Rock Star of the Month: Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

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It was about eleven-thirty last night when Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson recognized the guy in front of us in line at the post-lecture signing.

“Your name is Kirby, right?”

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Beyond amazement, the guy responded: “That’s good. Wow, it’s been thirty years. I didn’t think you’d remember meeting me.”

“Of course, I remember! We all swam in your pool, and you fed me that incredible sausage. MAN, that was some good sausage! You still make that?”

Sensing the pressure of the incredibly long line and all of the folks waiting in it, Kirby politely inched forward. Tyson yelled, “Hey! Look me up on Facebook, man. There are some impostors, but you’ll figure it out. Let’s catch up.”

Russell and I swapped awe. The real Neil deGrasse Tyson is on Facebook?! He has fond memories of backyard barbecue delicacies?! Snap. He isn’t just the world’s coolest astrophysicist; he’s also mortal. Insanity. Raise the roof.

Let me back up, though. About a week ago, I was wigging out about what to do for Russell’s Valentine’s Day gift, or, rather, the lack thereof. I didn’t have a lot to spend, but even worse, my efforts to wrangle creative solutions fell short. An attempted beading project looked like something from church camp, 1981.  A Valentine’s recipe search yielded nothing suitable for my pre, pre, pre-beginner cooking level. Randomly, a friend sent a link to Dr. Tyson’s local appearance the following Tuesday, and, as luck might have it, the tickets were FREE. I purchased his latest book The Pluto Files and designed a card, which read:

 

Dear Russell: 

Hello. It is out of dire urgency I write to you this day. 

Allow me to introduce myself properly. I am one of the largest masses within the cosmic Kuiper belt, but you may remember me as: the Planet Formerly Known as Pluto. 

In 2006, I was stripped of my noble title and scientifically reclassified as a “dwarf-planet.” Dwarf planet, my ass. Pfft. 

On Tuesday, February 17, 2009, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the chief culprits responsible for my planetary demotion, will presumably be talking smack about how I’m not good enough to rank number nine anymore. Your mission is to attend Tyson’s 8 o’clock lecture, during which he’ll blather on about me and other items of astrophysical interest. 

Refer to Ms. Austin for necessary data. 

Sincerely yours (and happiest of Valentine greetings),

Pluto

Dwarf Planet, Kuiper belt

Milky Way Galaxy 

P.S. “PLANET” Earth is a tiny, nearly indiscernible speck stuck in the armpit of the cosmos, and, no, I most certainly do not suffer from planet envy.

So, er, voila! Valentine’s crisis averted in the nerdiest way possible. Nothing says “I love you” like astrophysics, right?

On the evening of the event, we arrived at Texas Hall an hour early, but the front half of the lower level was already packed. That’s right, for a scientist. In Texas, even. Russell and I selected a decent enough spot and got our laptops ready to take notes while the guy behind us was loudly telling everybody within listening proximity why the speaker wasn’t a real scientist. I wondered what you had to do to be a “real scientist.” I mean, is being on NASA’s private advisory council not science-y enough? What about physics degrees from Harvard AND Columbia? Teaching astrophysics at Princeton? Hosting NOVA? Directing the Hayden Planetarium? I could go on, but you get the idea. Eager to draw my own plebeian conclusions, I was relieved when the lights finally dimmed at 8 o’clock, and the President of UT Arlington, James Spaniolo, addressed both levels of the crammed auditorium.

“Is it coincidence,” he began, “that Dr. Tyson was born in the same week of 1958 as NASA was founded?” I decided it was, in fact, mere coincidence after a quick jaunt to Wikipedia revealed no mystical occurrences during the week of my own birth. Heh. Nevertheless, Spaniolo’s question was inadvertently fantastic. Do the laws of physics allow for coincidence?

He continued, “…and if that is not enough, Tyson also won a national gold medal in ballroom dancing.” Really?  Had he also discovered the secret of the pyramids or the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa’s dead body? Was there something this nerd hadn’t done? The guy hadn’t even taken the stage, and I already was fantasizing about Being Neil deGrasse Tyson, the sequel in which I manage to redirect the portal from John Malkovich to Dr. Tyson.

Then he appeared: Isaac from “The Love Boat” in jeans, a sports jacket, and cowboy boots. The crowd went bonkers — rock star bonkers. I loved it.

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“Hold on. I forgot to empty my pockets. I have so much crap in here,” he announced. Placing his “crap” on the podium, he paused, looked at us, and then proceeded to yank his boots clumsily from his feet. “Now I feel like an astrophysicist. Everybody comfortable?”

For the next hour and a half, we listened to Tyson’s diplomatic, sensitive-to-religious-zealots views about our country’s lack of scientific interest and funding apart from times of war or economic competition. “Guess what? If China announced it was going to Mars, we’d be there in ten months. Ten months! Faster if we discovered oil, of course.” Standing on the stage in his socks and with his arms stretched w  i  d  e, he loudly warned us twenty minutes into the discussion:

“There’s no funding for science in this country unless we can make a weapon or the face of God appear at the end of a particle accelerator.”

Tyson told us, “I respect the religious freedom of our nation. It is what we were founded upon. However, that doesn’t mean science is wrong. Science knows what it is and what it isn’t.” When someone asked about the effects of Intelligent Design being introduced into classrooms along with the Big Bang Theory, NDT answered, “It is non-science, the beginning of the end. That’s what the Philosophy of Ignorance is for students. There’s no history of scientists protesting outside of churches. Do you ever see that sort of thing? No. They’re [Creationists] free to believe what they want, and we don’t interfere, but the minute you quit teaching science — it’s just the beginning of the end.” Dr. Tyson elaborated with examples of avoidable, recent occurrences, which he felt were directly related to our societal reluctancies toward progress. “Katrina was a class three hurricane when it hit land. The levees broke after the storm passed. After, OK? AFTER! Faulty engineering is responsible for what happened there. That’s bad math.” He flashed images of the extreme devastation.

Total quiet all around. He truly felt this dumbing down of society. Furiously.

“Bridges collapse. Faulty engineering, again. A steam pipe exploded a couple of years ago. Remember this one? This is New York City, folks. What country are we living in that we can’t move steam in a pipe from one place to the next without this kind of thing happening?! OK, here, look, this is a good one: Two trains collided, and, by the way, this isn’t some podunk town. It’s Los Angeles. Los Angeles! This is technology that we perfected in this country in, like, 1903. What is going on!?” Then he let us in on the obvious answer: “Smart people went elsewhere.” We’re not generating interest amongst youngsters, and they know they can make money doing other things.

Naturally, I thought about my own kiddo. Bella was wildly irritated with me recently because I forced her into joining the science club. The school even tried to bribe the reluctant kids with the Golden Calf — a non-uniform day. Behold! Still, it was a hard sell until The Bell actually reported back from her first meeting: “Oh, my gosh. Mom! Science club was sooooo much fun. We did an experiment where we…and then we…and…and…and…thanks for making me do it.” That’s all it took. I am all too familiar with the validity of Tyson’s previous point regarding funding and urgency of promoting math and science. Our teachers generally do their best with the resources they can afford from their allotted and, frequently, personal budgets. Unfortunately, it’s the initial spark that seems to be most absent, and that’s what is truly crucial, I think. He’s right; we need to step up our game or continue to decline.

Earlier in the discussion, NDT presented several versions of the Periodic Table of Elements color-coded according to melting point, compatibility, as well as years and nationality of discovery. Then he pointed out the most common elements found within our planet as well as those found most frequently within the universe. As it turns out, Earth and its universe share four of the top five from both lists. With sextillion stars, Tyson noted, it would be, perhaps, the most conceited thought to believe we’re alone, that there aren’t beings looking at us exactly the way we’re looking at them through reversed images of the vast galaxies and universes between us.

We sat, all five bajillion gawzillion batillion of us, in the dark now, silent and thoughtful as the last image of the cosmos lingered on the screen. Russell held my hand, and I put my head on his shoulder.

“The universe is you, and you are the universe. There can be no greater reward than that.”

Doubting Thomas behind us broke the silence, “This guy is fucking genius.” I guess Tyson’s not just a rock star after all. He might even be a real scientist.

Or, perhaps, NDT is more aptly also a minister of science, a reverend of astrophysics, preacher man of the stars. Why? Because as the daughter of one Reverend Dr. Jack P. Busby, I spent my entire childhood held captive in a church pew listening to the quirkiest, smartest, most articulate theologian in this area — my dad — peddle Christianity every Sunday. He meant it. He BELIEVED in it, and I really wanted to feel the connection his congregation members obviously felt when they raised their hands and voiced their Amens and praise-to-be’d their Jesuses. It just never happened. Something wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure I was gonna end up somewhere on the dark side of Satan’s lair eternally confused. However, as I sat there with my head on Russell’s shoulder and my hand inside his, listening to Dr. Tyson’s evidence, feeling new and undeniable fellowship with Doubting Thomas and the other five bajillion gawzillion batillion people around us, it occurred to me that I was at church. Finally. It only took me thirty-five years to get there. Scientifically speaking, that’s not such a bad rate of evolution, I guess.

As the lights came up and Neil deGrasse Tyson began taking questions from the peanut gallery, Russell quickly ran to grab a place in line for the book signing. He texted my phone: “You’re so hot when you’re in student mode.”  We smiled at each other from across Texas Hall. Success. My Valentine scheme was triumphant.

The questions continued for an hour and a half: “What do you think about string theory?” “Does it bother you that you’re light years away from everything you’ve studied in the cosmos?” “Should we break up the NASA monopoly and initiate private launches?” “What do you think about PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Aliens?” When Dr. Tyson announced he’d taken the last question of the evening, a little boy stood in the far aisle somewhat dejected as the rest of the audience members settled back into their seats. Dr. Tyson interrupted the low muffle of the crowd:

“Wait, there’s a little kid right there. I would like to take his question if you don’t mind.”

The kid stepped up to the microphone and adjusted it as Dr. Tyson asked, “OK, how old are you?”

“I’m ten.”

“Ten? I was your age when I became interested in the stars. I used to look through my telescope at night and wonder what all was out there. You ever do that?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You’re up kind of late, aren’t you? You must have a good question.”

It was almost half past eleven on a school night. The kid stood there for a minute before his voice filled the auditorium, “Dr. Tyson, I was wondering…what would you do with a black hole if you could control it?”

(Sigh) You know, sometimes there are moments in my life I know, as they’re occurring, I’ll never forget. This was one of them.

“A black hole, a black hole, a black hole of my own. Hmmmm. You ever do laundry at home?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you know how sometimes you wind up with one sock and always wonder what happened to the other one?”

The kid laughed, “Yeah.”

“Well, if I had my own black hole, I’d use it for throwing all those ‘other’ socks into. And garbage. I’d let everybody throw their garbage in it. That’s probably the best thing you could do with a black hole.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait, you know, if you ever just happen to find a black hole, you shouldn’t get too close because this thing called spaghettification will occur, and you’ll stretch ooooouuuuttt, which wouldn’t be very good. That’s why you should just stick to the lost sock and garbage idea.”

Gosh, I know it sounds crazy, but the whole thing made my eyes kinda mist up. I closed my laptop and joined Russell, who was still texting me sweet messages from his place in line on the other side of the room.

Even though he was absurdly late and totally off-schedule, NDT happily settled into a seat at the table on stage and signed books, etc., for the crowd. The line stretched around the entire auditorium. I couldn’t get past his enthusiasm. It was contagious. As he signed Russell’s book, I asked about the Rubik’s Cube next to him: “Do you always carry one or what’s going on here?”

He laughed, “No, they [pointing to a couple by the side of the stage] brought this and asked if I’d sign it for them. See, it’s only solved on one side, so if I sign it, it’ll just be scrambled if they ever try to solve it entirely. I’m going to solve it for them when the line’s died down, and then I’ll sign it.”

Astrophysicists are incredibly kind, patient rock stars, apparently. At least, this one is. What a super cool guy.

A little after midnight, we dragged our weary brains and feet to the confines of our vehicle. Dr. Tyson was still wiling away the night signing autographs, of course. Russell thanked me all the way home: “I really enjoyed that. I want you to know tonight was the coolest thing ever, and I love you so much.” He might have ruined Pluto’s rep, but NDT saved Valentine’s Day for me.

The next evening, Bella asked, “Mom? Didn’t you say you got a NASA sticker for me?”

After giving it to her, she immediately put it on her school binder,”This is so cool! Thanks.”

(This Neil deGrasse Tyson guy was scoring me all kinds of street cred, yo.)

“You’re welcome, Bella. Look, I have a brochure, also, on the scientist Russell and I saw last night.”

“Neil deGrassy…”

“deGrasse. He is an astrophysicist. You know what that means?”

“Yes, he studies the stars and planets.”

Good for her. “Yeah, but look at all the other stuff he does.” I totally sold Dr. T to her like there was no tomorrow, or, rather, like she was the only one who could save tomorrow. As she read through his bio, Bella said he seemed really cool. Then, she stuffed the brochure into her school binder behind the NASA sticker.

“You’re taking it to school?”

“Yeah, Mom. This guy is awesome. My news crew teacher is always asking for us to bring in stuff about good role models.” Wow. I went from being the worst mother in the world for making my kid join the nerd squad to being a beloved Science Mom. Yep. I’d ask for my gold star right about now, but I think this is the sort of thing parents are *supposed* to do by default of, well, being parents.

The world, with us in it, is kind of a horrifyingly beautiful, yet predictably random place. When everything comes together and the seas seem calm and endless, there are twice as many stars in the sky. Last night, Dr. Tyson donned his astrophysical superhero cape and reminded us of the importance of exploration — mentally and physically. He stormed the stage with anecdotes about Sir Isaac Newton. He implored us to become patrons within our scientific communities, to go out and foster our future generations. I’m giving my kid her starter cape to wear for her closed circuit, televised school report about Dr. Tyson’s role in universal scientific exploration. But first, I had to know: “Bella, who was Sir Isaac Newton?”

“He was the guy who first talked about inertia.”

Inertia, she said — NOT “The Seatbelt Law.”

Dr. Tyson, there’s hope after all.

(Thank you.)