Five things I learned at StarTalk Live! with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Here’s what happens when Neil deGrasse Tyson, two comedians, a string theorist and an astronaut bro down about gravity

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StarTalk Live! at Town Hall on November 4, 2013

StarTalk Live! at Town Hall on November 4, 2013 Photograph: Jenna Scherer


StarTalk Live! has developed a reputation for bringing some big brains—and bigger personalities—together on one stage, and the latest edition at Town Hall was no exception. On Monday night, science juggernaut Neil deGrasse Tyson welcomed a roster of guests that made science and comedy devotees alike swoon: He and StarTalk regular Eugene Mirman were joined by theoretical physicist Brian Greene, the very funny Michael Ian Black and, coolest of all, astronaut Mike Dexter.… I mean, astronaut Michael Massimino, who’s logged close to a month of time in orbit, and who helped to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. (“You’re like an effective Sandra Bullock!” Mirman quipped.)

The timely topic of the evening was "gravity"—both the force and the current Alfonso Cuarón movie (see Tyson’s Twitter fact-checking screed from after he saw the film). Honestly, I think my science-challenged brain grasped more about the topic after hearing Tyson & Co. tease it out for a couple of hours than it did from either my seventh-grade physics class or my college astronomy seminar. Here’s what I gleaned:

1. "Gravity does a lot of cool things."
These were Tyson’s actual words when he launched into the discussion, rocking a pair of badass cowboy boots. ("You’re basically dressed as the construction worker from the Village People right now," Black remarked.) Tyson and Greene then proceeded to enumerate the many cool things that gravity—and the lack of it—does, like keeping you in a constant state of free fall in orbit around the Earth. Other wacky things that happen in zero G: Flames are spherical! Also, you can stick water globules to your eye when you get bored.

2. Cuarón & Co. got some big stuff wrong.
For those of you who haven’t seen Gravity yet: SPOILERS AHEAD. Okay, ready? Here goes: There was no reason George Clooney’s character should have died. You know when he’s being dragged into the vast emptiness of space and dragging Sandra Bullock along with him, so he unhooks his tether to save her and floats off into the black himself? According to actual science, that wouldn’t have happened. Since they were in zero G, there would’ve been no force acting on him. All Sandra would’ve had to do was give the tether a tiny tug, and George would’ve floated right back toward the loving arms of the International Space Station. Tyson hilariously demonstrated this point by pulling Greene, seated on a rolling furniture dolly, toward him with a string.

One thing the movie was very accurate on, however, according to Massimino, were the repair tools the crew was using at the beginning of the film. "So they did a lot of work on it, just not how gravity works!" Mirman said. "They should’ve called it Space Hammer."

3. Astronauts have a steep learning curve.
Before you head off into space for the first time, NASA makes you watch blooper reels of astronaut screwups so that you don’t commit one yourself. Massimino said the dumbest thing he ever did in orbit was leaving his sun visor down for too long on the dark side of the Earth, so that he thought he was blacking out when everything went dark. When Mirman asked if it was cool to puke while in a space suit, Massimino schooled him: “That’s not a good thing. Don’t throw up in your helmet. But we do have really good vomit bags.” He also said that your body adjusts to being in space after about three days, but it’s rough at the start. So if you were thinking of dropping $200,000 on a Virgin Galactic flight, best hold off. You’d likely be too busy hurling to enjoy yourself.

4. Black holes be crazy.
Tyson devoted the last chunk of the show to discussing the fringier side of gravity with Greene. He doesn’t believe that wormholes exist, but he did describe what would happen to you if you fell into a black hole’s event horizon: Time would slow to a crawl, but from your perspective, it would just feel normal. That means that relative to you, everything outside the black hole would appear to speed up, so you would get a front-row seat to watch the future history of the universe play out, on into eternity, while your body was slowly stretched out like spaghetti. "It is so the awesomest way to die," Tyson enthused.

When Mirman asked Greene whether or not black holes might "eat us all" one day, Greene was like, "Yup." When a black hole meets another black hole, they merge into a super-huge black hole—so, you know, no pressure. "Who goes into who, though?" Black asked.

5. “The Earth is a planet.”
When Tyson asked Massimino to drop some awe-inducing knowledge on us from his time in orbit, this was his reply. On one of his early space walks, after he’d learned the ropes, he finally got a good look at the Earth, floating out there in the infinite darkness, and realized that it wasn’t a safe, flat place—it was a planet like other planets, "in the middle of all this chaos." Whoa.


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