At the most basic level, the leading cause of death amongst humans is our frailty. We get sick. We age. Inevitably, we die. While that sounds grim, it’s simply the nature of our biology right now, but it may not be for long.
Right now, scientists worldwide are working tireless to keep death at bay. They’re developing treatments that could potentially cure all diseases and even stop aging itself, which many now consider a disease itself and not an inevitable fact of life.
So what happens when we accomplish all that we’ve set out to do? American astrophysicist and famous science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks we’ll still have one more hurdle to overcome, and he shared it via a recent tweet.
When we cure all disease & stop aging, the leading cause of death will be Car Accidents, unless we develop Self-driving Cars.
Autonomous vehicle manufacturers agree that self-driving systems would make the roads safer by eliminating human error. While these manufacturers have yet to achieve true Level 5 autonomy, recent developments in driverless vehicle systems aren’t too far off the mark.
Most notable among these is, of course, Tesla. At a time when the rest of the world wasn’t too keen on investing in autonomous technology, Tesla and CEO Elon Musk vigorously pursued the tech. Now, the company has developed its own Autopilot self-driving software, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports has already reduced Tesla accidents by 40 percent.
Other industry giants from both the tech and car manufacturing sectors are also developing autonomous technology. Most recently, Apple confirmed that they’ve been working on an autonomous system that could improve self-driving vehicles, possibly for use in their own line of cars.
Given all these efforts, autonomous vehicles are poised to be a major part of transportation in the near future. Public adoption may be slow at first, but once the tech is embraced, we’ll be able to check another threat to humanity off the list.
Netflix’s new talk show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” debuted the night before people around the world joined together to demonstrate and March for Science. Many have lauded the timing and relevance of the show, featuring the famous “Science Guy” as its host, because it aims to myth-bust and debunk anti-scientific claims in an alternative-fact era.
“With the right science and good writing,” Nye hopes, “we’ll do our best to enlighten and entertain our audience. And, perhaps we’ll change the world a little.” In an ideal world, a show like this might attract a broad and diverse audience with varying levels of science interest and background. By entertaining a wide range of viewers, the thinking goes, the show could effectively dismantle enduring beliefs that are at odds with scientific evidence. Significant parts of the public still aren’t on board with the scientific consensus on climate change and the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods, for instance.
But what deserves to be successful isn’t always what ends up winning hearts and minds in the real world. In fact, empirical data we collected suggest that the viewership of such shows – even heavily publicized and celebrity-endorsed ones – is small and made up of people who are already highly educated, knowledgeable about science and receptive to scientific evidence.
However, Tyson’s efforts to reach a broad audience and preach beyond the proverbial choir fell short. Nielsen ratings indicate the new version of “Cosmos” reached 1.3 percent of television households, which doesn’t compare well even to other science shows and educational programming. PBS’ “NOVA,” for instance, typically reaches about 3 percent of households (around four million viewers a week), and PBS’ other prime time programming usually gets higher Nielsen ratings than “Cosmos” had. “Cosmos” lagged even further behind science entertainment shows like “NCIS,” which reached 11.2 percent of households, and “The Big Bang Theory,” which reached 10.8 percent of households during the same week “Cosmos” aired its first episode.
In 2014, we conducted a representative national survey in a collaboration among the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Temple University. We found that 76.1 percent of Americans did not watch any episodes of “Cosmos,” 7.1 percent said they watched one episode, and only 2.4 percent said they watched all 13 episodes.
And there were really no surprises about who tuned in. Respondents who saw at least one episode were 40 percent more likely to be male, 35 percent more likely to claim interest in science, and significantly more knowledgeable about science than those who didn’t watch. Less affluent audiences were less likely to watch at least one episode, as were those who were highly religious. Even those who expressed above-average interest in science watched only 1.5 “Cosmos” episodes on average.
Success is Out There?
Engaging scientific programming could still be an antidote to waning public interest in science, especially where formal science educationis falling short. But it is revealing that “Cosmos” – a heavily marketed, big-budget show backed by Fox Networks and “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane – did not reach the audience who need quality science information the most. “Bill Nye Saves the World” might not either. Its streaming numbers are not yet available.
None of this is meant to downplay the huge potential of entertainment media to reach diverse audiences beyond the proverbial choir. We know from decades of research that our mental images of science and its impact on society are shaped heavily by (sometimes stereotypical) portrayals of science and scientists in shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “Orphan Black.”
But successful scientific entertainment programming needs to accomplish two goals: First, draw in a diverse audience well beyond those already interested in science; second, present scientific issues in a way that unites audiences around shared values rather than further polarizing by presenting science in ways that seems at odds with specific political or religious worldviews.
While “Cosmos” failed to attract a diverse audience eager to be introduced to the wonders of the universe (and science), there’s still value in the science community and entertainment industry collaboratively developing these kinds of television programs. In order to be successful, however, these collaborations must draw on insights from social science research to maximize the reach of novel diverse formats, communication strategies and media outlets. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Science and Entertainment Exchange, for instance, tries to connect the entertainment industry and the nation’s best scientists in order to combine the reach of entertainment media’s engaging storytelling with the most accurate portrayal of science.
And social science research suggests that complex information can reach audiences via the most unlikely of places, including the satirical fake news program “The Colbert Report.” In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that a series of “Colbert Report” episodes about Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups during the 2012 presidential election did a better job educating viewers than did mainstream programming in traditional news formats.
Social science can help us learn from our mistakes and better understand how to connect with hard-to-reach audiences via new formats and outlets. None of these shows by themselves will save the world. But if done right, they each might get us closer, one empirical step at a time.
In a Facebook post on April 19, Neil deGrasse Tyson commanded the attention of his followers: “Dear Facebook Universe, I offer this four-minute video on ‘Science in America’ containing what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.”
He starts the clip by reminding us that the United States was an underdog, an upstart that achieved something amazing, transforming itself from a “backwoods country” into “one of the greatest nations the world has ever known,” thanks to science and an unwavering trust in its pursuit. That’s how we traveled to the Moon and got online, and it has always been a fundamental element of what America was — until now.
A disturbing trend has gripped our nation in the 21st century, a time when people need science and a rigorous method for testing truth more than ever: “People have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not,” he said. “It’s not something to say ‘I choose not to believe E = mc^2.’ You don’t have that option.”
Tyson highlights issues that have somehow become highly controversial despite overwhelming scientific evidence that should stamp out any such dispute: human-caused climate change, evolution, and vaccinations, for example.
He then points out that some of the people who both understand science the least and deny it the most now hold the most power in our society, and he calls this catastrophically dangerous situation out: “That is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”
Scientific Literacy on the Brink
The scientific method is more important than ever in this era of “alternative facts.” Tyson explains the elements of the scientific method — hypothesis, experimentation, and how they work even more effectively when rivals employ them — in the space of about 30 seconds. Applied properly, these tools lead to emergent truths, and they do it more effectively than anything else. “The scientific method does it better than anything else we have ever done as human beings,” explained Tyson.
Emergent scientific truths don’t care about your opinions; they are true regardless of your beliefs about them. “And the sooner you understand that, the faster we can get on with the political conversations about how to solve the problems that face us,” said Tyson in the video.
That is why scientific literacy is more important than ever in this age of lightning-speed innovation. Each moment of science denial only delays the potential solution. The end result is the same problems, worsened by neglect and ignorance. Tyson wants citizen-voters to understand how science works so we can make more informed decisions. As Tyson asserts, we are the only ones who can: “It’s in our hands.”
This past weekend, Neil deGrasse Tyson did a reddit AMA: “I am Neil deGrasse Tyson, your personal Astrophysicist.” Naturally, with this irresistible prompt, he got numerous responses, like this one: “Do you think we will ever make contact with complex organisms within the next 50 yrs?”
There are around 100 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy alone. If even a tiny percentage of them are habitable (and they should be, even using conservative standards), that would still provide for alien life on millions of planets, and intelligent life on hundreds of thousands of those planets. Given these facts, the Fermi paradox asks: why do we appear to be alone?
Recent research from the Australian National University in 2016 suggested the reason we may not have found alien life is because any life that may have existed on other planets has died. Our survival on Earth, then, is largely down to a mix of planetary quirks and chance. Physicist Brian Cox thinks we won’t hear from intelligent aliens anytime soon (if ever) because life forms at that level tend to out-engineer themselves into extinction; destroying themselves by creating more technologies than they have the social and political expertise to manage (does that sound familiar?)
Cornell Astronomers appear to be on the same page as NdGT, arguing that due to the sheer amount of time it would take extraterrestrial life to receive our signals and respond, it could be around 1,500 years before we hear from any alien neighbors. At a panel on extraterrestrial life, NASA and SETI representatives pointed out that intelligent alien life may not even have a drive to explore and reach out. Or that if they do, they may have a policy similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive, where they deliberately avoid making contact with other civilizations (namely, ours).
Stephen Hawking characterizes any first contact as dangerous, and points out that when Columbus came into contact with the populations native to the Americas, they were subject to a dominant culture that possessed superior technology and a world view that assessed them as inferior—something that could happen to us. Douglas Vakoch, the president of METI International, feels that any civilizations capable of interstellar travel would know about us already, so therefore they must not be hostile.
However, Tyson was responding to the question of our ability to strike out and discover life elsewhere, and his assessment is based on the challenges posed by traveling interstellar distances. It seems likely that if we progress in our abilities to travel through space faster than he’s predicting, he’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.
Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a little wary of Elon Musk’s ability to send humans to Mars, but he does like what he’s seeing from SpaceX overall.
During a recent Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) session, Redditor patopc1999 asked, “Hi Neil! Just wanted to know your thoughts on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 relaunch and landing, and what do you think it means for the future of space travel?”
Tyson replied that “any demonstration of rocket reusability is a good thing,” and he even asserted that “reusability is arguably the most fundamental feature of affordable expensive things.”
The Redditor also wanted to know if Tyson would ever consider joining a future one-way trip to Mars, which prompted a less optimistic response: “I really like Earth. So any space trip I take, I’m double checking that there’s sufficient funds for me to return.” He candidly added, “Also, I’m not taking that trip until Elon Musk send[s] his mother and brings her back alive. Then I’m good for it.”
Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson likes to discuss the plausibility and accuracy of the science in science-fiction films. His thoughts are so influential that they’ve even caused acclaimed directors like James Cameron to make changes to a film.
In a response to a question on his show StarTalk, he expressed his doubts on the reality of a future arc reactor like the one powering the Iron Man suit and Stark Tower in the Marvel cinematic universe and comics.
The laws of thermodynamics prevent such a reactor from operating as shown in the movies. However, this does not mean that a future of unlimited, clean energy is out of our reach. MIT has been working on a fusion reactor they have even been calling an ARC reactor.
The most promising progress we have made thus far is with the tokamak. This is a fusion device that uses a combination of electromagnets and electric currents to contain plasma, which is used to generate thermonuclear fusion power. Even a small reactor of this type could power more than 100,000 homes.
In this discussion of unlimited energy and thermodynamics, Dr. Tyson also added his opinion on the age old question of Batman vs. Iron Man with his support of Tony Stark over Bruce Wayne.
One very prominent mind twister in both science fiction and real-life science is the concept of parallel universes. This is hardly surprising, since the idea of multiple copies of yourself existing at the same time is both existentially disturbing and thrilling.
The idea of a multiverse is not considered a scientific theory but rather, as Ethan Siegel of Forbes puts it, “a theoretical consequence of the laws of physics as they’re best understood today.” The idea that space-time begins and stretches infinitely implies that existence is mathematically bound to repeat itself at some point—a notion sometimes called the “quilted multiverse.”
Or, forgetting the idea of repetitious cosmic clones, there’s the possibility that multiple big bangs begat multiple space-time bubbles, in a foamy multiversal sea of infinite potentialities. Here’s how it works:
How to Get There?
But what we want to know is: could you ever get to another space-time?
That depends. The American theoretical physicist and string theorist extraordinaire Brian Greene, of Columbia University, argues that the plausibility of multiversal travel—conceding that parallel universes really do exist—hinges on which multiverse concept you subscribe to. If you are an advocate of a multiple big bang multiverse, then that would mean that leaving our universe to travel to another would be just as impossible as travelling back to the time before the big bang that resulted in our universe even happened.
Now, if you believe a quantum physics-dominated notion of parallel universes, then there’s no need to travel to other universes, because you are already inhabiting multiple alternate universes (though not necessarily all of them). Can’t decide which dress to wear? No matter—you’ve worn them both, in two separate parallel universes.
Meanwhile, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku believes that our universe will end up in a “big freeze,” and that technology can one day allow us to travel between universes.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, says that if you come from a universe with higher dimensions, then it could be as easy to move between dimensions as stepping from one room to another. And in string theory—one of the leading contenders in bridging the seemingly insuperable gulf sundering quantum mechanics and general relativity—the assumption is that we actually have far more dimensions in this universe than we previously thought and that we just fail to detect them because they are actually very small, curled up in the infinitely minute, trans-subatomic realms beyond the reach of our instruments.
But how can we prove (or disprove) any of these arguments without gaining first-hand experience of it? Much as many aspects of our universe still remain elusive to us, it’s currently impossible to acquire any proof to confirm which of these hypotheses is right. But while we don’t have the means to definitively prove whether alternate universes do exist, and whether we could traverse borders to move from one to another, it’s highly unlikely that a topic as stimulating as this will disappear anytime soon, either in science fiction or in real-life science.
Meanwhile, physicists are at it. Watch this brief video of physicists going head to head with each other on string theory, Math, and potentially embarrassing alien encounters.