July 16, 2012 4:47 pm

StarTalk Live: The View from the Audience, or, Rock Stars of Science

Last Wednesday, July 11th, I went to my first StarTalk Live. It was Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Particle Party at The Bell House, with guests Bill Nye the Science Guy, CERN Physicist and NYU Assistant Professor of Physics Kyle Cranmer, author Sarah Vowell, 30 Rock comedian Scott Adsit, and comic co-host Eugene Mirman.

Like many of you, I’ve listened to the StarTalk Live shows. But I was unprepared for how incredible it was to be in a roomful of smart people who are there because they love science.

Before the show, there was a brief discussion in the Green Room about the extent to which the audience would be into a serious discussion of the Higgs boson and particle physics. Turns out, any concern was unnecessary. As Sarah Vowell pointed out, when someone on stage mentioned the Higgs boson, she saw a person in the audience make the devil horns sign typically reserved for audience appreciation of heavy metal rock bands.

I wasn’t the only one unprepared for the crowd. The look on Kyle Cranmer’s face as the audience responded to the scientists on stage as if they were rock stars was priceless. I asked him about it backstage afterwards, and Kyle said that he’d never gotten that kind of outpouring of laughter and applause from an audience before. Admittedly, his last public outing was The Charlie Rose Show, with no audience at all. And Charlie didn’t have a group of intelligent, quick-witted comedians like Eugene, Scott and Sarah to keep things moving.

CERN physicist Kyle Cranmer, presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Eugene Mirman, Photo Credit: © 2012 Elliot Severn, All rights reserved

Rock Stars of Science: CERN physicist Kyle Cranmer, presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Eugene Mirman, Photo Credit: © 2012 Elliot Severn, All rights reserved

Given the kinds of questions we get here on the website, on Facebook, Twitter and Google+, I should have expected rock concert responses from our crowd. But all I could remember were those old complaints about how schools value sports more than academics, how “mathletes” and the Chess Club should be more important than athletes, but were not. I was unprepared for the thrill of hearing thunderous applause as Bill Nye the Science Guy was introduced, or audience-wide laughter at relatively complex science jokes.

Neil deGrasse Tyson leaning on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Photo Credit: © Elliot Severn, All rights reserved

A lighter moment from StarTalk Live at The Bell House, 7/11/12: astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and Bill Nye the Science Guy, CEO of the Planetary Society (www.planetary.org). Photo Credit: © 2012 Elliot Severn, All rights reserved

More and more we live in a “Triumph of the Nerds” world where science and smarts are being recognized for the critical importance they have. Where every week, it seems, a new discovery in astronomy or a scientific, medical or technological breakthrough is in the mainstream news. More importantly, we live in a world where people are recognizing and reveling in the impact science and technology have on their lives and choosing to learn more about it rather than ignore it.

Not everyone. Not all the time. But if you ever start to lose hope, and to despair that, as Neil said at a recent speech, “The world is getting stupider,” all you need to do is listen to the audience at a StarTalk Live to have your hope restored.

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