By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 11, 2016 at 10:26 AM

Astrophysicists may spend time gazing at and pondering the stars, but they rarely get to become a star in the process. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The Hayden Planetarium director has become a force of nature in his own right over the last several years, turning into a Twitter sensation, starring in FOX’s well-received "Cosmos" revival, popping up on talk shows and sharing science across the nation with touring shows and lectures, like "An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies" at the Riverside tonight at 7:30 p.m. For some, he’s become a new generation’s Carl Sagan, a crucial ambassador for science to the masses. For others – in both science and pop culture universes – he’s become controversial for his Twitter fact-checks and approach to integrating science into the mainstream.

Before his show tonight, OnMilwaukee chatted with Tyson about the state of science, his thoughts on movies – including "Batman v Superman," one he briefly appeared in himself (we’ll politely not talk about "Zoolander 2") – and why he may quit tweeting about movies altogether. 

OnMilwaukee: What was it like being a part of one of the biggest movies of the year with "Batman v Superman"?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: What you don’t know from watching the movie is that was filmed as a debate, as a CNN debate moderated by Soledad O’Brien. There were four of us and she – maybe three – and each of us was given a task by the director to argue a point. The argument becomes sort of freeform; they wanted you to hit some things so it would work editorially in the flow of the movie’s content, but basically, I’m just arguing a point – and I can do that, not a problem (laughs).

So one of the people arguing points was an actor, and the rest of us were our own characters, making points. My point was that Superman is an alien; remember, he looks human, but he’s an alien. Since he’s an alien, there’s no reason to think he’s beholden to any particular nation or municipality in the world. Contrast that with Batman, who ostensibly reports to the police commissioner, who’s appointed by the mayor, who we elect. Though he has vigilante dimensions to him, at the end of the day, he’s in our service. Superman might intermittently look like he’s in our service, but really, he reports to no one.

That was intended, in my early understanding of the film, to be the foundation of this conflict between Batman and Superman, which I think was an intellectually and philosophically fertile place to take the movie. But I think that got … I don’t want to say lost entirely, but it got over-supplanted or weighed down by so many other things they were trying to do in the film – introducing Wonder Woman and the crazed Lex Luthor character. How’s … I forget the name of the actor …

Jesse Eisenberg.

Yes. How’s Jesse going to play this character? So we’re all kind of distracted by so much else, but at the root of this was what we were debating, and what ended up on the screen were snippets of singular comments by us, all done in a row in kind of a montage. And you lose track of the fact that we were arguing whether any of us should trust Superman. That’s what we were arguing, and I don’t think it came out that way.

For me, that was a very deep point, and the movie could have perhaps been philosophically richer had it dwelled a little more on those questions. But I think it was so seductive to go to all the usual superhero places in the film. So that’s the product you have right now.

You sound a little disappointed with the final product.

It’s not so much … I don’t publicly give my opinion on things. I don’t care that anybody has my opinion on anything; that’s what makes them opinions (laughs). What I care about is when people believe they can have an opinion that they think is a fact and don’t know the difference. And as an educator, I say there’s something wrong about how you were educated and we have to mend this so that when you leave school, you’ll know the difference between your opinion that you might have regarding facts and what are actually facts. I forget who we credit this great quote to: You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.

I think the movie could have been intellectually richer, and to the extent that people were disappointed, perhaps they were disappointed because, at some level, it’s superheroes fighting, and we kind of get that in every superhero movie. Can you take me someplace new, someplace interesting, someplace unexpected? A battle between Batman and Superman in which Superman loses because he’s received a vote of no confidence from the public, that’s an extraordinary fact! How do you deal with that, with all of those powers? Do you put him in a kryptonite prison? Do you put him on an island? What do you do? And none of those questions got addressed. So that would’ve been a different movie, I think.

Where do you feel science is right now in the public conscience? The fact that someone like you is so popular would seemingly point toward an uptick, but then you’ve got people openly critical, like anti-vaxxers and – as you know – B.o.B., of proven science.

Well, to portray the conflict, of course, sells more newspapers or gets more Internet clicks. I can tell you, without hesitation, that science is trending.

Just consider for example: "Cosmos" aired in primetime on a Sunday night when everyone is home on a major network. On top of this, take a look at the Facebook page IFLS: I F*cking Love Science. Some tens of millions of people belong to that page, and what is it? It compiles cool and interesting stuff all around the world that happens in science.

Look at the number one show on television: "The Big Bang Theory." Though they be caricatures, of course, and there’s even been some intermittent criticisms of their portrayal, the fact is every one of them is a loveable character, and anyone who is a scientist can relate to every single one of those characters. It has a long parade of actual scientists who’ve appeared on it, including Stephen Hawking in multiple sessions.

So what’s it mean then for science-themed programming to be some of the most successful things that are produced? It has to mean that the public cares about science and wants more science. I have no other way to interpret it. Why do I have five million Twitter followers? That doesn’t make any sense – if you want to claim people don’t care about science. It makes no sense. And this trend leans young. If you cut the demographics of the American population by decade, the ones that are younger tend to be more scientifically interested, more scientifically literate, more concerned about the role science plays in policy regarding climate, energy and exploration.

So that’s my evidence. And the younger population that does have these science sensitivities are not old enough to be leaders of anything yet, to be CEOs or members of Congress or senators. I think as they work their way up the age spectrum, we will see more people in power and in charge that have science sensitivity.

Obviously you’re becoming a bigger and bigger celebrity now, and that means the spotlight is getting harsher. Back when you tweeted about "Gravity," some people criticized you about that. Even more recently, a Wired article criticized you for "sucking the fun out of the universe," while Inverse accused you of stooping down on some level. Why is it that you think some people are upset about your approaches to bringing science into pop culture and becoming a spokesman for science?

I don’t know what’s going on in people’s heads, but what’s certain that they don’t know is that I view myself as a servant of the public interest. I don’t wake up in the morning and say to myself, "How can I bring science to the public today?" That is a non-thought. So what they don’t know is if I’m no longer useful to people, I will just go back to my office and get research done and other things and write my next book and do things that I would actually rather be doing than giving public talks or appearing on television. I think they’re presuming that I’m on some sort of mission that it’s important to me that you think one way and not another. And that’s really not the case.

Take the tweets regarding the movies. Those are thoughts I’m having anyway, and I’m simply sharing them with whoever who wants to read them. That’s A, and B: I’m pretty sure that I’ve been deeply misunderstood with regard to my movie tweets – on a level that I’ll probably not ever tweet about movies again.


Yeah. My intent was to highlight places in a movie where a movie may have tried to get all of the science right, but then didn’t, so I say how it could’ve gotten it right. So that people learn; it’s always with education as a motive. If, at the end of the day, people see the tweets as just obnoxious or that I’m just an asshole, I don’t need to post them. I post them thinking I’m enlightening people. If I’m not accomplishing that, I’m misunderstanding the connection between those particular tweets and the reaction of the public.

In "Star Wars," I said, oh, here’s the new Death Star; it sucks all the energy out of the sun. By the way, if you suck all the energy out of a sun, you have enough power to destroy ten thousand planets – not just a few here or there. So had they done that calculation right, it would’ve been a much more potent weapon than even what was shown in the movie. I’m thinking you might want to know that. Also: We have a smooth rolling metal sphere. It will have no traction on sand.

So I just noticed that, and I thought people would be interested. And there was enough negative reaction that I said, "OK, I don’t know the statistics, but whatever the percent is, it’s more than my expectation." So I’ll just keep the thoughts to myself. I’m having these thoughts anyway, and I will continue to have these thoughts; it’s just a matter of whether I share them with the public, because I view myself as a servant, and if I’m failing in that capacity, then I just don’t need to continue it. I’ll try, and if I fail – and I don’t know how to make it better – I’ll just stop. Really. And it’s no hard feelings (laughs)!

So these live shows are going to be fans’ only chance to hear these thoughts, if you’re retiring from the science and movies tweets.

I wouldn’t say retiring, but I’m just going to do less of it, because it’s not serving its purpose. It’s something I’ve misunderstood in that capacity. I think people in the talk, since they hear more than just a brief tweet from me, I think they come to understand my motives. And my motives are I will comment on a movie if they tried to get everything right but got some things wrong, or if they make no attempt to get anything right but they happen to get something right. Then I’ll comment on what they got right in the middle of other things that ignore the astrophysics. This is what intrigues me.

I want everyone to be active viewers of the science in a film, looking for where they got something right or something wrong. Then the movie becomes something more to you, I think. And I think it puts directors on notice. I think it does; it says, you know not to put 20th century clothing in a 19th century drama. You know not to do this; the costume designer would be fired. You’re not going to have a Jane Austin novel and have a character walk in with tie-dye bell-bottoms. The costume designer would be fired. Nobody argues that because they know it’s true; they know these are the standards that any movie would be holding itself to. Why not have a set of science standards that are no less rigorous than anything else about a movie’s authenticity that you might create?

Critics would say, though, that it’s science fiction, and that it’s missing the forest for the trees, that it’s nitpicking.

Again, it’s because I’m not understood. They have no idea what I would do if I were actually nitpicking. (laughs) If I was actually nitpicking, oh my gosh, their heads would explode.

About science fiction, I’m commenting on things that the writer or the producer had the capacity to have done correctly, and possibly in that context improve the storytelling rather than subtract from it. There’s a great quote from Mark Twain, which is "First get your facts straight; then distort them at your leisure." Those are the grounds in which I’m posting comments.

People who see the talk, I think they come out fully understanding my motives, because I’m in there for two hours talking about movies. I talk about animated movies; I have a little bit about the movie "Frozen." Am I criticizing the fact that rocks can’t stand up and speak when the character goes into the rock garden to get advice on love? No, of course I’m not, because it’s an animated movie.

My first indication that I was being misunderstood was that I was getting invitations to show up on talk shows regularly to describe all of the things that are wrong with each movie that comes out each week. And I said no, that’s not what I do. That’s not it. So clearly I wasn’t communicating my goals here.

You’ve been asked so many times about your favorite sci-fi movies, ones like "The Matrix" and "The Terminator" and "Contact." Do you have particular favorite movies outside the sci-fi genre?

I have many! "Excalibur" is one of them. Sometimes, I can’t distinguish between how good the movie is and how good the soundtrack chosen for that movie is and how they work together. I’m commenting on films where I was totally consumed by them, and the soundtrack became a fundamental part of that experience. And I think I’m justified in saying that a movie is great even if it’s the soundtrack that made that difference, because the whole point of a movie is to drink in not only the dialogue, but the acting and the set design and the production design and the cinematography – and the choice of music. It’s all a part of the package. So "Excalibur" is up there. Also "The Conversation."

Any favorite rom-coms?

(laughs) They’re kind of all equal to me. I mean, I like the ones that people say are terrible, and I think rom-coms that people say are really great are just kind of ordinary. While I don’t go out of my way to watch rom-coms, if I’m with some people and they want to watch one, I’ll do it.

I like seeing how people react in relationships, and part of the authenticity of a rom-com is would that character, as portrayed, behave in that way. They have laws of the universe as well; otherwise, it’s not convincing to you. For example, in the recent movie "Sisters" with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey – it’s not quite a rom-com – I don’t think Tina Fey convinced me that she didn’t go to college. Her behavior, I couldn’t get into it. You look at John Belushi in "Animal House," right? That’s a believably unrefined person (laughs). Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Tina Fey in too many other sort of "respectable" roles that it was hard for her to pull me out of that expectation and accept her as a raunchy, man-hungry, high school townie. I just didn’t feel that.

Is there a particular guilty pleasure of yours?

I happen to like … what’s the one with Zooey Deschanel in it? Oh, I know what it was! "Failure to Launch." I thought it was a completely charming movie. I loved Terry Bradshaw in it; he was completely convincing as a weird dad. The romance between Zooey Deschanel and the other character, they kind of had a nerdy relationship, and I come from a world of nerds, so I like it when you get a slice of how they resolve their romances. If you want to call that a guilty pleasure, I enjoyed watching that. 

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.