An Evening with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson

On September 24th, I had an amazing opportunity to introduce Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, RI. Dr Tyson is, as you may already know, a world-renowned astrophysicist, popular TV show host, radio show host, bestselling author, director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC, and, well, too many other titles to list.

I first met Dr. Tyson in 1998 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society just as I was starting out in my own career in astronomy, having been recently hired by the Chandra X-ray Center. I was immediately struck by his easy eloquence and his ability to engage anyone with topics that could be esoteric, or even controversial. Since then I've continued to be inspired by him as he has taken science to the masses in a way few scientists have been able to do.

So, as someone who is passionate about communicating science with others, you can imagine how honored and thrilled I was to introduce him. It was also a pleasure to welcome him to the biggest littlest state in the union, because I was born, raised, and still live there today. Rhode Island is at a crossroads in not only developing physical space and infrastructure for science and technology jobs to help grow our economy and retain the knowledge bases coming out of our universities, but also in helping to develop the state’s youngest talent so our children can flourish as engaged citizens, workers and perhaps even scientists/technologists/engineers/inventors in their own right.

Kim at PPAC

That's Kim, warming up the crowd.

At 7:30 pm on Thursday night, the performing arts center was packed, with almost 3,000 people in the audience waiting for a night of discovery and entertainment. I was, to be honest, a wee bit nervous. I have given many talks over my nearly two-decade-long career, but never to thousands before!

I only had a few minutes to talk, so really, I needn’t have been worried. But sometimes what you know for a fact in your head doesn’t seem to calm your emotions. As I walked on stage though, there was thunderous applause (they thought I was Dr. Tyson), which immediately got me into the spirit of things. The audience was rowdy, and in such a good way. I introduced myself (to a couple friendly hoots and heckles -- I had some friends in the audience who kept things light for me), introduced Dr. Tyson (to much more loud cheering and applause), and the evening was launched.

Notice Tyson's stellar tie. Kim was not representing with any astronomy clothing or jewelry unfortunately!

Dr. Tyson’s first 15 minutes was a veritable comedy routine. My husband and kids were fortunately with me that night, and they were all laughing along with Dr. Tyson’s colorful descriptions of “rare” super moons, Christmas comets versus our Sun (what is left when cold stuff meets hot stuff? not much!), stoic Russian drivers that barely blink at a large meteor blazing by, and many more. My family’s humor runs to the more macabre side of things (whereas I tend to prefer rainbows and puppies). So they were thrilled with the two segments “The Earth is Trying to Kill You” as well as “The Universe is Trying to Kill You.” Overall, there were many, many gems in Tyson’s talk that evening. Even as we got to the more serious side of things towards the end with a discussion on quantum entanglement, the audience was attentive and responsive.

And as is usually his custom at such events, the audience was invited to ask Tyson a few questions at the very end. They ranged from creationism to STEM education to warp drive to how to land a spaceship on a gas giant. This last question, from a child of my local Barnes & Noble bookstore’s manager, was my favorite. He was 11 years old and clearly thinking a trip to Jupiter or Saturn was not only necessary but in someone’s future.

Kim's two children were happy to meet Tyson after the show.

The Universe, then, is truly ours to discover. Neil deGrasse Tyson just happens to be one of my favorite people - and seemingly the whole audience’s as well - to help us do just that.

#NeildeGrasseTyson #astronomy #universe #sciencecommunication

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