NASA

Neil deGrasse Tyson Breaks Down Bizarre Astronomy

The doctor is in the house this weekend. Neil deGrasse Tyson will captivate audiences during his remarks, thanks to Society for the Performing Arts.
The doctor is in the house this weekend. Neil deGrasse Tyson will captivate audiences during his remarks, thanks to Society for the Performing Arts. Photo by Dan Deitch
Outer space is fascinating and filled with questions, and Houston is forever tied to our journey to explore it. In a few days, leading astrophysicist and designated cool dude Neil deGrasse Tyson will drop by, thanks to Society for the Performing Arts, on January 17 at Jones Hall for Astronomy Bizarre to help walk us through some of its complexities...or at least try to help us understand them.

The list of mesmerizing things in the universe is long and occasionally scary: black holes, dark matter, dark energy, diamond stars, gamma ray bursts, white holes, worm holes, multiverses and all the rest. Join Tyson for a review of all that bends minds while discussing the cosmos.

"It's all the weird and wacky things that are completely unbelievable. It's a compilation of ideas that might not be true, but we think they could be true...like, are we living in a simulation? Is there a multiverse? What happens if you travel through a black hole? Is there another side of a black hole? What do black holes look like when they collide? Did the origin of life on Earth come from another planet? If so, how would that happen? So there's all kinds of odd and unusual ideas and phenomena in science in general, but astrophysics in particular, that I will be sharing with the audience that night," Tyson said.

The short of it is that many of these answers are still unknown, yet he hopes it will invigorate the human curiosity that propels us to keep searching for the truth.

"My objective is that when people go home after the show, they can't go to sleep because they're distracted by the weirdness of the universe. Hopefully, they'll be staring at the ceiling for an hour before they before they actually go to sleep," he added. "The universe is not only stranger than we have imagined, it may be stranger than we can imagine. And this talk is a celebration of that strangeness."

There's no better person than Tyson to deliver a talk on these topics. With all appreciation to the applaudable work of Bill Nye and Mr. Wizard, Tyson is the most recent person who has made science, specifically astrophysics, cool and relatable. And even interesting. He is the fifth head of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium in New York City and the first occupant of its Frederick P. Rose Directorship. He is also a research associate of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. And need we mention his 20-plus honorary doctorate degrees that complement his original doctorate degree from Columbia University or his storied career as a broadcast legend?

Despite all the accomplishments and all his knowledge, he admits, there are a few things that keep his mind racing at night too.

"I have a sort of meta concern. So it's not 'Oh, here's a question that we don't know the answer to. I hope we find that out.' No, that's ordinary concerns and challenges that we face. I take it up a notch and say to myself, 'Are we even asking the right questions? Are we smart enough to figure out the entirety of the universe? Or will there be aspects of the universe that relate forever beyond the reach of our intellect?' And if that's the case, it's not even a question of have we asked the right questions. It's a matter of do we even know what questions to ask in the first place."
Now is an especially interesting time to be an astrophysicist, so Tyson has much more to share. With billionaires deciding to careen into space, as well as Houston's own connection to NASA, there's so much intrigue in the topic and for this city.

"Right now it's a multiheaded beast. One side of it, it's really expensive [to launch into space]. Another one is that we want to turn it into an industry so everybody can be tourists. Will we be tourists in low Earth orbit. Will we form colonies on cosmic objects?," he conjectured. "The billionaire boys club is witnessing the birth of an entire industry. And how often do you get to see that? We're watching the very first forays. Go back 100 years. The only people who ever got to fly in airplanes were rich people and famous people. So this is not fundamentally different. They were the first ones to do it, but then it became commoditized, and then it became inexpensive, and then everyone could do it. There's a day when people dressed up to go to the airport. Now, they go in gym shorts to ride airplanes. So that's a good thing actually, because it means more than just the elite will participate."

But Tyson longs for the day when it will be more than just Earth's orbit he achieves. He's shooting for the stars, but he'll settle for Mars.

"I'm waiting until we go somewhere rather than just boldly go where hundreds have gone before. If I want to go into space, send me to the moon, Mars and beyond. Not just an Earth orbit. These billionaires were not even in orbit. They went up and then fell back to Earth, and they had maybe 15 to 20 minutes of weightlessness while falling," he described. "If you look at a schoolroom globe and ask how high of a surface did they ascended, it's about the thickness of two dimes. So that's not high enough to see Carl Sagan's proverbial pale blue dot. Sure, the boundaries of countries disappeared, but that happens in an airplane too, frankly. And yes, you do see stars when the atmosphere dissipates away as you ascend, but I can see stars after sunset from Earth's surface. So as an experience, it's a start. But for me, real space journeys are when you actually go somewhere. So I'm looking forward to that future."

The Ivy League graduate deals in the work area of methodology, research and testing, and since that's been an oft-discussed topic as of late, he also had some information to share about people's "rise to power while wielding profound ignorance of how science works."

"Here's the nicest thing I can say about modern times. Maybe the science deniers were always there, but they didn't know how to find each other. Now, they have found each other and have banded together. So it might sound like they have a louder voice because they're in harmony more than they otherwise would have been."

He suffers no fools, and the receipts are in his tweets.
"You have flat Earthers communicating over the smartphone. It's beaming signals back and forth, GPS style, up to satellites that are orbiting a spherical Earth. So I don't know what to do, but we live in a free country. There are probably plenty of jobs for you if you want Earth to be flat, but just don't try to become head of NASA. That would be the unraveling of an informed democracy," he said.

Still, though, Tyson showers Houston with love and much looks forward to his stop here soon.

"Houstonians should never take it for granted that they live in a place where the presence of NASA is very real and present. Not everyone gets to think about space with the frequency that Houstonians do," he said. "And yes, you've all heard the saying 'Houston, we have a problem,' but let me let me touch up that reference. The very first word of the first comment ever spoken from the moon was 'Houston.' It is the first word of the first comments from another object in the universe, 'Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

We'll certainly be looking forward to when Tyson lands here in Houston.

Society for the Performing Art's Astronomy Bizarre takes place 7:30 p.m. on Monday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. For information, visit spahouston.org.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd