Pop culture-savvy astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has used wit and an encyclopedic handle on what humans know about the universe to spark the public's interest in science.
Stepping in where his mentor Carl Sagan left off, he charmed us on late-night talk shows. He wowed us with a revival of Sagan's Cosmos, the hit television miniseries explaining the mysteries of space and the world as we know it. People magazine dubbed him the "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive."
On Thursday, our nation's best-known science teacher is bringing his popular multimedia lecture to Tampa for a sold-out show at the David A. Straz Jr. Center's Morsani Hall.
It will be like sitting next to him on the couch while he's surfing channels, he said on a recent telephone call from his office at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He will be fact-checking the science found in Hollywood creations, from The Martian to A Bug's Life. And he's amazed at the popularity of his shows, which have been selling out across the country.
"It's remarkable that thousands of people will show up to hear an astrophysics lecture," Tyson said.
The 58-year-old king of the geeks was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in public schools, graduating from the Bronx High School of Science. He earned a bachelor's in physics from Harvard and his doctorate in astrophysics is from Columbia.
His professional specialties are broad. They include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies and the structure of our Milky Way. But he tries to explain any science question that comes his way, from time travel to why Florida is weird.
We couldn't resist the chance to ask such a smart man to explain some things:
I've got some burning questions I've always wanted to ask an astrophysicist.
Go for it. Bring it on.
How do you pronounce the name of the seventh planet from the sun that starts with the letter U?
It depends on whether or not you're in fourth grade. "Yurr-in-us" is how we generally do it.
Did Pluto get what it deserves getting kicked out of the planet club?
Well, it's not so much that it deserves it. It's that it had it coming from the beginning. It really never belonged there in the first place. It was because of high hopes and expectations when it was discovered and the resisting force of the fact that an American discovered it so … You add all these factors together, plus we had a cartoon character named for it. But our moon is five times the mass of Pluto. That's just embarrassing for Pluto.
Now, this isn't really a science question. You and I were both Libras until NASA announced it was changing the whole zodiac system and adding an entirely new sign. Did it bug you like it did me a little bit to now be a Virgo?
A couple of things. The fact that there are 13 constellations in the zodiac as the sun passes across 13 constellations in a year, it's been that way for about a century. Every 18 months or two years, somebody announces this and the press becomes very excited and thinks it's a brand-new story.
Look up. Google this. You'll find every couple years, it surfaces. It's the constellation Ophiuchus. The sun spends more time passing through Ophiuchus than it does passing through Scorpius. If you thought you were Scorpio, you were probably an Ophiuchus and all the constellations have shifted since they were first laid out on the service of astrologers. They've shifted by an entire sign, if you will. All Ophiuchans and Scorpions are currently Libras.
Does it bug you to have your field of science involved in astrology?
It's a free country, so if you want to really believe that the stars are influencing you, go right ahead. I think what we should try to do is make sure that those people are not in charge of other people. That's when you have problems.
From a scientific point of view, do you think Florida really is weirder than the rest of the country? Could there be an astrophysical reason for this?
Maybe there is a cosmic spirit force that exists in the surrounding waterways that is trying to tell you that most of Florida will be underwater in the not-too-distant future. It will be the first of the 50 states for the rising oceanic sea levels to affect. Maybe that is influencing people's rational thought. I don't know.
We only have a few places left in Florida that can be classified as dark skies. Is this something preservationists should embrace?
Everyone I know who looks up at the fully starlit night sky for the first time, those who have been light polluted their whole life or just never thought to look up, they're star-struck by it. They notice things. You'll see the moon go through its phases, and the planets move slowly against the background stars. There is a connectivity to nature, to the machinery of the universe that access to the night sky brings. If you do not curtail light pollution, then everyone one of us will live in a certain kind of blind ignorance of the universe in which we're embedded. As a scientist and as just a general all-around serious person, I'm thinking that if you had the power to prevent that, wouldn't you? I would.
What does Hollywood always get wrong about space?
Well, they put sound in space. It would just be a complete silent movie, if that were the case. You need a medium through which the sound can propagate to get from one place to another. In the vacuum of space, explosions or visual spectacles are completely silent until you're hit with the blast wave. Then you'll feel something.
You've made it your mission to get us to be scientifically literate. Do you get a little depressed sometimes?
No, because there is a very strong and growing science literacy movement that I think manifests in uncommon ways. For example, look at the number of people who attend Comic-Con. Everyone who goes to Comic-Con is, at some level, scientifically literate. They may be dressing up like Klingons and Xena the Warrior Princess, but at the end of the day, they know the difference.
It's a social and cultural phenomenon. The fact that the No. 1 show in any genre on television is The Big Bang Theory and it has a Ph.D. physicist as a senior adviser to the show, these are all real signs that there is an appetite out there. For whoever is left over, who rejects science literacy, in a free country, they can do that. But I think they're rapidly becoming in the minority.
That sounds hopeful.
That's right, exactly.
Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @SharonKWn.