(The Root) — There are only a handful of experts who can discuss stars and galaxies in a way that lay people can easily understand. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of them. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York's American Museum of Natural History, Tyson recently received the honor of becoming a character in the Superman comic book series.
In the newest edition, Star Light, Star Bright, which hit shelves this month, Tyson and his Hayden staff locate Superman's home planet of Krypton and (spoiler alert) give the hero a chance to see it as it explodes. And while the sad story is fictional, Tyson and his colleagues assigned Superman an actual star, called LHS2520. "The universe is not only weirder than we've ever imagined; it might be weirder than we can imagine," Tyson told The Root, paraphrasing geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. "So why not mine it for the frontier of our imagination?"
Recently, The Root and a group of media outlets met Tyson in a library inside the planetarium, where he shared his Superman connection, how he discovered a fictitious planet and what he hopes President Obama's second term will mean for NASA.
The Root: What happens in Star Light, Star Bright?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: The comic begins with Superman on Mars fighting foes. He comes back to Earth because he remembers that it's his time to visit the Hayden Planetarium. Every 382 days he comes there to look at Krypton. But this time was different because he knew that it would be destroyed.
[In the comic], the world's telescopes are aligned, and we see Superman staring down into the computer looking very focused. He's using his superpowers to assemble the data. Then the image comes into focus and we see the final destruction of Krypton. The very last panel is Superman looking melancholy. I got misty-eyed reading this. The universe is revealing to him what he already knew.
TR: How did you locate Superman's fictitious home planet of Krypton?
NDT: In astrophysics, we have a branch called interferometry, [which says] you want the biggest telescope you can bring to bear on your object. A bigger telescope collects more light, allowing you to see dimmer things. You can't make a telescope big enough to see the detail on Krypton so we do something clever and use an interferometer.
An interferometer is [like saying], I want a telescope this big, but "this" is 100 miles and I can't make a telescope that's 100 miles in diameter. But if I'm clever I can put [a number of telescopes across the same distance] at the same time and track the data with such detail that I can combine these sets of data and have the resolution as if the telescope were actually the size [of all of them together]. That's one aspect of interferometry that we use all the time in astrophysics with radio waves.
Our biggest interferometer isn't big enough to see Krypton! I'd need a telescope the width of the Earth. So I said we could get all of the telescopes in the world to observe Krypton at the same time, and just send the data to here. We can pretend that we've figured a way to do it with our supercomputer that doesn't exist yet. Then they said, "No, you don't need the supercomputer because we have Superman." So now an additive power of Superman is that he can stand over your computer and analyze and reduce data in such a way to create the world's largest optic interferometer. He does this in our [Hayden Sphere], and we project the destruction of Krypton in our dome.
TR: Why did you feel it was so important to have the science right?
NDT: Many artists who are inspired by science don't reach as far into it as they could, thinking it might restrict their creativity. I maintain that there's so much science, particularly in astrophysics, that if you did understand it, it would add to your creativity. If you can infuse real science into science fiction storytelling, that elevates those stories in the hearts and minds of the geek set.
Let the record show that DC Comics came to us in advance, which is not what [Titanic director] Jim Cameron did. He was notified [by me] after the fact that he got his stars wrong above the sinking Titanic, so you might as well call us before.
TR: Speaking of films getting it wrong, what are your favorite films that got the science right?
NDT: For me, the most important science fiction movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey. I saw it in real time, that's how old I am. What 2001 meant, what it did and the vision that it laid before us all, including just being in space and exploring the unknown, was an extraordinary achievement.
In terms of sheer entertainment, I've seen The Matrix a dozen times. But my two science fiction movies that not only cared about the science but also got it right and had excellent scientific, cultural and ethical themes are Deep Impact, with the asteroid from space, and Carl Sagan's Contact. Both of those films did an extraordinary job of looking at how science intersects with our political systems, cultures and how we treat each other and what the consequences are from new knowledge about what the world brings us. These films didn't get a letter from me.
TR: President Obama just won a second term — what do you think NASA's focus should be moving forward?
NDT: People think Obama ended NASA, but he didn't … It needs more money. NASA is like a flywheel of inspiration, innovation and technology. It exists ahead of us all, so if you want to pull a nation into the future — recognizing that innovation in the 21st century is technological creativity, and that is the seed of tomorrow's economies and you want to drive that — it's not going to happen just by making better teachers. It makes a good headline but you need something at the other end of that. The greatest motivator is that which makes a person to want to do it on their own.
In the 1960s, when we were going to the moon, you had to beat people back at the door who wanted to take physics and engineering. NASA, at its best, is a force of nature unto itself.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root.