A line of Elon University faculty, staff, students and community members coiled through the Center for the Arts lobby. As they waited for the box office’s two windows to open, they were unaware that most of them wouldn’t receive tickets to Elon’s 2015 Spring Convocation.
At 12:30 p.m. Thursday, March 12, tickets to Spring Convocation became available at the box office. They were sold out within 30 minutes.
“They sold out faster than anything else,” said Joan Dawson, program assistant for cultural programs.
One man caused this overwhelming demand for tickets: astrophysicist, author, TV personality and general science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson will visit Elon Thursday and serve as the keynote speaker for this year’s Spring Convocation: “The Sky is Not the Limit.”
Tyson is well known in the science community, but he also has a wide appeal that compelled faculty and students to fill all of the approximately 2,200 spaces available in Alumni Gym.
“It’s great to see such a broad interest in this guy,” said Tony Crider, associate professor of physics. “Unlike some occasions when you might bring a science speaker to campus, our job isn’t to bring students there — it’s to keep students out.”
The high level of interest didn’t surprise Crider.
“He’s as close as you get to a rockstar in science,” he said. “The day they announced he was coming to campus, people began contacting me immediately asking how they could get tickets.”
Tyson’s latest — and perhaps his most well-known — achievement is hosting “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” on FOX Network in 2014. “Cosmos” was a reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” which ran in the 1980s. Tyson’s 13-episode series was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards.
Tyson studied physics at Harvard University and went on to earn a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Texas at Austin. He also completed a Master of Philosophy degree and a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University.
Currently, he serves as the head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, where he holds its Frederick P. Rose Directorship and is a research associate of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.
He has written 10 books, the latest of which is “Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries,” released in 2014. Many of his books are required reading for “Intro to Astronomy” classes at Elon.
Beyond his academic achievements, Tyson has also made a name for himself in entertainment. He has appeared on shows such as “The Big Bang Theory,” “Conan,” “The Colbert Report,” “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “Late Night with Seth Meyers” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
His biggest contribution to science may be the attention he brings to it.
“It’s cool that we have such a big name in science coming,” said junior Helen Meskhidze. “It’s somebody that people recognize his name, people know who he is. He’s not just important for what he’s contributed to science — he’s also a science communicator.”
Tyson even has a meme. Known as “the Neil deGrasse Tyson Reaction,” the meme came from a video interview with Tyson by Big Think, an online knowledge forum. The photograph was taken while Tyson was discussing Sir Isaac Newton and is sometimes paired with the phrase, “Watch out guys, we’re dealing with a badass over here.”
“That’s who’s coming to campus,” Crider said. “The host of ‘Cosmos,’ author of several astronomy books students have used in their classes, and the badass.”
More than a scientist
Meskhidze is the president of Elon’s Society of Physics Students and is double-majoring in physics and philosophy. Her interdisciplinary studies allow her to see how the scientific community relates to and is viewed by the public.
“I think science education and science awareness in the public is really important,” Meskhidze said. “The fact that Neil deGrasse Tyson, with his tweets and other facets of communication, is able to raise awareness of science and promote an interest in science among the public is really cool.”
The popularity of Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos” proves that the general public is curious about science. The remake was originally shown on Fox and is now available on Hulu and Netflix, demonstrating that viewers want to learn more.
“People really want to see this guy,” Crider said. “It’s not just that he’s famous. There are a large number of people out there that would like to see science and technology and engineering and mathematics not just swept under the rug, not just treated as if it’s only for scientists. It’s for all of us, it’s for our kids. It’s something that you need for a society to move forward.”
For years, Sagan used the original “Cosmos” to explain science to the public and get them excited about it. Since then, many television channels have appeared that claim to be educational or science-based. But, according to Crider, these channels often lack quality science.
“There are too many ghosts and aliens in ‘educational’ television,” Crider said. “People want to see real science.”
Tyson has managed to combine real science and entertainment. In addition to “Cosmos,” which 135 million people across the world watched some part of, he hosts “StarTalk,” a radio show and podcast that combines pop culture and science and has featured guests such as Bill Nye and Seth MacFarlane.
Tyson also speaks at conferences — science-related or otherwise — across the country. He is a Twitter celebrity with more than 3.4 million followers, and his tweets about topics ranging from the New England Patriots’ “deflategate” scandal to information on Pi Day make national news and inspire their own national discussions among individuals.
Meskhidze said many people of older generations became interested in science because of Sagan’s work, and Tyson is trying to parallel his efforts and replicate them using modern methods.
“He’s able to integrate Sagan’s ideas in a modern way,” she said.
And, according to Crider, Tyson has been successful.
“It’s great to see — both at Elon and the county in general — an increased enthusiasm in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math],” Crider said. “I think it’s great for science and STEM in general to have one of its champions visit campus.”
Tyson’s speech isn’t until Thursday afternoon, but Meskhidze and the Society of Physics Students have been preparing for months.
Last spring, Meskhidze organized screenings of “Cosmos” as new episodes premiered. During the last semester, she planned screenings of certain episodes to increase interest in Tyson’s speech.
For the week of convocation — dubbed Space Week — the Society has planned a series of student-run events to raise awareness of who Tyson is and get students excited about his arrival. To organize these events, Meskhidze submitted a proposal to Residence Life and received $1,400 in funds from the Residential Campus Initiative.
“One indication that this is something special is [that] it’s very rare that I’ve seen events leading up to a speaker,” Crider said.
Events began Monday, March 30 with a “Cosmos” viewing in LaRose Digital Theatre. The Physics Club had a table at Tuesday’s College Coffee, and Wednesday evening they are offering stargazing from the gym roof. Thursday, April 2, there will be a Coffee Klatch following Convocation where students and faculty can gather and discuss Tyson’s speech. The week will end Friday, April 3, with a viewing of “Interstellar” at 7 p.m. in McEwen 011. Events are open to all students.
“We’re trying to draw in everybody,” Meskhidze said.
As for the day itself, Crider — one of the astronomy professors who has worked at Elon the longest — has been chosen to escort Tyson around campus. He was contacted before the official announcement was made and asked to clear his schedule.
“I’ve had this on my calendar for a year,” he said.
Bringing Tyson to Elon
Tyson won’t be the first scientific figure to speak at an Elon Convocation. Past visitors include Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who spoke at Fall Convocation in 2013; astronaut John Glenn, who spoke at Spring Convocation in 2005; and primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall, who spoke at Spring Convocation in 2002.
“He will be one of the more notable science folk that we’ve brought to campus for convocation,” Crider said.
Crider was not involved in selecting Tyson, though he did suggest the name.
Jeff Clark, executive director of cultural and special programs, said it was a group decision to bring Tyson to campus. The group chose him from a list of proposed names, and Clark contacted Tyson’s agent.
“We try to bring in a variety of speakers over the years,” Clark said.
Clark also said that, in early student surveys, Tyson was a very popular choice.
“It was a real coup that we brought him here for spring convocation,” Crider said. “To truly bring someone in their prime is amazing.”
Getting into Convocation
The box office distributed its tickets within 30 minutes, but the majority of tickets were given out through other methods.
Dean’s and President’s List students were given priority tickets for the event. These students received an email Feb. 25 that invited them to march in the procession and offered reserved seats. Their enthusiastic response — combined with that of faculty, of whom all full-time members are invited to march — limited the number of tickets available at the box office.
For anyone who didn’t receive a ticket, the event will have a standby line to fill unclaimed seats.
Spring Convocation: “The Sky is Not the Limit” will begin at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, April 2 in Alumni Gym.
“There are a lot of chances in your life to see music and sport celebrities,” Crider said. “You could probably count science celebrities on one hand. All the energy that exists for science is focused on a few people, and we’re bringing number one.”