A middle-aged man reads a book called Space Chronicles via the tiny light attached to his ballcap brim. A younger man walks by wearing a faded NASA T-shirt, while elsewhere in the Riverside Theater audience, scattered patches of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, await the star of Wednesday night’s show.
No, at a venue that’s hosted such performing luminaries as Jerry Seinfeld and Tony Bennett, Wilco and John Legend, this was not your typical sold-out audience. And while Neil deGrasse Tyson may have shown off a few dance moves at previous shows, that wasn’t why he got three standing ovations at the Riverside.
Tyson was there to do what he does best: Teach and lecture about astronomy and science, just as he does in that ballcapped man’s book. At the Riverside, he wouldn’t be backed by the high production value that helped make his TV reboot of “Cosmos” such a smash hit, but merely with a slide show and a few YouTube videos. And yet, because he shares an orbit of scientist popularity with the likes of Bill Nye and Michio Kaku, he got his first standing O as he walked on the stage.
This was the first half of Tyson’s two-night run at the Riverside, and it was added because the Thursday-night show sold out in a flash. “You weren’t fast enough to get tickets,” he told the Wednesday crowd, who had to walk past scalpers to get in, and the conversational, often comedic tone for the next three hours was set. Off he went, sharing his passion for the wonders of science, at times with soft-spoken wonderment, at times with the fervent delivery of preacher. And he did so pacing the stage in his stocking feet.
He spent the first two hours bringing everyone up to speed on the latest news and discoveries in cosmology and astrophysics, covering everything from Mars to exoplanets, from dying comets to exploding asteroids to the Orion spacecraft test launch, augmenting the latter three topics with video. He explained how he ended up in Action Comics No. 14 as the astronomer who, via plausible scientific theory, helps Superman watch his home planet of Krypton explode.
He closed his prepared remarks by showing the Cassini spacecraft’s 2013 photographic reprise of Voyager 1’s famed Pale Blue Dot photo. Tyson is every bit the populist heir to Carl Sagan, who persuaded NASA to snap that Voyager 1 photo in 1990, thus crafting humanity’s most distant view of Earth. Building off the photo, Sagan wrote a 1994 book titled Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. And with the Cassini photo looming large above him, Tyson read a passage from “the book of Carl,” voicing Sagan’s most eloquent call “to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
The moving finale to his presentation sparked Tyson’s second standing ovation. But for those willing to stick around for an epilogue, he indulged the audience for an hourlong Q&A session. The lower level’s line of questioners stretched halfway down the center aisle, and he got to as many as time allowed, always talking with, not down to, his interviewers.
One woman brought up Tyson’s choice to go shoeless for the night, and he noted how the Riverside stage had been “sanctified by artists. It is out of extraordinarily confusing reality that I’m giving a science lecture in a performance space. And the least I could do is sort of my silent homage to those with artistic talent.”
And yet, the reason Tyson enjoys such popularity is the same reason Sagan did. He is making high-minded scientific discoveries accessible to the masses, and he’s doing so with all the entertainment quotient of a performing artist. So when he left, those remaining in the theater sent him away with their final standing ovation.
He’ll surely get more of them tonight, from another sold-out crowd, when he speaks on the topic of “Science as a Way of Knowing.” And it will surely mean more brisk business for the ticket scalpers, which is something of an astronomical discovery in itself.