INTERVIEW: Neil deGrasse Tyson says current billionaire ‘space’ travel doesn’t really qualify as space

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

He will talk movies and science again at Atlanta Symphony Hall Sept. 28.

Translating science for popular culture isn’t easy and only a handful of people have pulled it off the over the years like Carl Sagan and Bill Nye.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is part of that rarified club, courtesy of his verbal dexterity, down-to-earth intelligence, warmth and humor that enables him to regale talk show hosts and do theater tours around the country like an A-list stand-up comic or band.

The heralded astrophysicist returns to Atlanta for his first show since 2019, this time at Atlanta Symphony Hall Sept. 28. He has previously appeared at Cobb Energy Performing Arts and the Fox Theatre. (Limited tickets are available at Ticketmaster.)

Like he did six years ago at the Fox, Tyson will explore the intersection of cinema and science.

“The volume of movies to make these talks is huge,” Tyson said in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

But he didn’t want to turn these talks into mere roasts of “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings” for making science-related mistakes.

“That’s just poking at Hollywood,” Tyson said. “I’m an educator. I can rise to higher heights. Instead, I have topics, science themes. I find clips from movies that serve that theme. The movie is not the subject. The science is the subject. I can show examples of things done well or badly, brought to you by Hollywood.”

For this upcoming show, for instance, there will be a section on higher dimensions and wormholes, he said, referencing various Marvel movies and “Monsters Inc.,” the Pixar animated classic from 2001.

Tyson will cite at least 30 different films, from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Mary Poppins” to “The Lion King,” with HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series thrown in for good measure.

His day job is running the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and he’s super excited by the early findings of the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest optical telescope in space.

“We approached it with tempered expectations,” Tyson said. “Yet everything did work. It actually met specifications for it. As a result, it has exceeded all expectations.”

And the stunning photos we’ve seen so far of distant galaxies, he notes, “is not as the universe is but as it once was,” given how long it takes light to travel.

Tyson, however, is not a big believer in UFOs. “What enthusiasts put forth as evidence would never satisfy a skeptical scientist,” he said. “That fuzzy light in the sky you can’t explain doesn’t mean we’re being investigated by intelligent beings from another galaxy.”

He fathoms aliens, if they were here, would announce themselves more like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “Independence Day.” “We wouldn’t need a congressional hearing to establish their existence,” Tyson said.

Tyson’s newest book, coming out Sept. 20 called “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization,” is a philosophical exploration on how to approach life from a contextual scientific viewpoint rather than preconceived notions or “common knowledge.”

For instance, he wants people to understand what “space” actually means when billionaires like Jeff Bezos are shooting celebrities such as William Shatner into so-called “space.”

“How high did William Shatner really go?” Tyson said. “Imagine a classroom globe. How high was his journey? The thickness of two dimes above the globe. That’s the distance from New York to Washington D.C. I can’t call that space.”

The International Space Station, he notes, would be one centimeter above the globe.

On a more serious issue, Tyson keenly worries about the survival of this planet given the strong resistance by some circles to battle climate change.

“Preserving the climate and taking actions to ensure it is the most conservative thing you can do,” he said. “I don’t want our descendants to be embarrassed by my generation failing to make the right decisions to preserve the earth they inherited.”


EVENT PREVIEW

“Neil deGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies II”

8 p.m. Sept. 28. $79.50-$229.50. 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. foxtheatre.org.