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Nerdette

Neil deGrasse Tyson And Jim Lovell On Failure, iPhones and Mars

Astrophysicist, author and Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson was in Chicago last month to receive the Lincoln Leadership Prize from the The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation. The award was presented by Captain Jim Lovell, who commanded NASA’s infamous Apollo 13 mission. On this episode of Nerdette, Tricia Bobeda interviews Tyson and Lovell about the history and future of space travel, why technology is sometimes a double-edged sword, and why failure is so essential to discovery.

Bobeda: How do we get over that idea that admitting when we don’t know something is a flaw?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It goes way deeper than that. It’s not only admitting or celebrating when you don't know something, but also recognizing the value of failure. You want to be able to fail at something that has never been done before. You want to recognize that the day you never fail is the day you’re no longer on the frontier of anything. 

We should celebrate the experiment. And every scientist knows that most of the time, when you design your experiments, things go wrong. But the press, the journalists wait around for the experiment to come out perfectly. Then they write a whole article about it: “Look at this great discovery!” Well, what about the 20 other people who tried it and failed at it? How about the 20 other times that scientist tried it and failed? Where are those stories? 

Once that is understood, especially in the K-12 system, I think we will have a completely different country. A country where we have higher tolerance for experiment and recognizing that that itself is the path to discovery. 

Bobeda: That reminds me of the film Hidden Figures. The math was wrong over and over and over again until it was right. Are there ways to better make that science visible now, and to put a spotlight on not just the astronauts, but also the people behind the scenes doing the hard math and hard science?

Tyson: I have a slightly unorthodox view on that. What you’re saying, if I can reword your question: Should we all have more exposure to episodes such as that? Episodes in history -- in this case, American history during the golden age of space exploration -- so that going forward we will come to embrace it? 

And I’m saying: They didn’t have such exposure, yet they were doing it. Why? 

Because the country was involved in a major science and technological project. And you didn't need special programs trying to convince people that science was interesting, or that you should have more science teachers. That was happening on its own, because we were driven by this major mission of not only competition, especially with the Russians, but ultimately the mission to go to the Moon. 

So I submit to you that we can show old movies about how they used to do it all the time. But they didn’t need to see old movies about how they used to do it, they just did it. 

And I would assert that, in modern times, if we engaged in major -- what did they call them -- Sputnik-driven goals, that the United States can transform itself, once again, from a sleepy country to an innovation nation. 

And it’s an innovation nation that drives not only dreams and aspirations and what tomorrow will be, but it also represents the engines of tomorrow's economy. 

Apollo 13 captain Jim Lovell speaking with Neil deGrasse Tyson before presenting him with the Lincoln Leadership Prize on March 9, 2017, at the Hilton Chicago. (Justin Bull/WBEZ)

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire episode.

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