Neil deGrasse Tyson
Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015
Durham Performing Arts Center

Like Bill Nye and LeVar Burton before him, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has achieved the kind of stardom that makes knowledge seem impossibly cool. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, a popular author and radio host and, of course, the face of the modern-day Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

The staff of UNC’s Morehead Planetarium brought Tyson to Chapel Hill in 2012. He led an impromptu stargazing session by the campus sundial—at 4 o’clock in the morning. But that was before Cosmos projected the astrophysicist onto television sets in 181 countries. Now it’s hard to imagine a repeat performance with the same level of intimacy, given that tickets to Tyson’s sold-out DPAC lecture on Thursday night were going for $475 a pair on Craigslist.

That’s not to say it was an elaborate spectacle. The theater’s large stage was mostly empty. There was a small table that held a thin Macbook and a glass of water Tyson never touched. Three screens showed a rudimentary slide deck to the upper levels. What seemed like an infinite amount of cable ran from Tyson’s microphone, allowing him to move freely about the stage (which he did, vigorously, without shoes).

To begin, Tyson displayed a list of 18 lectures with titles such as “The Inexplicable Universe: Unsolved Mysteries” and “Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.” This evening, our host chose the wordy and robust “Cosmic Perspective: Scientific, Cultural, Political and Sociological Observations,” exploring a mishmash of earthy pursuits, like the scientific literacy of developing economies, and cosmic theories, like the mind-boggling multiverse.

Tyson frequently prompted the audience with questions, and eager spectators hollered back answers as though competing for a slot on Jeopardy! This crowd was fully equipped to name the first Canadian in space (Chris Hadfield) or deliver a hearty round of applause at the mere mention of Voyager 1.

As expected, Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet—for which Tyson is partially credited—was a running gag, beginning with a series of slides that read: Pluto. It’s still not a planet. Get over it. A woman near the front of the stage seized a quiet moment of opportunity to shout, “Size doesn’t matter!” Tyson responded with playful impudence: “Ma’am, in this universe, it does.”

This lively yet challenging tone carried throughout the evening, with Tyson ribbing as much as praising, questioning as much as explaining. He devoted 20 minutes to teasing out the scientific regression of Islam (including a firsthand account of the crumbling twin towers, shot from his lower Manhattan apartment) and lamenting the cultural swap of empirical evidence for blind trust in a higher power. He casually dismissed Rachel Carson’s influence on environmental science, asking, “What was that woman’s name, again?” before writing off the best-selling Silent Spring as being before its time. Tyson delivered the crux of his lecture—that “not all cultures are equal” in the global development race—without apology or equivocation, something that, in this age of political correctness, is easy to see but hard to say.

Tyson’s argument was not anti-diversity, of course. Rather, it was an exploration of the value different cultures have placed on scientific discovery through the ages, and how that value determines the future of a global discussion that does indeed affect us all. When Tyson presented a map that used size to illustrate scientific contributions from 1990 to 2001, we saw a withering United States atop a bloated Brazil.

If nothing else, Tyson’s lecture was a shot of humility—a resistance to hubris that should be administered early and often. Armed with Hubble Deep Field imagery (a dazzling splatter of space dust that looks like a Jackson Pollock painting), Tyson challenged us to reconsider our notion of “special.” Special is not our uniqueness, but our interconnectivity, because we are built from the common ingredients of the universe. “If that makes you feel sad, you have too large an ego,” Tyson said. “We are connected biologically, chemically and anatomically to everyone and everything else around us. That is what’s special.”

After nearly two and a half hours, Tyson called up William Ander’s famous “Earthrise,” a photograph of our planet snapped from the moon during the Apollo 8 mission of 1968. Tyson gives the image credit for a whole host of sociological and environmental advances, including the EPA, Doctors Without Borders, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Earth Day (sorry, Rachel Carson).

“Pictures of Earth never had clouds before then,” Tyson said, flashing an antiquated cover of Life magazine with a pristine, uncovered earth as proof. “This was the first time we connected Earth and the atmosphere as a system.”

“Earthrise” gave way to “Pale Blue Dot,” a famous image produced by Voyager 1 in 1990 and recreated by the Cassini spacecraft in 2013 (“Earth’s first selfie,” Tyson couldn’t help but joke). In the original photo, Earth is smaller than a pixel; in the modern version, it’s a barely perceptible blip underneath the imposing rings of Saturn. With the image projected on three screens, Tyson cut the lights and readied “a recitation from the Book of Carl,” a reference to his mentor, the American astronomer and former host of Cosmos, Carl Sagan. The audience sat quietly in the darkness as he began to read.