On Monday's Morning Edition, Hayden Planetarium director and pop-culture go-to science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson tells NPR's David Greene the story of how he came to lend a hand to Superman.
DC Comics, Tyson explains, approached him for permission to use the Planetarium — as well as his likeness — in a story where Superman witnesses the destruction of Krypton, since the light from the distant planet is just now arriving on Earth. Tyson told DC Comics that he was happy to help, and that instead of just making up the story of Superman seeing Krypton, he could help them ground it in at least some actual science.
OK, so here's how Tyson explains it: Superman didn't age during his trip to Earth, because he was still an infant upon arrival, meaning he must have traveled here through a wormhole with his little ship. If he's in his late 20s now (the estimate DC provided) and this is the time when he can witness the explosion of his home planet, then the planet is 27 or so light years away.
While it's impossible to see planets that far away, you can see stars, so Tyson picked out a real, existing, actual red star — its name is LHS 2520, if you would like to send it a congratulatory note — to serve as the star around which Krypton orbits.
The story, of course, is somewhat emotional for poor Superman, who already knows what's coming (he has perhaps the ultimate spoiler alert) but can only watch helplessly, given that ... well, it happened 27 years ago.
Would it really be possible to see the misery so far away? Tyson says the answer is ... sort of. There's a method that can be used to make multiple telescopes work together to form an interferometer — a super-powerful device that, in the comic, is so big that it "turn[s] the entire Earth into one coherent telescope." Of course, that requires Superman to muster the power of all the telescopes on Earth and get them working together, which Tyson admits in real life would be a teensy bit difficult.
It's still difficult, of course, to be the guy who has to watch home disappear. Greene naturally asks whether Tyson gave Superman a nice hug. "It was a huggable moment. Maybe the next panel would have had me hugging him," Tyson says.
It's hard work being an astrophysicist, but in this case, Tyson says he was happy to "assist Superman in his time of need." Superman, of course, is special. "I would not have done it for Aquaman."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We have an update now on the planet Krypton. It is Superman's home and a renowned astrophysicist discovered the exact location of the planet, just in time for Superman to get a glimpse of it. Superman was able to watch his planet blow up, seeing a dazzling light display that took 27 years to reach the planet Earth.
Now, the scientist who helped the Man of the Steel locate his home planet in the galaxy, none other than Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who faster than a speeding bullet joins us in our studio this morning.
Dr. Tyson, good morning.
DR. NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
GREENE: Hey, it's good for you to be here. I'm having trouble...
GREENE: ...keeping a straight face.
GREENE: So what really happened here? I mean, it is true that you somehow have gotten roped into a "Superman" comic.
TYSON: Well, I - roped-in can't be the right reference there. I gleefully accepted the invitation...
GREENE: No arm-twisting.
TYSON: ...to - well, assist Superman in his time of need. Wouldn't you?
GREENE: Sure, I mean if he asked.
TYSON: If Elasticman called, no - or Aquaman. But Superman has a special place in the pantheon of superheroes.
TYSON: I got a call from DC Comics and they said that they wanted to create an issue where Superman would visit the Hayden Planetarium, where I serve as director, in New York City.
GREENE: In New York, right.
TYSON: And they wanted to portray the planetarium in the comic, 'cause they wanted sort of permission to do that. And we said sure. And then they wanted to know if they could portray me in conversation with Superman, showing him Krypton. So I said sure, right?
GREENE: OK, yeah. Why not?
TYSON: Yeah, why not? But then I said wait a minute, what's going on in the story? Well, in the story, Superman observes the destruction of Krypton.
GREENE: Because it takes a long time for light from that explosion to reach the Earth.
TYSON: Well, so then I said, well, if that's the case, let's explore the astrophysics of this. I mean, why not? They were just ready to draw it and just make the story up. I said we might be able to anchor this with real data.
How old is Superman? They said, Well, we never specified but we say about late 20s. So I said, well, let's get a star that's late 20s light years away. All right? Now remember when he arrived at Earth, he was an infant. When he was launched from Krypton he was an infant, so he didn't age at all, essentially. So there are two ways he could have gotten here: traveling at most of the speed of light, where you don't hardly age at all, or traveling through a wormhole.
If you travel through wormhole, you beat the light beam that left your planet.
GREENE: And so, Superman traveled through a wormhole?
TYSON: Well, we have to assert that because...
GREENE: We have to assert that, right.
TYSON: ...if he now sees 27 years later the destruction of Krypton, he essentially got here instantly on this little Moses-style basket that was cast into space.
GREENE: Through the wormhole.
TYSON: It had to be through wormhole.
GREENE: OK, so Superman gets here instantly through a wormhole. Twenty-seven years after the explosion of Krypton. He's able to see it, this planet...
TYSON: He comes the planetarium and my character, as portrayed - it is me. I mean, it's a cameo for me in the comic.
TYSON: I'm wearing my trademark vest and I - and they...
GREENE: With suns on it.
Yeah. And I said, oh, by the way, if it makes a difference to you, could you take off a few a few pounds for me?
GREENE: You give them advice.
TYSON: And they said, Dr. Tyson, these are the comics - everyone looks good.
GREENE: Well, I'm looking at right here. You look very good.
TYSON: I know. I'm really buff in the comic. I can be buff in the comic.
GREENE: Well, in just to be clear. You actually did find a planet that based on all the specs could be Krypton.
TYSON: Well, we didn't. So no, we can't see actual planets at that distance. You can infer their presence. And I said we can show sort of the what we call the light curve of the host star, where a star dims a little bit when the planet eclipses it. But they wanted something more dramatic. And I said, well, then we have to construct a new way to observe the universe for this episode.
And so, what I said was let's gather all the telescopes of the world, have them look at this particular star. I found them a star 27 light years away, a red star. And we know that Superman's home star was red. So I got this. All right?
GREENE: You got it.
TYSON: And if you're into the idea of the star, it's LHS 2520 - if you care. All right?
GREENE: OK, all you amateur astronomers who are listening...
TYSON: Exactly, and so I handed them the star. They said that's it, let's use that. And then we invent the notion of a planet orbiting it, and we call that planet Krypton.
GREENE: All right.
TYSON: And so, we got that covered. And we assembled the armament of all the telescopes of the world to observe that star system...
GREENE: You have full power to assemble all the telescopes of the world.
TYSON: In the comics, yes. I had that power.
TYSON: As I assembled all telescopes of the world...
TYSON: ...to turn the entire Earth into one coherent telescope. All right?
TYSON: If all the telescopes observed the same object at the same time, and you bring the data together in a particular way, you can create what's called an interferometer. We do this all the time but not on this scale, and we haven't figured out how to do it on the scale yet.
GREENE: Normally all the telescopes would not all agree to do this.
GREENE: But for the sake of a comic book, but in theory this could happen.
TYSON: In the comics. And not only would they not agreed to do it, it would be very hard to do. It's also at a challenge beyond our current capacity to assemble the data in such a way to make one coherent image. And I said we don't know how to do that. And then, the comic, they said don't worry - Superman will.
GREENE: You and Superman, quite a team.
TYSON: Oh, my gosh. So I'm now buds with Superman. And so, he comes in and I say, I can't make sense of these data. And he stands over the computer and is mind goes to the computer, and out comes this image beautifully displayed on the dome of the Hayden Planetarium. And it is - I'd hate to give away the story - but he sees the destruction of this planet.
TYSON: And he's been coming every year apparently, as the story tells it, and knowing that this year would be different from the others. And it's a rather solemn story. I mean, at the end, his head is bowed and he's sad.
GREENE: He got emotional.
TYSON: And I even got a little misty eyed, as I just read through this. Because here is something he knew already happened. But to see it takes it into another emotional realm.
GREENE: Did you give him a hug?
TYSON: It was a huggable moment.
TYSON: Maybe the next panel would have had me hugging him. But they end with him just sort of bowing his head in solemn reflection of what he just witnessed.
GREENE: Well, you look great in a comic book. You look great in our studios. Thanks for coming by.
TYSON: Well, thanks for having me. It was great being buds with Superman. Like I said, I would not have done it for Aquaman.
GREENE: Aquaman is another thing.
TYSON: Oh, also I must say, I'm a long-time resident of Metropolis. You know, I'm a native New Yorker so I get to think of that as Metropolis.
GREENE: You owed him something.
TYSON: I think so. I mean, he's been good to us all my life. So the least I could do is help the man find his home star. So this was - I felt an important bit of civic, personal, emotional, intellectual duty to serve that role.
GREENE: And you can read the story in "Superman" Action Comics. Dr. Tyson, which one is it?
TYSON: Yeah, Action Comics 14.
GREENE: There you have it.
TYSON: It's there now. I went to my local comic store and they have like a whole stack of them. I bought the whole stack.
TYSON: There might not be any left for you, I don't know.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SUPERMAN THEME SONG")
GREENE: I mean, how many people can say they met Superman? Neil deGrasse Tyson did and he was here to talk about it. The astrophysicist is director of the Hayden Planetarium and a frequent guest on this program.
It is MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SUPERMAN THEME SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.