Neil deGrasse Tyson on What Hollywood gets Right (and Wrong)

The famed astrophysicist comes to the Palace Theatre next week to present ‘An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies’

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
Neil deGrasse Tyson presents "An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies"

After being put on hold for a year and a half due to the pandemic, “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies” will finally take place at the Palace Theatre at 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday, Sept. 21. In his talk, astrophysicist, author, TV host and Hayden Planetarium director Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson will discuss how Hollywood gets science right—and very, very wrong. Columbus Monthly spoke with Tyson in March 2020 ahead of the originally scheduled event, and again this week, about the often-misunderstood motive behind this talk and the many related tweets Tyson posts to critique and praise movie directors for their efforts (or lack thereof). Below is a combination of the two interviews, condensed and edited for clarity. 

Fall Events: Neil deGrasse Tyson: “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies”

So we first spoke last year, ahead of your original trip to Columbus that ended up getting postponed. What have you been up to in that time? 

Wow, that feels like a thousand years ago. I had these ideas that I would do something like Isaac Newton did. When he was at the University of Cambridge, the plague had hit London and spilled out to the outer surrounds, and they closed the university for a while. So he went to his childhood home in Lincolnshire and did really brilliant things, like discover gravity. So I said, “OK, if I can’t leave the house, I will invent brilliant things.” But I didn’t. I didn’t, but I did finish a book and start another book. So I felt productive, even if I wasn’t particularly brilliant all that time. 

Editor's note: Tyson's "A Brief Welcome to the Universe" comes out this month via Princeton University Press; another book, "Welcome to the Universe in 3D," will be released by the same publisher next spring.

You did better than me; I just made a sourdough starter. Did you do any work on “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies” to adapt it for the times? 

The basic set of movies is still there, but what I say about them will be nuanced according to what’s current. In movies, there have been many stories about outbreaks of viruses. I have some things to say about that!  

There’s a clip from “War of the Worlds” where, you know, aliens come from Mars. Do you remember how we defeated the aliens in “War of the Worlds”? 

It was a bacteria, I think. 

Yes! Back in the day it was written, they used the word “germ,” because the full disease vocabulary wasn’t developed. So they caught a germ that we were immune to, and they died. So that’s kind of interesting. What I would say, however, is if there’s an alien that came to Earth that just wanted to kill all humans, would we band together to attack the aliens? You want to believe that we would. Well then, what’s COVID-19? Is it any different, really? It’s an enemy of our species. It’s attacking everybody. So isn’t it time we banded together and fought as a unified whole? Apparently, that’s not what we did. That’s the kind of comment I would add to the theme of the story that I’m commenting on. 

On Twitter, you’re really vocal about calling attention to scientific inaccuracies in movies. Will people who follow your Twitter learn something new at your talk? 

Oh, yeah. The only things I tweet are things I can fit in a tweet. There’s an entire portfolio of commentary that I would offer regarding films that are much more nuanced or more elaborate and involved. This talk, I think it’s between 30 and 40 movie clips of all different kinds of films. It’s not just science fiction films, as you might think; it’s any film that either attempted to get science right and failed in some interesting way, or didn’t care at all about the science and happened to get some of it right. People think I’m just critical of films; well, that’s not really true. I’ll also praise anything that didn’t have to get it right, but did. It’s a celebration of science moving in and out of films, and it’s an appeal for movie makers to think about the science that you put in. Because maybe you can tell a better story or a more interesting story or a more nuanced story if you get the science right. 

Don’t think of science as something that constrains your creativity; think of it as something that guides your creativity. I’ll paraphrase Mark Twain: First, get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure. 

That’s what I was wondering; do you think it’s bad or harmful to suspend disbelief when they fudge the science to make the story work? 

No, it’s just lazy. I think people misunderstand my motives when I talk about these things, because I’m really just trying to enhance your appreciation for what a movie could be, not being nitpicky on what the movie wasn’t.  

If you’re watching a period piece, say it takes place in 1955, and parked on the street is a 1958 Chevy Bel Air. And someone you’re watching the movie with says, “Hey, that car doesn’t belong in that movie!” You’d be impressed, you’d compliment him for catching that, right? For that person, it takes them out of the moment of what’s being portrayed. Well, I’m no different from what they’re doing, but they get complimented and I get pilloried. I just want to heighten people’s science literacy as they watch movies for entertainment. 

In researching movies that you’ve appeared in, I noticed you had a cameo in the last Sharknado movie, so I watched a couple of them, and they were really just all over the place. It was like they were inaccurate on purpose. How does that fit into your view on getting things right? 

The fact that you’re concerned that I had a cameo in a movie that is so blatantly wrong is evidence that people don’t understand what I’m trying to do. I’m not going to say, “You can't really have sharks in a tornado.” That’s the premise of the movie, so we’ll go with that.  

So in [“The Last Sharknado: It's About Time”], the Sharknado opens a portal in the space-time continuum, and it takes them back to medieval times. In so doing, shark DNA merges with dragon DNA, and we have shark dragons: Dragonados. I was asked if I would play Merlin in a cameo, and that Merlin performs actual science, but people think it’s magic. So I said, I’m all in. 

The point is, I have a deep appreciation for Art. Art spelled with a capital A. So that would be any creative effort out there; it could be set designers, script writers, novelists, sculptors, painters, playwrights. I have a very high respect for art and care deeply for it. I think it’s one of the greatest things we do as a species, as a civilization. So when I get a call from an artist who wants to include a little bit of science in what they’re doing, I’m there for them. And in every case, they’ve welcomed my creative input on how they’re trying to fold science into their story. 

For example, I got a call from DC Comics a few years ago; they wanted Superman to come visit me at the Hayden Planetarium, where I work. They wanted my permission to draw me into the comic. They said, Superman wants to use the special observing tools to observe the destruction of Krypton, his home star system. I asked how they were going to explain it. They told me, and I said no, you can’t do it that way. Here’s how you should do it. 

Because when he got launched from his planet, he got here ahead of the light beam and he arrived not much older than when he left, meaning he traveled faster than light. So he had to come via a wormhole. I asked how old he is now; they told me late 20s, so I looked in my catalog for a red star that’s about 20 light-years away. I found one 27 light-years away in the constellation Corvus, which they said was perfect because Superman’s high school mascot was the Crows. We all worked together to make the story as rich and as anchored as can be, and it’s a better story for it. 

I imagine movies getting science wrong are a dime a dozen, especially if they don’t consult an actual scientist first. But what about some surprising examples of movies getting it right? 

I’ve commented on the rendering of the aurora, the Northern Lights, in the nighttime scenes of “Frozen.” It’s very authentically done. It’s just an animation; there are talking snowmen in the movie, so they could’ve messed up that detail and no one would’ve faulted them. Or one of the more enjoyable scenes in “Frozen” for me was the ice harvesters in the beginning. Those cubes are bobbing in the water exactly the way it would, with about 10 percent of its volume sitting above the water. 

Compare that to “The Wizard of Oz,” at the end when the Scarecrow gets a brain. He recites the Pythagorean Theorem, right? But what he said is wrong! It’s not the Pythagorean Theorem, it’s some garbled, jumbled nonsense. It would have been trivial to get that right! 

I never noticed that! I guess it just shows that just because you have a brain, doesn’t mean you’re smart, does it? 

Yeah, I think we figured that out in the last 18 months, haven’t we? 

Ultimately, I’m just trying to make sure people can learn how to think for themselves, how to know what it means when a scientist says something is true. And I think civilization won’t really otherwise stand a chance, because technology will be so fundamentally folded together with the decision-making.  

I just want people to be able to think. I don’t want people to listen to me like I’m some kind of guru. That’s not being an educator. An educator is empowering you to walk away and say, “I understand that.” I want you to be able to fold that into your own life’s path in a way that you never have to reference the fact that I said it. The moment you have to say, “This is true because Tyson said so,” I fail. You should say, “This is true because here’s why,” and be able to explain it to someone else. That’s where objective reality is born and sustained.