I happened across a link to an article on the Reader’s Digest website: “9 Truths About Life From Neil deGrasse Tyson That Will Blow Your Mind.” This annoyingly smug celebrity scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson is just everywhere in the media these days pontificating on scientific subjects. He’s just a font of smarmy faux wisdom. Even the use of his middle name is pretentious. What is “pontification?” Here are a couple of definitions:

Mystical vest wears Neil deGrasse Tyson almost undoubtedly on TV.
Mystical vest wears Neil deGrasse Tyson, almost undoubtedly on TV.

merriam-webster.com defines it: “To speak in an important manner as if only your opinion was correct.”

oxforddictionaries.com defines it: “Express one’s opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic.”

Both definitions had a photo of Tyson. And he’s even like that with other scientists on panels and other forums. I saw a video with Tyson and rival celebrity scientist, Michio Kaku; it was like a sorority house slap-fight. The world hasn’t seen this level of angry dismissive arrogance since Bill Nye started stinkin’ up the airwaves.

But hey, I suppose I want to have my mind blown just as much as the next guy, so I read the collection of Tyson quotes. I don’t know if the “quotes” were culled from his writing, or from transcripts of his talks and interviews, or they’re just aphorisms he writes to dispense his wisdom. Here’s the one that pissed me off:

It’s surprising a venerable publishing powerhouse like Reader’s Digest doesn’t have proofreaders.

“If an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, toss it an eightball [sic]. If the appendage explodes, then the alient [sic] was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader.”

house exploded on contact with anti-matter.
Looks like Neil’s had a visitor…

I don’t know whose mistakes those are but what with the current state of “journalism,” I suspect they aren’t Tyson’s. “Eight ball” is two words and “alient” is an obvious typo. It’s surprising a venerable publishing powerhouse like Reader’s Digest doesn’t have proofreaders. Or spell check, for that matter.

Wikipedia describes Tyson as an “astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator.” That last one made me spit up a little, but I’m okay to continue. Now, aside from the dubious wisdom of throwing anything at an alien, I’ve got a serious issue with that aphorism. Here’s my question for Neil:

If contact with an eight ball of matter would cause the appendage (and the ball, I assume) to explode, wouldn’t an antimatter alien’s first step on your lawn cause him and part of your lawn to explode?

The obvious answer is “yes,” but that’s just me. I’m not an “astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and science communicator.” Well, actually I am an author, but who isn’t these days? I certainly haven’t sold as many books as he has, but I am a published writer. And since I’ve never taken a course in physics, as far as I’m concerned astrophysics might as well be brain surgery.

Tyson doesn't like being referred to as "deGrasshole."
Tyson doesn’t like being referred to as “deGrasshole.”

But as a matter of fact, if the alien ship “lands” on your lawn, I’m thinking it’s probably also made of antimatter and would have exploded. As well as your lawn and probably your house. Maybe part of your block and who knows, maybe the entire world. I don’t know if they have metrics for this stuff.

Wouldn’t that set up some sort of vortex of the air being sucked up to and burning around the spaceship?

Or maybe he’s assuming the spaceship doesn’t actually “land,” but hovers. And the alien, well, the alien might just float through the air. Even still, the spaceship would be in contact with the atmosphere. Wouldn’t that set up some sort of vortex of the air being sucked up to and burning around the spaceship? I mean, is that how Mars lost its atmosphere? And wouldn’t that process have started the moment the alien ship entered the atmosphere? So it would have become a streaking ball of flame long before it got to your front yard?

Okay, so Tyson was being cute with his little science example and it couldn’t have been intended in a serious way. Still, it seems like a pretty poor way to communicate a scientific principle; one that could leave the listener or reader fairly confused about a meeting of matter and antimatter.

This aphorism is so simple-minded one can only assume it was intended for children. It seems to me he should have led off with, “Hey kids, everything in the universe is made of either matter or antimatter. Without getting too technical, when matter and antimatter collide they annihilate into energy. Blow up, in other words.”

Oh well, so the kids (and some adults) who’ve seen that quote may have been left confused. Doesn’t matter. If you’re the media darling Science Pontiff, no one will hold you to account.

Oh. Except me, apparently.

M. Nick

This article was originally published April 14, 2016, © 2016 by M. Nick