1 February 2014

At the lab: Celebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson

One of the most recognized physicists on our planet, Tyson visited Florida State University in November 2013 and toured the MagLab, where he learned about magnet making, surveyed the Direct Current wing, held court on what constitutes a good office chair and offered tips for talking to the general public about what the lab does.

By KATHLEEN LAUFENBERG

Q: When is a chair more than a chair?

A: When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is in the house.

One of the most recognized physicists on our planet, Tyson visited Florida State University in November 2013 and toured the MagLab, where he learned about magnet making, surveyed the Direct Current wing, held court on what constitutes a good office chair and offered tips for talking to the general public about what the lab does.

“You do cool stuff with matter,“ said Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. “That’s your sound clip.”

Acting as his tour guide was MagLab director Greg Boebinger, who took Tyson to the top of the world-record 45 tesla magnet, the overlook of the 900 MHz magnet, and into the Magnet Shop to show the astrophysicist how some of the world’s most powerful magnets are made.

Neil deGrasse TysonNeil deGrasse Tyson in the MagLab’s atrium.“He wanted to see a few of our most amazing tools and talk about the kind of research that we have going on,” Boebinger said. “It was a great opportunity to share some of our work with one of the nation’s best known physicists.”

The 55-year-old Tyson — who wanted to keep his lab visit low-key, small-scale and free of reporters — often surprised lab staff with his playful demeanor. During the tour, he stopped and knocked on the door of an office cubby usually occupied by postdoc Jackie Jarvis. She wasn’t there, but a startled graduate student was sitting in her chair. The interaction went something like this:

Hi there, Tyson said, you don’t mind if we all pile in your office, do you?
Too late, we were in.
Can I see your chair?

He pushed on the top of the empty, gray office chair, near the seat. See how this chair actually gives when you sink back in it? he said. This chair was designed to conform to your body, not make your body conform to it. I had a chair like this when I was working on my doctoral thesis, and I never had any back problems from sitting in it for hours and hours because it was so well engineered.

Later that day, when Tyson gave his PowerPoint presentation — “Science as a Way of Knowing: A Cosmic Perspective” — to a packed house of nearly 1,200 people in FSU’s Ruby Diamond Concert Hall, he would talk more about good engineering vs. bad engineering. It was part of a point he wanted to drive home to his mostly student audience: The U.S. is falling behind in science, technology and engineering — but it doesn’t have to.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with MagLab staffCelebrity scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson poses for a picture with MagLab and Florida State University staff and an FSU student.Case in point: The MagLab is living proof of how innovative and pioneering America’s scientists and engineers can be. During Tyson’s tour, Boebinger showcased some of the lab’s most cutting-edge magnet engineering projects, including the 45 T, the Split Coil 25 T and the 900 MHz. Tyson noted how many important discoveries, such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, grew out of basic research like that underway at the MagLab.

“In a hospital, every machine with an on/off switch that’s brought into the service of diagnosing the condition of your body without cutting you open is based on a principle of physics — and it was discovered by a physicist who had no interest in medicine at the time they made the discovery.”

Although Tyson cautioned his FSU lecture audience repeatedly about the need to keep pace with the world’s best scientists and engineers (particularly those in Europe, China, Japan and Brazil), his 2-hour lecture was generally laugh-out-loud entertaining.

He included several playful references to Pluto, the planet he’s credited with demoting from official planet status. (Now officially deemed an icy object, Pluto is still often gently referred to as a “dwarf planet.”) Tyson displayed an angry letter from a pro-Pluto third-grader upset about the demotion. It read: “Some people like Pluto. If it doesn’ exist then they don’t have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can’t read in cursive.”

For the third-grader, Tyson had this soft answer: “I was an accessory. I did not pull the trigger.” But for the disgruntled adults who still can’t accept Pluto’s planetary demise, he had another: “Get over it,” he advised with a smile, “and move on.”

As a reminder of the MagLab’s top-tier work in engineering and science, Tyson received a package of goodies that included a Florida Bitter Disk, a magnet part made of copper and invented at the MagLab.

If you missed the celebrity scientist’s Tallahassee visit, you can watch him host a retooled version of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” show. The first episode in the 13-part series airs this spring on the FOX network.


This story was originally published in Issue 10 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.