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Neil deGrasse Tyson (Fox Theatre April 20) talks films, space travel, creating entertaining science

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Sunday, April 17, 2016

In a world filled with Kardashians and Real Housewives, there is fortunately a place for an astrophysicist rock star. His name? Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Elevated by the success of Fox's "Cosmos" series in 2014, Tyson has gone from lecturing college auditoriums to big theaters such as the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta. He's back April 20 for his second trip in just over a year after a sold-out appearance in March, 2015. (Buy tickets here for $50 to $100.)

"Any time you sell out, they want you back," said Tyson in recent phone interview from the Hayden Planetarium in New York, where he is director. "The formula is pretty easy. I generally offer a theater or organization a selection of talks. I don't tour in the traditional sense. I could do 12 consecutive talks in the same place and they would all be different. It depends on what they're in the mood for."

The Fox Theatre should be honored. He said he now gets 200 requests to appear at events a month. He has to say no to almost all of them. It doesn't hurt that the Fox features twinkling stars on the ceiling. For a planetarium director. it's like home.

The theme for Wednesday's show is movies. And while it would be obvious for Tyson to focus purely on sci-fi films such as "Star Wars" and "Interstellar," he said he will talk about other genres as well.

"It's not as interesting to comment about whether a sci-fi movie gets it right or wrong," he said. "It's more fun when you find science in a movie you didn't expect."

Although he hasn't finalized all the films he will touch on, he knows he will bring up Pixar's charming 2001 animated film "Monsters Inc."

"It relates to multi-dimensional travel," he said. "You might have thought about it that way. When you see that film, you don't think scifi. You think fun entertainment. I'll show a clip or image and explain what's going on."

Monsters inc

He said he will look at movies "where they try to get the science right and failed. That's interesting. Then there are movies where science could have improved it."

One random nitpick: Steve Martin's whimsical 1991 romantic comedy "L.A. Story" features various phases of the moon throughout the film. Problem: the phases are all out of whack from one scene to another. That drove Tyson nuts! "Just a phone call to the Griffith Observatory [in Los Angeles] could have straightened that out!" he said.

Sarah Jessica Parker with Steve Marin in 1991's "L.A. Story," which isn't consistent with its moon phases.

Tyson has been making science understandable to the average person on stages for decades. He said this goes back to eighth grade when he was able to explain matrices better to his fellow students than the math teacher. He believed he was able to do so because he had just figured matrices out. His teacher had known it for so long, he had forgotten the perspective of a newcomer to the subject.

He learned over time how a speaker should take into account his audience in order to go beyond standard lecturing: "I want to lecture on another level. I want to tailor lessons to my audience and sharpen my ability to communicate when I am teaching people."

Tyson said even in a big theater like the Fox, "you have to know and recognize whether you've got them or not even if you can't see them." He quickly tries to read the crowd. Is the crowd old? Mixed? Politically liberal or conservative? He even checks the demographics of the city he is visiting. "It equips me with the vocabulary I use or not use when delivering information I want to convey."

He also appreciates humor in anything he does, always using a stand-up comic as his co-host on his podcast "StarTalk." He isn't trying to make traditional jokes but hopefully says something amusing to make the crowd laugh every few minutes. That's a good sign they're paying attention, he said. His strategy if he feels the audience getting restless, he will speed things up. "I'll be less of a storyteller," he said.

In a larger venue, he will also exaggerate his body movements to make a point, like theater actors, so the folks in the back room who can't see his facial expressions know what he's trying to convey.

And yes, like a good comic, he may throw in some local references to curry favor. "I might reference 'The Walking Dead' or the CDC, which is in Atlanta," Tyson said. "It helps me connect with the audience."

Fox, in the meantime, has yet to clear another season of "Cosmos." "I'm still in conversation," he said. "Nothing is greenlit yet. I'd expect to hear something soon." He said it's up ultimately up to Carl Sagan's widow Ann Druyan .

Tyson is a regular on NGC with a TV version of his "StarTalk" podcast. He just recently interviewed astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Philippe Petit, who tightroped across the World Trade Center more than four decades ago.

As for the lure of space travel, Tyson remains enamored. He knows how we got into space so quickly in the 1960s: the Cold War. "War money flows like a river," he said. "But now there is insufficient motivation." He said travel has to be financially viable despite the high risk of death. "People right now don't see the return on investment," he said.

Tyson thinks we're still at least 10 years out before space tourism will truly begin. Some planned trips are merely 200 miles above Earth, like the Space Station. That's not enough to entice Tyson. The moon a quarter million miles away? That's something he might consider.


Neil deGrasse Tyson talks the movies

7:30 p.m. Wednesday April 20


Fabulous Fox Theatre

660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta

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Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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