Bad Astronomy

Neil Tyson speaks truth

Last week, Chris Mooney interviewed astronomer and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson on the podcast Point of Inquiry. Neil is among the best of the people on Earth in showing the public just how amazing science is (Brian Cox is another who comes immediately to mind).

It’s a wide-ranging discussion, and well worth your time to listen in its entirety. But Neil said one thing in particular in the podcast that really made me smile (and was pointed out by Chris in The Intersection as well):

It’s not a predetermined path….Look at for example Phil Plait. Phil Plait is a professional astrophysicist, and then he had a blog, and the blog became a book, and a lot of interest in the book, and he saw the need for skepticism to be addressed in society, and he became a big part of that movement–you don’t pre-script that. It’s hard to prescript it.

My career path–you just don’t pre-script it. You do what you do best, and what you like the most, and you figure out along the way how that best fits into the opportunities of culture and the greater society.

First, thanks to Neil for the shout out!

But he makes a good point. I get emails all the time from people asking me how they can write a blog, how they can communicate science to the public as a career – and they ask me because I’ve been doing it for a while and have made a name for myself. The thing is, Neil’s right: you can’t plan on doing it the way I do. You’d have to be bug-nut insane to set about having a career like I have; it’s been really accidental, just me doing what seemed right at the time, and now here I am (and someday I’ll have to expound on that).

But “accidental” doesn’t mean “impossible”. It’s more like “stochastic”: an underlying path that’s been punctuated by random events that led to my current position*. But those random events would’ve been ineffective had I not worked pretty hard over the years to get here; you have to be able to grab them when they pop up.

You have to lay the groundwork to do that, and as Neil says one really good way to do that is through writing. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts, and to collect ideas. As you get better, you keep your eyes open and wait for the opportunities that will (hopefully) come along. I’ve actually let a few go by because I wasn’t ready for them at the time, but when they come by and you are ready, boom! It’s a pretty cool feeling.

In fact, I wrote about this over the weekend:

…the equation for luck is really just (hard work + preparation) x (time) x (statistical fluctuations).

In other words? You make your own luck. So you wanna get lucky? Go out there and get to work.

* I suppose you could say you couldn’t intelligently design such a career from the start; you have to let it evolve and naturally select the things that fit best. Say.