Neil DeGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies

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If you make movies that have anything to do with science, please note: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, pays attention.

Tyson pays so much attention, in fact, that he got James Cameron to fix the stars in the sky in Titanic for the recent 3-D rerelease. On Friday's Morning Edition, he talks to David Greene about this summer's big movies and how they stack up, science-wise. You should note that there is some talk in this conversation about what goes on in Prometheus, Men In Black 3 and The Avengers, so if you're desperately hoping to be surprised, you might tread cautiously.

Prometheus is as good a place to start as any, both because it spends most of its time in the far reaches of space, and because Tyson says he saw it "at 12:01 the morning it premiered." He notes that the early scene in which the origins of human life are explored is unrealistic in one regard: "The unrealistic part of it is that it's a humanoid alien planting DNA seeds to seed all of life on Earth. And most life on Earth is not humanoid. In fact, most life on earth is plant and bacterial. So if they were to represent that accurately, it would be some kind of bacterium dropping its DNA into the oceans of Earth."

But, he says, there's a nut of this idea that's not entirely impossible to imagine. There is a notion called panspermia, he says — "the notion that life might have begun on another planet, and this microbial life would become a stowaway on rocks that would be cast back into space by asteroid impact."

There is one straight-up gaffe in the film, however. Charlize Theron's character at one point says they're "half a billion miles from Earth," and, in fact, that's only a bit past Jupiter. And if you think he can't rattle off the back-of-the-envelope math from the calculations that are visible in the film, who exactly did you think you were dealing with?

Men In Black III has an error in it, too — kind of like those stars over Titanic, they biffed it when it comes to the phase of the moon on the night before Apollo 11 launched. It's full in the film, and in reality it was — as he scientifically describes it — "a skinny, itty-bitty crescent."

In general, though, Tyson was impressed by the way the film captured the mood surrounding the space program at that time. "I was so moved by how they portrayed 1969," he says. "You realize that was a time when people were dreaming about tomorrow."

He can even account for some of that green blood the aliens are always spurting. "None of them had red slime, and I'm intrigued by that," he says. "Because there's another way to carry oxygen through your body. You don't just need the iron, which accounts for your red blood; you can use copper, and, in fact, shellfish use copper. And so does Spock on Star Trek, and that's why they have green blood."

And finally, we reach The Avengers. Believe it or not, this man of science is buying the basics of Thor's hammer, which the film explains is made from the core of a dying star. As Tyson recently tweeted, a dying star has the density of a herd of 50 million elephants stuffed into a thimble. It really would make a heck of a weapon. "A dying star, if it's of a certain variety, it could be made of neutron matter. And if it is, it is really dense and really heavy."

In short? "You need the power of Thor to wield it."

We feel we'd be remiss not to recommend that you check out the discussion we had with Neil deGrasse Tyson a couple of years ago — still one of our favorites. He covers education, curiosity, teaching and a heck of a lot more. Read parts one, two and three in our archives.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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