Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson Honored by the National Geographic Society

Filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron is among more than 100 others recognized in the National Geographic Celebration of Exploration at Lisner Auditorium.

Neil deGrasse Tyson
The National Geographic Society honored astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and other explorers at a celebration at Lisner Auditorium. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
June 19, 2017

By B.L. Wilson

George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium played host to the National Geographic Society’s first ever Celebration of Exploration awards show Saturday evening featuring a galaxy of dignitaries, congressional officials, foreign ambassadors to the United States and explorers from around the world.

The extravaganza was a sold-out event replete with videos, light displays, entertainment by the singers India Arie and Sam Harris of the X Ambassadors with National Geographic magazine’s bold emblematic photographs projected onto a vast stage screen and the auditorium’s walls.

CBS “Sunday Morning” correspondent and humorist, “Mo” Rocca, kept the energy level high with humor. He said the night was about exploring the unknown and honoring the explorers, scientists, storytellers and educators who inspire our love of nature and our fascination with the universe.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was on hand to accept an award from the society along with former award recipient James Cameron, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker who also is known for deep sea explorations.

Other notable explorers were acknowledged as well, including Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg who received the Further Award for innovation for creating an airplane that Mr. Piccard described as “bigger than a 747 and as light as a car.” The plane was the first to fly around the world in 2016 without fuel, “powered solely by the rays of the sun.”

Photojournalist and environmentalist Brian Skerry’s work going to extraordinary lengths and depths to photograph sharks and demonstrate their importance in the ecosystem was recognized with the Rolex Award.

The Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation was bestowed on Rosamira Guillen of the Fundacion Proyecto Titi in Colombia, which is dedicated to saving the country’s endangered cotton-top tamarin; and on Olivier Nsengimana of the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, which protects the endangered grey crowned cranes from illegal wildlife trade.

Fourteen young explorers from the United States, Chad, Indonesia, Canada and other countries were recognized as Emerging Explorers and each awarded $10,000 to continue work in fields as varied as photography, epidemiology, the environment and dentistry.

James Cameron and Neil de Grasse Tyson

Gary Knell (l), National Geographic Society's CEO, presented National Geographic Society's Hubbard Award to Neil de Grasse Tyson at Lisner Auditorium. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

The National Geographic Society’s President and CEO Gary Knell said that since 1904 the Hubbard Award has been bestowed on “a who’s who of the most illustrious scientists such as Shackleton, Lindbergh, Leakey, Glenn and Goodall to mention a few.”

As presenter of the Hubbard Award, Mr. Cameron said he often is asked why he built the submersible that took him to the deepest part of the ocean. His response, he said, is that that is not a question a child would ask. “A kid,” he said, “would say, ‘why not?’

“We need to as a society reconnect to that childlike wonder of the magic and mystery of our world, and that child-like sense that all things are possible,” Mr. Cameron said.

Speaking of the sense of embattlement that scientists are experiencing, Mr. Cameron said, “As a culture we need to reclaim that.”

He said we need our best communicators and storytellers to step forward and be supported. “[Mr. Tyson] is being honored because he is one of our very best for his ability to tell a tale, to break complex science down to make it reasonable and comprehensible to the average person,” Mr. Cameron said.

After cheers and a standing ovation of nearly a minute’s duration, Mr. Tyson explained that he had not risked his life, been swimming with sharks or even been to Rwanda. The biggest risk he has taken, he said, was demoting Pluto as a planet, which elicited angry letters from third graders.

Exploration as an astrophysicist, he said, involved looking at the universe to see whether there’s anything out there that people don’t understand that if they did might change how they think about the world. He called it a “cosmic perspective.”

“The gift of astrophysics to civilization,” he said, “is the recognition that the very atoms of our body, the very atoms that comprise life are traceable to the stars.

“Not only are we alive in the universe,” Mr. Tyson said, “the universe is alive in us. That borders on the spiritual. You take enough of this information, glue it together, there’s no way you can look back on Earth and say, yeah, let’s wage war for this reason or another.” 

“I cannot overstate how absurd that looks from space,” he said.

In a short exchange with Mr. Tyson, who hosts the radio podcast “Star Talk,” Mr. Cameron told him, “Science literacy is going down. Science denial is rampant, and you are a popularizer of science. You make it fun. You make it aspirational.”


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