After spending an evening contemplating the sheer vastness of the universe with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, some people might be tempted to leave his coming show at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium with their shoulders slumped under the weight of feelings of utter insignificance.
But take heart, Tyson says, you’re part of that universe — and it’s part of you. You’re incredibly lucky to be among a species that’s capable of contemplating these daunting questions at all.
“Every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than 5 billion years ago,” Tyson writes in his latest book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.” “We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.”
Tyson — a leading American astrophysicist who has evolved into something of a pop culture icon through his vast social media following, appearances on television (including “The Simpsons”) and radio, and numerous published works — will speak at the Merrill Auditorium on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 7:30 p.m. It’s part of a talking series called “A Cosmic Perspective,” based in large part around the content of his latest book.
Director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium for the past 20 years, Tyson said during a phone interview Monday that the event will be both “ego-busting” and illuminating. Humans are literally made of stardust, Tyson said, a realization that “is almost spiritual.”
Tyson spends a significant chunk of his time today on internet and television talk shows, attempting to bring an understanding of the cosmos to varied audiences. He said he tries to shape his message with different comparisons and analogies based on what groups he’s talking to. In one unusual example, he appeared on Hot Ones, a YouTube-based talk show in which the host asks the guest questions while the pair eat insanely spicy hot wings. Tyson said the show didn’t warn him about the gastric distress that would follow his appearance.
In many ways, Tyson took the baton of educating the general public about the universe from Carl Sagan, perhaps America’s most renowned astronomer. Sagan hosted “Cosmos,” an ’80s television series that brought the universe’s mysteries into livingrooms across the U.S. Tyson hosted a widely acclaimed reboot of that series in 2014. Talks of a second season have been in progress, but no official announcements made.
“I consider myself a communicator beyond a lecturer,” Tyson said.
In his books, speaking engagements and shows, he attempts to relay complex theories about the universe and how it works in a way that a person with a limited understanding of astronomy or physics could begin to wrap their head around the information.
“It’s not so much about boiling it down,” Tyson said. “It’s finding a way that you can see it as it is by making references to things you otherwise know and care about.”
Tyson said he’s preparing to submit a new book, one he’s been working on during the past decade, in the next seven weeks or so. He couldn’t yet reveal any details about it — including its title.
He said one of the most exciting aspects of science for him is that there are still so many questions yet to be asked, let alone answered.
“I wonder if we — the first truly intelligent species on Earth — whether we’re intelligent enough to figure out how the universe works,” Tyson said. For example, scientists know quantum physics — the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level — exists and can calculate it, but don’t have a proven understanding of why it works or what’s behind it.
“I often wonder if we’re just too stupid to figure out some of these things we’ve observed in the universe,” Tyson said. Who knows? Perhaps there are extraterrestrial species in the universe for whom quantum theory is as basic as ABCs.
Tyson, who said he’s visited Maine a couple times in the past, called The Pine Tree State “secretly beautiful.” He said he won’t have much time for tourism while he’s out on the talking circuit, but does hope to enjoy a lobster dinner while he’s in town.
Tickets to Tyson’s show are available at www.porttix.com.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.