Cheers, laughs, heckling — drunken heckling. That’s right, it’s a science lecture.
Deep in The Bell House, near Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, the Secret Science Club meets. By “secret” and “club” they mean that several hundred people paid the cover and packed the converted warehouse to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of Pluto neé The Ninth Planet, now first among equals in the Kuiper Belt.
With so many scientists and technophiles in the audience it was entirely predictable that the computer and projector wouldn’t talk to each other for the first few minutes. It was also a given that during the Q&A people would ask for validation of crackpot theories of cosmology, or if the world will end in 2012. Everything else was unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Many talks have a coffee and cookie spread; this one had a full bar. The well-named but uninspiring drink of the night was the Big Bang. (You do have to admire the daring concoction of pineapple and acetone, or some potable facsimile thereof, but Pan-Galactic Gargle Blasters these were not.) In the talk itself we learned about the history of planet-finding in the Solar System — about the 11 year old girl who named Pluto; about how the popularity of a certain laxative explains why no American would have ever given it that name (“When nature won’t, Pluto will”); and about how the planet Uranus was originally named George. Really. (OK, fine, Georgium Sidus.).
Still, it wasn’t a science lecture so much as a stand-up show with sciency content. There were factoids and pontifications, but like a comedy show the subject moved from anecdote to observation without attempting to spin a single narrative. He traded jibes with hecklers. He happily launched into rants about, say, the fact that most daisies have an even number of petals, so you can rig that particular game. Laughs were the key, the science was smuggled in. The audience, myself included, loved it.
The act isn’t quite perfect yet. He reverted to normal public lecture mode for most of the questions, giving straight and somewhat detailed answers that the rather inebriated audience wasn’t quite ready for at that point. That said, there’s something big going on here, and Tyson is clearly emerging as a rock-star (take that, gawker!).
It was, however, the audience itself that was the most fascinating part of the evening. Packing a large venue on a Wednesday night is an amazing feat for something science-based — though certainly helped in no small part by Tyson’s multiple appearances on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. While many of those attending were scientists (several announcing that fact), the majority, I think, were not. There is clearly a population that is hungry for science, and while willing to attend science lectures, is even more willing to go to a science party, and is downright ecstatic to see a science rock-star. During the Q&A one woman offered Tyson a cupcake, but with such a mixture of embarrassment and enthusiasm that it felt like the science-groupie equivalent of throwing her underwear on the stage. It was tough not to wonder if there was a number spelled out in sprinkles on the top, or a hotel key baked inside.
There’s a lot more I’d like to know. Can someone without the Stewart/Colbert pedigree pull this kind of crowd? I think so, but it’s going to take the right mix of content and humor. Keep an eye out, stand-up science might be the next big thing.