Lessons Learned from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass Session on Scientific Thinking and Communication

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As the area of our knowledge growsso too does the perimeter of our ignorance.

Neil is, best known as the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History. Between his decade writing a column for Natural History magazine, bestselling books (including 2017’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry), his podcast and TV show StarTalk, his many television and radio appearances, and his nearly 14 million Twitter followers, he’s become perhaps the world’s most recognizable living scientist. He’s a Carl Sagan for the 21st century but with an even wider reach. 

Neil has said repeatedly that more important than the general public recognizing the names of individual scientists—his included—is a basic level of science literacy. These cultural appearances are part of his effort to spread that literacy and infectious curiosity to a wider audience. 

While Neil is dedicated to facts, rigor, and objective truth, he’s not divorced from other aspects of the human experience; he recognizes that not everything about our lives is purely rational. (For example, he notes that art is a vital and fundamental expression of what it is to be human but it doesn’t need to be anchored in scientific truths.) 

Science literacy is not so much about what you know, but about how your brain is wired for thought, how your brain is wired to ask questions.

Here are my favorite takeaways from viewing 

The psychological state of Pareidolia

Does a three-pronged socket remind you of a face? Ever seen a man in the Moon or an animal sketched out by the stars in the sky? If so, you’ve experienced pareidolia, or the tendency to find specific images in random patterns. 

Quantum Physics

  • Quantum Physics (sometimes called quantum mechanics) is a collection of rules of conduct for all matter and energy in the universe, with properties that manifest primarily on the smallest of scales (molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles).  It addresses measurement, uncertainty, causality, the life of a cat (don’t ask), and, perhaps, multiple universes. 

Albert Einsteins Theory of Relativity

  • Albert Einstein developed in the first two decades of the 20th century. His special theory of relativity is based on the speed of light in a vacuum, no matter the state of your own motion. It carries many intriguing consequences, including the fact that matter and energy are equivalent, leading to the famous formula E=mc2, which is the recipe for converting mass (m) into energy (E) and back again, with the speed of light squared defining the relationship. That means a huge amount of energy comes from tiny bits of mass.
  • This relationship forms the basis of how stars generate energy, how nuclear power plants work, and why nuclear bombs are so potent. 

The Cosmic Perspective

  • It is what links you to everyone around you, as well as to the past, present, and future of the universe. It’s the lens through which Neil sees and understands human life. 

Thinking—real thinking—is not about acquiring a ton of stray facts that make you a winning Jeopardy contestant. It’s about learning to problem-solve and think creatively. 

Objective Truth

Mathematicians and logicians prove things. Scientists test ideas 

  • One key is to recognize the importance of objective truth and how it’s bigger than all of us. “Nature’s the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner,” Neil says. “You can argue all you want. But if nature doesn’t agree with you, you’re wrong.” 
  • Scientists don’t really prove things. Rather, they test ideas that are repeatedly verified by others until there’s no need to keep doing so. Mathematicians and logicians prove things. Scientists test ideas 

. “You can argue all you want. But if nature doesn’t agree with you, you’re wrong.” 

  • No matter what you’re testing, you’ll want to use the scientific method, a problem-solving approach that helps you glean reliable evidence in support of a hypothesis. 

Turning a hypothesis into a theory

  • “A theory is the highest level of understanding of anything we have in this world.” A fresh, unchallenged idea is not a theory; it’s just a hypothesis, and your hypothesis needs to survive numerous and rigorous rounds of experimentation and peer review before it ascends to the status of theory.
  • Something becomes an objective truth when several high-quality experiments grant confidence that an idea or measurement is true.

The Value of Scepticism

  • One of the most powerful defenses against sloppy thinking and intellectual laziness is skepticism. 
  • “A skeptic—a proper skeptic—questions what they’re unsure of but recognizes when valid evidence is presented to change their mind,” Neil says. Informed skepticism—the ability to ask the right questions—keeps us from being manipulated. 

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” – Carl Sagan

Further Reading:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Teaches Scientific Thinking

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