When I first struck on the idea of making an SRL for science documentaries freely available on YouTube — after spending more time than I’d like to admit scouring the site for my own purposes — my initial instinct was to make it as broad as possible. But then I realized how much work that would entail and, hey, I’m here to write not to research. So I settled on space, because that’s just where my brain’s been at and it’s clearly the future of the human race if we’re to survive longer than (most) dinosaurs. Naturally, with space as the topic, the first name that popped into my always-caffeinated (-unless-drunk-but-sometimes-both) brain was Neil deGrasse Tyson. But even the smallest amount of time spent researching videos on YouTube with or about Dr. Tyson leads to the veritable opposite of a blackhole. There are so many videos, long and short, featuring the Man Who De-Planeted Pluto, that it was impossible to pick just one. Hell, it was nearly impossible to pick just seven.
If you’re wondering why immediately considering Neil deGrasse Tyson is “natural” or why it would be hard to choose a clip for him, well, you clearly don’t watch “The Colbert Report” or PBS. But that’s okay, pobody’s nerfect. He’s an educator, a museum curator, a lecturer, and the brightest and most public star in his field of study: astrophysics. He’s Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, and Lando Calrissian* all rolled into one perfect nerd package. He’s my hero. For those who lamented the lack of a “Cosmos” inclusion in the earlier list, I stand by my reasoning that it was a little too outdated and far too accessible for my purposes, but the best reason I can give is that Dr. Tyson will be hosting an updated version of the series either in 2013 or 2014 on Fox. Whenever that happens, I’ll try to make it up to everyone by just embedding all the episodes in a single post, sans commentary, and take all the credit for such a brilliant idea. Agreed? Good.
For now, though, there’s more than enough Dr. Tyson to go around. I’m not even going to include his Internet radio and/or Nerdist series, Startalk, because we’d never get past them. (But click the links if you have the time and the inclination, you won’t be disappointed.) And I’m sticking to lengthier videos here because, well, the shorter ones are everywhere and if you clicked on this then you’ve probably already seen them. Instead, these are long form interviews, speeches, and even a Congressional hearing that shows the real Neil deGrasse Tyson in all of his humanity. His wit, his charm, his undeniably quick mind, and sometimes his anger and frustrations at the incredulity of those who would question, not only the viability but the economic necessities inherent in, the advancement of our species. Most obviously he’s passionate, which is exactly why he’s important. No doubt that drive to educate and entertain the public gave him the platform he has, and thank the Universe he knows how to use it. More than anyone in the last decade, he’s probably engaged, or re-engaged, more people in all this science mumbo-jumbo than NASA or Al Gore ever did.
But, most importantly, how do I know the world isn’t going to end tomorrow — besides the dearth of evidence and the fact that the Mayan calendar(s) are based on repeated cycles just like every damn calendar ever created? Because Neil deGrasse Tyson says so. Enjoy!
Beyond Belief 2006
We’ll start with the only clip less than half an hour as a prologue to the real video below, NdGT’s famous public rebuke of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins for his poor bedside manner in trying to convince people to abandon their religious faiths and embrace science. It’s short, sweet, and a good introduction to just how cutting Dr. Tyson can be without ever being offensive.
And it’s a lesson Dawkins surely took to heart, especially if he had a chance to see this one. But the real meat of the matter is here. During the same Beyond Belief lecture/discussion series from 2006, Dr. Tyson gave a scathing, but not-too-bitchy sermon on the faults of Intelligent Design before a debate on the topic with colleagues. Whether you agree with his assertion that it’s “a philosophy of ignorance” or not, I’m not sure how you can not be moved by his word, much less argue against him. The discussion that follows isn’t embeddable but if you’re interested in how scientists grapple with religion you can watch it here. It’s the speech that is required viewing.
The Poetry of Science, with Richard Dawkins
But lest you think that Drs. Tyson and Dawkins are some sort of real life Professor X and Magneto in any of the X-Men films, this video ought to relieve you of any fears that the latter will accidentally cripple the former. Here we have two of the most famous and greatest scientific minds working today having a simple conversation about life. They each bring different strengths to the table, meeting in the middle where biology and astronomy overlap and we’re all the better for it. It doesn’t get truly “poetic” until the end, but the journey to that point makes the wait worth it.
Called by the Universe
Returning to the contentiousness of the Beyond Belief world, this interview conducted by Roger Bingham gets quite prickly, pretty quickly. But that’s where we can derive its value in seeing Dr. Tyson as a full person, and not only as the bubbliest personality in space studies. In fact, it’s the dichotomy between Bingham’s attempts at strained grace and Tyson’s constant matter-of-factness that makes this one engaging from beginning to end. If it were a book, it would be impossible to put down.
Interview with Stephen Colbert
Now this is a much more pleasant, though not any less engaging, experience. Stephen Colbert feels as strongly about the obvious greatness of NdGT as anyone, here removing his usual TV show host persona in order to really talk to a man he so clearly admires. It’s a funny (of course), thoughtful (indubitably), and occasionally moving (as is becoming a theme) conversation. Really, this is the gem of the bunch, because you don’t have to be science literate at all to get it. Because Tyson and Colbert truly, deeply get it, too.
On the Verge
I had never heard of The Verge or Joshua Topolsky before I started obsessively consuming these YouTubes, and yet after his interview with Dr. Tyson (starting at approximately 22:00) I might just be hooked. There isn’t much here that can’t be seen to some degree in any of the above videos, but the revelation of just how the Badass Meme began to erupt is more than delightful enough to merit inclusion. He tries to be humble and deny his badassitude, but we all know it to be true.
2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Theory of Everything
I nearly included this in the Quantum to the Galactic post, considering the debate at hand is the advancement (or non-advancement) of String Theory, and, as the moderator, Dr. Tyson isn’t really the focus of the piece. Still, if NdGT is in it, he immediately becomes the central point through sheer force of personality. The topic of a unifying idea that can tie the General and Special relativity, and thus all of physics, together is inherently interesting, if not fruitful, and the debators bring everything they’ve got. But watching how deftly our host brings it all together shows just how necessary he is, not just to the world at large but to the near-cloistered science community, too.
Keynote Speech at 28th National Space Symposium
Yes, normally keynote speeches are placed at the beginning in order to lay the groundwork for what’s to come. It’s a good tradition. There’s just something about the way Dr. Tyson delivers his here that makes it feel like the perfect closer. I don’t necessarily recommend watching all of these in a marathon sitting, but I do recommend saving this one for last. It’s long and it brings up very familiar points and phrases, which is why it’s the perfect culmination for the perfect nerd hero. Watching or listening to NdGT talk about his passions, my passions, is truly an edifying experience and I could probably do it for days. Actually, I think I probably have.
* That isn’t me being cute. If these pictures of Neil deGrasse Tyson from his graduate student days at the University of Texas don’t convince you he’d fit right in on the Millennium Falcon, I don’t know what will. (h/t)
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. There are more days than not when he wishes he was better at math and a career in astronomy was viable.