Friday, November 20, 2015

I Got to See Neil deGrasse-Tyson Speak in Nashville Last Night, and It Was Incredible!!!!!

Okay, there's just no way to talk about seeing Dr. Tyson concisely and give you the full flavor of the talk, so this is going to be long.  I'll put up some pictures I took last night to try and break up the text, but if you want to know what he talked about for basically the first 30 minutes, and was a general theme which ran through the four hour lecture, then this piece he wrote for HuffPo, is what you want to read.  Before I get into the nitty gritty of his talk, let me offer some advice to folks wanting to see him, so they can get the most out of the evening.

  1. If he's doing two lectures over two days, with a "Meet and Greet" before each lecture (provided you pay extra), buy tickets for both days, getting the ones for the "Meet and Greet" on the second day, if you want to ask him questions.  You'll probably have different questions after you see him speak than you did before, and the only way you can be certain (unless you're one of the first three people at one of the mics) you can ask him is by being at the "Meet and Greet."
  2. Don't try to sound smart when you ask your question.  If you try to sound smart, you'll just end up asking a really long question that's confusing to people.  Be quick because NDT will probably take a long time in answering your question, which means fewer folks can ask their questions.  Neil's really laid back when he speaks, so don't think you have to be at all formal or fancy.  One of the first things he does after he walks on stage is kick off his shoes and walk around in his socks.
  3. Bring the kids, but make sure they have a nap before the show.  The talk is aimed at a broad audience, and the topics are presented at about the same level as they were on Cosmos.  There was a young girl about 7 or 8 in the seat in front of me, and she had a great time, until she got tired and had to curl up and sleep in her seat.  One of the lucky guys who got to ask questions mentioned that his young daughter was a big fan of NDT and wanted him to ask NDT a question, at which point, Neil did some good natured shaming of the guy for not bringing his daughter to the show.  Neil also took the last round of questions from kids (so you might want to get them to ask your question for you).
  4. There's no intermission during the talk, so don't drink a lot before the show, as you're not going to want to miss something because you had to get up and pee in the middle of it.  (That happened a lot.)
  5. Don't be afraid to shout answers to his questions.  He builds that into his show, and wants people to shout answers.
  6. Make sure your phone's batteries are fully charged before you go, and disable your flash.  Bring multiple devices if you can, so you can snap as many pics as possible (especially if you've got a shitty phone like I've got and it takes 20 seconds to launch the camera app).  My battery was pretty low when he started, so I didn't get to take as many pics as I wanted, and when I took a pic of the stage, before even most of the audience was seated, and my flash went off, I had an usher running over to me lecturing me about how photos were prohibited "for copyright reasons."  I stifled the urge to point out to her that the only thing on the stage which could even remotely be considered "copyrighted material" was the image on the screen, and since that was a NASA photo, by law, its public domain.

All right, on to the talk.  This is a pic of the entrance to the theater where Tyson spoke.

There's a bit of surrealism in seeing a leading scientist speak in a theater named after a President who isn't praised for his intellect.  (And then there's the whole matter of Jackson being a slave owning racist.)

Here's the stage before NDT came out.

He was introduced by a long-haired, bearded, "hippie" local artist, Herb Williams, who gave a touching story about how a science teacher at his school when he was a kid inspired him.  When Neil walked out, he briefly talked about Herb's art, which are sculptures made from crayons.

Neil took two jabs at himself right when he started speaking.  The first was that he asked how many people were there "against their will."  He then apologized for them having to listen to him speak, and implied that he wasn't anyone who was really famous.  (Which got great laughs.)

 And the second was that he mocked himself over his involvement in the demotion of Pluto.  Giving a brief recap of the events which got him nominated as the "planet killer."

He then explained that the lecture on what science is that he was going to give was chosen by the folks who asked him to speak in Nashville, and that we should blame them, not him, if it wasn't what we wanted to hear about.

He then talked about the five senses, and asked if anyone in the audience thought they had a "sixth sense of some kind."  Right away, I'm wondering where he's going with this.  Was he actually going to have a discussion about ESP or similar woo? Was he going to debate with someone on the subject?  He got a smattering of hands from the audience, indicating that some people there did believe that they had a "sixth sense."  His response?  "I don't care.  Do you know why I don't care?"  At this point he clicked over to a slide which had a listing of some of the ways scientists can study things, such as chemical analysis, magnetic fields, X-rays, gamma rays, and the like.  "Here's why I don't care, because scientists have thousands of different ways in which they can study things.  They're not limited to just six."

The next slide featured various scientific instruments, like an MRI, multimeter, and a few others which Neil claimed to have forgotten the name of.  I think that this was a test to help him gauge the audience, because he gave the same lecture the night before (and he's probably given it dozens of times in the past), so I doubt if he didn't really remember, but only feigned that to see if anybody there knew what they were, and/or how responsive the audience was.  He explained how scientists use various instruments to study the universe, and that what any single scientist said wasn't necessarily important, but that when groups of scientists study something and all of them get similar results, its what is considered to be an "objective truth" since it can be measured and studied by other people who get almost the same result, we know that its true for everybody.

Personal truths, he said, are things which one believes to be true, but we have no way of measuring, or that there's not an overwhelming consensus on.  His example was that there are about 2 billion Christians in the world and about 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, out of a total population of 7 billion people on the planet.  Clearly, he pointed out, this means that any statement about a religious belief has to be considered a "personal truth," and that any society which passed laws based on cultural traditions, religious beliefs, or political beliefs, was using subjective truths, and would be a dictatorship.  A society which passed laws based on objective truths, is one in which everyone can flourish and that is one which we should all strive to live in.  This got a huge round of applause from everyone in the audience.

In a way, it was at this point, that he finished talking about what's in the HuffPo piece I linked to at the beginning.  There are elements in that, which were yet to come in his talk, but they're as comparable as saying that the Star Wars movies are about a family squabble.  It's accurate, but it leaves out oh so many of the details.

For example, he talked about how textbooks illustrate the distance between the Earth and the Moon, and showed (while explaining why) that its misleading.  He talked about the metric system, and how America gets a slightly bad rap when it comes to our use (or lack thereof) of the metric system.  Pointing out that nobody in the US had ever bought a "quart of Pepsi" and that we were using a metric currency system before the Brits.  He also seemed to take great delight in the term "Murica!" and was unable to contain his laughter after I shouted "Yeehaw!" in response to him saying "Murica!" at one point.

He talked about us sending robots to Mars, and the Mars One project.

He said that he had serious doubts about Mars One before he spoke to Bas Lansdorp, and that he still had doubts after speaking to Bas, but not as many as he did before.  He did feel, however, that what was most important was that there were people out there like Bas trying to push the envelope, because that was the only way in which we learned anything, it was the only way we have survived as long as a species as we have.

This brought him to talking about the Rosetta Mission, and he took great pains to point out that it was a European mission.  Without disparaging them at all, he made it clear that he wasn't happy that we hadn't done something similar.  He used this mission to lambaste the media for images such as this:
And this:

Because while they were accurate in terms of scale, they gave a false impression of what an impact of a comet would do to the Earth.  Meteor Crater, in Arizona was hit by an object only 160 ft in diameter.

  Comet  67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, where Rosetta is, by contrast, is 1 mile in diameter.  That meteor which exploded over Russia a couple of years ago?  You know, the one with the dash cam videos recording its path across the sky?  Yeah, that was 20 meters in diameter.  Over 1K people were injured when it exploded with a force greater than the bombs used at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

He talked about how we really need to pay attention to  such things and that we're constantly discovering new ones that cross the orbit of the Earth, which means that sooner or later, they'll hit us.

He pushed out to Pluto.

And rehashed, briefly, the comments he made at the beginning about what makes a planet a planet.  He also "blamed" this image for causing "problems."

This led to a comparison to Voyager, and its famous "Pale Blue Dot" photo.

Which was really a continuation of the famous Apollo 8 "Earth Rise" photo taken in 1968.

And it was this photo, coming in at the end of a year filled with turmoil which is what led to the start of the environmental movement, the creation of the EPA, NOAA, Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a host of other positive things all happened when we were pushing out from Earth.  When we monkeys were reaching for something greater than ourselves, and touching an entirely new frontier.

He described how that led to the Cassini mission, which reached Saturn in 2005.  Then he stopped, said that didn't seem right, and asked if it was.  Someone in the audience shouted that Cassini reached Saturn in 2004, and Neil quickly changed the year on the slide.  (Clearly this was a stunt on his part, because he mentioned that before any of the data could be sent back, he made his first appearance on the Today Show right as Cassini was arriving at Saturn.  He also handed Matt Lauer his ass.  I don't think you're going to forget that.  BTW, he said he'll be back on the Today Show on Monday, Nov. 23rd, 2015.)

It was at this point that he talked about his friends at NASA who worked on Cassini wanting to duplicate the "Pale Blue Dot" image in 2013.  But they had the problem that the sun was too bright to be able to take a picture of the Earth, so they had to wait until Saturn was between the sun and Cassini, but the Earth was still visible.

He stopped when the picture of Earth, visible just below the shadow of Saturn's rings was on the screen behind him.

He asked that they turn all the lights down in the theater, so that the only illumination came from the screen behind him, his voice dropped to a Barry White level as he said, "I shall now read from 'the Book of Carl'."  A huge cheer went up from everyone, because we knew what was coming next.  As Neil read Carl's Pale Blue Dot, the picture on the screen behind him, slowly changed.  It shifted to various far distant images of Earth, taken by Cassini and Voyager.  Some of which were able to show our Moon.

(Our understanding of the distances involved having been increased thanks to the earlier part of his presentation.)

Do I need to say that he got a standing ovation when he was finished?  Or that there were people wiping away tears?  Or that I probably wasn't the only one who was thankful he didn't play the version from the end of Cosmos from last year.  You know, this one:

Because I'd have been bawling like a baby if he had.  They brought the lights up, and it was time for questions.  I won't give all of them, because I don't remember all of them, and I certainly can't do justice to his answers.  Someone asked him what kinds of discoveries did he hope to see in the coming decades, and he talked about how the string theorists are trying to prove that its possible for space to boil away like water over a fire.  He said he can't even grasp what that means, let alone how it could happen.  Someone else asked if he thought that intelligent civilizations might have destroyed themselves.  His answer was a short, "Yes!" with a look that told you he strongly believed that we might be one of them soon (and after he got the laugh he was seeking, he expounded upon the topic).  Another question asked about his biggest failure, and he described being kicked out of grad school because his advisors thought that he was spending too much time on the wrestling team and dance team.  This forced him to move back home to his parents house, along with his then girlfriend, who'd also dropped out of grad school.  He said that while this looked bad to him at the time, since he was certain that folks who'd kicked him out of grad school never expected him to amount to much (Oops.), it taught him how to prioritize.  It was also when he proposed to his girlfriend (who accepted and is still his wife after 27 years, BTW, he had a little trouble on the math on that one).  She later went on to work for Bloomberg.

Okay, this thing is hugely long, and I still haven't covered vast amounts of what he discussed both before and during the Q & A session.  To succinctly sum up the lecture, its like the Cosmos TV series and a Grateful Dead concert all in one.  And I really hope that folks make bootleg recordings of his lectures, just like they did Grateful Dead shows.  Yeah, I know, Dr. Tyson worked hard at preparing his lecture, and people paid good money to see it, but having watched him on Cosmos, on The Daily Show, and read some of his books, I can tell you that the best bootleg recording of his lecture doesn't capture what its like to be in the same room with him and a couple thousand science geeks.  That's something which you have to experience, but hearing or seeing a bootleg of his lecture will certainly whet your appetite for going to one.  If you're asking me should you drive a couple hundred miles to see him speak, I have to say that you absolutely should.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


Ignore this.  Sooner or later there will be something interesting here.  In the meantime, I've done this to try and get an idea if I've actually configured things correctly.