Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview

The most famous astrophysicist in the world, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is coming to Cleveland, Ohio for an engagement at KeyBank State Theatre at Playhouse Square on Wednesday, February 22! An event the renowned genius is putting on is titled ‘An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies,’ which will be an evening where Dr. Tyson will dissect the accuracies and inaccuracies of scientific aspects from popular films.

“I’ll be showing dozens of movie clips. They are short; 30 seconds; maybe 10 seconds. In these clips is some bit of science that the film either got right or got wrong,” he said of his upcoming engagement during a recent phone interview with CleveRock. “What they got right, I will celebrate. It’s only interesting if they got it right when you never expected them to get it right.”

Analyzing the accuracy of science in movies may seem like a bizarre choice for someone of Dr. Tyson’s level. One might assume a more Ted Talk-esque or a lecture for his fellow intellects.

“I’m not unmindful that it is a theater, where people normally would see Broadway or music; or some artistic performance,” he explains. “To hear a scientist talk about movies; don’t ever think that I don’t think that’s weird. This is odd!”

“Knowing this, I want to make sure that if you have a night out…Is it date night? Is it a geek night out? Do you want to bring a friend that’s not a geek and expose them to what the geek world is like? The mixture of people who attend this is huge,” Dr. Tyson acknowledges. “I’m delighted when I see that. Families come out; old folks, retired folks come out; people coming from work who ate out and then came straight to the show are there, too.”

His takes on the movie clips will be a mixture of humor, education, and enlightenment. Audiences at previous engagements have been as surprised as Dr. Tyson as to which films meet accurate scientific portrayals.

There are movies where you think the science would be accurate, but it’s not. And, it’s not just being nitpicky. I could highlight, for example, when people’s shadows continually change lengths during scenes because they can’t control the sun and they have to retape some things,” he observes. “There’s a scene in the original ‘Top Gun’ where he’s in the backyard sipping wine and the level of wine keeps going up and down from one moment to the next. I notice this, but that’s the not kind of stuff I’m calling out. I’m calling out the stuff that is important to the plot. And, I will criticize it if, had they gotten the science right, they could have told a better story. That’s where I usually call out a movie.”

Skeptics might consider the good doctor to be a bit of an elitist. After all, most films are meant to be entertaining and often require an artistic license and deviation from reality.

“I think I’m often misunderstood in the sense that if you look hard at something that was filmed in 1958, and there’s a 1962 Chevy Bel Air parked in the road. If your friend points it out it’s like, ‘Hey! You know your cars!’ But when I point out science, people say, ‘it’s just a movie, get out of the theater,’” he said with a laugh. “I tell you, I get no respect! I just want the science commentary to receive the same level of respect that other people with expertise comment on stuff. I just get a little disappointed when they could have told a better story. That’s all I ask. To make it clear, most of the films are not science fiction films. They are regular films that may or may not have got the science right in them, that’s all.”

According to Dr. Tyson, beer commercials and the 1998 Pixar film, ‘A Bug’s Life’ have something in common: scientific accuracy!

“There’s a remarkable number of scientifically accurate beer commercials. I found them. Incidentally, when I catch it in a beer commercial I’m like, ‘Whoa! That was cool,’” Dr. Tyson said with excitement in his voice. “Beer commercials are always showing something or another. You’d be surprised. I’m just saying I notice this stuff.”

There is remarkably accurate science in the Pixar movie ‘A Bug’s Life.’ I don’t want that to go unrecognized,” he said. “There’s an ant colony being terrorized by grasshoppers who keep stealing all the food and making them work for it. The geek ant that goes to the roughnecks to rally them against the grasshoppers goes to the bar and sees a mosquito at the bar and the mosquito is ordering a drink.”

Dr. Tyson paused to ask me if I recalled what drink the mosquito ordered. Much like high school science classes, I blanked when put on the spot. The only thing I could speculate is that it had something to do with blood!

“He’s ordering a bloody mary. Of course, it does! There’s way more thought that went into this,” he reminded me.

Dr. Tyson paused again with a second trivia question, this time asking me what the flies ordered at the bar. I couldn’t pinpoint it other than to guess it was something disgusting.

“They ordered pu pu platter!”

This is why this man is a world-renowned astrophysicist and I am a high school teacher!

The scientific accuracy continues in the details. This is what impressed Dr. Tyson the most.

“The bartender serves the mosquito a bloody mary, but it’s just a blob of bloody mary liquid plumped down on the table. Then you realize, they’re insects, they don’t need glasses, because the surface tension of the liquid contains the liquid in a little bowl,” he said. “Just the way when you wax your car and the water beads up if you are the size of that bead, that’s all you need. You don’t put it in another receptacle. So when the mosquito sticks the proboscis into the thing and then sucks it out, I thought, ‘damn, that’s good!’

With his wealth of knowledge and love of films, I asked Dr. Tyson if he would ever consider taking a gig as a consultant for a film to ensure its scientific soundness.

“If an artist made a call to me to infuse their work with a little bit of science that wouldn’t otherwise be there; I’m there! I’d be on their doorstep five minutes later,” he answered. “I value the role that art plays in our society. It helps us feel a way we didn’t know how to feel. If they judge that science helps their art; I’m there. As long as there is some sense of the science that I am bringing to the project, I’ll do crazy things. I don’t have to have an entirely accurate scientific movie from beginning to end. I want to help the artist. I don’t want to be the artist. Most of the things I would recommend or offer, you don’t need me for. You could grab a graduate student who needs the money. I don’t need to tell you where the sun was on a particular today unless you like the marquee value of my name in your credits.”

“This is my first time through Cleveland with this, so you’re getting the original, but there’s a sequel to this which is called An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, the Sequel,” he said.

Hopefully, that will surface sometime down the road in Cleveland!

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