One with the universe

10447027_10152514467382803_4815241321848240349_nNeil deGrasse Tyson is quixotic, hypnotic and “cosmotic,” a word he coined Tuesday night in D.C., at an event in which we breathed the same air and released a mix of carbon dioxide and hors d’oeuvres vapor directly into each other’s faces.

Gasp.

To say I was “starstruck” to shake this brilliant man’s hand and get a hug is an astronomical understatement. See, he makes you want to reach beyond the ordinary, he does.

I had helped work on a Cosmos-themed USA TODAY tab, in collaboration with National Geographic, and, given that my compatriot Jon Briggs and I talk about little else but black holes at the office, I was able to ditch one night for the privilege to attend, with Briggsy, the screening of the final episode of the show that picked up where Carl Sagan left off 34 years ago.

We didn’t arrive on time, but what’s a few minutes late to an astrophysicist?

In fact, our tardiness offered us prime real estate, as The Man of the Hour was edging toward the door as we darkened the threshold. Other groupies were lined up on the other side of a table, but we stepped promptly into his sphere, the back of his tailored suit much smaller than I expected. He turned and flashed that rock-star “Hello!” And then three kids materialized to steal his attention — which was cool, because what is deGrasse Tyson if not a teacher and mentor? He chatted up these three young boys (one not too young, as he tipped back a wine glass), asking them about their interests, their running times (deGrasse Tyson ran a 4:18 mile in his day), testing their reflexes … whatever it took to connect. He obviously is, and should be, their hero.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his youngest fans in attendance. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

He gets noticeably more animated — even more than the cartoons used in the Seth MacFarlane-produced miniseries — with impressionable younguns around. Hands down, the best part of the Q&A afterward was when a young girl asked him why solar flares occur.

His answer, here, gets progressively exciting.

‘Rendering It Aglow …

My own short Q&A with him rendered me aglow. For our picture together, he firmly grasped my shoulder, I wrapped my arm across his expansive back, and it was good. In fact, I was sweating when it was over, and I needed a cold beer to dab my brow and flesh with.

He wasn’t drinking beer, only wine. We chuckled about my ditching work (sincerest apologies to my co-workers). I shared that the series was “science porn” for me, as I watch it over and over — he raised both bushy eyebrows at that as I rendered him somewhat speechless. I also said I liked his dazzling tie and asked who designed it. Jerry Garcia? He gave me that curled-lip, bemused look, as if …

I overheard him discussing his interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and how whatever he said will be automatically “liberalized” — dGT loves coining words. He shies away from the icy political poles, displaying the perfect equanimity of a scientist.

Briggs was prepared to ask what was with all the SUV commercials on a show with the obvious agenda to battle climate change, but while I was busy being starstruck he was uncharacteristically struck dumb.

I managed one utterance of some substance: whether there would be more Cosmos — please? — or was it going to be like Carl Sagan’s series, kinda one and done. I think I said, “So … this is it, there won’t be any more, say it isn’t so… ” He first wanted me to clarify whether that was a statement or a question. Cute! When I phrased it properly as a question, he began, “I have never been much of a woman, but I imagine that after one gives birth that is not the best time to ask whether she’s ready to have another. Let’s just let it breathe a little and have its impact. … So this is hardly the right time to address that question.” He wasn’t stern or angry, just clear: He wasn’t out to one-up Sagan, and he never set out to be a TV star, plus the seven years it took him away from his family was exhausting.

He later rephrased that response in the general Q&A, and I wondered if I’d helped prep him or whether this was one of his “stock quotes.”

Either way, I relished staring into his knowing orbs, admiring his congenial way with each admirer and sensing how time stretches in his presence. Because this man is present.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer MitchellCannold.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, with Ann Druyan and executive co-producer Mitchell Cannold. (Photo by Terry Byrne)

Sagan’s widow, the lovely and poetic Ann Druyan, who writes the show and is its true nucleus, said: “Carl is one of those people whose absence is more powerful than most people’s presence.”

But deGrasse Tyson? HERE, HEAR. Present … and doing great work to resuscitate our curiosity about the world around us.

During the Q&A session, he revealed fun facts about the show’s production. Example: Although many of the nifty shots were filmed on location — he did tour the White Cliffs of Dover — the film crew opted not to shoot in Manhattan. So this Bronx native had to be green-screened in New York City. (Oh, and some of those Ship of the Imagination shots were green-screened, too — you read it here first.)

DeGrasse Tyson spoke eloquently about humanity’s fear of aliens, saying that if any extraterrestrials contacted us they would likely be in possession of some superior technology because they managed to traverse this great distance — something we haven’t yet figured out how to do. In every encounter between a population with better technology and one less advanced, though, as we’re well familiar, things don’t turn out as well for those with the lesser technology. We might expect to be enslaved, prodded, brains sucked out or worse.

He warned, though: Don’t project the hate that we know and apply to the unfamiliar in our own world onto them. Man’s inhumanity to man — fear of “others” — this is something we’d be advised to evolve far beyond, and fast. An advanced species, one hopes, would find our foul treatment of each other just as foreign as the most educated among us should.

This man may be the future face of education. Imagine his enthusiasm in a classroom, electrifying kids’ imaginations. We have the technology: Let’s hologram him in, if we can’t just clone him.

More clips from the Q&A (before my “lesser technology” died):

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses failure in the educational sense.

Neil deGrasse Tyson responds to a question from the very D.C. crowd about whether he has a 2016 campaign in his future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson comments on whether his “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” has gotten him any closer to answering the age-old Q: “Why are we here?”

I think of my dad, who turns 90 next month and is legally blind. His love of stargazing taught us kids to look to the stars — not meaning celebrities — to corral our dreams, both personal and universal. Though his physical eyes can no longer harness the starlight to see, his inner light still shines. (A peek at my dad’s new blog on the universe, here.)

I’ll bet dGT is a fantastic dad, too.

Pique your curiosity. Catch the finale of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey yourself next Sunday night (June 8) on Fox or Monday night on NatGeo Channel (June 9). Watch it with a parent, a child, a sibling, friend or stranger — it’s the kind of entertainment that connects us. All 13 episodes will be available for purchase, appropriately, in time for Father’s Day.

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