Astrophysical comedy and education

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson paid a visit to Hershey, PA this week. It was a packed house, which was encouraging to see. All ages, from kids as young as 6 to elderly folks, were in attendance. That’s pretty remarkable.

Hershey is an upper middle-class area with many professionals employed at the large teaching hospital, Penn State Hershey Medical Center. The school district also ranks high in student academic performance. So, it’s not surprising that for a small-ish town, Dr. Tyson would be warmly welcomed here.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson on stage at Hershey Theatre.

What I did not expect is that Dr. Tyson would begin his discussion with a visual of the Red/Blue political map of PA, pointing out that the blue areas were only major cities and Centre county, home of Penn State University. It was a not so subtle dig at the current political party in charge, suggesting that the people in the red were not very interested in his presentation. True or not, this was not the first time that blatant political jabs were landed. However, the talk was fun and humorous. In my opinion, it was essentially no different than the way comedians will hit up social structures and stereotypes in a stand-up routine.

The theme of the program was “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies”. Interspersed with movie or commercial clips were explanations of what the producers got right or wrong with the science. Surprisingly, he had many examples of GOOD science that was immediately followed by sloppiness in the same production. Why would this be so? Probably just to make the visuals look better, to fit the plot line, or because the team did not think to consult anyone about factual representations.

It was obvious and rather hilarious that Dr. Tyson spots very obscure mistakes. After the show, Mike, my spouse, remarked that he thought HE was picky about movies. It wasn’t an insult, though, since he also was impressed at how crazy smart Dr. Tyson is and that they shared a love of The Matrix film.

Tyson is well known for being a Twitter commentator, expressing the faux pas he finds in his feed and getting grief for it. This was a major part of the humor in the show. Dr. Tyson understands people will gripe about his gripes but, really, his tweets get far too much media coverage. He sounded dismayed about the state of society today when social media attitudes allow people to be pilloried for their observations. People assume that if he points out any flaw in a film that means he hated it. Not true! He’s simply saying that they could have made a small effort to get the science right. Pointing out that a scene is scientifically inaccurate is a professional observation. He’s an educator; it’s his job to help the public understand what’s inaccurate. Movies are a fine way to connect on this topic because people are interested in it. However, they are sometimes TOO invested in it, like those scientists who excoriated him for his measurements on Thor’s hammer.

But this concept totally rang true for me. There have been dozens of times where non-followers on Twitter were too quick (and very lazy) to put their own negative spin on my observations and blast me for something that was unfair. This is a serious problem in society when we can’t express views without being publicly shamed or threatened by people who refuse to be open to free expression. (By the way, the Theatre had metal detectors in place for this event. I can speculate why. There are some crazies out there who certainly feel threatened by a prominent intellectual black man who does not support religious interpretations of the world.)

Tyson demonstrates a wrestling move with a high school wrestler.

I would have liked if Dr. Tyson had talked a bit about how he thinks society in general is or is not influenced by the portrayal of good and bad science in movies. I’m interested in that as it is clear that the non-scientific public gets their ideas about what science is and how it works through popular culture depictions which are almost always distorted or wrong. This audience was more science-literate than average, by far. They got the jokes, they yelled out answers to even the geekiest movie trivia. One habit many in the audience seem to have is the irresistible need to yell out names of things they know or recognize. I suspect it’s a way of showing they “get it,” they are following along and are on the speaker’s level. I do this too, in my head. I would have liked to tell the very loud guy behind me who was clearly enjoying himself, that he was not going to get a prize for playing along with the speaker.

Anyhow, it was a fun night of smart comedy mixed with science and math. It’s a nice change to not only have fun but to have fun learning new stuff about nature and seeing how passionate so many people can be about science. Now, if Tyson can keep extending his reach, to kids, to their parents, to the non-science public, we might get somewhere. For all the crap he gets online, from all the media snobs who pooh-pooh accuracy and constructive criticism, he still seemed pretty optimistic.

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news. Doubtfulnews.com SpookyGeology.com

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