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An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson

On October 17 the Two Gay Geeks trekked towards downtown Phoenix where we found ourselves in front of the Comerica Theater. This is a multi-use theater that seats 5,000 people and we were here for an event like no other. It wasn’t a rock concert (we’ve been to plenty of those at the Comerica), or even a comedy show. Although in retrospect it could be considered somewhat comedic because the joke was on me, and all in a good way. There were huge crowds already on the street, much larger than I have ever seen for any other event taking place here. I was surprised to see people from all walks of life, ranging from geeks of all ages, to men and women who were dressed EXTREMELY nicely, almost as if they were attending something very formal. It was the biggest mix of people I have ever encountered at an event of this nature, and we were all here to see the noted scientist and veritable rock star in the field of astrophysics, the man that some consider to be the heir apparent to the late Carl Sagan, the one and only Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Neither Keith nor I had any idea what to expect. We have watched him on the new Cosmos series (he just finished working on season 2 of the series and shared that he had also done some voice over work in a Phoenix studio for the series earlier that day), plus we recently went through a series of science lectures that are available on Netflix. Still, to see a man of this nature live was something we were very excited to experience, and yet had no idea what shape this “show” was going to take.
For starters, Neil is incredibly personable. He is one of those select few that make science extremely approachable, and perhaps even fun. He is a reminder of a time long past in the post-Edwardian period where scientists were considered rock stars. To attend there lectures and demonstrations was a very popular common pastime. People in that field were celebrated. It wasn’t until later that other renowned scientists would find their names given some sort of mainstream status, but they were of the type didn’t seek fame and fortune (not that Neil does that). Instead they were all about researching new, emerging truths. In many cases they’re considered to be the pinnacle of what we would call a nerd. Neil is not the kind of person that one imagines when using the word nerd, but there is no doubt that he is. Fortunately he’s also a pleasant throwback to those turn of the century scientists that people clamored to hear and see.
Neil came on stage to thunderous applause, and even a standing ovation. He had a hand mic that he kept low towards his waist because he had a BOOOOOMIIIING voice. On the stage with him was a simple chest-high table with a laptop computer where he was controlling images on a giant digital project screen behind him. The last time he was here the theme of his presentation was about science in the movies (we sadly were not able to attend that), but this time he wanted to talk about the search for life on other worlds. The presentation would sometimes take tangents into other areas of science (e.g. explaining some of the differences between Newtonian Physics and Quantum Mechanics), but through it all the discussion was about the search for the possibility of life elsewhere. However, to kick things off he decided to address a touchy issue to some, and that is in regards to the dwarf planet Pluto. He flashed a series of text messages that at first had the audience laughing, and then later split them down the middle.

PLUTO
NOT A PLANET
GET OVER IT!

He admitted that while he was not directly responsible for the committing of that crime, he did drive the getaway car (his own metaphor). I’m not personally sure what his precise role in that planetary controversy, but he wanted to address that point right from the start.
Once that was done he gave a basic look at the universe, then sort of reduced it to our own galaxy and then our own solar system. The discussion started with the planet Mercury, and from there started working out. It was when he got to the planet Mars that some interesting things were discussed. First he shared some amazing pictures taken by the Mars Rover that garnered some interesting “ooohs” and “aaahs” from the audience, as well as a protracted discussion about the nature of water on the planet’s surface (which included a bit of chat regarding Percival Lowell where he amusingly forgot he was talking to Arizonans and how we have the Lowell Observatory up in Flagstaff AZ), but the biggest surprise there came from the idea that we might actually be descended from Martians! Apparently there is a theory that there might have been some intense asteroid impact on the surface of Mars that could have flung some of their surface into space, which in turn carried some of the remains of organic life that may have existed on Mars, and when it landed on Earth it might have helped to spawn life, or at least affect its evolutionary process. He then went further out into the solar system and spent some time talking about the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and the possibility of supporting life there.

Later, just to show what type of geek Neil really is, he shared a fun fact that he had “discovered” the sun that the planet Krypton orbited around. Yes, we are talking THE very same Krypton as in the home of Kal-El, better known as Superman! He then shared a story about how the writers at DC Comics wanted to use the planetarium where he currently serves as director, and when he asked why he was informed that it had to do with a story where Superman wanted to observe the exploding light from Krypton now that it had finally reached Earth. Neil then took it upon himself to determine where the likelihood of such a red star (that Krypton orbited) might exist, and Voilà! He had determined that the real Krypton is in the Corvus constellation about 27.1 light years from Earth, orbiting the red dwarf star LHS 2520.
At some point during the night Neil fired up his Skype connection on his laptop and made a video call to Bill Nye the Science Guy! It was funny in that Bill forgot that we don’t change our clocks during Daylight Savings Time, so he was off by an hour and Neil ended up calling him while he was busy doing some maintenance work in his house!
After the call with Bill he returned to his exploration of the solar system and even beyond. He talked about the various satellite that have been sent up, the different programs that exist regarding the search for life, including the use of some nano-tech that will be sent up into space that will be propelled with lasers that are operated from the ground. It was the stuff of science fiction, or at least it sounded like that, and yet there it was as part of his presentation.
To cover everything that Neil addressed would cause for me to write something that would take several hours just to read! Suffice it so say, Neil presented some incredibly interesting scientific studies, and managed to share this information to room with approximately 5000 scientific laymen. We were all interested in science otherwise there would be no reason for all of us to have been there, and yet we don’t know the scientific minutia that is involved in research of this nature. Still he was able to present all of this in a manner that was easily digestible, but without ever having to talk down to anyone as if they were six years old.

To see Neil deGrasse Tyson in this manner was an absolute treat. I had originally thought this to be some sort of one-off, but instead he does these types of shows on a regular basis, going around the country and talking to people about different fields of science, from one year to the next. He managed to both educate and entertain the people in the audience. He had a wicked sense of humor, and he presented himself with the mannerisms of someone who would be highly approachable. It’s no doubt that the next time he comes around to Phoenix that we here at TG2 Studios will be there in attendance.
We thought we were going to see Neil deGrasse Tyson the scientist. By the end of the evening we determined that in fact we had gone to see a rock star!!!


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