Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Leaves of deGrasse: Neil deGrasse Tyson Shares 10 Things Everyone Should Know About the Universe at Langford Auditorium

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 9:13 AM

Dr. Tyson did indeed acknowledge this meme.
  • Dr. Tyson did indeed acknowledge this meme.
As promised, renowned astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil deGrasse Tyson, delivered a lecture last night at Vanderbilt's Langford Auditorium. The event sold out, but a few dozen of the science enthusiasts who braved the cold to stand in line for unclaimed tickets were indeed permitted. (I must personally thank frequent Country Life/Cream commenter Tobin the Gnome for slipping me a ticket. Preesh, Tobes.)

Dr. Tyson's talk, which revolved around "10 things everyone should know about the universe," was of course informative. Avid space nuts and students of Tyson, however, may have found the lecture somewhat cursory — he didn't quite "go deep," as they say, but you'll hardly even scratch the surface of capital-E Everything in an hour-and-a-half. Just as enlightening and entertaining as Tyson's knowledge nuggets, I must say, was the approachable manner with which he provided them. The good doctor gave his entire presentation sans shoes — a lecture hall demands a certain amount of decorum, he explained, whereas a performance stage such as Langford's calls for a more unencumbered motility. He mentioned that last night marked his second trip to Music City — his first consisted of a stay in the "habitat module" known as Opryland Hotel — and he teased geologists and biologists for their penchant for Latin nomenclature. After all, astronomers and astrophysicists give things names like "black hole," "The Big Bang" and "sunspots." Tyson proudly addressed his recent appearance in Action Comics No. 14 alongside Superman (Tyson helped Superman find the star his home planet of Krypton once orbited) and the fact that he was the inspiration for a pretty solid meme. He also noted that there are 7,000 astrophysicists on a planet with a population of 7 billion — thus reaffirming my claim that Tyson is one in a million, thank you very much.

Follow me after the jump to see the 10 universe-related things Dr. Tyson revealed to his audience last night at Vanderbilt. (Note: I'm no astrophysicist, but I'll do my best to relay Tyson's 10 points.)

10. The Universe Has a Shipload of Stars
A sextillion of them, to be precise. That's 10 to the 21st power — unless I'm counting my zeros wrong, I believe that's about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

9. The Universe Is Bad for Your Ego
Even less than a millennium ago, humans held that Earth was the center of the universe. Then we discovered the places of our planetary brothers and sisters within the solar system. Then, our galaxy. In the 1920s, we discovered that there is a multitude of galaxies existing within our universe. So why stop at just one universe? If there's one of something, Dr. Tyson explained, then it's typically not unique. There's a solar system, so why shouldn't there be many? And why shouldn't there be numerous galaxies and, yes, even universes. Multiverse. Hypothetical now, sure, but what will we discover in another century? In another millennium?

Dr. Tyson shared a letter he received from a psychiatrist who saw the Hayden Planetarium's animation of the known universe (embedded below), felt dwarfed by it, and wanted to do a study about how depressed and tiny other visitors felt after witnessing the animation. Tyson guffawed at this. If you have an accurate perspective — a "cosmic perspective" — then you shouldn't be so arrogant as to think you're a big deal in the first place.

8. The Universe Is Like a Time Machine
To paraphrase: The fact that light takes time to travel lays bare the history of the universe. Our universe is 13.7 billion years old, and we know that because of the time stamp light provides — a second-and-a-half for light to reach us from the moon, eight minutes for light to reach us from the sun, 13.7 billion years from the furthest reaches of our universe.

7. The Universe Is Big, Molecules Are Small
There are more water molecules in a cup of water than there are cups of water in all of the planet's oceans, seas, rivers, lakes and rain clouds. There are more molecules in each one of our breaths than there are breath-sized puffs in the atmosphere. By this reasoning, says Tyson, we're all breathing the very same molecules as Socrates, Abe Lincoln, Joan of Arc and the other folks from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and we're drinking the same H20 molecules that passed through their kidneys.

6. The Earth Wants to Kill You
And the universe does, too. Over 95 percent of all earth beings have become extinct, and there is no end to the amount of tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, disease and pestilence the planet can hurl at us. Not only that, but there are great-big asteroids hurtling toward us as we speak. There's a small chance that the near-Earth asteroid Apophis will strike us in the year 2029, landing in the Pacific Ocean and burying the West Coast in a barrage of tsunami waves. Tyson described the theoretical "tractor beam" that could be utilized to pull asteroids away from Earth-impacting trajectories, but there's no funding for such a device. People always assume we'll just blow these things up, but that's far messier than using gravity and boosters to tug a giant rock away from the planet.

5. The Earth Might Not Be the Origin of Life on Earth
Panspermia! Life exists on the planet — extremophiles, these things are called — that can exist in the presence of very extreme temperatures, can survive radiation and suspended animation, etc. This stuff could easily exist on a meteorite that was blasted from the surface of Mars and into space, eventually ending up on Earth. Tons — literally, tons — of meteorites that come from Mars now exist on the Earth's surface.

4. Carbon: Life as We Know It
Carbon bonds the most easily of all the elements — it's "sticky," says Tyson. While sci-fi types love to propose that there could be silicon-based lifeforms out there, Tyson says there's no need for such conjecture. Nothing aids in life existing more than carbon, and it's everywhere. Tyson once interviewed the great Jon Stewart — a former chemistry major — who referred to carbon as the "slut of the elements." It'll just bond with anything.

3. Life Is of the Universe
Aside from helium — which is good for making your voice sound funny and that's about it, says Tyson — the elements that are the most abundant in the universe are also the most abundant on Earth and in our bodies. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen — these elements that exist across the span of existence are right here around us and in us. "Star stuff," as Tyson's mentor Carl Sagan once put it.

2. The Universe Is of Life
Basically the same point, but from the cosmic perspective. Stars are born in nebulae — the Pillars of Life, for instance — and then they burst apart, spewing elements like iron and hydrogen all throughout the galaxy. That stuff is inside us too, you guys.

1. We Are Stardust
Tyson shared a Hubble photograph that illustrates the staggering array of just how many galaxies and stars are out there. Feel free to feel dwarfed by that — it's pretty bewildering. But the fact that I have the same molecules inside me as the Superman's sun — well, that shit makes me feel pretty big and important.

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