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Welcome to the Universe – Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss & J. Richard Gott


Welcome to the Universe

An Astrophysical Tour

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss & J. Richard Gott

Genre: Physics

Price: $23.99

Publish Date: September 12, 2016

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Seller: Princeton University Press

Welcome to the Universe is a personal guided tour of the cosmos by three of today’s leading astrophysicists. Inspired by the enormously popular introductory astronomy course that Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss, and J. Richard Gott taught together at Princeton, this book covers it all—from planets, stars, and galaxies to black holes, wormholes, and time travel. Describing the latest discoveries in astrophysics, the informative and entertaining narrative propels you from our home solar system to the outermost frontiers of space. How do stars live and die? Why did Pluto lose its planetary status? What are the prospects of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? How did the universe begin? Why is it expanding and why is its expansion accelerating? Is our universe alone or part of an infinite multiverse? Answering these and many other questions, the authors open your eyes to the wonders of the cosmos, sharing their knowledge of how the universe works. Breathtaking in scope and stunningly illustrated throughout, Welcome to the Universe is for those who hunger for insights into our evolving universe that only world-class astrophysicists can provide.

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Welcome to the Universe – Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Strauss & J. Richard Gott

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Bringing Science to Late Night Television

Mother Jones

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“April is the cruelest month, breeding/ lilacs out of the dead land, mixing,” wrote T.S. Eliot. I don’t know what the hell he was on about because this April is going to be awesome.

Famous science man Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new late-night talk show Star Talk, based on his acclaimed podcast, is coming to the National Geographic Channel in that very merry fourth month of 2015. With it brings the promise of dozens of easily embeddable, highly shareable video clips of Tyson debunking anti-science nonsense to creationists, and explaining actual science goodness to America’s sweethearts (movie stars) and black sheep (comedians). The Hollywood Reporter, err, reports:

Star Talk will indeed follow a similar format to Tyson’s podcast, which marries science and popular culture and feature interviews with celebrities, comedians and scientists. He’s still sorting through all of the elements that he’ll add to the television iteration, but he does intend to give Bill Nye a platform for a minute-long rant in each show, much as Andy Rooney had for many years on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

Look out, John Oliver: America fucking loves science.

(via NYMag)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Bringing Science to Late Night Television

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Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the Anti-GMO Crowd, Round 2

Mother Jones

Last week, we (and many others) posted a viral video (embedded below), in which Cosmos star Neil deGrasse Tyson is shown sounding off about genetically modified organisms. Tyson tells GMO critics to “chill out” because, as he explains, humans have been changing the genetics of the organisms that we consume for food (through artificial selection) for millennia.

Apparently Tyson received a lot of negative response to this video—though it also drew much applause—because now he has taken to Facebook with a quite long and often witty post explaining his views on the subject in a more “nuanced” way. The post is still pretty pro-GMO, in the end. But it certainly has many more shades of gray. As Tyson notes, the original video was very short, just over two minutes, and

had I given a full talk on this subject, or if GMOs were the subject of a sit-down interview, then I would have raised many nuanced points, regarding labeling, patenting, agribusiness, monopolies, etc. I’ve noticed that almost all objections to my comments center on these other issues.

Tyson then goes on to address topics like the patenting of seeds (he’s basically okay with it); whether GMOs should be labeled (“Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods”); the role of monopolies in agriculture (“Monopolies are generally bad things in a free market”); and much else. You can read all of his thoughts here. Tyson concludes:

If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling nonprerennial sic seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing—and will continue to do—to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct sic.

In sum, it seems that in the original video, Tyson’s major beef was with the idea that somehow, the genetic modification of food is novel or even unnatural. It isn’t, he argues, because we’ve been doing it forever. But as soon as GMO critics saw that, they wanted to argue back about all the other issues in the GMO debate, and Tyson thinks that’s missing the (rather limited) point he was trying to make.

“In life,” Tyson concludes his Facebook post, “be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don’t agree with.”

Here’s the original video that started the ruckus:

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Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the Anti-GMO Crowd, Round 2

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains How Republicans Blew It on Climate Change

Mother Jones

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If you care about the place of science in our culture, then this has to be the best news in a very long time. Last Sunday night, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey—which airs on Fox and then the next day on the National Geographic Channel—actually tied ABC’s “The Bachelorette” for the top ratings among young adult viewers, the “key demographic” coveted by advertisers. And it did so by—that’s right—airing an episode about the reality of climate change.

Tuesday evening, I had the privilege of sitting down with the show’s host, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, to discuss this milestone, and how he feels generally as the 13-part series comes to a close. (The final episode, entitled “Unafraid of the Dark,” airs this Sunday night.) “The ratings are exceeding our expectations,” said Tyson, fresh off the climate episode triumph. But Tyson emphasized that to him, that’s not the most important fact: Rather, it’s that a science show aired at all in primetime on Sunday night.

“You had entertainment writers putting The Walking Dead in the same sentence as Cosmos,” said Tyson. “Game of Thrones in the same sentence of Cosmos. ‘How’s Cosmos doing against Game of Thrones?’ That is an extraordinary fact, no matter what ratings it earned.”

I spoke with Tyson in the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Hall in DC, below a painting of the society’s founders signing its charter in 1888. Tyson, wearing a glittering space-themed tie, sipped white wine before moving upstairs to a reception where he was destined for an hour of handshakes and selfies. Later that evening—after a special advance airing of the final episode of Cosmos—he would electrify a packed room by explaining to a young girl how solar flares work, a display that involved him sprawling across the stage (and his fellow panelists) as he contorted his body to mimic the dynamics of the sun’s plasma. The show concluded with Tyson explaining how “plasma pies” (as he dubbed them), ejected towards us by our star, ultimately become the aurora borealis and the aurora australis.

There were other Cosmos luminaries on the stage—including executive producers Brannon Braga and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan’s widow—but Tyson won the room that night. Easily.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, surveying some of the universe’s awesomeness in Cosmos. Fox/National Geographic

Overall, Tyson notes, Cosmos premiered not only on Fox but on National Geographic Channel and, globally, in 181 countries and 46 languages. “It tells you that science is trending in our culture,” Tyson averred to me. “And if science is trending, that can only be good for the health, the wealth, and the security of our species, of our civilization.”

And yet, many members of our species still deny that the globe is warming thanks to human activities—a point that Cosmos has not only made a centerpiece but that, the program has frankly argued, threatens civilization as we know it. Tyson is know for being fairly non-confrontational; for not wanting to directly argue with or debate those who deny science in various areas. He prefers to just tell it like it is, to educate. But when we talked he was, perhaps, a little more blunt than usual.

“At some point, I don’t know how much energy they have to keep fighting it,” he said of those who don’t accept the science of climate change. “It’s an emergent scientific truth.” Tyson added that in the political sphere, denying the science is just a bad strategy. “The Republican Party, so many of its members are resistant to embracing the facts of climate change that the legislation that they should be eager to influence, they’re left outside the door,” said Tyson. “Because they think the debate is whether or not it’s happening, rather than what policy and legislation can serve their interests going forward.”

You can argue, in fact, that that is exactly what happened this week. One day after Cosmos’ highly rated climate episode aired, the EPA announced its new regulations for power plant carbon dioxide emissions. The whole reason that the Obama administration went this route—regulating carbon via the Clean Air Act—was that climate legislation (the first option, and the more desirable option) was impossible. The legislative math didn’t work. It would never pass.

Now, Republicans are extraordinarily upset by the EPA’s rules, as the agency moves in to fill a legislative vacuum. But thanks to their denial, they may well have lost their chance to find a more ideologically desirable solution, like a carbon tax. (In fairness, some coal state Democrats were also responsible for the failure of cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin famously shot the bill with a rifle in an ad for his 2010 Senate campaign.)

That’s bad for our politics, just as climate change is bad for our civilization—but it is surely some small saving grace to at least learn, thanks to Tyson and Cosmos, that science is not bad for the television business. The success of Cosmos, Tyson thinks, changes what can be on TV; how future network programmers will think, in the future, about what constitutes desirable content.

“It will open up their definition of what can be in primetime television,” he said.

On our most popular episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Neil Tyson explained why he doesn’t debate science deniers, and much more. You can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Explains How Republicans Blew It on Climate Change

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"Cosmos" Explains How Global Warming Threatens Civilization as We Know It

Mother Jones

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So now Cosmos has really done it.

The show had already enraged climate deniers by explaining just how big a problem global warming is. But clearly, it wasn’t done. On the latest episode, entitled “The Immortals,” host Neil deGrasse Tyson explores a grandiose theme if ever there was one: What it would take for our species to get off-world, as well as whether we’ll ever be able to successfully contact alien life. Both are, in effect, chances at immortality, since either our species—or at least the information we create and transmit into space—would thereby live on, perhaps even beyond the death of our sun.

But guess what: Both forms of immortality, according to the show, are threatened by factors that can disrupt the stability and the longevity of human civilization—and that includes human-caused climate change.

To understand how that could be so, you need to first understand something that loomed very large in the thoughts of Tyson’s predecessor, Carl Sagan, and that underlies this latest Cosmos episode: The Drake Equation. Derived by the astrophysicist Frank Drake, the equation is basically a formula for trying to determine how many technologically advanced civilizations there might be in the Milky Way galaxy, and how likely it is that our own civilization would be able to contact them. It looks like this (for much more detail, visit the SETI Institute):

N = R* · fp · ne · fl · fi · fc · L

N, the quantity we’re trying to identify, refers to how many civilizations there are in the Milky Way galaxy, that have reached a technological state whereby they can make radio transmissions into space, rendering them theoretically detectable by other civilizations on other planets. It is a product of these factors: R*, or how fast stars form that could support intelligent life; fp, how many of those stars, in turn, support planetary systems, like our own solar system; ne, how many planets in each of these solar systems could at least theoretically, due to their environment, support life; fl, how many of those planets turn out to be places where life indeed develops; and fi, or how many of those planets produce life that has intelligence.

And then come the two terms of the equation that are perhaps the most interesting: fc, denoting “the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space”; and L, denoting “the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.”

Here’s a video of Sagan explaining the equation from the old Cosmos. Note that its final term (referred to above as L), for Sagan, is visually represented by a mushroom cloud—for civilizations that destroy themselves with nuclear weapons won’t last long enough to send radio signals into space for a very long period of time. Or as Sagan observes, some civilizations “might…snuff themselves out in an instant of unforgivable neglect.” They might blow themselves up.

The new installment of Cosmos has, in effect, replaced that mushroom cloud with a coal plant. Exploring the theme of civilizational collapse in a Jared Diamondesque vein, Tyson proceeds to look into all the factors that cause civilizations to fall away, thus in effect exploring that last crucial term in the Drake Equation, L (although the show does not mention the equation by name). Here, things like violence and war loom large, but so do major destabilizing environmental or climatic shifts. As Tyson puts it, “Whether or not we ever make contact with intelligent alien life may depend on a critical question: What is the life expectancy of a civilization?”

Neil deGrasse Tyson visits present-day Iraq to explain the rise—and collapse—of ancient Mesopotamian civilization. Fox/National Geographic

To illustrate this, the show focuses in particular on Mesopotamia of more than 4,000 years ago, home to some of the earliest writing, as well as myths that have lived on and achieved at least some modicum of immortality, like the epic of Gilgamesh. Yet the Mesopotamian civilization was done in by violence, as well as by environmental pollution (too much irrigation of farmlands with salt-laden water) and climate change, or more specifically, an epic drought. They thought it was a divine punishment. We know better…or do we?

Which brings us to our own civilization, a global one that is currently digging a deep hole of its own—climate change—which could threaten a major collapse. We might, unfortunately, be one of those “civilizations that self-destruct,” in Tyson’s words. Here’s Tyson’s big statement about it (you can watch the video here):

TYSON: In one respect, we’re ahead of the people of ancient Mesopotamia. Unlike them, we understand what’s happening to our world. For example, we’re pumping greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, at a rate not seen on Earth for a million years. And there’s scientific consensus that we’re destabilizing our climate. Yet, our civilization seems to be in the grip of denial, a kind of paralysis. There’s a disconnect between what we know, and what we do.

Being able to adapt our behavior to challenges is as good a definition of intelligence as any I know. If our greater intelligence is the hallmark of our species, then we should use it, as all other beings use their distinctive advantages, to help ensure that their offspring prosper, and their heredity is passed on, and that the fabric of nature that sustains us is protected. Human intelligence is imperfect, surely, and newly arisen. The ease with which it can be sweet talked, overwhelmed, or subverted by other hardwired tendencies, sometimes themselves disguised as the light of reason, is worrisome. But if our intelligence is the only edge, we must learn to use it better, to sharpen it, to understand its limitations and deficiencies. To use it, as cats use stealth before pouncing, as walking sticks use camouflage, to make it the tool of our survival. If we do this, we can solve almost any problem we are likely to confront in the next 100,000 years.

The show then ends by envisioning a better future, one in which we emerge from the cloud of denial, recognize our problems, and face and get past them. If we do that, and peer far enough ahead, Tyson notes that we can imagine a world in which “the last internal combustion engine is placed in a museum, as the effects of climate change reverse and diminish,” and in which “the polar ice caps are restored to the way they were in the 19th century.” And ultimately, one in which we get off world, explore the stars—and discover a fate that is no longer specifically tied to Earth alone. A form of immortality.

In other words, you might say that the latest Cosmos makes the grandest statement yet for why we had better do something about climate change. And here’s the thing: It looks, based on previews, like the next episode will focus even more deeply on the subject.

If anything can shift our culture towards a broader appreciation of science, then, this show may really be it.

On our most popular episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Tyson explained why he doesn’t debate science deniers, and much more. You can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):


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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos, How Science Got Cool, and Why He Doesn’t Debate Deniers

Mother Jones

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Last Sunday’s debut of Cosmos, the rebooted series from Fox and National Geographic, made television history. According to National Geographic, it was the largest global rollout of a TV series ever, appearing on 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages. And, yes, this is a science show we’re talking about. You will have to actively resist the force of gravity in order to lift up your dropped jaw and restore a sense of calm to your stunned face.

At the center of the show is the “heir apparent” to legendary science popularizer and original Cosmos host Carl Sagan: the impassioned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who appeared on this week’s episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast to talk about what it’s like to fill Sagan’s shoes (stream below). On the podcast, Tyson discussed topics ranging from what we know now about the cosmos that Sagan didn’t (top three answers: dark matter and dark energy, the profusion of discovered exoplanets, and the concept of parallel universes, or the “multiverse”) to why science seems to have gotten so super-cool again. After all, not only has Cosmos garnered such a reach, but The Big Bang Theory is currently the number one comedy on TV.

“I wake up every morning saying, ‘How did I get 1.7 million Twitter followers?'” Tyson joked while discussing science’s newfound popularity. “Should I remind them that I’m an astrophysicist? Maybe I should tell them, ‘Folks, I’m an astrophysicist. Alright? Escape now.'”

Thanks in part to Cosmos, Tyson is arguably the single most visible public face of science in America today. And as such, he may have to walk a difficult line. Many science defenders want Cosmos to do nothing less than restore our national sanity by smiting all science denial, especially when it comes to the issues of evolution and global warming. It’s an impossible task, but the theme was nonetheless quite apparent at a November Library of Congress gala dedicating Carl Sagan’s papers, where Cosmos producer Seth MacFarlane denounced science’s “politicization on steroids,” and Cosmos writer Steven Soter remarked that Sagan would have been “appalled” by today’s attacks on climate scientists.

Carl Sagan himself often took strong stands on science-based political issues of the day. He clashed with the Reagan administration over arms control and the “Star Wars” program, and the debate over his ideas about “nuclear winter” served as a kind of preview of the current battle over global warming. Sagan also openly debated pseudoscientists like Immanuel Velikovsky, who posited that the planet Venus had started out as a comet ejected by Jupiter, and had caused various events described in the Bible on its way to its current position. Indeed, Sagan even took on Velikovsky in the fourth episode of the original Cosmos, explaining in depth why his ideas were wrong.

By contrast, Tyson made clear on Inquiring Minds that he does not plan to follow in Sagan’s footsteps in this respect (or for that matter, those of Bill Nye the Science Guy, who went straight into the creationists’ den to debate evolution last month, and was faulted by some for doing so). “Carl Sagan would debate people on all manner of issues,” said Tyson. “And I don’t have the time or the energy or the interest in doing so. As an educator, I’d rather just get people thinking straight in the first place, so I don’t have to then debate them later on.” (To be sure, Tyson has on occasion been drawn into such debates in the past.)

Neil Tyson and a universe. Fox

The deniers, of course, are already out in force over the new Cosmos, whose first episode brought up both evolution and global warming, and whose future episodes will tackle human evolution in greater depth. At the creationist website Answers in Genesis, one writer even goes so far as to dispute the show’s treatment of the Big Bang, writing, “The big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned.”

Tyson certainly has plenty of criticism for those who would deny science. “I claim that all those who think they can cherry pick science simply don’t understand how science works,” he explained on the podcast. “That’s what I claim. And if they did, they’d be less prone to just assert that somehow scientists are clueless.”

But at the same time, and unlike many science champions (such as the biologist Richard Dawkins), Tyson is quite careful not to pit science against religion. For instance, the first episode of the new Cosmos tells the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who was persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Inquisition over his ideas about the universe, including the notion that there are an infinite number of suns and worlds beyond our own. Some have argued that to tell this story is in effect to pick a fight over science and religion, but Tyson counters that “Giordano Bruno himself was a deeply religious person. In fact, you could argue that he was more religious than the people prosecuting him.”

The stance of Cosmos, Tyson emphasizes, is not anti-religion but anti-dogma: “Any time you have a doctrine where that is the truth that you assert, and that what you call the truth is unassailable, you’ve got doctrine, you’ve got dogma on your hands. And so Cosmos is…an offering of science, and a reminder that dogma does not advance science; it actually regresses it.”

In other words, Tyson’s view appears to be that in an age rife with science denial, Cosmos rises above that fray by instilling in us wonder about the nature of the cosmos and our quest to understand it. And given the breathtaking quality and stunningly wide distribution of the show, there’s much to say for that approach. Every time you pick a fight, whether over climate change or over evolution or over religion, you lose some of the audience (even as you fire up another part of it).

The “ship of the imagination” sails through the cosmos, on Cosmos. Fox.

In the end, however, scientific knowledge, and wanting to do something about the problems that science reveals, are inseparable. And as soon as you want to change something in the world because of science, you inevitably run up against interests, emotions, and denial.

Global warming is the case in point: Just as Carl Sagan worried about nuclear holocaust because of science, so we today worry about the planet’s steady warming. Indeed, that kind of thinking is central to the Cosmos legacy. Asked on the podcast about the warming of the planet, Tyson explained the ultimate message of Cosmos: “You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd? Are you going to use your wisdom to protect civilization, or will you go at it in a shortsighted enough way to either destroy it, or be complicit in its destruction? If you can’t bring your scientific knowledge to bear on those kinds of decisions, then why even waste your time?”

So in the end, we should all thank Tyson—as well as Fox, National Geographic, and the show’s many writers and producers—for making the new Cosmos happen. It will contribute immeasurably to the appreciation of science in America and beyond. It will make kids think harder about pursuing science careers by showing them that the cosmos is intensely awesome, and the act of understanding it is downright heroic. But, can it ultimately stay above the political fray?

Maybe in some universes.

To listen to the full podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can stream below:

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of whether bringing extinct species back to life is a good idea, and of new research suggesting that climate change contributed to the rise of Genghis Khan.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013″ on iTunes—you can learn more here.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos, How Science Got Cool, and Why He Doesn’t Debate Deniers

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Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Kal Penn Set to Appear at the White House’s First Student Film Festival

Mother Jones

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On Friday, the White House East Room is set to host its inaugural Student Film Festival. The winning entries, which include stop-motion animation and special-effects-peppered fare, were selected from over 2,000 submissions. The White House announced the contest for American students, grades K-12, last November, and put out a call for short films (three-minute max.) that demonstrate how technology is used in schools today and how it might change education in the future.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to make an appearance at the White House Student Film Festival—as are the following celebrities:

Bill Nye (the Science Guy), who has been on a pro-science, anti-creationism/denialism warpath lately. “I fight this fight out of patriotism,” Nye told me last year. “Nye has been instrumental in helping advance some of the president’s key initiatives to make sure we can out-educate, out-innovate, and out-compete the world,” an Obama administration official said.

Kal Penn, the 36-year-old actor who served stints as associate director for the Office of Public Engagement in the Obama administration and delivered this speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. He was at the White House Science Fair last year. He also wants to help sell you on Obamacare.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, another friend of the Obama White House and science luminary.

Conan O’Brien, though unlike the previous three, he is not set to appear in person. He’ll be sending a video address.

The film fest will also include a sneak peek at the Fox series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (the successor to the show that made Carl Sagan famous), which will be hosted by deGrasse Tyson and executive-produced by Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow.

Click here to check out some of the White House honorable mentions in the festival. Here’s one, titled “A Day In The Life of a Tech Nerd”:

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Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Kal Penn Set to Appear at the White House’s First Student Film Festival

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