If you’ve ever been to a rock concert or a broadcast football game, you would be able to imagine the atmosphere in Reynolds Performance Hall last night as the crowd awaited Neil deGrasse Tyson. The famed astrophysicist has been highly anticipated for months now, and discussions and rumors regarding the content of his science talk were as varied and encompassing as the man himself.
The Hall can comfortably seat 1,200 people, but while I’ve attended events there before, this was the first time that I have seen literally every seat filled. And it didn’t stop there. People, like myself, were seated around the edges of the room in dark corners. Some were even standing.
The crowd was nearing a true cacophony as they awaited Tyson to come on stage. 7:30 p.m. came around, the scheduled time for his show to begin, but still there was no sign of him.
The noise grew louder. No cries of outrage, nor jeers from the crowd, simply further amplified discussions as the people grew anxious.
At 7:34 p.m. it seemed the dam was about to burst, and the crowd was ready to jump from their seats. Not a patient bunch, these people, but given what they paid to see one of America’s most famous living scientists, I can’t say I blame them.
At exactly five minutes after the scheduled start time, Director of Public Appearances Amanda Horton walked on stage. She first thanked us all for our turnout and support, then thanked their sponsor, and then introduced UCA physics professor Will Slaton. The man gave a serviceable introduction for the main speaker, and removed himself from the stage as Neil deGrasse Tyson walked on.
The crowd stood, cheering and clapping and whooping. This went on for a good 25 seconds. (If you don’t think that’s a long time, then you’ve never stood with a crowd screaming at the top of their lungs for a quarter of a minute.)
When the crowd finally quieted, Tyson spoke, “I don’t know that I deserved all that. How about you hold those applause until the end, and see if I deserve them then? I’d rather you all have low expectations of me so that I don’t disappoint.” He said this in a self-depreciating way, smiling as he did, and winning the crowd over with his opening lines. He then took roughly a minute to remove his shoes and empty the contents of his pockets onto the podium. “Give me a moment to get comfortable,” Tyson said, seeming completely at ease. And so the night went from there.
Tyson spoke engagingly, energetically, and humorously, all without talking down to his audience. He opened with perhaps the most famous controversy surrounding him: Pluto. He joked about the hate mail he received, “mostly from elementary school kids, drawn in crayon.” He went on to emphasize that the demotion of Pluto was not solely his decision. “I didn’t pull the trigger, I didn’t aim the gun,” he said, laughing with the crowd.
In the end, he really only had one message for those of us in the audience who were still upset about it, and in a perfectly blunt powerpoint slide, he gave us that message: “Get over it.” This of course drew another round of laughter from the crowd, and this was the way much of the night went.
He would introduce a topic, sometimes launching into long and winding rants about it, and then draw us back to his main points with humor. His talk, scheduled to last only an hour, ran from 7:35 p.m. until about 9:40 p.m., and ranged from discussion of superheroes and his guest appearance in a Superman comic book, to the origins of life on Earth and whether we really come from Earth.
He discussed planetary bodies, space exploration, other Earth-like planets, and found time to touch briefly on religion. He poked fun at himself and other scientists the whole time, humanizing him and drawing the crowd to him more. He even brought up candy bars in the middle of it all, most notably drawing laughter from the crowd for saying this:
“[Biologists, chemists, and geologists,] have all of these complicated names for things, derived from Latin, that complicate your understanding of something. You have to deal with the whole lexicon of the name before you can even get to what it is you’re talking about! […]But with the Universe…we have cool names for things, that candy bar people steal from us.” Laughter tumbled from the crowd at this point, as it did frequently throughout the night. Despite all of the lightheartedness, Tyson made some really rather profound statements.
While discussing the ice found on Mars and the literal pools of liquid methane on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, Tyson hit us with this thought: “Maybe life does not require liquid water. Maybe it just requires liquid.” The crowd sat stunned and totally silent when he said this. But before we had time to really focus on that idea, he had moved on, and brought us back down to Earth with a quick quip.
Then he chose to actually talk about Earth, and made a joke of it as well by pointing out that we all see Earth as this loving, life abundant planet, and we fail to recognize one simple fact — “Earth…wants to kill you.” As he put it, “you can’t be selective of the data you want to pay attention to.” Tyson freely acknowledged that yes, there is life on Earth, but that 97% of all things that have ever lived on this planet are now extinct. “And if Earth doesn’t get to you, the Universe will!” Tyson said, breaking any tension created by that morbid thought and drawing still more laughter from the full house.
As the talk wound down, Tyson had many closing statements. For one of his final topics, he talked about the most common elements in the Universe, and how humans are comprised of all but one of them, making us not so special.
“Some people, upon realizing this, may feel small. I feel large. Because I’m made out of the very things, that make the Universe.” Another quiet moment for the crowd, and some apparent contemplation on Tyson’s part, and then he gave us a final joke relating back once more to Pluto.
For his closing lines, he read Carl Sagan’s original ending to the Cosmos series, called, “A Pale Blue Dot.” When the lights were turned up, the crowd exploded into applause and cheers. I felt the floor shake beneath my feet and marveled at the roar of the crowd. The standing ovation lasted nearly a full minute, never wavering in its volume or intensity until the very end, and I’m not ashamed to say I added my voice to theirs.
What followed was a rather lengthy Q & A session, during which the audience asked of him many questions, some tricky, some simple. At no point though did Tyson approach these people’s questions as dumb or irrelevant. He gave each audience member who asked a question ample explanation or answer, and continued to joke throughout it.
All in all, the night went off without a hitch. At no point did anyone in the crowd leave early, and at no point was anyone left feeling offended — or if they were, it wasn’t for long before Tyson apologized for whatever jib he might have given.
And so the night came to an end, with a pleased crowd and a calm winter night. I saw many people look up at the stars as they walked to their cars, some pointing, some just standing and watching the starlit sky with wonder on their faces, and I heard someone beside me quote a line from “The Pale Blue Dot,”… “The Earth is a very small stage, in a vast cosmic arena.” The man beside him simply said, “Yep. Now let’s go home while we still have a home to get to.”