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2:03 am
Fri June 15, 2012

Neil deGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies

Originally published on Fri June 15, 2012 8:56 am

If you make movies that have anything to do with science, please note: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, pays attention.

Tyson pays so much attention, in fact, that he got James Cameron to fix the stars in the sky in Titanic for the recent 3-D rerelease. On Friday's Morning Edition, he talks to David Greene about this summer's big movies and how they stack up, science-wise. You should note that there is some talk in this conversation about what goes on in Prometheus, Men In Black 3 and The Avengers, so if you're desperately hoping to be surprised, you might tread cautiously.

Prometheus is as good a place to start as any, both because it spends most of its time in the far reaches of space, and because Tyson says he saw it "at 12:01 the morning it premiered." He notes that the early scene in which the origins of human life are explored is unrealistic in one regard: "The unrealistic part of it is that it's a humanoid alien planting DNA seeds to seed all of life on Earth. And most life on Earth is not humanoid. In fact, most life on earth is plant and bacterial. So if they were to represent that accurately, it would be some kind of bacterium dropping its DNA into the oceans of Earth."

But, he says, there's a nut of this idea that's not entirely impossible to imagine. There is a notion called panspermia, he says — "the notion that life might have begun on another planet, and this microbial life would become a stowaway on rocks that would be cast back into space by asteroid impact."

There is one straight-up gaffe in the film, however. Charlize Theron's character at one point says they're "half a billion miles from Earth," and, in fact, that's only a bit past Jupiter. And if you think he can't rattle off the back-of-the-envelope math from the calculations that are visible in the film, who exactly did you think you were dealing with?

Men In Black III has an error in it, too — kind of like those stars over Titanic, they biffed it when it comes to the phase of the moon on the night before Apollo 11 launched. It's full in the film, and in reality it was — as he scientifically describes it — "a skinny, itty-bitty crescent."

In general, though, Tyson was impressed by the way the film captured the mood surrounding the space program at that time. "I was so moved by how they portrayed 1969," he says. "You realize that was a time when people were dreaming about tomorrow."

He can even account for some of that green blood the aliens are always spurting. "None of them had red slime, and I'm intrigued by that," he says. "Because there's another way to carry oxygen through your body. You don't just need the iron, which accounts for your red blood; you can use copper, and, in fact, shellfish use copper. And so does Spock on Star Trek, and that's why they have green blood."

And finally, we reach The Avengers. Believe it or not, this man of science is buying the basics of Thor's hammer, which the film explains is made from the core of a dying star. As Tyson recently tweeted, a dying star has the density of a herd of 50 million elephants stuffed into a thimble. It really would make a heck of a weapon. "A dying star, if it's of a certain variety, it could be made of neutron matter. And if it is, it is really dense and really heavy."

In short? "You need the power of Thor to wield it."

We feel we'd be remiss not to recommend that you check out the discussion we had with Neil deGrasse Tyson a couple of years ago — still one of our favorites. He covers education, curiosity, teaching and a heck of a lot more. Read parts one, two and three in our archives.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If you've been to the movies this summer, you might find yourself wondering who else is out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MEN IN BLACK 3")

TOMMY LEE JONES: Our mission is to monitor extraterrestrial activity on Earth.

GREENE: "Men in Black 3," "Prometheus," even the "Avengers" all seem to feature themes of space travel, and, of course, aliens. Well, we couldn't think of a better person to talk to about these movies than astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson. He's director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for talking to us about the movies.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So can we start with "Prometheus"?

TYSON: Sure.

GREENE: You've seen it.

TYSON: I was there at 12:01.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: You were eager.

TYSON: 12:01 the morning it premiered, I was there.

GREENE: Well, first scene, and I really don't want us to give too much away to our listeners in case they haven't seen the movies we're going to talk about, but the first scene in "Prometheus," I mean, it seems to show this alien maybe planting the seeds of life on Earth, and I wonder if there's any realistic part of that whatsoever.

TYSON: Well, the unrealistic part of it is that's it's a humanoid alien planting DNA seeds to seed all of life on Earth, and most life on earth is not humanoid. In fact, most life on Earth is plant and bacterial. So if they were represent that accurately, it would be some kind of bacterium dropping its DNA into the oceans of Earth. But there is a notion called panspermia. It's the notion that life might have begun on another planet and this microbial life would then become a stowaway on rocks that would be cast back into space by asteroid impacts.

GREENE: What is your general reaction to space movies as an astrophysicist?

TYSON: I love them. The bigger the budget, the better.

(LAUGHTER)

TYSON: In the case of "Prometheus," it had a name-brand director, Ridley Scott, and there was some attempt to show what a future would be like, but there was a gaffe, I must tell you.

GREENE: Okay.

TYSON: Charlize Theron...

GREENE: The actress.

TYSON: ...in an attempt to assert how far away the ship is from Earth, says, we're a half billion miles from earth. And half billion, that's gets you like to Jupiter. You know, that's far from Earth by our modern standards, but by the standards of 2089, no. In fact, on a screen they showed how far away the ship was. It was 3.27 times 10 to the 14th kilometers, and so you convert that to light years and you get 35 light years. That is way farther away than from here to Jupiter. Sorry.

GREENE: Yeah. I was just writing all that down. That's the number I came up with too. Well, let's move to "Men in Black 3," and I know I'm not going to be spoiling anything if I say there are a lot of aliens, and also green slime. And, I mean, green slime and aliens, it goes back to my, you know, one of my favorite movies, "Ghostbusters" - you know, I've been slimed. But is there any reason to think that aliens would be slimy?

TYSON: Yeah. Every time they shot an alien, it blew up into a green mess, and none of them had red slime and I'm intrigued by that, because there's another way to carry oxygen through your body. You don't just need the iron, which accounts for your red blood. You can use copper. In fact, shellfish use copper, and so does Spock on "Star Trek."

GREENE: Hmm.

TYSON: And that's why they have green blood.

GREENE: Well, in "Men in Black 3" they go back in time to the launch of Apollo 11, of course a very notable event in space history. Did the filmmakers depict it accurately?

TYSON: I got to tell you. I was so moved by how they portrayed 1969. It wasn't just there's a launch, they went into the streets and you saw the newspaper headlines leading up to the launch, and you saw the interviews, and you saw the small black and white television, and you realized that was a time when people were dreaming about tomorrow.

GREENE: Hmm.

TYSON: Now, they did get something wrong, I got to tell you. So the night before the launch of Apollo 11, they show the moon in the sky and it's a full moon. The moon was so not full the night before the launch. It was a skinny itty-bitty crescent the night before they launched to the moon.

GREENE: I want to bring up a little more tape from one of the movies that we wanted to cover with you, and that's "The Avengers."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "THE AVENGERS")

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (as Thor) Loki is beyond reason, but he is my brother. What are you asking me to do?

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: (as Nick Fury) I'm asking you to join us.

HEMSWORTH: (as Thor) You people are so petty, and tiny.

GREENE: You love to tweet, and you tweeted quite a bit about the movies, and one thing that kind of struck me was that you said there actually is a realistic explanation for the power of this hammer that Thor was carrying around.

TYSON: Oh, you know, that's awesome that he's the only would who could lift it, and they say where that hammer came from. It's forged from the core of a dying star, and a dying star, if it's of a certain variety, it could be made of neutron matter, and if it is, it is really dense and really heavy. Nobody's picking that thing up. You need the power of Thor to wield it.

GREENE: Well, let's get ourselves some Thor hammers if we have time.

TYSON: And we'll do a little - do a Thor hammer dance.

GREENE: Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for talking movies and aliens with us.

TYSON: Thank you. Happy to be on.

GREENE: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. His most recent book is "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.