Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers Neil to Dr. Tyson. Perhaps that's why the astrophysicist/director of the Hayden Planetarium/TV host/Twitter star has attained such massive popularity over the years: He's down to earth, and he makes learning about his passion -- science -- feel not so complicated and unapproachable.
His most recent endeavor is "An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies," which he brings to the Kimmel Center on Wednesday, when he'll discuss the science behind movies ranging from Star Wars to Frozen to The Martian.
What got you into pop culture?
I kept people's attentions for longer if I plugged pop culture into what I was talking about. There's a lot of really great science for science's sake. But that gets people who already lean toward science. That gets the subset of people, not the majority. So what I've been doing is cladding your pop-culture scaffold with science insights. We're attaching science to what you already care about. You'll invest much more energy thinking about and learning about that topic.
Eating vegetables because they are covered in cheese.
You come for the pop culture and stay for the science. That's why my guests on the show [National Geographic's Star Talk] are essentially people from pop culture and are not scientists at all. If we have a scientist, it's because they have some other expertise that touches pop culture. Like, I have a friend and colleague who is a professor at the University of Minnesota. He wrote a book called the Physics of Superheroes. Oh, my god! One of the great sources of science in pop culture is our movies. If I can find science in those, you'll be all over it.
Give me an example not included in An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies.
There's two levels: (1) They got this wrong for no reason; all they had to do was ask somebody. I comment on a few of those, but it's way more interesting to say, 'They got this wrong, but if they'd gotten it right, the plot line would have been that much more enhanced.' Those are more interesting to the listener. I'll have four times as many films to talk about than will ever fit in our talk. In the movie L.A. Story with Steve Martin and Sarah Jessica Parker, Steve Martin has this romance, and they don't tell you how long the romance takes. In the old days, you might see a calendar on the wall, but in this movie, you see the moon go from a crescent to a full. So the story takes two weeks. But the moon goes in the wrong direction [laughs].
Today, with the richness and the energy invested in the blogsophere, if you get good science right, people are going to talk about it. Look how many people attend Comic Con. These are people who care about science in movies. Give us those biscuits, and we'll praise you for it if you do it right. It's no different if you're a car expert and you see a movie from 1968 and you see a later model in the movie. You complain. In Titanic, if you saw Leo walk out with tie-dyed bell bottoms, you'd complain.
You can't fudge it.
That's simply being lazy on the part of the director. Some think if they get the science right, it will constrain them. I have examples where obscure physics are included and they completely make the scene.
By doing these talks about pop culture, you don't want to preach to the choir anymore?
That's not what's in my head. I don't say, 'This is important to know.' I say, 'This is really cool to know.' It's an offering. I offer you a cosmic perspective in science literacy that you can apply to the rest of your life. That ownership means I tell you something, and it's true not just because I said it's true, but because you understand why.
You want people to take ownership of knowledge.
People ask what I want to be remembered for. Uh, nothing. This is about people's empowerment, about learning why things work.