Charlie Sheen's "Big Bang" and Neil deGrasse Tyson


Yesterday, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson posted a comment in response to my article, "Charlie Sheen "More Scientifically Literate Than Most"?

Based upon Dr. Tyson's firsthand account of his discussion with Charlie Sheen about the cosmos, I would like to extend an apology regarding my statement,

I'm not sure which to question first - the judgment of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or the "scientific literacy"

I did not intend disrepect, only to express my dismay after reading his Tweet characterizing Mr. Sheen's level of scientific literacy. Indeed, his comment made me wonder about the level of scientific literacy of our nation - but that is a question for another day.

Now, I admit some skepticism as to whether the author of the comment is indeed Dr. Tyson, given the vulnerability of the blogosphere, often invaded by anonymous trolls or worse, by individuals highjacking other's accounts. {This is but one reason why I insist on writing news media articles and posting comments using my real name!}

Regardless, Dr. Tyson provides insights in his comment that flesh out what cannot be articulated within the 140 character limit of a Tweet.

Dr. Tyson's comment (#8) is below:

Thanks for everyone's interest in my Charlie Sheen tweet. I am
impressed by the level of skepticism regarding my ability to judge
whether someone is scientifically literate. To clarify, I measure
science literacy not simply by a person's body of knowledge but
**primarily** on how the brain of a person is wired for thought. This
reveals itself instantly in conversation, manifested by what questions
get asked up front and what follow-up questions get asked based on the
newly acquired information. Here are three actual examples:

1a) Where is Pluto?
1b) Is Pluto in our galaxy?

2a) What are the clouds made of in the Hubble photos?
2b) If they are gas, and if stars are composed of gas, could new stars
be made inside of these gas clouds?

3a) When was the big bang?
3b) If the universe if 14 billion years old, does that mean that the
edge of the universe is 14 billion light years away?

Questions 1 were asked by a college educated person who I judge to be
in need of improved science literacy.

Questions 2 were asked by a janitor at my Museum who has clearly done
some thinking on the subject between broom-sweeps. If you want to read
more on this, see:

Questions 3 were asked by Charlie Sheen. Based on these and our
overall conversation, I judge Sheen to be in the 90th percentile of the
general population, hence my tweet that Sheen is: "...more
scientifically literate than most"

New York City
On Twitter: @neiltyson


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Very interesting. As long as Sheen wasn't talking about the TV show, that's pretty impressive, and NdGT is correct.

I think your dismay reflects poorly on your perception of the public in general and of entertainers specifically. While Sheen is very likely a troubled person, as was pointed out in the other thread, psychological problems are not necessarily a barrier to scientific reasoning. Danica Kellar, who was a child star in "The Wonder Years" is a published mathematician, and Natalie Portman was published in a science education journal as a teenager. Going further back Hedy Lamarr received a patent that foreshadowed the development of spread spectrum radio technology. Then on the other hoof, you have someone like Kary Mullis, who managed to win a Nobel Prize but seems to have a very low level of scientific literacy outside his narrow specialty.
Perhaps you need to speak with a janitor every now and then, like Mr. Tyson to gain a little perspective.

By justawriter (not verified) on 06 Mar 2011 #permalink

So, it wasn't scientific literacy in the way that everyone else uses it (ie, actual knowledge), but curiosity and the kind of deep thoughts that come from people who do think deeply or else inhale deeply. Color me unimpressed. In any case, we see that such thoughts do not imply a coherent or undamaged mind, so I question their usefulness as an indicator of anything.

3a) When was the big bang?

A reasonable question; however, it doesn't demonstrate any scientific literacy.

3b) If the universe if 14 billion years old, does that mean that the edge of the universe is 14 billion light years away?

OK, let's back up here a sec and take a look at what this says. 14 billion, OK that's a good ballpark estimate. 14 billion light years? Umm, isn't that implying the edge of the universe is moving at the speed of light, and has been moving at the speed of light of 14 billion years? Pushing matter at near speed of light velocities needs a great deal of force. Wouldn't gravity have some contraction force opposing this endless expansion? Furthermore, it seems to hint that the earth is at or near the center.Now astronomy is as interesting to me a Middle English literature (which with the exception of Chaucer is, well, uninteresting), so that Mr. Sheen ventures into it is at least demonstrating intellectual curiosity. However, basic physics doesn't appear to be a strength.Which when said and done puts him in the 90th percentile because we are a nation of idiots. *whimper*

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 07 Mar 2011 #permalink

Onkel Bob @4: I think even question 3a requires some level of cosmological knowledge; like the Big Bang is associated with the start of the Universe, and we have some idea how far back in time it was. The link in 3b from years-ago to light-years-away is a good step in terms of understanding; and "the edge of the universe" is indeed in a sense centred on Earth if we're talking about the known or observable universe.

The fact that the furthest observable structure, the CMB, is more than 14 billion light years away is a function (as I understand it) of the continual expansion of space itself, which people even of high scientific literacy have trouble with.

At the risk of displaying my own incomplete understanding, space doesn't "push" matter - it expands generally, leaving the matter further apart. And red shift is largely not created by relative motion, but by the expansion experienced by the light on its journey.

Overall the question 3b is a good question, especially as it is a question, checking a conclusion to see if it fits our understanding of the less-than-intuitive large-scale universe.

This could easily explain why Sheen repeatedly states that he's "bored" by his day-to-day existence. He is what I would call a "creative slave." He's been strapped, with money, to the locomotive of Two and a Half Men. It warps his own sense of himself and his own intellectual freedom. But the money provides every reason to say yes, and none to say no -- at the cost of his own mental health. Oprah is another example. Her weight went up, and has topped out at her all-time high ever since she agreed to continue her show beyond the time she was ready to leave. Personally, staying was wrong; she was done. Professionally she had commitments beyond what she could emotionally bear, and eating has been one way to both accept the lack of control and gain a sense of control (over what she eats) at the same time.

I think you may be giving Mr. Sheen an easy pass. Despite the fact that I haven't studied physics since 1972, I watch a lot of PBS and educational video. These observations about cosmology are common themes of many recent programs. My sister-in-law and I have these conversations, and she is a rural Idaho high school graduate from the late 70s. I don't necessarily think that puts us in the upper 90th percentile of Americans with scientific knowledge. It does put us in the 90th percentile of Americans with curiosity about our world. We are both casual bird watchers, living on farms, we also notice the changing of the seasons as related to the natural world. But that still doesn't make us much different, if any, from our neighbors. Dr. Tyson should come visit and I'll invite my farmwife neighbors so he can interview them. I think they are much more intellegent than Charlie Sheen, at least their intellegence is put to work for the benefit of others, and not fame & fortune. Susan Courtnay, RN, OCN, BS, Nurse and High School Biology Teahcer

By Susan Courtnay (not verified) on 25 Mar 2011 #permalink