Neil DeGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies : Monkey See Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson keeps a close eye on science in the movies — he even got a change made to Titanic. Here, he talks about truths and less-than-truths in some of the films that are taking us outside our own realm.
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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies

Neil DeGrasse Tyson Investigates The Space Science Of Summer Movies

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If you've been to the movies this summer, you might find yourself wondering who else is out there.


GREENE: "Men in Black 3," "Prometheus," even the "Avengers" all seem to feature themes of space travel, and, of course, aliens. Well, we couldn't think of a better person to talk to about these movies than astrophysicist Neal DeGrasse Tyson. He's director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for talking to us about the movies.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So can we start with "Prometheus"?

TYSON: Sure.

GREENE: You've seen it.

TYSON: I was there at 12:01.


GREENE: You were eager.

TYSON: 12:01 the morning it premiered, I was there.

GREENE: Well, first scene, and I really don't want us to give too much away to our listeners in case they haven't seen the movies we're going to talk about, but the first scene in "Prometheus," I mean, it seems to show this alien maybe planting the seeds of life on Earth, and I wonder if there's any realistic part of that whatsoever.

TYSON: Well, the unrealistic part of it is that's 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 represent that accurately, it would be some kind of bacterium dropping its DNA into the oceans of Earth. But there is a notion called panspermia. It's the notion that life might have begun on another planet and this microbial life would then become a stowaway on rocks that would be cast back into space by asteroid impacts.

GREENE: What is your general reaction to space movies as an astrophysicist?

TYSON: I love them. The bigger the budget, the better.


TYSON: In the case of "Prometheus," it had a name-brand director, Ridley Scott, and there was some attempt to show what a future would be like, but there was a gaffe, I must tell you.


TYSON: Charlize Theron...

GREENE: The actress.

TYSON: an attempt to assert how far away the ship is from Earth, says, we're a half billion miles from earth. And half billion, that's gets you like to Jupiter. You know, that's far from Earth by our modern standards, but by the standards of 2089, no. In fact, on a screen they showed how far away the ship was. It was 3.27 times 10 to the 14th kilometers, and so you convert that to light years and you get 35 light years. That is way farther away than from here to Jupiter. Sorry.

GREENE: Yeah. I was just writing all that down. That's the number I came up with too. Well, let's move to "Men in Black 3," and I know I'm not going to be spoiling anything if I say there are a lot of aliens, and also green slime. And, I mean, green slime and aliens, it goes back to my, you know, one of my favorite movies, "Ghostbusters" - you know, I've been slimed. But is there any reason to think that aliens would be slimy?

TYSON: Yeah. Every time they shot an alien, it blew up into a green mess, and none of them had red slime and I'm intrigued by that, 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. In fact, shellfish use copper, and so does Spock on "Star Trek."


TYSON: And that's why they have green blood.

GREENE: Well, in "Men in Black 3" they go back in time to the launch of Apollo 11, of course a very notable event in space history. Did the filmmakers depict it accurately?

TYSON: I got to tell you. I was so moved by how they portrayed 1969. It wasn't just there's a launch, they went into the streets and you saw the newspaper headlines leading up to the launch, and you saw the interviews, and you saw the small black and white television, and you realized that was a time when people were dreaming about tomorrow.


TYSON: Now, they did get something wrong, I got to tell you. So the night before the launch of Apollo 11, they show the moon in the sky and it's a full moon. The moon was so not full the night before the launch. It was a skinny itty-bitty crescent the night before they launched to the moon.

GREENE: I want to bring up a little more tape from one of the movies that we wanted to cover with you, and that's "The Avengers."


GREENE: You love to tweet, and you tweeted quite a bit about the movies, and one thing that kind of struck me was that you said there actually is a realistic explanation for the power of this hammer that Thor was carrying around.

TYSON: Oh, you know, that's awesome that he's the only would who could lift it, and they say where that hammer came from. It's forged from the core of a dying star, and 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. Nobody's picking that thing up. You need the power of Thor to wield it.

GREENE: Well, let's get ourselves some Thor hammers if we have time.

TYSON: And we'll do a little - do a Thor hammer dance.

GREENE: Dr. Tyson, thanks so much for talking movies and aliens with us.

TYSON: Thank you. Happy to be on.

GREENE: Neil DeGrasse Tyson is director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. His most recent book is "Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier."

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