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Dr. Chris Martine Headshot

Defining Neil deGrasse Tyson's 'Generation Exoplanet'

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If you were born after 1995, Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't satisfied with calling you a Millennial. In his mind you're part of something new: Generation Exoplanet.

In an address at Bucknell University on Jan. 30, the astrophysicist, midway through comments on the brief history of exoplanet research, looked out and asked for a show of hands. How many people there were born after 1995, when the first planet outside our solar system was discovered?

Hands shot up around our packed 1,200-seat Weis Center, some of our sophomores representing the oldest of the bunch.

"We should be calling you guys the Exoplanet Generation," Tyson declared.

And then, deeming this a declaration worth sharing beyond the room, he took out his phone and said, "I'm going to tweet that."

For more than five minutes (six by his own count) we watched while this great man of science communication stood on the stage composing a tweet, occasionally verbalizing a need to reduce the words in it to come under the 140-character maximum.

Some of the elders among us, Gen X'ers and those more senior, seemed appalled. It was apparent as it was happening, but it became even more so by the next morning, when the online sharing really started rolling. This was to become the "tweet-pause" heard 'round our Central Pennsylvania hamlet of Lewisburg. For some it was taken as a display of rudeness, an indication that the live audience was not worth our invited speaker's respect.

But another thing was going on while we old folks were wringing our hands and thinking, "Is this really happening?"

Throughout the auditorium young faces were illuminated by the white glow of electronic devices. The Exoplanets and those left to call themselves Millennials weren't waiting for Dr. Tyson to resume speaking. They were waiting for his tweet to appear on their Twitter feeds.

And when it finally did, they cheered and applauded.

At that moment his clever bit of word play, apparently brought about spontaneously while we watched, was beamed out to Tyson's nearly 1.7 million Twitter followers -- and then retweeted about 100 times before he had even resumed his prepared remarks seconds later.

We had shared a moment. And now our moment was in the Twittersphere, digitally on the record and free for all to see. For the screen watchers it meant that they were now having a worthwhile experience. And every time that tweet would be shared, their experience would be made even more valid. By morning retweets and "favorites" were each over 1,000.

For Generation Exoplanet this sort of thing is gold. In a generation that appears to define the value of its very thoughts and feelings by how many shares they get, Tyson had made "being there" so much more. In other words, the dude gets it -- and his young fans love him for that.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder, as he continued on with his talk and worked to inspire us to think bigger and dream greater about science and innovation, if this was even possible for his newly anointed demographic.

Can Generation Exoplanet really train their eyes on the depths of the cosmos and imagine the possibilities of the universe when they can't often see beyond the lengths of their slightly bent arms? Can one embrace the galaxy with one's thumbs?

I believe so. But it will require that they occasionally do what humankind has done since the beginning -- and what Dr. Tyson told us he did the first time he came to Central Pennsylvania as a kid.

Every once in a while they will need to move their eyes off the screens in their hands and turn them upward.