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Sunday, March 16, 2014

There Is One Movie Neil deGrasse Tyson Approves Of Scientifically

After famously criticizing Gravity , the astrophysicist — and host of Fox’s COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey — doesn’t know if he’ll ever publicly fact-check a film’s science again. Praising a film’s science, however, he can do.

Neil deGrasse Tyson in COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey


AUSTIN — When acclaimed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter last fall to catalogue the scientific errors in Gravity — "Nearly all satellites orbit Earth west to east yet all satellite debris portrayed orbited east to west" — he had not intended his factual critique to go viral. Not even close.

"I was astonished at the attention the tweets got," he told BuzzFeed while at the SXSW Film Festival, where the first episode of his scientific TV series COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey screened before its series premiere on Fox. "I have some metrics for how far a tweet will reach. I had no way to have predicted it [would be] on Today, and "Weekend Update" [on] Saturday Night Live, and on CBS Morning Show, and the blogosphere."

Tyson's shock was partly due to the fact that this was far from the first time he's critiqued science in a film. He famously got James Cameron to replace the night sky in the 2012 re-release of Titanic , and he once schooled Jon Stewart on the rotation of the globe that opens The Daily Show . (And then there was the time Tyson, as the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, was the most visible scientist in the successful effort to de-list Pluto as a planet, a different sort of fact-check.) Tyson explained, however, that he only tries to weigh in on a movie's accuracy "if the film has a premise that it's getting things right." "I don't tell you the bad physics in Star Wars," he noted.

The Gravity tweets, however, garnered so much attention so quickly — even after Tyson clarified that he did enjoy the film "very much" — that it's given the Harvard and Columbia educated scientist pause about the whole notion of pop-culture fact checking.

"I don't know if I'll do it again, given how people just went crazy," he said. He happily listed the science that Gravity got right, including the appearance of liquid water in space, the orientation of the stars in space, and the physics to how Sandra Bullock tumbled backward when she first tried to use the fire extinguisher. "But that's not as interesting as picking out the few things that it got wrong," he asserted.

Then again, it's doubtful Tyson will keep to that mild declaration. When pressed to list films that did indeed get the science right, something compels Tyson — perhaps his sense of scientific rigor, his sense of showmanship, or both — to note when those films also got something wrong, even when it is Tyson's stated favorite film ever.

The Matrix (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

"I love The Matrix," said Tyson without hesitation. "The Matrix 1 — not 2 or 3, of course. But that's my single favorite film of all time. I like the visual effects. I like the story. I like the premise. It gets one thing wrong with the physics, but I'll forgive it, because it did so much else so well. That part where [Laurence Fishburne] holds up the battery and says [the machines] are breeding humans to serve as a source of energy for their civilization, so that we're just really like a battery, a copper top. That's a weak point in the storytelling, because you don't make a human, and use the energy of the human, because you have to put energy in a human to begin with. Whatever energy that you're putting in the human, use that to drive your civilization. Any time energy transfers from one form to another, you lose efficiency. You're losing some of your energy. And a human is not the most efficient way to express the energy that you're feeding it. But then they wouldn't have a story. So I gotta give them something."

Warner Bros. Pictures

L.A. Story (1991)

L.A. Story (1991)

"The story as it plays out lasts a month," said Tyson of the romantic comedy written by and starring Steve Martin about a weatherman and a magical highway traffic billboard. "How do I know that? Because they had the moon in the sky at night changing phase. And you know he put it there because he put it there, and each couple of days, its slightly bigger, and it goes through its phases. I thought that was great. I put a check in the box for thinking about connecting your storytelling to the cosmos."

Unfortunately, Tyson's praise only goes so far: "What he got wrong was the moon grew in the wrong direction. So you did good for thinking about the universe, but next time call somebody!"

TriStar Pictures / Via

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