But juxtapose that with the Higgs boson. Most people have no clue what it is, but they embraced the fact that there was this huge search to find it by the international community of physicists. What I liked about the coverage of its discovery, and the public reaction, was that it wasn’t a prerequisite that people understood what the particle was. If you look back to 1919 and the first experimental verification of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, it was a short column on page six in The New York Times—you would not count it as a major headline. I think the media have figured out how to be as excited as scientists are when scientists make an exciting discovery, and I would offer that as a compliment to the community.
What are the stories that will get Americans dreaming about the future of space in the coming year?
We have to create them. They’re not just waiting to be written. They’re waiting to actually happen so that you can write about them, and I strongly feel that if America doesn’t do it, others will. Somebody has to continue to expand the space frontier, and you might say that I’m biased, but the defense of my argument is simple.
Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st-century economy, and steps into space tap the scientific expertise from many different disciplines in stem fields [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]. They’re also exciting and garner headlines in ways that other sciences do not. People read about space, and it inspires them to want to participate on that frontier or contribute to that frontier, no matter what their profession. Maybe you’re an artist, and you want to paint representations of the beautiful photos from the Hubble telescope. Maybe you’re an attorney, and you start thinking about space law and who owns the asteroid that you might want to mine. That’s what I mean by having an innovation nation where everyone shares in the common dream—that science and technology will bring us into tomorrow and be the source of our economic and cultural wealth going forward.
In the 1960s, the fruits of science and engineering and technology were writ large in the daily newspapers. That’s the kind of force that we need to put into play. But the shuttle was not advancing a space frontier, and many people said, ‘Oh, we’re bored with the space program. No one follows the next shuttle launch.’ Well, of course, because it was boldly going where hundreds had gone before. That’s not advancing a space frontier. So I would appeal to the budget-makers to fund all the sciences, not just space—but space would be the great carrot in society to get people interested in science to begin with.
We saw the media’s gravitational pull toward space stories in late November, when an excited quote from one of the leaders of the Mars rover mission was taken out of context and kicked up a lot of speculation about a big discovery on the red planet.
You don’t need to train journalists to sniff out the fact that people like these kinds of stories. The CBS morning program wants me to come on in the first hour on that Monday to talk about whatever this NASA announcement’s going to be from Curiosity [as Tyson guessed on the show, it ended up being the discovery of simple organic compounds], so I think there is a sense that science is important. Twenty years ago, that wasn’t true. I’d get a call from the evening news, or the morning news, because there was a cosmic thing and they wanted a comment on it, but if anything else flinched in the government, or the economy, it would get bumped. I remember driving to msnbc when it was in Secaucus, NJ, to talk about a meteor shower that was impending, but while I was there some story relevant to Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky came up, so they cancelled the asteroid story.