Thursday, May 4, 2017

Stars talk star stuff: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich at 92Y

What's your hurry? Whatever.
Dr. Tyson's here to drop some science.
(W. W. Norton, 2017)

Since its 1935 opening, there have been five directors of New York's beloved Hayden Planetarium. Okay, class. How many can you name?

That's right: Neil deGrasse Tyson


L-r: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich

And there you have it. A solid scientist---astrophysics, for heaven's sake!--with top-notch communication skills, irrepressible charm and the celebrity of a rock star. Raised in New York's very own Boogie Down Bronx by a Black father and Puerto Rican mother. Able to tap into his own life-long wonder and intellectual curiosity to help the rest of us mortals wrap our brains around stuff like the possibility of dimensions beyond the mere three we perceive with our puny, survival-oriented senses.

Last night, when Dr. Tyson strode out onto the stage of 92Y's Kaufmann Concert Hall, cheers went up from the audience, so much so that host Robert Krulwich (himself a celebrated broadcast journalist and co-host of NPR's Radiolab) had to wave us into silence so the two friends could get down to their conversation and the business of promoting Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson's latest book.
While waiting for your morning coffee to brew, or while waiting for the bus, the train, or the plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.
Science and scientists have taken a severe beating in Trump's New American Order. In this toxic atmosphere, Tyson's educational mission, visibility and accessibility loom even larger, approaching heroic status. While no one, onstage or in the audience, broached political or needlessly politicized issues during the 92Y appearance, anyone who thinks Tyson shirks from speaking up for rational policy needs to look at this video. The informal and wide-ranging chat revolved around both men's interest in stripping science facts of their austerity and their abilities to approach all of this with a storyteller's ready wit.
Tyson: "I have a photon joke. Can I tell it?"
Krulwich: "Go ahead."
Tyson: "Photon checks into a hotel, and the bellhop asks, 'Do you have any luggage?' Photon says, 'No, I'm traveling light.'"

And if you ever run into Tyson, you must ask to hear the entire hot cocoa/whipped cream story, which I will not spoil here. No worries. Just thank me when you see me later.

To be honest, I'm more of a casual science geek (and Tyson fangirl) than a deeply knowledgeable one but, as a neo-pagan, I share the agnostic Tyson's sense of wonder and admire his dedication to a cosmic perspective that rescues spirituality from being defined, confined and ultimately smothered by religious orthodoxy.

Excerpts from "Reflections on the Cosmic Perspectives," Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone.
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual -- even redemptive -- but not religious.
The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we're told.
The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.

The Virgo in me--sorry for the astrological reference, Dr. Tyson--completely gets his resistance to calling the color violet anything but "violet" as in "Roses are red, violets are...violet." The poet in me forgives him for that and grooves on the very idea of things called dwarf galaxies and runaway stars. The nosy person in me likes the question "What's going on between planets?" OMG, what, indeed?

I'm sympathetic to the notion that humans are simply not smart enough to figure out universes that might be trivial to the brain of a more intelligent species. I've seen what my fellow Americans are capable of unleashing on this planet. So, there's that. And how's this for real talk from Tyson? "The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you." Oh, yeah. That much is clear every. damn. day.

For information on Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, click here. And to learn about other cool programs at 92Y, click here.

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