Scientific Celebrity at the Eccles Theatre

John Wise

The evening of Oct. 16, a sold-out Eccles Theatre in Salt Lake City hosted renowned astrophysicist and Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson. The recipient of twenty honorary doctorates and protege of Carl Sagan kicked off his shoes and gave an exactly two-hour presentation on explorations into extraterrestrial life—in his socks.

Tyson, as he refers to himself, gave the crowd an enthusiastic, character-driven experience. He promoted the sequel to 2014’s, “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” to a receptive crowd, many of whom paid hundreds of dollars for tickets. The new season, “Cosmos: Possible Worlds,” is due out in spring 2019.

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Emmy Awards on Sept. 9, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Birdie Thompson/AdMedia/Zuma Press/TNS)

Foremost famous for his scholarly accomplishments, Tyson hosts the Emmy-nominated late-night television show on the National Geographic Channel, “StarTalk,” a break-off of “StarTalk Radio,” currently in its eighth season.

Tyson is a renaissance man with talents beyond the world of academics. Little known to the general public is Tyson’s impressive dancing, which he honed during his time on the University of Texas Dance Team.

Additionally, Tyson showcased his comedic skills throughout the show, starting in his opening remarks with a tongue-in-cheek jab at western political leanings, lightened with a malaprop.

“Anytime I visit a state that I’m a little bit unfamiliar with, I like reminding myself where all the big cities are, just so I can get my geometry right,” Tyson said while displaying a map of Utah’s political divisions, noting, “the big cities are always in blue.”

While the substantive information and educational value of the night’s presentation was light, the excitement level was high. Tyson beamed over his two most recent books, 2017’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry” and this year’s “Accessory to War: The Unspoken Alliance Between Astrophysics and the Military.”

Both books were on the New York Times Bestseller List that week. His pride, he explained, was that science books had found acclaim among a rotating list of history, sports and Donald Trump books.

“People are beginning to care about what is objectively true in the world,” Tyson reveled.

The gregarious and excitable Tyson elicited more laughs than awe. Delivered with dynamic timbre and cadence, the evening was more stand-up comedy than science lecture.

Tyson reminisced on his first visit to Salt Lake City when he came to the Hansen Planetarium. While there, Tyson bought a sweater-vest off the back of an employee. Tyson was later drawn in that sweater-vest in an edition of the Superman comic in which Superman visits the Hayden Planetarium.

In the comic, Tyson helps the Man of Steel observe the destruction of the fictional planet Krypton. Using physics and newly developed technology allowing the observation of planetary bodies outside our solar system, Tyson cross referenced Superman lore to find an existing planet that could serve as Superman’s home planet in the comic’s storyline.

The show’s content featured repackaged information from Tyson’s other endeavors. Similar to the narrative of Cosmos, the discussion of the search for extraterrestrial life began in Earth’s solar system with the possibilities of life on Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

As the most public figure who had advocated for the demotion of Pluto’s status as a planet, Tyson earned a reputation as a dry, direct and matter-of-fact orator. On the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence, Tyson compared humans to their closest DNA relative, the chimpanzee.

The one percent difference in DNA is the difference between comprehending what humans consider the most basic concepts that a chimpanzee could never understand. Tyson posited that differences between intelligent life forms in the universe would be similar to that of humans and chimpanzees.

When speaking of reconciling the conflicting nature of religion and objective truth, Tyson espoused his patriotic sentiments. “Free expression of religion is a fundamental dimension of what it is to be American,” he said, then transitioning to a facetious caveat: “If you’re really sure that the Grand Canyon was carved in forty days, you shouldn’t be head of the (United States) Geological Society, for example.”

Some of the loudest cheers came when Tyson showed a large picture of the Tardigrade, a microscopic organism given near-celebrity status since it’s appearance in the Cosmos reboot. Also called water bears, Tardigrades are known to survive in conditions uninhabitable by all other forms of life, including outer space, and offer a glimpse of what it would take for extraterrestrial life to exist.

Though the subject matter did not delve deeply into science and theory, it was an accessible presentation that celebrated a new zeal for science. The passion for Tyson’s celebrity and profession was evident in the standing ovation at the end of the program.