by: Alix Cohen




Neil deGrasse Tyson, likely the hippest, most wry, astrophysicist on the planet enters without introduction and is met by thunderous applause. He’s dressed, comedian Michael Ian Black observes, like the construction worker in The Village People. Our mostly youthful audience apparently know him by sight from Nova Science NowThe Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher. To the public, Tyson, whose fields of study include cosmologystellar evolutiongalactic astronomybulges, and stellar formation (don’t ask), and whose hobby is science fiction films, is best described as a masterful communicator concerning all things space. Speaking and gesturing like a trained actorTyson makes the unfathomable at least graspable. Star Talk Live is an ongoing series and may be acquired by podcast.


Tonight’s theme is Gravity. We begin with Aristotle and Newton. Tyson simultaneously drops his boot and a pen which fall at the same rate despite distinctly different size, weight and shape. He’s disappointed in Aristotle for not having grasped something so demonstrable. “So Aristotle never dropped a pen and shoe?” quips comedian, Eugene Mirman, Tyson’s Tonto in these broadcasts. “Did Newton really get hit on the head with an apple?” Black asks. “Unlikely, though there is an apple tree on his Lincolnshire property to which I paid a visit…” (Tyson) “Our moon is kept in orbit by the very same force that keeps apples on that tree,” laid back, theoretical physicist, Brian Greene adds then moving on to Einstein’s contribution.


The film “Gravity” proves a rich source of scientifically incorrect enactment with which to approach our subject.  Astronaut, Mike Massimino who was part of the Hubble Telescope repair team, enters in his NASA jumpsuit and two tone running shoes to offer firsthand knowledge. “You’re like an effective Sandra Bullock,” comments Mirman referring to Bullock’s inefficiency in the film. Someone like her character with only medical credentials would never be repairing the telescope. (“The Hubble was sick,” Mirman offers petulantly), Massimino acknowledges that several of the tools she used in the film were spot on. Tyson tells us he was actually asked why NASA sent a medical doctor to repair The Hubble. “NASA didn’t ask her to do that, it was a movie! Why doesn’t Superman help us with law enforcement?!”


Greene is seated, knees up, on a dolly. Holding a long rope attached to the low, wheeled platform, Tyson steps back, does an arabesque and presents a raised foot to Mirman for support. Picture this. They are enacting Bullock’s being tethered to Clooney in space. “When Clooney detaches himself…” Tyson lets go of the rope, “this is what would happen…” Greene remains where he is. “Nothing. All she had to do was tug.” He pulls the rope, Greene rides to him, arms outstretched like a character out of Charlie Brown; they hug.” “There was no reason for Clooney to be lost like that, she just had to reel him in,” concurs the astronaut.


The ability to make repairs wearing cumbersome gloves is discussed as is the likelihood of being hit by increasing space debris. Even a tiny hole in the 7 layer space suit would be deadly within half an hour. Massimino responds candidly to questions about embarrassing incidents –a blooper reel of actual, unthinking mishaps is required-watching by NASA personnel before exiting the planet (I kid you not), the impossibility of a dramatically effective floating teardrop depicted in the film, reclamation to terra firma, and landing mechanisms. Astronauts are literally issued with governmental travel orders stating specifics of destination- and return. “It’s the same form you’d use to go to Roanoke, Virginia. In fact, it contains the standard incidental expense allotment of $2.52 a day!” (Did I get that number correct?) he continues. The possibility of space ice cream was suggested as best use of the funds.


Greene evidently had aspirations to be an astronaut until fairly recently when he became horribly seasick on a ship to Antarctica. Tyson “lost my lunch” after testing out a centrifuge. How is this kept in check? Massimino tells us there’s medication to calm your stomach and regulate the inner ear and medication to keep you from becoming sleepy. “What are you,Guns and Roses?!” Mirman interjects. The effects of G force are clarified. “There are four traditional forces,” Tyson explains,” electromagnetic, gravity, and two nuclear forces. “You forgot the most important force of all- Love,” comments Black. “And apathy,” adds Mirman.


“Gravity is the weakest of these forces,” Greene says. “My little puny muscle defeats the pull of the whole universe when I pick up this water bottle.” Our panel talks about astrophysical black holes. When black holes eat an object, they grow in direct proportion to what’s taken in,” Greene explains, “Far into the future, they may have swallowed everything on their event horizon.” “And we’re worried about Al- Qaeda!” Mirman exclaims.


From black holes, we move on to wormholes. “The big challenge is to put together Einstein’s theories and quantum mechanics,” Greene comments. “Will something practical come out of all this?” Tyson asks. “Back in the day of Neils Bohr, people said, hey man, what are quantum mechanics good for?,”Greene responds.“When you understand something well, you begin to manipulate it. It will be some time before…”


All this, and we still have time to hear about magnetism overcoming gravity, the space/time continuum, and the application of mathematics. Content is wider than indicated, comedians quicker and funnier.  Massimino is given the last word. “Earth is a planet. The first time I took it all in, looking at stars, earth, and the vastness of space. my relationship to earth changed. It was no longer the safe haven I thought it was. We are really all travelers on spaceship earth.” (paraphrase) Questions from the audience followed, each and every one well phrased and intriguing. This is some audience! An informative and entertaining evening recommended to all in alternative format.


Star Talk Live!

Host astrophysicist/Director of The Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Featuring Brian Greene, theoretical physicist and string theorist

Special Guest, Astronaut, Mike Massimino

Comedians Eugene Mirman and Michael Ian Black

Town Hall   123 West 43rd Street

November 4, 2013

Venue Calendar:

Star Talk Radio- The continuing series

*Don Pollard Photography