Neil deGrasse Tyson: Sputnik Moment

In Space Chronicles, Neil deGrasse Tyson describes how the Soviet Union was a catalyst for the U.S. space program, and China might be considered a similar catalyst today (


When the president, President Obama, mentioned the Sputnik moment, seeing that we are losing a competitive edge to the Chinese and others, said, "This is a new Sputnik moment" and then he gave a list of things we should do, which included like higher speed Internet and light rail. I'm thinking, no, no. Energy independence, that's not a Sputnik moment. We should have those things anyway. Sputnik moments, you reserve those for grand visions that take your mind, body and soul to places that no one had previously dreamed. Sputnik moments are occasions where you invent tomorrow.

I'm not old enough to remember 1957 but there's certainly plenty of people among us who do. And when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik that was a Sputnik moment. This was our sworn enemy, the communists. And we had our own state of self-assessment that we were technologically proficient, you know, we won the war. Our manufacturing was back in place and here's this country that we were telling the whole world that we were better than they were in every way that mattered and, bam, out comes a satellite.

Our response was we created NASA; first we went berserk then we created NASA a year later. We redoubled our efforts in science and technology and engineering. And that would shape the identity of the United States from the end of the 1950s through the 1970s.

The Sputnicity of that moment I think comes from the fact, whether or not the public knew this, the military folks knew it, that Sputnik was a hollowed out intercontinental ballistic missile shell. They took out the warhead and put in a radio transmitter that went beep, beep. The military folks knew that if they could put a radio transmitter in a ballistic missile shell and fly it over our heads that they have the new higher ground.

So in that case the Sputnik moment was a military one. And it was clear that technology and science would be what would enable nations to take the lead and the high ground.

Right now we're, we in America, we're sort of slowing down, or maybe everyone else is just speeding up but the effect is we've lost our edge. We've lost our leadership position.

When President Obama said, "In a Sputnik moment, in fact we will rejuvenate the space program." The space program in fact is not dead it's just kind of smoldering back there. One of them is we'll be back to Mars in the 2030s, 2030's, maybe as early as the late 2020's. Who's gonna be president? On what budget? So that's a nice thing to listen to in a speech because he's thinking about the future but that's not a future that's actually within reach that anyone can act upon.

I don't like Sputnik moments. I'd rather have been the leader all along. Why do we have to be shocked into being motivated to lead? Why don't we just lead all the time? And maybe that's just unrealistic, maybe that's just not human nature. Maybe we have to feel threatened in order to act.

So yes Sputnik moments work, and if we can't lead all the time, let it be a Sputnik moment that kick starts our heart back beating again. But I can't help but be a little disappointed that we haven't stayed there. That we're going to have to play catch-up if we're gonna catch up at all.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

Big Think: Eric Kandel: How Your Brain Finishes Paintings

The idea that a painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it was conceived of by Alois Riegl. He determined that as art evolved, you see there's a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you.

Transcript-- We don't have a deep understanding of the Beholder's Response, but it's interesting that if you put together what we know from disorders of brain function and the normal physiology, we begin to understand an outline what the beholder's response is. And this is so important because in 1906 when Freud was active and Klink, Tolkuchka and Sheely, the artists, were active, there was a major person at the Vienna School of Artistry called Alois Riegl. And he said that the problem with art history is, it's going to go down the tubes because it's too anecdotal, it's too descriptive, it doesn't have enough of a science base. It's got to become more scientific. And the science it should relate itself to is psychology. And the key problem that it should address right off is the beholder's share. You have a painting, that painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it.

It's obvious once you say it, you know, this is why it was painted in the first place. But he pointed out; this has become more explicit in the history of art. If you look at Renaissance art, particularly early Renaissance art, it's very inner directed. And he points to a painting in Florence of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella painted by Masaccio, which has one of the early paintings to show you a wonderful sense of perspective. You see Christ on the cross, you see Mary and Joseph, they're turning toward him. God is above, he looks down, the two donnas at the side, they're looking -- they're all looking at Christ. It's a very inner directed picture and it doesn't really recruit the involvement of the beholder dramatically. But as art evolved, particularly when you move to Dutch art, which Riegl was very impressed with, you see that there's a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you. And that made him aware of the fact of how important the beholder was and to try to understand how does the beholder's response works.

He had two very gifted students, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, and they began to put this on a really rigorous basis. Ernst Kris said, "Great works are great because they are ambiguous." They allow for alternative readings. So you and I look at that Masaccio painting, we would have somewhat different responses to it which means that the beholder's share varies for each of us because we see somewhat different things in the painting.

Now, what does that mean? He said, if that means that beholder's share varies, it means you and I must be creating different images in our brain about that particular portrait. So even though you and I are looking at the same object in the world, we are creating slightly different visual impressions in the mind. Emotional impressions in our mind are looking at this. And they began to document it. First he and then Gombrich showed you how you can trick the mind into alternate interpretations with illusions of various kinds. And they began to realize that when you look at a painting, you're undergoing a creative experience that is at least an outline similar to the painter. The painter exercises a dramatic amount of creativity in doing a portrait, but you, yourself, generate a fair amount of creativity in reconstructing it in your head and reconstructing it in a way that is unique for you and it's slightly different for me. This was a remarkable insight and has really given rise to the sort of the current understanding of what goes on in our head.

The painting, the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces in western art. And the reason it's so great is for the same reason we talked about before. It has a great deal of ambiguity. And ambiguity is what brings out difference of interpretation. It makes -- it contributes to work being great. And with her, one of the very specific points of ambiguity is the nature of her facial expression. Is she smiling or is she not? And there's been endless discussions about this. And we want to understand why does that ambiguity arise? And there are two major interpretations. One is, it's the form of painting that Leonardo used in which he purposely paints over the edges of the mouth, a technique called Sfumato smoke. So it's a little bit hazy and not clearly outlined, and that gives rise to the ambiguity. And Marge Livingston has made the point, it's how you focus on it. If you focus on it with central vision, which sees detail, you don't see the smile. If you focus on peripheral vision, which sees the broad outlines, you do better at seeing the smile.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

Big Think: Lawrence Krauss on Caveman Common Sense

The physicist argues that our common sense is based on evolutionary imperatives that have less to do with the universe as it is than with what our ancestors needed to do to survive in a hostile wilderness.

We evolved as human beings a few million years ago on the Savanna in Africa and we evolved to escape tigers, or lions, or predators. And so what makes common sense to us is the world on our scale. You know, how to throw a rock or a spear or how to find a cave and we didn't evolve to understand quantum mechanics. And, therefore, it's not too surprising that on scales vastly different than the kind of experience we had as we were evolving as a species, that nature seems strange and sometimes almost unfathomable, certainly violates our common sense. Our sense of what is common sense and what's intuition. But as I like to say, the universe doesn't care about our common sense. We have to force our ideas to conform to the evidence of reality rather than the other way around And if reality seems strange, that's okay. In fact that's what makes science so wonderful; it expands our minds because it forces us to accept possibilities, which, in advance, we may never of thought was possible.

I've said that scientists love mysteries, and we do. That's the reason I'm a scientist. Because it's the puzzles of the universe that make it so exciting. Now it is true that we want to solve, resolve those and solve those puzzles. That's part of the fun of doing science is solving puzzles, basically. But each time we do, new questions arise. And I think for many of us, just as in our lives, the searching is often much more profound than the finding. It's the searching for answers through life in some sense that make life worth living. If we had all the answers, we could just sit back and stare at out navels. And I think what makes the search so exciting is that the answers are so surprising. The universe continues to surprise us in ways we never would have imagined. Well beyond our own imagination in advance, and that's all we have to keep exploring the universe. We can't just sit in a room and think about it because every time we open a new window on the universe were surprised. And that makes the whole process incredibly exciting.

Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd