Neil deGrasse Tyson's appearance at Tulane University April 14 drew huge crowds to see the charismatic astrophysicist. About 30 people were in line by 4 p.m., but as the event drew nearer, the line grew dramatically. By 6:30 p.m., it stretched to Freret Street. Even after the auditorium filled to capacity, people were waiting outside for any seat that might unexpectedly open up.
Tyson's address — titled "This just in: latest news from the universe" — was presented as a survey of updates on astronomical developments. He discussed and explained the significance of the Mars Curiosity rover that landed last year, for example, the discovery of the subatomic Higgs boson particle long theorized by physicists but never observed until 2012, and progress in the search for habitable planets outside the solar system.
On his Fox television show Cosmos, Tyson often treats his subject matter with reverence, expressing wonder at the scale and beauty of nature and space. In person, Tyson's delivery is less formal, and nearly every cosmic "news item" he shared at Tulane was punctuated by the audience's laughter — most often at the public and mass media's misinterpretation of astronomical phenomena.
That night brought a lunar eclipse that some have nicknamed a "blood moon," the first of four eclipses of the moon this year and next. After explaining that the reddish shade of the moon prior to the eclipse is caused by rays of sunlight that filter through the atmosphere, Tyson noted that some pastors view this event and its ominous name as a sign of the apocalypse.
"Here's the problem. Some people take this literally," Tyson said. "Not people who know how to think."
As the audience laughed, Tyson went on to say that he doesn't have a problem with preachers who want to interpret a series of eclipses as a sign of the end of time — until their misunderstandings started provoking articles in mainstream outlets like USA Today. He then characterized the whole "blood moon" discussion as a digression, and flashed another slide showing an article about the Louisiana legislature's effort to make the Bible the state book.
"Not that this has to do with anything, but we are in Louisiana," Tyson said as the audience continued to laugh.