Exploring Our Dark Universe with Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I look up into the night sky, I’m focused only on the light—the moon, the stars, other planets in our solar system—but the new space show at the Hayden Planetarium is all about the dark, specifically dark matter and dark energy.

Dark Universe is a challenging yet fascinating look beyond our galaxy. The show provides an overview of the events that led to our current understanding of dark matter: how it was discovered, the technology used to research it, and what scientists been able to observe so far. Dark matter is the substance that makes up most of the mass in the universe. Scientists study this invisible substance by its gravitational influence on the visible. The visible matter only amounts to less that 5% of the observable universe.

This is really mind-blowing stuff.

It was quite convenient that before seeing Dark Universe I had recently watched a TedxColumbus talk by my astrophysicist friend, Dr. Scott Gaudi. Scott talks about the work that he and other scientists are doing in their search for extrasolar planets, and succinctly describes the methods they use. His talk is a marvelous primer for the big themes of Dark Universe.

And, as if dark matter isn’t enough to chew on, the show also describes dark energy. Scientists predicted that the gravity exerted by dark matter would slow the expansions of the universe, but in measuring the speed of supernovas, they found the opposite. The mysterious force of dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Pondering this in the dark of the show, I found myself both awed and terrified. Nothing like a rapidly expanding universe to make you feel small and inconsequential.

DarkUniverse-NDGT
Neil deGrasse Tyson and the creative team. Photo: Amy Kraft

In addition to the screening of the show, I was fortunate to be in the audience of a panel discussion with the creative minds behind the show, hosted by the narrator of Dark Universe, the marvelous Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The panel included Curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Director Carter Emmart, Producer Vivian Trakinski, Writer Timothy Ferris, and Composer Robert Miller. As they gave their behind-the-scenes accounts of the creation of Dark Universe, I was struck by their daunting task. It’s a show in a planetarium based on data, tons of data, and it’s about something invisible. They not only had to make dark matter and dark energy visible, but they had to make them understandable and watchable. I think they did a great job on all counts. They also tried to tell a story without manipulating the science. As a non-science civilian, the show gave me a foothold in understanding our dark universe. As for younger viewers, deGrasse Tyson described the scaffolded layers that they try to get into all of their shows—where a 5-year-old can walk away with the visuals of the show, maybe some new vocabulary, and a broad understanding of the concepts that lay the groundwork for future learning.

As narrator, deGrasse Tyson claimed no credit for making the show great, and yet who better to make these abstract concepts so compelling? I mean, don’t you want to sit in the dark and listen to deGrasse Tyson’s Barry White voice describe the universe? One of the reasons he is so infectious is that he and the rest of the Dark Universe team clearly share an excitement about what we don’t yet know. It’s a great quality in both artists and scientists.

If you’re in or visiting New York City, be sure to check out Dark Universe at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Educators and parents can also download a materials about the show.

Get the GeekDad Books!