Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, and the Art of Communication

Recently, I found inspiration in the premier episode of the series “Cosmos”. Near the end of the episode, renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson (the host) pulled out Carl Sagan’s day planner from 1975. December 20th contained an entry marked “Neil Tyson” -- the day that a young, aspiring astrophysicist named Neil Tyson met Carl Sagan (who passed away in 1996) for the first time. Dr. Tyson recalled the conclusion of his visit with Carl Sagan:

At the end of the day, he drove me back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper. And he said, "If the bus can't get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family."

I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.

Although Neil deGrasse Tyson is a modest person, he also has the unique ability that he credits Carl Sagan with -- namely to communicate complicated scientific subjects to a general, non-scientific audience.

When I look at the information security profession, I see a profession that can learn a lot from Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. At a high level, one of the greatest challenges we face as a community is how to communicate complicated, deeply technical security subjects to a business audience and/or a general audience. This challenge plays out time and time again -- in board meetings, on sales calls, during partner discussions, in the media, in educational settings, and elsewhere. Essentially, we want to inspire people to study, teach, and do security, just as Carl Sagan inspired people to study, teach, and do science.

Unfortunately, there are some people in the security community who tend to react to a lack of security knowledge in a snarky, condescending way. Sadly, this behavior also sometimes governs discourse within the security community itself. Needless to say, this does not help us to communicate. This approach causes people to tune out or ignore us, and as a result, opportunities to advance the state of security are often missed.

I am reminded of the quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. We in the security community can take a lesson from this to help us advance our ideas and improve the state of security. Communication is an art, and we as a community could learn a powerful lesson from the communication successes of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think this is something we can all keep in mind the next time we finds ourselves in a position to communicate something.

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