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From Pluto to the big bang, noted astrophysicist elightens local students

 

During his visit to Mississippi State on Tuesday, intergalactically known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained to a group of students why he made public his thoughts to reclassify Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet.

During his visit to Mississippi State on Tuesday, intergalactically known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explained to a group of students why he made public his thoughts to reclassify Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet. Photo by: Megan Bean/MSU Public Affairs

 

Tim Pratt

 

 

When Neil deGrasse Tyson isn''t writing books, researching astrophysics or appearing on television, he''s traveling around the U.S., giving lectures and speaking to America''s youth.  

 

Tyson, the host of NOVA scienceNOW on PBS, was in Starkville Tuesday and spoke to 48 elementary and middle school students from throughout the Golden Triangle.  

 

It is important to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from an early age, Tyson said, not only to help facilitate improvements in technology and economic development, but also because people are more likely to secure well-paying jobs if they work in S.T.E.M.-related fields.  

 

"If you''re not doing it for the noble reasons, at least look at the practical side," Tyson said.  

 

The students, who hailed from Columbus Middle School, Armstrong Middle School, Starkville Academy, Starkville Christian School and Starkville Christian Home Educators, quizzed Tyson Tuesday morning at Mississippi State University''s Raspet Space Flight Research Center on Airport Road.  

 

Columbus Middle School eighth grader Shaunase Stallings asked Tyson why he "kicked Pluto out of the solar system." As director of Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Tyson excluded Pluto from traditional exhibits of the solar system at the museum and wrote a book called "The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America''s Favorite Planet."  

 

Pluto is icy and much smaller than other planets in the solar system, Tyson said, and should be classified as such. As a result of Tyson''s actions and similar comments he made about Pluto on TV shows such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, the astrophysicist Tuesday said he has received "hate mail from third-graders, in crayon." 

 

"We didn''t lose a planet," he reassured the group from Starkville and Columbus. "Don''t think of it that way. Think of it as we gained a new understanding of the outer solar system." 

 

Armstrong Middle School eighth-grader Flannery Voges-Haupt asked Tyson about the "big bounce" theory, which hypothesizes that the universe is cyclical, as opposed to the "big bang." Tyson said there is evidence to support the big bang, but no data exists to support the big bounce.  

 

Voges-Haupt said she enjoyed Tyson''s talk and the subsequent activities, during which students launched straw rockets, balloon helicopters and paper airplanes.  

 

"I think they''re very challenging," she said. "They make your creative problem-solving work."  

 

Fellow Armstrong eighth-grader Michael Sullivan, who asked two questions, including one on the Sombrero Galaxy in the Virgo constellation, also enjoyed the day''s activities.  

 

"They''re really fun," Sullivan said. "It''s a great introduction to all of this." 

 

Eric Heiselt, director of student outreach programs at MSU''s Bagley College of Engineering, helped organize the event and said it was an effort to give local youth an informal education outside of the traditional classroom setting. 

 

"This will create a memory in a different way than in the classroom," said Heiselt, who also is running for a seat on the Starkville School District board of trustees.  

 

After the event at Raspet, Tyson spent the day in Starkville and then spoke at MSU Tuesday night.

 

 

 

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