Dallas — “We’re going to have fun with the universe tonight,” said Neil deGrasse Tyson before emptying his pockets, relaxing his jacket and taking off his black cowboy boots (he’s known for lecturing barefoot when in performance halls). He was not there, he said, to give a book talk or even to plug Cosmos. His presentation, titled Astronomy Bizarre, was on the latest weird discoveries in astrophysics. But, he said, “that Cosmos airs on Fox is the most bizarre thing in universe. Nothing this evening will ever match this fact.”
The crowd Monday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House, which had been sold out for months, was regaled with wild astrophysics including the observation of gravitational waves that confirm the Big Bang, the liquid water detected beneath the frozen surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa (“I want to go ice fishing there”), the nearly 800 exoplanets uncovered by the Kepler space observatory, and death by black hole which entails splitting the body into increasingly small parts until it’s just a string of atoms disappearing into gravity. Graphics, from breathtaking celestial images to cartoons on Pluto, were projected on a huge screen backdrop.
All that was just bright, shiny, window dressing to the evening’s core theme: human hubris and narcissism. Just as he told those who still insist Pluto is a planet to “Get over it,” Tyson drove home his point with the new evolutionary tree of life. Rather than a pyramidal structure where tiny creatures build in hierarchy to a human apex, the new view is a wheel that projects outward from microbial origins to a plethora of species, of which homo sapiens is just one. A third of our body weight isn’t even us, Tyson pointed out; it’s bacteria and such that live on us.
Yet he took us soaring on human ability, the excitement of a world watching together as NASA landed an SUV-sized Curiosity rover on Mars, requiring a series of complex, exquisitely timed, steps that even Tyson was not convinced could be pulled off, and the continuing amazement of exploring the surface of another planet, uncovering a long ago time when water flowed on its surface. He was sincerely moved, and so moved us, by talk of the 2013 Nobel Prize for physics going to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess who confirmed that dark energy and matter comprises 95 percent of the universe. “We don’t even know what it is!” he exclaimed. The idea that epic discoveries await made him vibrate with excitement.
Tyson truly embodies the Serbian proverb: “Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.” A YouTube video of his version, The Most Astounding Fact, has garnered more than six-million views. (The video is above; full text is below.)
The 2,300 rapt people present eagerly soaked it in. They gave Tyson a standing ovation just for walking on stage. Though certainly a male nerds’ night out—wearing their best Hawaiian shirts and tees boasting superheroes, periodic tables and jokes about Pluto—there were plenty of women present and many family groups with children. He made a point to recognize the folks in the second and third balcony tiers. The man’s a mensch.
Tyson’s a funny guy. His StarTalk podcast is threaded by playful banter, aided by comedians such as Chuck Nice and Dan Perlman. The night’s tech talk was spiced with comic asides and tangents. He razzed geologists and biologists for their convoluted terms, while noting “In my field, we call it like we see it,” giving Big Bang, black holes and Jupiter’s Red Spot as examples. He noted that his trademark celestial-themed tie resists food stains. As he padded in sock feet about the stage, he moved with the rhythm and grace of a guy who was a Latin dance champ in college.
But it was that voice that enthralled, from low and sonorous to animated and even exasperated. Tyson asked for the house lights to be dimmed as he read Sagan’s famous soliloquy Pale Blue Dot from what he called “the Book of Carl”; full text below. Behind him was a giant “selfie” of the Earth as captured by the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. Referred to as The Day the Earth Smiled, our pale blue dot shines barely visible next to the rings. Sagan’s passage concludes with “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
This is why we come to Tyson talks, to believe again, to feel ourselves as part of something greater—the evolution of mankind from limbic animals to pre-frontal humans. That we, unlike other animals, look to the stars in wonder and feel not infinitesimal but infinite in our possibility. Afterward I exchanged glances with the refined, elderly man next to me, our eyes glistening, while the 10-year-old boy before us rocked with excitement. It moved me to my core.
Even so, in the extensive question-and-answer that followed the talk, Tyson stressed the challenges ahead while fielding inquiries from selecting from all tiers of Winspear, kids and adults alike. When a young boy mentioned his straight As, Tyson counseled him not to chase grades, but to pursue curiosity, problem solving, integrity and hard work. He countered a question about spending tax money on space, when so many problems exist on Earth with “Modern medicine would not be possible if not for discoveries in physics made by scientists who had no interest in medicine.”
Inevitably, the question came about proponents of religious and political dogma protesting scientific tenants like evolution. He repeated his adage that “Innovation in a nation is the engine that creates economies” and launched into a seven-minute rave on the reality of climate change, concluding:
“It is not in the long-term interests of our nation to watch our politicians argue over climate change when they didn’t argue over E=mc2 or whether gravity exists or whether air has oxygen in it. These are all scientifically emergent truths. I worry for America if we continue this way. There are enough of us here old enough to remember when we led the world in our ideas and the rest of the world listened in to see what we did next because they would follow. China, even though they’re growing their carbon footprint rapidly right now, leads the world in investments in solar power design and innovation. So they will have the product and we’ll be like ‘Can we buy some?’ We’ll be running behind and have to dance to the tunes played by everybody else. That’s not the America I grew up in.”
Full Text of “The Most Astounding Fact” video: The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth the atoms that make up the human body are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them went unstable in their later years they collapsed and then exploded scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself.
These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us.
When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big—but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.
Full text of Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan: From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.