By the Numbers

Is the twentieth century’s global technological leader becoming an idiocracy?

Church and White, 2009, oil on wood, 64 x 96 ins.

Alexis Rockman

Excerpted from Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, by Neil deGrasse, edited by Avis Lang. © 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.Adapted from the keynote speech for the Space Technology Hall of Fame dinner, 24th National Space Symposium, April 10, 2008, Colorado Springs, Colorado.

We’ve got challenges ahead of us. They’re bigger than you might think. They’re more severe than you might think. Recently I was invited to serve on a committee for ABC’s Good Morning America. Our task was to pick a new set of the seven won­ders of the world. Why not? It’s the twenty-first century; let’s do it. The resulting program would reveal one wonder of the world per day—kind of like a striptease lasting seven days.

The original seven wonders of the world were made by humans, but for our exercise, natural objects were allowed on the list. The eight others on the selection commit­tee had traveled the world, and out came a familiar list of nature’s sus­pects, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Amazon River basin. My suggestion was the Saturn V rocket. Hello! The Saturn V, first rocket ever to escape Earth.

When I mentioned this, they all turned and looked at me like I had three heads. I had to be polite, be­cause we were being filmed, and so I gave my most impassioned plea: Saturn V was the first rocket to pro­pel astronauts to Earth’s escape ve­locity—25,000 miles an hour. That’s 7 miles per second, the crowning achievement of human engineering and ingenuity. And once again, they all looked at me. I was not connect­ing. I was not communicating. But the conversation sparkled when can­yons, waterfalls, and ice caps were discussed.

Then I thought, Well, let me try another plan, and I mentioned the Three Gorges Dam in China, the largest engineering project in the world, six times larger than the Hoover Dam. That category, by the way, is no stranger to China; they’ve had the largest engineering project in the world before. The Great Wall of China was just such an undertaking. So they know about big projects. The other peo­ple on the committee again turned and looked at me like I had three heads, and said, “Don’t you know the dam is devastating to the en­vironment?” I replied, “It wasn’t a prerequisite that no humans would be harmed in the making of these seven wonders. And in any case, that doesn’t make the largest damn dam in the world any less of an en­gineering marvel.”

I got outvoted on that one too.

Several months later I was invited back for another round: to help pick the seven wonders of the United States of America. If I couldn’t get the Saturn V listed as one of our own seven wonders, I told myself, I would just pack up and move to another country—or another planet. And yes, after some arm twisting, aggressive posturing, and strategic horse-trading, I succeeded.

But this tells us that the U.S. population is simply not plugged into what we—the country’s space enthusiasts, space technologists, space visionaries—are doing. Most of what we take for granted—what we know to be the value of this en­terprise to the security, the financial health, and the dreams of the na­tion—goes unnoticed by the public that derives daily benefits from the enterprise.

Not only that, some of them even celebrate their science illiteracy. They’re not even embarrassed by it. You’ve been to cocktail parties where the humanities types are standing in a corner chatting about Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie or the latest Man Booker Prize win­ner. But if a science geek joins them and happens to mention a quick mental calculation, the most com­mon response is, “I was never good at math,” followed by a collective chuckle. Now suppose you’re one of those humanities types, and you visit the geek corner and mention some aspect of grammar. Do you think the geeks will say, “Oh, I was never good at nouns and verbs”? Of course not. Whether or not they liked their English classes, they would never chuckle about being bad at the language. So I see a pro­found inequality in what is and isn’t accepted in our collective ignorance.

I’m concerned about this kind of illiteracy. First of all, as you know, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everyone into two kinds of people and those who don’t. But actually, there are three kinds of people in the world: those who are good at math and those who aren’t.

Our nation is turning into an id­iocracy. For example, many people don’t seem to grasp what an aver­age reflects: some below and some above. Not all children can be above average. And why is it that three-quarters of all high-rise buildings—I’ve studied this—go directly from a twelfth to a fourteenth floor? Check out their elevators. Here we are in twenty-first-century America, and people who walk among us fear the number thirteen. What kind of country are we turning into? What’s next—people calculating averages for things that don’t average? In a statement that’s arithmetically accurate yet biologically meaningless, the Irish mathematician and satirist Des MacHale noted that the average person walks around with one breast and one testicle.

The problem isn’t just math. You know there’s something wrong out there when you read the label on a bottle of floor cleaner and it says, “DO NOT USE ON CONTACT LENSES.” That warning can be there only because someone tried it.

Recently I gave a talk in St. Pe­tersburg, Florida. The last question of the night was, “What would you do if, a year from now, all the money for science and engineering research was cut to zero, yet Con­gress allowed you to pick one project you could do? What would that project be?” I promptly replied, “I would take that money, build a ship, and sail to some other country that values investment in science. And in my rearview mirror would be all of America moving back into the caves, because that’s what happens when you don’t invest in science and engineering.”

There was a day when Americans would construct the tallest buildings, the longest suspension bridges, the longest tunnels, the biggest dams. You might say, “Well, those are just bragging rights.” Yes, they were bragging rights. But more important, they embodied a mis­sion statement about working on the frontier—the technological frontier, the engineering frontier, the intellectual frontier—about going places that had not been visited the day before. When that stops, your infra­structure crumbles.

There’s a lot of talk about China these days. So let’s talk more about it. We keep hearing about ancient Chinese remedies and ancient Chi­nese inventions. But when do you hear about modern Chinese inven­tions? Here are some of the things that the Chinese achieved between the late sixth and late fifteenth centuries. They discovered the solar wind. They invented matches, chess, and playing cards. They figured out that you can diagnose diabetes by analyzing urine. They invented the first mechanical clock, movable type, paper money, and the segmented-arch bridge. They basically invented the compass and showed that magnetic north is not the same as geographic north—a good thing to know when you’re trying to navigate. They invented phosphorescent paint, gunpowder, flares, and fireworks. They even in­vented grenades. They were hugely active in international trade over that period, discovering new lands and new peoples.

And then, in the late 1400s, Chi­na turned insular. It stopped looking beyond its shores. It stopped explor­ing beyond its then-current state of knowledge. And the entire enter­prise of creativity stopped. That’s why you don’t hear people saying, “Here’s a modern Chinese answer to that problem.” Instead they’re talk­ing about ancient Chinese remedies. There’s a cost when you stop inno­vating and stop investing and stop exploring. That cost is severe. And it worries me deeply, because if you don’t explore, you recede into ir­relevance as other nations figure out the value of exploration.

What else do we know about China? It has nearly 1.5 billion people—one-fifth of the world’s population. Do you know how big a billion is? In China it means that if you’re one in a million, there are 1,500 other people just like you.

Not only that, the upper quartile of China—the smartest 25 percent—outnumbers the entire population of the United States. Lose sleep over that one. You’ve seen the numbers: China graduates about half a million scientists and engineers a year; we graduate about 70,000—much less than the ratio of our populations would indicate. A talk-show host in Salt Lake City recently asked me about those num­bers, and I said, “Well, we graduate half a million of something a year: lawyers.” So the guy asked me what that says about America, and I said, “It tells me we are going into the future fully prepared to litigate over the crumbling of our infra­structure.” That’s what the future of America will be.
 
Am I making this up about the infrastructure crum­bling? No. In July 2007 a steam pipe blew up in Man­hattan; people were injured; one died. The following month an eight-lane bridge over the Mississippi River, on I-35, collapsed in Min­neapolis. In 2005 levees in New Orleans broke. What is going on? This is what hap­pens when you move from being a technological leader in the world to becoming an idiocracy. Your infra­structure begins to crumble, and you just run behind the problems, trying to fix them after the damage occurs.

I don’t want to build shelters to house people when a levee breaks; let’s build levees that don’t break in the first place. I don’t want to escape from a tornado; let’s figure out a way to stop the tornado. I don’t want to run away from an incom­ing asteroid; let’s figure out how to deflect it. These are two different mentalities. One of them cowers in the presence of a problem; the other solves the problem before it wreaks havoc. And the people who solve infra­structure problems are the scientists and the engineers. I’m tired of building shelters from things we could have prevented from happening.

We space people are listening to each other, but is anybody else lis­tening? I don’t know.

How many space people are there anyway? How many employees does Boeing have? 150,000 world­wide. Lockheed Martin: 125,000. Northrop Grumman: 120,000. General Dynamics: 90,000. NASA: 18,000. Not all of the people at those big companies are involved in space, of course, plus there are other com­panies with many fewer employees. How about membership organizations? The Planetary Society, the National Space Society, and the Mars Society combined: maybe 100,000 people. If you add them all up—I did this exercise—there are no more than half a million engaged in this industry in the United States. Half a million. That’s one-sixth of one per­cent of the nation’s population.

Now, here’s the problem. We space people get viewed as though we’re some kind of special interest group, so let’s compare ourselves with other special interest groups. How about the NRA? Well over 4 million members. Who’s got a million members, twice as many as all the Americans who work in the aerospace industry? The Hannah Montana fan club. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the USA. The Arbor Day Founda­tion. A million children are homeschooled in America. A million people belong to gangs in America. As spe­cial interests go, we’re way down on the list of groups to pay attention to—unless we can get the message out that what we do is fundamental to the identity of America.
 
Let’s talk budgets for a minute. I like talking about budgets. NASA’s budget, de­pending on which year you’re talking about, is about half a penny on the tax dollar.

Many people try to justify NASA by its spin-offs—although I think we’ve finally let go of the Tang reference. Of course we’ve got spinoffs, as every year’s inductees to the Space Technology Hall of Fame testify. NASA also exerts direct and indirect economic impact in every community where it does business. Its presence has fostered educated communities. Meanwhile, salaries get paid. Goods and services get purchased. Sum up the economic impact, and NASA is net positive. Yet none of this fully captures the soul of NASA’s mission.

Something else captures it, though, something that’s rarely talked about: the sheer joy of ex­ploration and discovery. Not all countries offer their citizens this possibility. People living in poor countries are reduced to the three biological imperatives: the search for food, shelter, and sex. Ignore those basic requirements, and you’ll go extinct. But in wealthy nations, we can go beyond the basics. We have time to reflect on our place in the cosmos. We might think of this as a luxury, but it’s not. The way I see it, exploration and discovery fully express the biological imperative of our brain. To deny these yearnings is a travesty of nature.

Space knowledge is one of the fruits of using our brain. So are numbers. I like numbers, especially big numbers. I don’t think most people have a feeling for how big the big numbers are. What do we call things that are big? We call them astronom­ical: astronomical debt, astronomical salaries. The universe deals in big numbers, and I want to share some of them with you.
 
Let’s start out small, just to get warmed up. How about the number “1”? We understand the number “1.” Go up a power of a thousand, and we get to 1,000. That’s another number we understand. Go up an­other power of a thousand, and we get to 1,000,000. A million. Now we’re getting to the populations of large cities. Eight of those live in New York City. Eight million people. Go up another power of a thousand, and you get to 1,000,000,000. A billion. You know how big a billion is? I’m going to tell you.

McDonald’s has sold a lot of ham­burgers, so many that they’ve lost count. Just between friends, let’s call it 100,000,000,000—a hundred bil­lion. Do you know how many ham­burgers that is? If you start in Colo­rado Springs and lay them end to end going due west, you’ll get to Los An­geles, float across the Pacific, get to Japan, go across Asia and Europe and the Atlantic Ocean, come back to Washington, D.C., and keep going. You’ll get right back to Colorado Springs on your 100,000,000,000 hamburgers—fifty-two times over, in fact. By the way, I did this calculation based on the bun. It’s a bun calculation: fifty-two times around the planet. By itself, the patty won’t stretch as far. If you want to work with just the burgers, you can make a stack high enough to reach the Moon and back. That’s a hundred billion for you.

Back to a billion. Anybody out there who’s thirty-one years old? In that year of your life, you’ll live your billionth second. It’s the sec­ond that follows 259 days, one hour, forty-six minutes, and forty seconds (subtracting, of course, all the leap days and leap seconds of your life). Most people celebrate their birthday. I celebrated my birth second—my billionth second—with a bottle of champagne. I’d be happy to recom­mend some champagne for the occa­sion. But you’ll have to drink it real quick, because you’ve got only one second to celebrate.

Let’s go up another power of a thousand, to a trillion: 1,000,000,000,000. A “1” with twelve zeroes. You cannot count to a trillion. If you counted one num­ber per second, as I just mentioned, it would take you more than thirty-one years to count to a billion. How long would it take you to count to a trillion? A thousand times longer— thirty-one thousand years. So don’t even try it. Thirty-one thousand years ago, cave dwellers were mak­ing rock art in Australia and carving small, thick-thighed female figurines in Central Europe.

Now go up another power of a thousand, to the “1” with fifteen zeroes. Now we’re at quadrillion. The estimated number of sounds and words ever uttered by all humans who have ever lived is a hundred qua­drillion. That includes Congressional filibusters. They’re part of the tally.

Up another power of a thousand: “1” with eighteen zeroes. That’s quintillion, the average number of grains of sand on a beach—even the sand that comes home with you in your bathing suit. I counted that too.

Up yet another factor of a thou­sand: “1” with twenty-one zeroes. That is the number of stars in the observable universe. Sextillion stars. If you came in here with a big ego, it won’t play well with that number. Consider our neighbor, the Androm­eda galaxy, which is kind of like a twin of ours; within its fuzzy cloud system is the puddled light of hun­dreds of billions of stars. When you look farther, courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope, you see nothing but these systems, every single one of them appearing as a smudge. Every smudge is a full red-blooded galaxy, kin to Andromeda, containing its own hundreds of billions of stars. Getting a taste of cosmic scale makes you feel small only if your ego is un­justifiably large to begin with.

In all of these galaxies, there are stars of a particular kind that manufacture heavy elements in their core and then explode, spreading their enriched contents across the galaxy—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and on through the periodic table of elements. These elements enrich the gas clouds that birth the next generation of stars and their associated planets, and on those planets are the ingredients of life itself, which match, one for one, the ingredients of the universe.

The number-one element in the universe is hydrogen; so, too, it is number one in the human body. Among other places, you find it in the water molecule, H2O. Next most common in the universe is he­lium: chemically inert, and thus not useful to the human body. Inhaling it makes a good party trick, but it’s not chemically useful to life. Next on the cosmic list is oxygen; next in the human body and all life on Earth is oxygen. Carbon comes next in the universe; carbon comes next in life. It’s a hugely fertile element. We ourselves are carbon-based life. Next in the universe? Nitrogen. Next in life on Earth? Nitrogen. It all matches one for one. If we were made of an isotope of bismuth, you’d have an argument that we’re something unique in the cosmos, because that would be a really rare thing to be made of. But we’re not. We’re made of the commonest in­gredients. And that gives me a sense of belonging to the universe, a sense of participation.

You could also ask who’s in charge. Lots of people think, well, we’re humans; we’re the most intel­ligent and accomplished species; we’re in charge. Bacteria may have a different outlook: more bacteria live and work in one linear centimeter of your lower colon than all the humans who have ever lived. That’s what’s going on in your digestive tract right now. Are we in charge, or are we simply hosts for bacteria? It all depends on your outlook.

I think about human intelligence a lot, because I’m worried about this idiocracy problem. But look at our DNA. It’s 98+ percent identi­cal to that of a chimpanzee, and only slightly less similar to that of other mammals. We consider our­selves smart: we compose poetry, we write music, we solve equations, we build airplanes. That’s what smart creatures do. Fine. I don’t have a problem with that self-serv­ing definition. I think we can agree that no matter how hard you try, you will never teach trigonometry to a chimpanzee. The chimp prob­ably couldn’t even learn the times table. Meanwhile, humans have sent spaceships to the Moon.

In other words, what we celebrate as our intelligence derives from a less than 2 percent difference in DNA. So here’s a night thought to disturb your slumber. Since a genet­ic difference of 2 percent is so small, maybe the actual difference in intel­ligence is also small, and we’re just ego-servingly telling ourselves it’s large. Imagine a creature—another life-form on Earth, an alien, what-ever—whose DNA is 2 percent beyond ours on the intelligence scale, as ours is beyond the chimp’s. In that creature’s presence, we would be blithering idiots.

I worry that some problems in the universe might be just too hard for the human brain. Maybe we’re simply too stupid.

Some people are upset by this. Don’t be. There’s another way to look at it. It’s not as though we’re down here on Earth and the rest of the universe is out there. To begin with, we’re genetically connected to each other and to all other life-forms on Earth. We’re mutual participants in the biosphere. We’re also chemically connected to all the other life-forms we have yet to discover. They, too, would use the same elements we find in our periodic table. They do not and cannot have some other periodic table. So we’re genetically connected to each other; we’re molecularly connected to other objects in the universe; and we’re atomically con­nected to all matter in the cosmos.

For me, that is a profound thought. It is even spiritual. Science, enabled by engineering, empowered by NASA, tells us not only that we are in the universe but that the universe is in us. And for me, that sense of belong­ing elevates, not denigrates, the ego.

This is an epic journey my colleagues and I have been on—in my case since I was nine years old. The rest of the world needs to understand this journey. It’s fundamental to our lives, to our security, to our self-image, and to our capacity to dream.

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