Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, said we need to keep kids’ natural curiosity, of exploration and discovery, alive. (haydenplanetarium.org/David Gamble)

A world-famous astrophysicist gave his first-ever Canadian talk in Winnipeg on Thursday afternoon.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, and a regular staple of American science television programming. He has appeared on networks like the Discovery Channel, PBS and, most recently, Fox, as the host of the rebooted Cosmos series.

Tyson was in Winnipeg on Thursday to give a public lecture at the University of Manitoba on how his childhood in New York’s Bronx borough set him on a journey that would see him become one of North America’s most respected and sought after science communicators.

Tyson visits Manitoba at a time when the latest Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report shows Manitoba students are slipping behind the rest of the country in science and math test scores.

Tyson, speaking with CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa, said kids are natural scientists, displaying amazing curiosity about the world around them. But “we spend the first year of a kid’s life teaching them to walk and talk, then we spend the rest of their life telling them to sit down and shut up.”

Tyson said a kid’s natural instinct is to explore their world, to climb trees and turn over rocks, and “we somehow view this as them playing … but I would rather think of them as scientists exploring the world around them.”

Tyson said all too often parents stifle these instincts in their kids in the interest of “a clean house.”

A parent himself, Tyson said he does everything he can to keep that natural curiosity alive.

When asked why it’s so important that Manitoba address the trend of declining math and science test scores Tyson said scientific thinkers are able to see problems differently — to turn disaster into opportunity.

“The universe is spilling over with energy [and] when you’re touched by the universe, by exploration and discovery, it invents the future,” he said.