Neil deGrasse Tyson Turns Twitter Feed Into Live Show, Sciences The Sh*t Out Of Movies
Neeeeeeeeerd! We mean that the good way, of course.
Cosmos host, science-popularizing superhero (that is not a bad thing!) and all around Geek Icon Neil deGrasse Tyson is touring the nation with a nifty media-lecture presentation called "An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies," tickets for which will run you roughly the same as a midrange concert (say Tony Bennett or Barry Manilow. Way less than Beyoncé, way more than They Might Be Giants). Totally worth it, not just for the lecture and the Basking In Celebrity-Scientist aura, but also for the little girl sitting in the front row of the balcony with a model of the Solar System woven into her hair.
Tyson is no doubt making really good bank on this, and that's fine with us. The man provides a public service by keeping science in the public eye, and for squooshing pseudoscience like a common Periplaneta americana under his shoes. Which, by the way, he takes off when he's onstage, because he's Neil deGrasse Tyson, and are you going to tell him he has to wear shoes? No you are not. The talk runs a good two hours, and if you've read his loving nitpicks of science in movies on Twitter, you largely know what to expect: a dedicated geek's enthusiasm for both entertainment and depictions of science that get it right, and amused scorn for those times when movies get it very, very wrong.
Tyson has a simple standard for science in movies, taking his cue from Mark Twain: "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." He also insists he's misunderstood: When he points out science flaws in movies, it's not because he's trying to ruin the movie magic. He tweets because he thinks the movies are at least worth taking seriously enough to critique.
Tyson likes movies that are really entertaining but hilariously indifferent to realism, like Armageddon. Entire introductory physics courses have been designed around what that movie gets wrong, he says. And he likes movies which make an effort to get science right, and mostly do, with some fun "didja notice that?" exceptions. Gravity, for instance, did a fine job of depicting how a catastrophic chain of space debris collisions could trash satellites in orbit. But for all the impressive microgravity special effects, they forgot to make Sandra Bullock's bangs float away from her forehead like a real astronaut's would. And (Spoiler alert!) if George Clooney let go of the tether he's holding on to, he'd just float there next to it, not go flying off into the void. Sandra Bullock could have rescued him with a tug, then they could have floated romantically toward each other until their spacesuit helmets' faceplates collided and shattered, killing them instantly. SNL had some fun with Tyson's tweets on the matter:
The talk is a pleasantly rambling mix of science, movie trivia, and obsessive geekery from a guy who says one of his formative movie/science intersections came as an undergraduate astrophysics major, when a girlfriend asked him, near the end of the Christopher Reeves Superman, "Is that even possible?" when Supes turns back time and saves Lois Lane by reversing the rotation of the Earth. First off, he says, he was a bit annoyed she didn't ask him right from the start if a guy in spandex with jockey shorts on the outside could fly. And no, not only would stopping the Earth and making it go the other way not make time go backward, it would cause everyone and everything on the planet to fly East at about 800 mph until they squashed against something firmly attached to the ground. And then just a few decades later, Tyson actually got to meet Superman:
Along the way, moving through an outline of topics like time travel, life in the universe, mathematics, the second law of thermodynamics, and so on, we mostly get treated to a hodgepodge of science/movie trivia, like for instance how the astrophysicist character played by Jodie Foster in Contact oversimplifies the Drake Equation, stating that with about 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, if only one in a million has planets, and one in a million of those planets has life, and one in a million of those planets has intelligent life, then there could still be tens of thousands of civilizations Out There. Tyson (who was a student of Carl Sagan at Cornell before Sagan got famous and wrote the novel) did the math in his head while attending the premiere, and realized the math was all wrong: all those million in one fractions total several decimal places to the right of zero. And presumably, we know there's at least one planet with intelligent life, which is us (debatable of course). Tyson says he whispered this to Frank Drake himself, the inventor of the real equation, who was there too, and Drake shushed him and hissed "It's only a movie!" Yeah, Neil: repeat to yourself "It's just a show. I should really just relax."
You want a little mathematics? Look no further than The Expendables 2, where for some reason Dolph Lundgren scribbles down Einstein's field equation on a napkin, saying he's "improved" it. He then blows his nose into the napkin. Tyson points out one small error in the scene -- Lundgren says it's the "special theory of relativity" when in fact it's the general theory. Then he lets us know why the scene exists at all: Dolph Lundgren has a Master's Degree in chemical engineering, and the writers threw in the scene as a tribute to his real-life educational achievements before he started blowing stuff up in action movies.
Tyson also had no end of fun showing beer commercials that got science far more right in just 30 seconds than lots of feature films do. A Heinecken ad with a remarkably accurate landing sequence for a Mars rover -- which turns into a bar ("Get your facts first..." Tyson reminded us). A Corona ad that got sunsets and moonrises exactly right for the tropics: the sun sets pretty much vertically at the equator, and then all the partiers run to the other side of the island to watch the full moon rise -- in the east, opposite the sun and exactly where it belongs -- so they can continue partying. And a Guinness ad with a fairly accurate summary of evolution. Said Tyson, "Isn't it strange that a beer commercial is more accurate on the topic of human evolution... [Next slide: A screenshot of a blog story (sadly not ours) on Ben Carson calling evolution a satanic lie] ... than our presidential candidates?" Thunderous applause. Boise's got secularists!
You want time travel? Tyson doesn't muck about with any of the physics at all here, because he wants us all to share one of his favorite movie easter eggs, from Back To The Future: When the movie starts in 1985, Marty McFly meets Doc Brown at the "Twin Pines Mall," then takes the Delorean time machine back to 1955, where the same land is the "Twin Pines Ranch" (and malls always get named for whatever natural spots they're built over). The rancher shoots at Marty, causing him to lose control of the car and crash into one of the ranch's eponymous twin pine trees, knocking it over and uprooting it. At the end of the movie, when Marty gets back to the future, he arrives in time to see Doc Brown survive the terrorist attack -- at the "Lone Pine Mall." There's no science to it, but it's a great gag. Tyson said Christopher Lloyd had no idea the joke was in the movie until they chatted about it on Tyson's "Star Talk" radio show.
The fun thing about such rampant nerdery? It inspires MORE rampant nerdery. As Tyson finished this bit, Kid Zoom leaned over and said, "My god, I just realized: the main characters in 'Gravity Falls' are the Pines twins." Great Scott! And of course "Gravity Falls" has any number of cartoony references to "Twin Peaks," including a voice cameo by Kyle McLachlan in the final episode. Connections everywhere!
Want your mind blown to one more degree? In the Halloween anthology episode of "Gravity Falls," Mabel's pet pig Waddles eats some brain goo that makes him superintelligent. And you just know who they got to voice the superintelligent pig:
All in all, it was a thoroughly fun evening with America's biggest geek and most popular science popularizer. You'll learn more about science watching Cosmos again on Netflix. But it's a hell of a lot of fun to catch some movie trivia with your buddy Dr. Tyson, too.
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.