Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson at Howard University

Sept. 28 saw a meeting of great minds at Howard University in Washington, DC, as astrophysicist and public science educator Neil deGrasse Tyson and evolutionary biologist and leading atheist activist Richard Dawkins came together in the Cramton Auditorium of the historically black university for a discussion entitled “The Poetry of Science.”

The event, which was sponsored by the department of physiology and biophysics of Howard University, the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the Secular Students of Howard, was one of two events held that day with Dr. Dawkins, the other being a panel discussion that evening on science and faith in the black community.

In front of the nearly full auditorium, the two scientists engaged in a free-ranging discussion, posing queries to each other and addressing topics from both of their respective fields. Dr. Dawkins initiated the discussion with his admission that biologists such as him often suffer from what he called “physics envy” with regard to Dr. Tyson’s field of study because it is the science that underlies all other sciences, and because of the complex questions about the universe that it addresses. He asked Dr. Tyson to give an overview of how humans, whom he characterized as having evolved to understand “medium-sized objects moving at medium-sized speeds,” are able to grasp the vastness of the universe with their limited senses.

Dr. Tyson responded by talking about how important it is for humans to realize the limitations of their senses, noting that we can only see a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, and he talked about the power of mathematics as a tool to explore the nature of the universe.

The two scientists spent a large portion of the event discussing the possibility of intelligent life in the universe, and also what its nature might be. They both agreed that the existence of intelligent life was highly probable. However, Dr. Tyson conjectured that, in light of the fact that only about 1.5% of the DNA between a chimp and a human is different and yet we cannot understand each other, it is unlikely that any intelligent being we encounter from another planet may be completely comprehensible to us or may even recognize humans as intelligent.

Dr. Tyson also expressed his preference for non-anthropomorphic extraterrestrials in science fiction, noting that one of his favorite space creatures of all time from popular culture is The Blob from the eponymous 1958 film. But Dr. Dawkins pointed out that the physical world exerts certain pressures on evolving creatures, and this lead to the repeated development of the same features in different environments. He noted that while higher intelligence has only evolved once on Earth, other features such as eyes and stingers have evolved independently many times, thus suggesting that it may not be so farfetched to consider that extraterrestrials may share features with creatures from Earth.

The event closed with a question and answer period, and the two scientists received a standing ovation before heading down to a book signing for audience members who had brought their favorite Dawkins and Tyson tomes.