrence Krauss react to Neil deGrasse Tyson revealing his Starry Night shirt.

Photo by Andy DeLisle/Arizona State University

Tyson famously criticized director James Cameron over the night sky portrayed in Titanic as the ship sinks. After receiving a “snarky” email from Tyson, Cameron corrected the stars for the film’s 10th anniversary rerelease. So, Tyson said at ASU, people have often asked him why he doesn’t object to the untrue-to-life celestial bodies seen in Starry Night.

I was asked, given how nitpicky I was about the wrong sky over Kate Winslet as she floated on that plank … what do I think about the Van Gogh sky? Clearly that’s not accurate. My reply was, “In the case of the artist, I don’t want them to represent reality because I have that via my own telescopes. I want and need the artist to take me to new places, and the new place that Van Gogh took me not the sky as it is but the sky as he felt it. And the more of us that feel the universe, the better off we will be in this world.”

As he wrapped up, Krauss interjected, “You notice that Pluto is not on this shirt.”

“Get over it,” shot back Tyson, who has confessed to “driv[ing] the getaway car” in Pluto’s demotion from planetary status.

Much of the evening was devoted to pointing out just how straight-up cool science is—and the 3,000-person crowd reveled in it, especially during raucous disputes between panelists over space privatization, math as the “language of the universe,” and whether we could ever find out what consciousness really is. During a particularly contentious bout, Tyson stood up as if to go after Greene—and Nye held him back as Greene fled.

But the panelists turned serious at moments. “If we only talk about how fun science is, we don’t do it justice,” Dawkins said. In recognition of one of science’s less-admirable facets, Krauss concluded the night with a frank acknowledgment: that Tracy Day was the only woman on the eight-person panel. Krauss said that he hopes that that won’t be the case much longer. The speakers were “the old guard,” Krauss said. “And I’m hoping that we will encourage young women to go into science and go into communicating about science so when we have this panel in the future, we’ll have an all-female panel.”

That would be a story worth hearing.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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