October 13, 2016 8:00 pm

Friday’s Death-Defying Podcast Is Not for Those with Acrophobia

Screen grab from Natinal Geographic Channel showing Neil deGrasse Tyson and Philippe Petit.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Philippe Petit. Image Courtesy of National Geographic Channel.

Do you have a fear of heights?

If so, you might want to skip tomorrow night’s StarTalk Radio podcast, where Neil deGrasse Tyson interviews Philippe Petit, the man who tight-rope walked between the World Trade Center in 1974.

In Friday’s episode, Neil, science guest Charles Liu and co-host Eugene Mirman delve into the physics of the feat, which was actually an incredibly complex engineering problem. From the fact that the Twin Towers were built to sway, with a potential variance of 3-6 feet in the 140-foot-gap between them, to the technical challenges of secretly rigging a cable weighing more than 400 lbs. between the two buildings at night in the dark, the performance was as much science as it was art.

By way of explanation, they discuss catenary cables, suspension bridges, levers and balance, ziplines, and even the high-wire artists of the animal kingdom: squirrels and bighorn sheep. Tightrope instructor Sonja Harpstead talks a little about the psychology of people who take up tightrope walking, and Philippe talks about “being devoured by the void.”

But what comes through most about Petit in this episode is not the emotional or psychological aspects of what he did, but how he did it, and how much of his success he owed to science and to a piece of advice he got from an old circus performer.

As we listen to Petit describe both this high-wire act, and the rest of his career as a magician and high-wire artist, what emerges is a portrait of a scientist with the soul of a poet.

And no place is that more clear than the way in which Philippe describes what science is to him: “It’s us at work trying to change the question mark around the Earth into an exclamation point.”

Charles Liu says that may be one of the most poetic and beautiful ways he’s ever heard science described.

I, personally, agree.

Join us on Friday, October 14 at 7pm EDT, right here on our website, or on iTunes Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, SoundCloud and TuneIn. If you’re an All-Access subscriber, you can listen to this show commercial free (although you can’t watch it – this was originally an episode of StarTalk TV on the National Geographic Channel, so, as with all StarTalk TV shows, we won’t have the video version available on All-Access).

That’s it for now. Keep Looking Up – and whatever you do, don’t look down.
–Jeffrey Simons

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