Would you think I was weird if I told you that I laughed more at a lecture based on astrophysics than I have at any other show I’ve seen at Eccles Theater, and that includes stand-up comedy and slapstick-humor Broadway musicals (and one bad concert)? Because that’s exactly what happened last night when Neil deGrasse Tyson took the stage at The Eccles.
“I love what you’ve done with the sky,” he told the crowd, referencing the faux night sky on the ceiling of the venue. “None of those constellations are accurate,” he continued, “but that’s fine.”
Referred to often—and introduced last night as—“Your personal astrophysicist,” Tyson is known for his ability to explain complex scientific issues in a way that is both engaging and interesting. He accomplishes this, I discovered last night, by hitting a sweet-spot in tone that seems to say, “I’m smarter than you, but you’re also smart,” rather than the patronizing explain-ey voice adapted by most smart people—and make no mistake, Tyson is ‘capital s’ Smart. He has lots of degrees and they’re all from Harvard, Columbia and University of Texas—that’s not even counting the honorary ones.
But! It’s this down-to-earth demeanor that is the secret to his pop-culture success. He wore only socks on his feet as he told the crowd that he got his his most photographed celestial-themed vest literally off the back of a Hansen Planetarium employee on a visit to Salt Lake 20 years ago. He was not wearing a vest at all at The Eccles, but instead a sports coat, chinos and a tie he later told the crowd had all the planets, “except Pluto.” Of course.
Early in the lecture he asked the crowd if they knew what he was going to talk about—to mixed response. Clearly this was a sell-out crowd of 2400 people who were interested in anything the man had to say. But, in true pop-culture phenom form, Tyson took on another popular form in his discussion—film. More specifically, science in film. And in the least cool move of the night, he did so with the aid of a fairly basic but effective PowerPoint presentation.
The presentation was divided into chapters—among them, asteroids, aliens, surface tension, mathematics, thermodynamics, time travel, space exploration and evolution (“Can I say that here?” he asked the Utah crowd of the last category) —with visual aids, including videos and stills from movies, gifs (including one of a Corgi that he warned the crowd could not unsee. He was correct.), sometimes text and almost always a beer commercial—all of which were surprisingly scientifically sound. “Beer commercials should run for office!” he told the delighted crowd, acknowledging, “That sentence makes no sense.”
Let’s be clear—this is a lecture Tyson has given many times before, but the way he played off the crowd made it feel like it was the first time. He conferred with two children towards the front throughout to explain things like thimbles and pay phones—things he feared they would not otherwise understand. He moved the podium he sometimes stood at so that everyone in the crowd could have a clear view of the screen on which his presentation was displayed. He made fun of the way the president says “China” and “Huge”—after noting early in the show that he was delighted that a mapmaker had put the greater Salt Lake City in blue on a map, as an electoral map of the state was shown on the stage.
He gesticulated wildly and excitedly, shouting when appropriate or to emphasize something important—clearly Tyson is still excited by science. After telling a story about how he bested James Cameron, he literally moon walked across the stage.
As well rehearsed as the two-hour lecture portion of the evening was, the real highlight came when the lecture was over and Tyson did an unscripted 30 minute or so Q&A with the crowd.
He took questions, mostly from kids, about academics (take harder classes, keep pushing yourself, even if your GPA suffers from the difficulty of the class, he urged one student passionately), college choices (from an 11-year old. What am I doing with my life?), superheroes and black holes. He closed out the night with an incredibly thoughtful question and answer about the absence of religion in the sciences. “Religious scientists,” Tyson told the crowd are different than other people of faith because they, “do not use the bible as a science textbook.”
And though the lecture was good—man, Tyson unscripted is really good. There’s a spark in his eye as he talks about the things he knows, his charm and sense of humor are still there—that part is clearly not scripted. And he seems to genuinely want to share his knowledge with everyone he can.
Consider me among those who will get tickets for Neil deGrasse Tyson the next time he’s in town—subject unknown. In fact, if he’s not busy tonight, I’d totally listen to the lecture he gave last night again.