Four Score and For Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Response to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

March 4, 2016 Culture By Photo by The Gates Note

In this beautifully animated short film, presented by The Gates Notes (Bill Gates’s blog), astrophysicist and general cosmo-boss Neil deGrasse Tyson takes a small break from space to speak on a very earthly event: Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 Gettysburg Address, the 272-word speech that elementary schoolers still memorize and politicians still quote today.

One of Tyson’s challenges was to shoehorn his response into Lincoln’s tight word count. When addressing such topics as humanity, equality and national stability, 272 seems a brutal quota, but that’s just how our forefathers rolled (George Washington’s second inaugural didn’t even crack 150.)

But Tyson’s response flows with ease and eloquence into its slightly unexpected direction. Rather than respond to Gettysburg’s most memorable takeaway (freedom and equality for all people) Tyson skews scientific and waxes nostalgic for the National Academy of Sciences, which Lincoln chartered on the same year that he gave his famous address.

Perhaps one reason for this sideways approach is that Tyson has already crushed responses to race and racism in the US on more than one occasion. (One of my personal favorites was his response to a question posed at a panel presented by the New York Academy of Sciences in 2009. “My life experience tells me, that when you don’t find blacks in the sciences, these [societal] forces are real, and I had to survive them to get where I am today. So before we start talking about genetic differences, you gotta come up with a system where there is equal opportunity.”) It is heartening to see Tyson, a great scientific American mind, in conversation with a not-so-scientific American moment. But after he thoroughly nailed his answer, one question remains: where’s Bill Nye’s response?