The director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium and host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is perhaps the most prolific science communicator in the country. We caught up with him in advance of his touring show to talk about science in storytelling, doing the math on the Death Star, and which moon is the best for ice fishing.
Dan Letchworth: Where did the idea for An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies come from?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: People were intensely interested when I had something scientific to say about a movie that they loved—or didn’t love. The presentation goes a full two hours, and you see clips from about 30 movies or so that deserve scientific analysis. Some are critical, where they got it wrong; others are praiseworthy, where they got it right. It’s this mixture of all the ways science has manifested in the storytelling of film.
DL: As a copy editor, I can sympathize with being so passionate about a subject that you want to get the tiniest details right. But how do you turn the corner from seeming like you’re nitpicking, to instead using mistakes as teachable moments?
NdGT: My goal is to enhance your moviegoing experience, give you things to think about. Nitpicking would be continuity problems, but that’s not the kind of thing I’m highlighting. Here’s an example: in Star Wars, the Death Star had enough energy to completely destroy a planet. But why would you destroy an entire planet if you’re just angry with whoever’s living on its surface? If you have that power, you surely have the power to kill your enemy and then keep the planet afterward! It’s overkill.
DL: You’ve got some advice for the Emperor.
NdGT: So, but—here’s the thing. The one in The Force Awakens sucks up all the energy of a star, making it that much more powerful. You can calculate how much energy is stored in a star, and when you do, you have vastly more energy than what they use. Starkiller Base could destroy six or eight planets at a time, but if you took all the energy of a star, you could destroy a thousand planets. So, this is an occasion where they had an interesting idea but didn’t do the math on it.
DL: So depicting the actual science would seem too unbelievable, because the layperson’s expectations are less spectacular?
NdGT: Except, in modern times the number of scientifically literate people watching films is huge. And it would create an entire subculture of conversation about what they got right. That’s the kind of buoyant force that keeps science fiction films going. The geekiverse communicates with one another about such details.
DL: You’re so prolific; is there any question you get so often you’re tired of answering it?
NdGT: Oh no. Every question is important to that person, and I respect that above all else. It’s part of your duty as an educator to respect the enthusiasm that the nth person has on the topic.
DL: Great! In that case, I have two extremely specific topics to ask about. First: Scientists recently confirmed the existence of gravity waves after detecting them when two black holes collided. Can you tell me why this is a big deal?
NdGT: Gravity waves—ripples in the fabric of space and time—were probably the longest outstanding unverified prediction in physics. The prediction was made in 1916 and confirmed in 2015. It took a century! In fact, Einstein said they would be so weak we’d never be able to measure them—he went so far as to say it was impossible. For many of us in the field, what was extraordinary wasn’t the fact that two black holes collided, it was that we actually figured out how to detect the damn thing. That is a major feat of engineering.
DL: Second: Would you mind explaining what the Fermi Paradox is?
NdGT: The nearest stars are four light-years away. Let’s say we figure out how to move at 20 percent the speed of light; it would take 20 years to get there. We go there, create a civilization and bring the technology that got us there, and now visit two more stars, like a plant sending off branches. You go from one star to two to four to eight, and each one of these is like 20 years, right? You can populate the entire galaxy with this process in 100 million years. Way less time than the evolutionary time scale on earth. But the universe has been around for billions of years—so the paradox is, anyone who could have figured out how to do this would already be here.
DL: Isn’t that discouraging? That we might be all there is?
NdGT: No, it doesn’t mean we’re all there is; it means aliens are not hegemonic. It’s been suggested that the urge to colonize the galaxy is self-limiting, because it would implode on itself. They would have warring factions continually. Think about it: Since when has colonization been a peaceful activity ever? Another idea is that the aliens are out there and they have visited Earth, but decided there’s no sign of intelligent life here!
DL: If you could explore any one planet or moon, where would you go?
NdGT: I would go to Jupiter’s moon Europa and go ice fishing, to see if there’s anything swimming in the billion-year-old ocean beneath the kilometer of ice on top.
DL: If you could be any element, which would you be?
NdGT: I would say… a toss-up between carbon and osmium. Carbon is so badass. I mean, you can make graphite, which you can write with, or you can make diamonds that last 100 million years. The versatility of carbon knows no bounds. And osmium is the densest element out there. A cubic foot of it weighs 1,800 pounds. That’s badass, too. "Don’t mess with me, I’m osmium."
DL: What’s the first sci-fi story you would recommend to someone who’s new to the genre?
NdGT: I like it when a story tries to see how science wraps back into human culture. The Carl Sagan book and film Contact has that. It explores how we might react to contact with intelligent aliens socially, culturally, religiously, politically—these are the institutions that comprise society, and occasionally scientific discovery influences or has to be reckoned with by them.
DL: You and Carl Sagan both have, and had, such a talent for making science more relatable to everything else about human culture.
NdGT: Thanks. I think that helps to mainstream science. It’s not just some subject you can step around or over—you have to go through it, exactly because it is a fundamental dimension of how we live, of life itself.
An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies
September 26, Civic Theatre