Superstar astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is using your love of cheesy sci-films, comical beer commercials and iconic epics to do something really sneaky.
He wants to teach you something about the value of real science — his science, the science of the stars and the science of us.
Tyson is one smart guy. With a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University, he’s the director of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium in New York City, a research associate of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, and the host of “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” the 21st century reboot of Carl Sagan’s landmark “Cosmos” television series.
You wonder when he has time to even see movies, but he also is kind of a geek when it comes to popular culture, even if it’s in a suave sort of way. He’s funny, self-deprecating in just the right amount, and entirely passionate about the way our culture interacts with science and scientists.
He will share his insights with a Boise audience on Wednesday at the Morrison Center with his program “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.” The program takes you on a journey through contemporary American popular culture and explores the greater universe at the same time.
But you’re not going to hear about the films that knocked it out of the scientific park, he says, “because that would just be a pure science lesson and that’s less fun.”
“I’ll be talking about movies that try to get their science right, but failed in very interesting ways,” Tyson says. “You get to see where they made mistakes, then I tell you what it should have been if they did it correctly. And then there are movies that made no attempt to get it right at all, and they happened to get some of it right. I find that to be entertaining as well.”
“So, in the original ‘Star Wars’ film, there’s no correct science in it, so we don’t even attempt to explore that,” Tyson says.
But there’s an iconic scene in which Luke Skywalker comes out of his house on a desert planet to contemplate his situation while gazing at a double sunset in the distance.
“Now in astrophysics we know that more than half the stars in the night sky are double and multiple star systems. It’s one of the most common ways you’ll find stars in the galaxy,” he says.
And the suns are different colors indicating different temperatures.
“It was long overdue for a science-fiction portrayal of a plant revolving around a double star system. So, kudos for ‘Star Wars’ for even going there, for even knowing that was a place to go.”
Tyson keeps his talk relevant to the audience by focusing on movies, TV shows, etc., that a large number of people have seen, and still “about 10 percent of the people have not seen ‘Titanic.’ There’s no excuse to that, but it’s true,” he says with a laugh.
So what’s wrong in “Titanic”?
“That’s the movie for which the creators claimed to get everything right,” he says. “It was a major marketing thing for the film. They had images of the sunken Titanic, and they knew what the state rooms looked like and the china patterns, and the rivets on the side, and then we find out that the sky over the sinking Titanic is wrong.”
Tyson even managed to get director James Cameron to fix the sky. In his latest release, he cut in a new scene with the correct star orientations.
“I badgered him for a long time. I don’t know whether he thought it was a good idea or not,” he says. “I think I just annoyed the hell out of him.”
So, there are major motion pictures that are deeply flawed, and there are beer ads that get it spot on. Popular culture is funny that way.
“They’re often the least literate form that you can imagine — a commercial — but it’s clear that the people who wrote it had astronomy in college and liked it,” he says. “They got it right.”
And as much a part of our shared consciousness that science and scientists are, they still are only slowly gaining acceptance in the entertainment industry.
Wait, what about ‘The Big Bang Theory’?
“That’s the point exactly,” he says. “You have a sitcom that doesn’t even go out of its way to try and explain the science. It’s just folded into the personalities and the scripts. It sweeps up the low-hanging fruit, and it’s the No. 1 show on TV. They should have been doing this decades ago.”
So if the “Big Bang” is the low-hanging fruit, what’s the next level fruit?
“‘The Martian,’” he says. “There’s storytelling that fundamentally tapped the uncertainties in doing what has never been done before, and applying the creativity of science, technology, engineering and math, in order to survive.”
Then, the next step is to fold science into our popular culture so that characters in shows and the movies just happen to have friends who are scientists.
“The scientist next door, why not?” he asks. “You could have a rom-com, for example, with a character who is an astrophysicist, and you know, they take their love interest to the telescope on the rooftop. Now, you have a legitimate excuse to bring someone to a rooftop at night.”
After all, science fiction is an important cultural expression that inspires us to reach for the stars. Nearly an entire generation created a future that matched the 1960s “Star Trek” TV series because we were so enchanted by it.
That’s a testament to the “Star Trek” creators who shot for real science fiction as opposed to fake.
“They thought it through,” he says. “They have the matter/antimatter drive. There’s the dilithium crystal that is the power source. There’s an entire back story as to how one would try making the phaser, the tricorder, the transporter. Back then they had a computer that you put a disk into, and it gave you information. That didn’t exist at the time. Now it does, and we’ve gone beyond it.”
There even is a current push to develop a something like a tricorder.
“Yeah, something that’s hand held that can scan inside your body — and it will be invented, not by a biologist, but by a technologist who knows biology and physics,” Tyson says.
Tyson speaks with an unshakable confidence that there isn’t anything that can’t be understood — eventually — through science, though he admits that not everyone agrees.
“People say science will never find out meaning,” he says. “They say science finds out how and religion finds out why. Why is there gravity? I don’t know. It just is, but we understand it well enough to land a rover on Mars within 10 feet of a target. That’s pretty good.
“Why haven’t you fallen in love yet? Well, do you spend much time at the fitness center, or art galleries, or someplace where you might find someone who is lovable to you? No. You’re staying at home. So, there are lots of whys that are analyzable, and we can come up with reasons for the why.
“The history of this enterprise of confronting a question we don’t have an answer to and then solving it by applying the methods of science has been so successful in the history of civilization that I’m not going to stand here flatfooted and say that there are things science will never understand.”
‘An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies’
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 15, Morrison Center, 2201 Cesar Chavez Lane, Boise. $85 general, $25 Boise State University students (limited), $150 and $250 VIP. Ticketmaster.