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Looking at the stars with Neil deGrasse Tyson

| Thursday, March 23, 2017

neil degrasse full pg WEB (2)Cristina Interiano | The Observer

We’ve all gone to see a movie with the wrong person: that one who has entirely too much commentary, or that one whose warm breath you can feel assaulting your eardrum as they enthusiastically whisper something unintelligible.

It might be more tolerable if that person were Neil deGrasse Tyson. Thankfully, the outspoken astrophysicist gave his commentary in a different format at Morris Performing Art Center’s event this past Tuesday night, “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.”

“Is there anyone here who has no idea what this show is about?” Tyson said. “So, you just came because you love me.” He smiled warmly and kicked off his shoes behind the podium, getting comfortable.

Tyson’s energetic mannerisms were surprising compared with his more stoic persona on “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.” At the Morris, he glided across the stage and flailed his arms at the screen.

“Most times an academic gives a talk, it’s a loosely-veiled commercial for a book they’re trying to sell you,” he accused, just before he introduced his own upcoming book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” As he spoke, covers of the various books he’s authored appeared on the screen behind him.

Equally famous for his scientific contributions and his Twitter rants, Tyson drew a crowd of all ages. I noticed a small boy in a button-down shirt sitting two seats away from me, excitedly awaiting the show. The front section was filled with even more kids, some as young as 8 years old. 

In the past, Tyson has made waves with his movie critiques, but his Twitter commentary caused too much of a ruckus. Now, he prefers to speak with a small, loving audience, like the one gathered at the Morris on Tuesday evening.

An inside look revealed what goes on in Tyson’s head as he watches movies, from those movies that don’t care about science at all to those that manage, against all expectations, to get some things right. He commented on movies’ treatment of topics from killer asteroids to surface tension. As it turns out, movies do a lot better with surface tension.

It wasn’t a problem if you hadn’t seen a particular movie because Tyson showed each clip before discussing it. He showed a clip from “Armageddon” and criticized the film. “Meteors come from space, these look like they’re being launched from Jersey.” Maybe this was a hidden subplot, but more likely it was a disregard of science.

“Star Trek” and “A Bug’s Life” — both of which accurately displayed surface tension — were unlikely victors of the night. “Star Trek” showed blood in zero gravity, leaving bodies in large blobs. Tyson explained that, counter to audience expectations, this blood was actually realistic: “Nope, your blood would do that too.”

Tyson satirized actors like Jodie Foster, who makes a blatant math error in “Contact.” She uses a version of the Drake equation, which estimates the odds of finding intelligent life beyond Earth with simple fractions, yielding a result of “millions” when the answer should have been just a tiny decimal. He pointed out that Jodie Foster went to Yale — “You’d think they had arithmetic at Yale.”

As an astrophysicist, Tyson keeps a special place in his heart for the night sky, and sees it as his duty to defend it. This got him into an extensive debate with James Cameron over the director’s night sky in “Titanic.” Tyson ended up contributing a new night sky for the re-release. The already shoeless Tyson flaunted his victory with a celebratory moonwalk.

If “Titanic” can’t get the sky right, who can? Apparently, Corona can. Tyson lauded the makers of a Corona commercial for knowing that twilight is short in the tropics, and that a full moon will rise in the opposite direction that the sun sets. 

Tyson never missed an opportunity for social commentary. He read the closing sequence of the 2005 movie “War of the Worlds.” He noted the passage had been taken from the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells, but the filmmaker slightly adjusted the wording to say “God’s wisdom” instead of  “natural selection.” Was the mention of evolution really too controversial for a 2005 film?

Tyson also included some important discussion of alien butts. His biggest problem with aliens in the movies is their humanoid shape. In one commercial Tyson highlighted, some people offer a bar, stools and all, to attract the terrestrial lifeforms. Tyson points out that the fatal assumption of the bar stools is that the aliens have a butt to sit on. Tyson argued, gesturing to a silhouette image, that countless movies depict aliens as similar to humans, right down to the butt muscles. When so many animals on earth, like lobsters and bees, have such different shapes than us, how can we assume aliens – with which we share no DNA – would take our shape? Tyson criticized our human-centric mindset and later revealed that his favorite alien shape is the Blob.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s extraordinary intelligence and eloquence are well known, but he impressed with his ability to relate to people and make them laugh. Next time you see a movie, bring an astrophysicist.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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