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Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Meyerhoff

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole, and Other Cosmic Quandaries
(Norton, 2014)
Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, is a hero in our household. Master Ionarts, who has set his sights more on math and science than either of his parents did, loves his books and the television series Cosmos that he hosted. America's "First Astrophysicist" appeared for a lengthy lecture on Wednesday evening at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore, and we were there to nerd it up with him. In a two-hour-plus talk on the subject of astrophysics and science in popular movies, Tyson not only took umbrage with noteworthy factual errors on scientific matters in some films; he also marveled at how some movies, and even some commercials for beer and other products, get the science right. "Science is becoming cultural, it is becoming a part of our culture," he enthused at one point. Another sign of the growth of scientific literacy, to be sure, is that someone like Tyson could draw such a crowd of enthusiastic followers, both in person at this event and on Twitter.

Tyson looked at a list of scientific concepts -- time travel, surface tension in liquids, asteroids, mathematical calculation, thermodynamics, conservation of energy, the laws of motion -- represented in American popular culture, as found in our movies and commercials. News organizations have often singled out his criticism of the science films get wrong, but he was surprisingly enthusiastic about some movies. At one end was Armageddon, which gets the most scientific facts wrong of any movie, by consensus of Tyson and his colleagues. Some movies have only a whopper or two, like the statement of the Drake Equation by Jodie Foster's character in Contact -- Tyson did the calculation that is implied by Foster's line, which would add up to 0.0000004 possible planets with intelligent life. Tyson's attempt to calculate the weight of Thor's hammer in the Marvel Comics movies was also a stitch. Even though Tyson loves The Matrix, admiring its correct depiction of optics, he admitted that the idea that machines could somehow harvest enough energy from humans, which they also had to feed and maintain, was ludicrous. Even Interstellar, which was so bad I did not write a review of it, according to Tyson has "tons of accurate science in it." Based on Tyson's positive assessment, Master Ionarts and I now have plans to see The Martian.

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