DeGrasse Tyson Missing Silicon While Distorting Science
    By Sascha Vongehr | April 17th 2012 10:46 PM | 32 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Dr. Sascha Vongehr [风洒沙] studied phil/math/chem/phys in Germany, obtained a BSc in theoretical physics (electro-mag) & MSc (stringtheory)...

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    Neil deGrasse Tyson shared some of what he calls “deeply cosmic” thoughts, whatever that is supposed to mean, and then “a fascinatingly disturbing thought”; you can watch it on liveleak.

    There is a lot one can criticize* about what he claims, however, he is missing something obvious that stands out like a sore thumb even when taking on his descriptions at face value: Silicon!

    Neil, super smug** and on every semi-intellectual speaking platform like TAM, on every show he can get his hands on and has a receptive target audience, from “The Daily Show” to “The Big Bang Theory”. But science is not finished and moves fast. Is it time for some quiet reading time and reflection once in the hyper schedule of politics and speaking engagements?

    He argues that the most abundant elements in the universe are, in order of abundance, hydrogen (H), helium (He), oxygen(O), carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and “others”. “Others” is the usual trick: If data stop supporting your point, stop mentioning them. He also left out Neon (Ne) and Iron (Fe) before nitrogen (see Abundance of elements in Universe) in case he meant mass abundance; but let’s not be picky and insist on well defined metrics, because the biggest one relegated to “others” is: Silicon!

    Now he goes literally “look at earth” in order to not mention the Abundance of elements in Earth, which would destroy his argument. Instead, he talks about human bodies: Oh look, it is H, Helium does not matter, O, C, N, and “others” (that "others"-trick again), precisely like the universe, he claims, so it is not surprising that we are here or whatever the gist is which he aims to push.

    I am neither out to dwell on factual mistakes, nor much on the general mistake of supporting new-atheist pseudoscience that usually back-fires to ultimately support the religious, here for example having humans consist of the most common stuff in the universe, not in earth's crust or the ocean, where animals evolved. This is not my main objection, although I am puzzled: Why would an atheist effectively claim we are created in his image (him being the substitute god Mystic Universe), or worse, that the universe is made for us?

    The interesting oversight is that he talks about aliens that are as advanced relative to us as we are relative to chimps*, and that they must be out there (he would have to claim that they have the same chemical composition as we), and that they would like to communicate with us just as much as we want to discuss philosophy with worms, namely: not at all. There is again much wrong, but let us focus on the big one. If you look at element abundances, for example that of earth's crust, but especially if you stay with his edited version of the universe's element abundance, and ask yourself: What is the next one, the next level up, like nitrogen for amino acids being important after carbon perhaps being sufficient for the pre-biological organic molecule soup? What comes next that would fit right in with Darwinist evolution of replicators/life forms that score “higher” on some sort of metric, and that will thus leave us in the dust like dinosaurs, but that also crucially need the next most abundant material around? Remember, the next abundant element is: Silicon!

    Silicon is what our information technology is based on, so if his just-so-description tells us anything, it is that the universe is made for the computers and bio/hybrid-robots that may treat humans like we treat chimps in animal testing laboratories and zoos. The robopocalypse! Not aliens that are safely hundreds of light years away, but the very tools that we build.

    He not see this connection, partially because he cannot mention the dangers of emergent technology in order not to undermine his main platform, being misguided scientism and uncritical embracing of technology.

    * Beside mystic quotes like “the Universe itself exists within us” that promote scientism as substitute religion, there are many errors, like the misrepresentation of the richness of carbon chemistry, misrepresenting how far we looked out into the universe (superman “looks out” with a laser beam view; astrophysics merely receives the photons on the past light-cone), distorting genetics (taking a convenient measure to support a progressive agenda, one day presenting chimps as 98% genetically identical to us, the next having even identical twins only 80% genetically equal in order to doubt twin studies’ questioning the “all is nurture and culture” paradigm, effectively ending up with the position that black people are much more different from whites than chimps are - Oh Boy!), elitist misconceptions on what intelligence is about, ...


    **UPDATE: Neil deGrasse Tyson has personally replied below and complained that my blog is more smug than him. Smug: Exhibiting or feeling great or offensive satisfaction with oneself or with one's situation; self-righteously complacent. I reject that, but of course I would, and of course he would. If one can avoid to come across that way, one should, and I avoid self-righteous satisfaction and complacency about my arguments. Those who claim to be all for science outreach and public understanding and are already in the lime light especially should not be complacent with backfiring arguments, regardless of how much target audiences and false friends enjoy and encourage it.


    I think you are focusing on the detail and being too technical here. What I think is his most important agenda is promoting science as a means to understand the universe and ourselves. Showing the beauty of looking for answers other than blind belief.

    Tyson is very poetical and eloquent in that speech. He popularizes science an makes it looks cool like no one else today. There should be much more scientists doing that kind of effort to propagate critical thinking and popularazing science like he does.

    Stop ranting and star doing.

    You seem to have difficulties reading, as you missed that I do precisely not want to dwell on the details but focus on the more general problem. Sorry, but if you think that science should simply be sold as "cool" like a pair of sunglasses, you are naive about how long such mere fashions stay with humans, who are sadly very religious beings especially if they turn older. No, we do not need more people distorting science just to make it popular to an audience who otherwise does not care, as this is dangerous and always back-fires badly (see some examples here and here). Thanks for telling me to "star doing", because presenting science more responsibly in order to facilitate critical thinking is precisely what my science column is all about. Feel welcome to read more.
    I am flatterted I got an answer from the author himself. Thank you.

    About presenting science as something "cool": It is just a tool to inspire young people to get in to it. And yes, it is hard. My wife is a molecular biologist and a see it every day. But she still gets thrilled like a kid when she gets a meaninful result (to her, at least). Inspiring the youth to go into science professionally is much more useful to mankind that making kids think they will be professional ball players, for example.

    I think you're gunning for the wrong guy.

    In that note I would like to thank you to show me my obvious and very stupid spelling mistake. I saw right before I posted it, but unfortunatelly the comments sections does not have the same tools you have on the post writting end. I am sure your finger slipped once or twice. Also english is not my 1st language and it is very hard for me to write in it.

    About Tyson being on the Big Bang Theory: Stephen Hawking just appeared in the show's last episode too.

    I am not a fan of Mr. Tyson. I find him to be arrogant, smug and preferring celebrity over science (the term, which I cannot use here, is "starf****r"). He recently interviewed Whoopi Goldberg and Morgan Freeman, two well-known scientists, in his podcast. When corrected on a point of grammar or other fact, his ego is unable to admit fallibility. He is too much about "cool," and not enough about science.

    That said, what is a "sore thump?"

    Thanks for catching the typo.

    About what you say: many find him too smug, because he is, but few criticize. Especially on the German ScienceBlogs, Tyson worshiping is clearly a show, an endorsing a black guy in order to be especially hip, you know, 'having a black friend', which is otherwise hard to do in Germany, and there is no criticism; racism charges would be immediate (with Germany's past, such overbalancing is very prominent and does not need any substance to the charge - holocaust denier charges are also very common).

    That is why I did not go into his smugness but stayed right with his supposedly 100% straight science. That he does not know other fields is one thing, but here he distorts his own field.
    I disagree with the author's comment above, our country does desperately needs science to be "cool" again as it was in the 60s; our scientific development is comparatively diminishing behind the rest of the world at an alarming rate. Getting the younger generation interested in the sciences is a valuable catalyst for future prosperity. I think the wrong "general idea" is being focused on in this article. Tyson is simply a mascot for science - the general idea that he is most frequently pushing is this this enthusiasm for getting interested in science. We're all on the same team here, the scientific minds working to make tomorrow better. Tyson is simply bringing it to the masses.

    We're all on the same team here
    No, we are not, and to brush over the deeply dividing differences just means that at some point the pressure cooker is going to explode. The public distrust of science is not just the stupid public, which is much more educated about science and technology than in the 60s. The distrust comes from a science crisis that people like Tyson helped to create and are busy perpetuating. Go on proselytize science as cool while suppressing critics as traitors to the home team and see anti-science rising. If science is no longer enlightenment but mere technology and established power stabilization, we are against it.
    I disagree with the author's comment above, our country does desperately needs science to be "cool" again as it was in the 60s
    Science was not cool in the 1960s, engineering was.  

    Academic science, back then, was also lowly paid and now it is quite a nice life, which is why there are so many more science PhDs being produced than ever - 6X as many as academia can employ.  There is no science crisis in America - we fund science far more than anyone and we produce a lot of PhDs. 

    I agree that Tyson does a lot of good in outreach.  I asked him to be on a panel at the next AAAS conference and he said, no, he was in production for Cosmos and wouldn't be there, but he liked what we do, etc.  The kind of big-headed egomaniac he is painted as here would have just ignored me.

    And he took a pic with Bloggy a while back, which Sascha did not use because it would not have spun Neil in the worst possible light.

    Well, if he hugged Bloggy, all is forgiven. Nobody who loves the lime light would ever touch Bloggy if such meant to be put on a website. ;-)
    There is no science crisis in America - we fund science far more than anyone and we produce a lot of PhDs.
    When has throwing money at the problem ever really solved anything in education? My observation is that it usually complicates and compounds the existing problems. There is this increasing tendency in American education to inflate grades and fudge numbers to make professors and their institutions look good. Why? So they can get a piece of the funding pie! Why else?

    Just because we throw money at our schools, who then manage to fart out more doctorates, doesn't mean the problems don't exist. Not by a long shot.

    I agree that Tyson does a lot of good in outreach

    I like Neil deGrasse Tyson and I think he is remarkably effective as a popular science figure. A testament to this, I think, is that my grandparents watch his shows, enjoy them, and learn quite a lot from him. Maybe it's true that, as Sascha alleges, he pushes the "scientism" agenda at events like TAM (where it's pretty much expected) but I haven't seen it in any of his popular TV shows.

    So I guess the question is weather the first aliens we meet will be Autobots or Decepticons?    If history is any guide, the first robot probe from another planet will convince us the aliens and friendly, like a missionary priest visiting Virginia in 1575*.  Then the soldiers come latter.

    Seriously so called "carbon snobbery" is  a  well accepted attitude in astrobiology.  We simply don't know what Silicon based life could look like.  I have read papers which describe how life could exist based in part on silica on a molten lava planet (where molten rock is the solvent!).  How would we recognize the signature of that VS just a really hellish place for our kind of life at interstellar distances?  Without a working example it may not be possible.  So we look for C H O  organic chemistry.

    *The reason you don't hear about that mission, Ajacan, is because the Indians killed the missionaries.  Bought themselves 40 years of peace in doing so.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Hontas, please, are you trolling me? I was perfectly clear about that the relevant silicon is not that of silicon based aliens that will never arrive but the silicon right here on earth that has taken over our lives already.
    Nope I was totally serious. Why not have the robotic life forms show up as some kind of transforming robot.  A fleet of robots made for exploring unknown planets having multiple modes of locomotion (feet and wheels) would be a sound strategy.  So long as their electronics could cope with the added complexity. 
    The people behind transformers of all things.... could look like HG wells and Jules Verne to people a few hundred years from now. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    The Stand-Up Physicist
    So the obvious is thing to do is tell the story of an obscure novel because a novel is a form of science?  The real threats to life on Earth are not from The Terminator but from gasses like methane and CO2.  I doubt we will be slowing down that global freight train.
    Well Sweet Dough, the funny thing is that robots are fine with temperatures and water levels that kill humans. That is why global warming is a side issue by now. Even humans will not give a damn about under how many meters of water the polar bears rot if there are robots thinking that your family counts as collateral damage.
    By number of atoms, there is more nitrogen in the universe than iron or neon. Do you really think Mr. Tyson would have gotten as far as he has making mistakes like you claim he makes?

    Your naive trust in title/celebrity authority makes you unable to see deeper. The very fact that you can choose the metric freely (mass, number, in galaxy, in earth crust, ...) is what makes me simply accept his version of the abundance and then prove him silly on the basis of his own assumptions (regardless their merit). This is how you hit where it hurts, not with throwing around questionable fact knowledge.
    The very fact that you can choose the metric freely (mass, number, in galaxy, in earth crust, ...) is what makes me simply accept his version of the abundance and then prove him silly on the basis of his own assumptions...

    For fun, let's add to the list of metrics and location-comparisons and figure out that the proton to neutron ratio in the solar system is about  but the same ratio in humans is only 1.2 to 1.
    Though this is obviously absurd, what people have problems realizing is how easy it is to construct support via simply changing the metrics on a set of perfectly valid data and then to argue for why that metric is not ad hoc but instead the natural one to obviously look at. Most who work in science do this all the time, believing in the constructs that emerge - it is so easy to fool yourself into believing the metrics on grounds of the support they offer to your belief. Constructivism - what some here call postmodernist anti-science
    Why all the Niel hate? I come from lower middle class evolution-hating christian America, and its truly a rare thing to run into somebody who is educated or even interested in science. Niel found his passion, popularizing science in american culture. I applaud and honor such individuals, my pop culture christianized america is in DESPERATE need for science "celebrities" and science media.
    Give the guy a break, he found his passion. Most of us can only dream of finding a passion like Niel has.
    I would wager most of Neils viewers are being introduced to science for the first time in a " popular" format.
    Whatever works and I hope his passion rubs off on american culture.

    Why all the Niel hate? I come from lower middle class evolution-hating christian America,
    Nobody here hates Niel! That your world is a black and white dual polarization into either friend or foe may have to do with your origins. It is time to actually leave it behind and not just substitute Christianity with a more fashionable issue like science.
    (BTW: I have as much passion as Neil, so did Hitler.)
    lol. Too True. Thank you.
    But even as an atheist, I can appreciate Niel "semi- spiritualizing" popular science. Americans would find science less of a threat, less " boring" and more appealing if they could be introduced to science ( even if its not entirely accurate in detail), from an emotional, semi-mystical perspective as it seems Niel wants to do.. fight fire with fire. Peace

    I am little befuddled here as to why the author would think that evolution would "replicate" chemistry when it already has a suitable and much more abundant solution. In other words what the heck do you think silicon could offer biochemially that carbon can't? You think an evolutionary solution would double up, so to speak?
    With the line of reasoning that the author used I am suprised we did not see a OMG why no use of Helium, because the answer to that question is roughly the same as to why Silicon is not used.

    Gerhard Adam
    In other words what the heck do you think silicon could offer biochemially that carbon can't?
    The issue isn't simply about biochemistry.  The point is that technology is as much a part of our evolutionary trajectory as pure biological evolution is.  So, within that context, silicon [as used in technology] is important to that future path.

    Natural selection doesn't distinguish between purely biological components and those that are supplemented with technology.  So with our technological quest to create "intelligent" computers and to create technological enhancements of humans, then the next most abundant element that will participate in "evolution" is silicon.

    Within the context of this article, the next "higher" generation of humans will be as much technologically based as biological.  So, if we're looking for a species that will view our present-day existence in the same way as "chimps", then we have to consider that technological [silicon] base as relevant as the carbon one.

    In essence the question becomes ... do you necessarily expect a "higher" life form to be purely biological or is technological enhancement a part of that evolutionary path?  So, while we may quibble about the specific meanings of "life", etc.  In the end, if the point is to talk about the abundance of elements that constitute "life", then we have to be prepared to consider silicon as part of that mix, if a more "advanced" species incorporates technology in its existence.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I am not so sure that a technlogically advanced species will be using the same basis for technology substrate as we are currently.
    It was moreso the "atheism" comment, and suggestion that somehow any "natural" evolution would incorporate silicon, that set me to reply.

    not so sure that a technlogically advanced species will be using the same basis for technology substrate
    According to Tyson's argument, evolution goes down the list of most abundant atoms, so this would mean that all advanced systems all over the universe proceed pretty much the same way (same substrates).
    I am impressed and a bit flattered by the attention the "Cosmic Quandaries" YouTube video has garnered here. A few comments and reflections: The abundance of chemical elements by mass is irrelevant to molecular chemistry -- the subject of the excerpted bit from the video. You would never in practice, for example, say that FeO is 70% iron. Also, Carbon is about 5x more abundant in the universe than is Silicon, so, as noted by others in the thread, one can, but is never forced to appeal to Silicon as a competing source of life in the universe. Our carbon snobbery has good foundation.

    The abundance of elements "on Earth" does not allow a coherent discussion between any two people other than two rock-collecting geologists, since Earth's crust, mantle, core, oceans, and atmosphere all have different relative abundances, as do the meteorites that have fallen over the aeons, especially in the first half-billion years of Earth history. The abundance argument made is in reference to the general availability of these elements in the universe, which is strong enough to support the "we are stardust" point being made.

    As for silicon-based technologies and a possibly robopocalypse, there's no end to that conversation. Lot's of places it can go, and did go, none of which were relevant to my larger points being made -- regarding common measures of intelligence as applied to chimps, humans, and hypothetical aliens.

    Regarding the genetic difference between humans and chimps (less than 2%) and what you have quoted for twins, it appears you have misunderstood the genetic figure quoted for twin studies. Twins have 100% identical DNA (ignoring what may be subsequent epigenetic variations). The 80% figure you quote is typically the measured correlation in their behavior (and test metrics) attributable to their genetic profile, leaving 20% to the environment - a relative measure of nature versus nurture.

    I'm surprised by assertions that I am "super smug". We must have different operational definitions of the term. I'm quite sure I've never written nor spoken with the smugness of your blog, or anything close to it. So I'm puzzled by the accusation.

    Apparently, it didn't take long before Hitler got mentioned. Godwin's law ('s_law) strikes again.

    p.s. Thanks, Hank, for sharing that image of me and Bloggy. The photo is cuter than I had ever imagined it would be.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson
    New York City

    You would never in practice, for example, say that FeO is 70% iron.
    The important is that the metric is arbitrary and depends on what you desire to prove. If one were to argue about a certain abundance in planetary crust for example, neither mass nor number, density of compounds comes in. You should not adjust your metric according to your belief.
    is never forced to appeal to Silicon as a competing source of life in the universe.
    Nobody did that. The crux is that according to the argument you put forward in the video, silicon is the next abundant element to be considered, so one cannot point to carbon aliens, but must point to our computer chips entering evolution; that is what will leave humans in the dust.
    The abundance of elements "on Earth" does not allow a coherent discussion between any two people other than two rock-collecting geologists, since Earth's crust, mantle, core, oceans, and atmosphere all have different relative abundances
    Precisely - again, the metric/data can be almost arbitrarily chosen in order to support any point one wishes to support (see above and also answers to other comments above). To argue with the abundance in the universe when talking about a life form that evolved in a small enriched interface (between a particular planetary crust and its atmosphere) is certainly less relevant than the abundance in that interface (e.g. the crust).
    As for silicon-based technologies ... none of which were relevant to my larger points being made --
    Your point was about life forms that talk to humans like humans talk to chimps. Silicon-based technology is 100% relevant, not aliens! Why not aliens? Because according to your own argument, they would have the same constraints on their elemental abundance (and thus convergent evolution hits). Thus, there is no difference between carbon aliens and carbon animals like humans on earth. The next advancement is their merging with their silicon technology.
    Regarding the genetic difference between humans and chimps (less than 2%) and what you have quoted for twins, it appears you have misunderstood the genetic figure quoted for twin studies.
    I am well aware of the details. You keep missing the point, which is about how one argues. Do not throw numbers at audiences that have no reference and are bound to misinterpret. Such is no better than "millions of tax payer money wasted" on a project I do not like, while mentioning the percentage of the military budget in case I need support for the project instead. Or shifting between linear and log scales.

    Now to the important part, the one that you carefully left out: Why would somebody who wants to enlighten people put forward an almost religious argument? That a life form has an elemental abundance mirroring that of the environment it evolved in is unsurprising. If the life forms have precisely the abundance of the universe (instead of those of certain enriched niches inside that universe), the universe is made for them. Observer selection in a single universe cannot lead to observing such an abundance! If you want to argue for science instead of creationism, you need to be more careful.
    BTW: Since I am not native speaker of the English language, I looked up "smug" just to make sure I was not unduly insulting. I think I was not but put an update into the article nonetheless. I guess the misunderstanding here is less the working definition of "smug" as that in strongly religious cultures [e.g. North America ;-) ], people are easily offended. If it helps: I saw the TED talk of Brian Greene today, and sure, given such an annoying attitude, index finger constantly in the air and all, I rather watch a Neil deGrasse Tyson any day.

    Any smugness alienates those who we may like to reach, but of course, form shapes content, and there is a limit to corrupting a message by political correctness. My compromise is I hope the opposite of smug (complacent etc). In fact, if your argument about the abundances holds in any way more seriously than being at least to a large part mere coincidence, I am the first one to admit not to be sure how to argue satisfactorily even from the multiverse that any modest agnostic expects anyway (and which is not a string theory invention, although annoying guy with finger in the air claims so). Such a relation would point toward some future-singularity type intelligences-make-more-universes scenarios.
    I thought 'smug' was the wrong word too - while science results are about calibrating probability, science outreach is about talking to people about what we know and doing it confidently. Neil didn't get this far by being wishy-washy and if you see him and Carter Emmart do a thing together at Hayden, you can tell they are positively in love with the subject and it's a lot of fun to watch - that's not smug, it's knowing a subject. Feynman came across as smug to some people too but the postmodernist and 'greatest enemy of science' Feyerabend never came across as smug, he was terrific to watch, but he was filled with hatred and contempt for science and did his best to undercut it. Millions of people are going to watch "Cosmos" and get a lot out of it, they wouldn't do that if the tone were wrong.
    science outreach is about ... doing it confidently ... didn't get this far by being wishy-washy ...
    You may be confusing science outreach with being a president during wartime when the home front crumbles. History, among other fields, teaches that the more such is necessary, the more ethics demands to sabotage, to let the home front crumble.