Sauntering onto the stage, knees buckling just enough to give an appearance of suave chill, Neil deGrasse Tyson bellows thunderously, “Helloooo Hartford!” The astrophysicist-turned-entertainer is in Connecticut’s capital to give its residents the quintessential Tyson experience, and his audience is ready to receive it, standing, cheering and with eyes gleaming. Tonight, a god steps down from the heavens to meet his worshippers.
Although the talk was described on the Bushnell Theater’s website as a lecture on cosmology, it soon becomes clear that Tyson has not come simply to educate us about stars. “The universe is a big place,” he says pensively, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel large.” Tyson shows us a tree of life, pressing his clicker again and again until the zoom on the image is large enough to see the name that blares its desire to be recognized: Homo sapiens. The words sit, on the screen, right next to Mus musculus, the common house mouse. “There you are! You feel good about that??” Tyson screams. He is not here to educate us. He is here to transform us.
Over the next hour, Tyson unapologetically expounds his deepest grievances:
“The British class system found its way onto the periodic table, and it pisses me off.”
“The Arab world was humanity’s capital of scientific discovery. That all changed with Islam.”
“This is the twenty-first century and our fellow Americans are walking among us afraid of the number 13.”
At a certain point, someone from the audience shouts out, “Why aren’t we made of dark matter?” Tyson immediately returns fire. “Trust me, you don’t want to be made of dark matter. You’ll have a very different relationship with the police.” The crowd goes berserk and the auditorium erupts in “Ooohhs” and clapping. A Yalie sitting next to me shouts out a “yas.”
Without question one of the most popular scientists of our time, Neil deGrasse Tyson brings science to the common man from a decorated lifetime in scientific research. After an academic career at Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, Tyson founded the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and, since 1996, has served as the director of the esteemed Hayden Planetarium.
But as I found out the other night in Hartford, People magazine’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” does not fail to leave his idiosyncratic mark on each scientific message he brings. And the potential for serious offense is large. At the same time he attempts to unify people through scientific knowledge, Tyson polarizes them with his outspoken opinions.
Yale professor of astronomy and physics Charles Bailyn ’81, who met Tyson on several occasions when the astrophysicist was a graduate student at Columbia, says Tyson has been the character that he is for a long time. But the question remains: is Tyson’s brashness authentic, or is it a personality performed for his message?
Meg Urry, former president of the American Astronomical Society and also a professor of astronomy and physics at Yale, says Tyson may “rub some people the wrong way,” but thinks such an approach is simply the result of the honest relationship he has with his audience. “He doesn’t dodge difficult questions,” she says.
For Tyson, accessibility to his audience seems to be a paramount priority. Halfway through the show, I noticed he wasn’t wearing shoes. A pair of patchy wool socks and a five-foot elevation was the only thing between him and us. Did he do it to make himself at home? Or did he do it to bond with his audience? Did it offend some? Frankly, it didn’t matter. The crowd cheered Tyson on anyway.
Despite Tyson’s casual style, Bailyn thinks that Tyson also feels like he’s fighting a very serious battle to bring science to the public, in which case offense and relatability align toward the real goal: to make an impact. Urry, who has known Tyson personally for many years and tried to invite him to speak at Yale, says Tyson chooses his battlegrounds carefully. “I think he goes where he thinks he’ll make a difference,” Urry says. And at a place like Yale, already bustling with energy and replete with intellect, the battle is already won.
As much as Tyson’s mission is to spread public respect for science, verbal liberty is as much a part of his package as scientific literacy is. “We spend children’s first few years of life teaching them how to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down!” Tyson said during the Q&A session following the talk. Tyson’s message is a call to arms, to act instead of watching, to shout instead of listening.
So how does one answer the question: What makes Tyson into the cosmological figure that he is? Is it for his adamant denouncement of Pluto? His offensive remarks and delightful entertainment? His rap battle with B.o.B over the shape of the earth? Or maybe it’s his unique scientific message that it’s not enough simply to sit back and listen to lectures, but that action is just as important as learning. Most likely, it’s all of these characteristics; it just so happens that all the dots that make up Tyson connect into a constellation that looks like something. And for the crowd in Hartford, that’s all that mattered.
Contact Kevin Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org .