*This event has been postponed from March 17 to October 6 due to the rapidly evolving Coronavirus (COVID-19) health crisis.*

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an expert in explaining mysteries of the universe to a general audience. Host of the rebooted Cosmos series, he is the 21st century’s Carl Sagan. Tyson’s passion for promoting celestial wonderment is only rivaled by his love for film.

Tyson will present An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies at 7:30 PM October 6, at Clowes Memorial Hall. The event will center on science in movies, from science fiction to Disney classics. Tyson will screen short clips of more than 30 movies from the past 80 years before dissecting what is going on in each scene. It’s the melding of two passions on one stage.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

When watching a movie about outer space, Tyson puts down the popcorn and starts taking notes. His Twitter account is full of criticisms for movies that include silly portrayals of space travel, exploration, or phenomena. But, if a film accurately captures these marvels, he gives credit where credit is due.

And sometimes, Tyson’s reviews have an impact on new stories in the works. One of his favorite compliments came from The Martian author, Andy Weir.

“While he was writing that novel, he said he imagined I was looking over his shoulder the whole time,” says Tyson with a laugh. “He didn’t want to mess up a calculation and have me tweet about it. People think I’m nit-picking. ‘Well, I don’t want to take you to a movie,’ they say. Well, I assure you, I’m very silent during movies.”

Tyson knows his tweets carry weight. But he says he’s just pointing out the portrayal of science in movies, for better or for worse. It’s like a costume designer pointing out that the style of gown worn by a character in a Jane Austen movie didn’t come from that era, or a car enthusiast spotting a Ford from the 1960s in a movie that’s set in the ‘50s, Tyson says.

In recent years, some studios have hired on-set scientists to help make sure things are correct. Movies like Gravity have impressed Tyson in terms of their effort and execution.

“People assumed I didn’t like the movie because I pointed out some things it got wrong in about a dozen tweets,” Tyson says about the 2013 film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, “but I only gave it that much attention because of how much science they got right. I loved the movie, so I had to go back and tweet that I did love the movie overall.”

The Martian fared even better in Tyson’s eyes—mostly.

“The one flaw was the windstorm scene,” he says. “The air pressure on Mars is 1/100th of that on Earth, so high-speed wind on Mars is like someone gently blowing on your cheek. But they needed some premise to create the drama of the storm.”

Stage and screen

Along with his many media appearances, Tyson’s résumé includes roles as an academic, a researcher, a planetarium director, a podcast host, and a member of the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry. Yet, appearing on-stage to talk about the universe’s wonders will always be something he fits into his schedule. He calls it “a founding pillar” of his current career.

Tyson says An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies is an example of how he reaches out to the public, which he finds has an “underserved appetite of science and science literacy. There’s an enlightenment that comes to you thinking critically about the world.”

Physics and Astronomy Chair Gonzalo Ordonez holds a book about Interstellar.

Butler’s astrophysicists go to the movies, too

Tyson isn’t the only scientist who watches movies with a critical eye. Gonzalo Ordonez, Butler Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, says Interstellar is his favorite film.

“They do a good job respecting the physics,” Ordonez says of the 2014 movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway. “The plot and visual effects are interesting. Their use of the theory of relativity, as well as the physics of how time slows down near a black hole, are well done.”

Physics Professor Xianming Han cited Star Trek as his favorite sci-fi series, but on the silver screen, he was most impressed with Contact starring Jodie Foster.

“Scientifically, it’s probably the most rigorous,” says Han, adding that he especially enjoyed the 1997 film’s take on space and time travel.

Han and Ordonez both look forward to Tyson’s visit to Butler.

“I think students will have a blast,” Ordonez says. “Tyson has made astrophysics more popular and more accessible to nonspecialists.”

Tyson’s take on cinema has proved popular—so much that An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies: The Sequel is in the works. Yes, Tyson is reaching franchise status. Move over Marvel.

“My goal is to enhance people’s appreciation of what a movie is—or what it could have been if the science had been accurately reckoned,” he says.

Photos by Tim Brouk and provided by Delvinhair Productions and Roderick Mickens

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Katie Grieze
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