Lisa Condit spoke with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and his show, An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, his career, science in movies and more. Read on for highlights from the interview, or listen to the full interview below. Then tune in to Talk of the Commonwealth with Hank Stolz on WCRN 830AM Fridays at 9 AM and Saturdays at 1 PM for more behind-the-scenes interviews.

Lisa: Thank you all for listening today! I am completely thrilled to bring Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson to you here on Behind the Scenes at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory. Welcome! 

Neil: Thank you! Thanks very much. You can call me Neil, Neil is fine. 

Lisa: Okay, Neil, no problem. I have to say, you were like a visiting rockstar of science last time you were here in Worcester at The Hanover Theatre. Our audiences are thrilled to welcome you back again, we can’t wait. You’re coming Tuesday, December 7, and I love the name of the program you’re doing. It’s Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movieswhoa! 

Neil deGrasse Tyson is standing in front of a white backdrop. He is holding the lapel of his jacket, showing off his space vest as he smiles at the camera.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Amazon)

Neil: People who follow me on social media know that no movie escapes my scrutiny, and I will praise it if it’s got some really good science. If the movie was supposed to have really good science in it and it tripped on a few things or got lazy, I’m going to call it out. This is an entire evening of 20- or 30-second movie clips to show you something you might have missed, and then you learn a little bit of science along the way.  

Lisa: Oh, how fun! I hear that we’re going to go from “Star Wars,” to “Frozen,” to “The Titanic,” to “The Martian.” That’s quite a range. 

Neil: And, curiously, there’s an uncommon number of beer commercials that are scientifically literate, so I’m going to highlight some of those, too. You’d be surprised; it’s not just, “let’s learn the science from recent sci-fi films.”

The movies are plain, ordinary movies that had somebody on the staff, like the writer, the producer or the set designer, that thought a little extra about the science and decided to put it in.

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil: If I see it, and usually I don’t miss these things, then I’m going to talk about it. It’s not just critique, as I said, it’s also praise where earned.  

Lisa: I love it. When you’re watching the movies, are you one of those people that talks the whole time? 

Neil: Yes! I think the most annoying person in a movie theater or to go see a movie with is the person who read the book first, because they’re never satisfied. Never! Stay home with your book, okay? 

Lisa: That’s me. I was a Comparative Literature major so I love to read the book and then see how it’s interpreted in the movies. 

Neil: No, you like to see how it’s interpreted so that you can complain about it. 

Lisa: No, I like to compare and contrast! Then when they make the movies and the musicals, because that’s the next thing we do in today’s entertainment world, it’s fun to just compare all three. What I find intriguing is when they completely change the ending.  

Neil: Well, you find that intriguing instead of completely annoying, I guess. 

Lisa: It’s like rewriting history in many ways, it’s so interpretive. You’re coming from a completely scientific view, and we’re so thrilled you’re coming to The Hanover Theatre. I asked some of our Communications team, “I’m talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson today, are there any questions?” You’ll appreciate this one from Lilly Irwin, our Communications Manager. She’s a big fan, too. She knows that you’re into the science of “Star Wars” and some of the other movies we mentioned, but she wants to know, “What do you think about ‘The Lord of the Rings’? Is there any science there?” We’re taking on magic, here. 

Neil: Interesting, interesting! There are many venues that have already seen An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies and they want me to come back, so I’ve prepared a whole talk called An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies: The Sequel.  

Lisa: So, you’ll answer Lilly’s question in The Sequel but she has to see part one first? 

Neil: “The Lord of the Rings” is in The Sequel, but I’ll tell you. In “The Desolation of Smaug,” the dragon, who is brilliantly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, is anatomically accurate. Since dragons don’t even exist, what does this sentence mean? Well, a Pegasus is not anatomically accurate. It’s a four-legged horse with wings sprouted off its back, yet it’s a vertebrate mammal. All of the vertebrates that fly have forfeited their forelimbs to become wings. All birds have their hind legs, and what would be their arms are wings. It’s true for birds and it’s true for bats. 

That dragon, you see it crawling along on its elbows as it crawls around in its cave. It’s not just a four-legged reptile with wings on the top. This is a compliment to the conception of the creature, even though the creature is fictional. 

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Lisa: That is such a great answer! Lilly is going to be very impressed and she’s going to sign up right away for The Sequel. It’s interesting to me because An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies is a two-and-a-half-hour presentation. We talked about a range, but what are some of the high points of your presentation that people can look forward to? 

Neil: Two-and-a-half hours is a long time for me to take from your evening and I will never take it lightly. It’s some people’s date night; if two geeks are dating, they’re coming to the talk! We’ve all seen at least many of the movies, if not most of them. When I talk about “Frozen,” I talk about the princess and how everything she touches freezes, so she has to leave town. She goes into the woods and she builds a castle out of ice. She sings, and she talks about frozen fractals. That’s a phrase, in a line, in a Disney song, sung by a Disney princess. I’m thinking, “Oh my Gosh, the word “fractal” got used in this context.” I’m completely tickled by this, so I spend eight slides talking about fractals.  

Lisa: That’s so fantastic. Everything that Disney produces is very smart at multiple levels from the very beginning. It makes sense that they would intrigue, and I would prefer to call geeks, intellectuals among us. Ashleigh, our Communications Assistant, is also a big fan. She wants to know, “What are your top three movies?” They don’t have to be a part of what you’re going to be talking about in our program, but we’re curious. 

Neil: Thanks for that question! My number one far-and-away favorite film is “The Matrix,” even though there’s a scientific reasoning flaw in it. I have to give it to them, because without it, there is no movie. I have to cut people some slack where necessary. They make an error in thermodynamics; this is a physics branch where they study heat and heat transfer. Otherwise, I think the movie is brilliantly conceived and constructed. Outside of a pure science genre, I like other movies, too. I’m a big fan of Broadway musicals.  

Neil deGrasse Tyson is standing in front of a white backdrop. He is holding the lapel of his jacket, showing off his space vest as he leans to the side and smiles inquisitively at the camera.
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Amazon)

Lisa: Of course you are! 

Neil: I was born and raised in New York City. I’m too young to have seen Westside Story when it first came out on Broadway, but I totally embraced the movie “Westside Story.” Steven Spielberg is remaking it; I’ll give him a chance, but I don’t see how you could best the singing, dancing, story-telling, drama, tribalism and the love.   

Lisa: If anybody can do it, Spielberg can! 

Neil: I’ve got to agree with you on that. So, “Westside Story” is very high up there. Another film, people have hardly ever heard of this, is called “The Conversation.” 

Lisa: Who’s in “The Conversation?” 

Neil: Gene Hackman is an audio-bugging expert, a wire-tapping expert. He is asked to record a conversation where he learns that a murder is going to be committed and he’s traumatized by having learned this information. It’s in my top five, “The Conversation.” There’s no weird science going on there. Another one that came later in my life – it’s so slick – is “The Thomas Crown Affair;” the remake with Pierce Brosnan. 

Lisa: It’s such a pleasure talking to you and I can hardly wait until you come here so you can entertain us and we can learn more from that brilliant brain of yours. You have a way of describing things that really engages people. Sometimes people are afraid when they see the word “Physicist” or “Astrophysicist” next to somebody’s name, but I happen to have an affinity because my dad was a Professor of Physics at The Air Force Academy. Talking to you really makes me miss him in many ways, and you do such a nice job at bringing everything down to a level that the rest of us can understand.  

Neil: Thank you.

I think of it as trying to bring the Universe down to Earth. That’s the goal here. 

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

Lisa: Come and join me when we see Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson: An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies on Tuesday, December 7 at 7:00pm at The Hanover Theatre! Buy your tickets today at TheHanoverTheatre.org or contact the Box Office at 877.571.SHOW (7469) for more information.