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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Finding Krypton

During a roundtable discussion with journalists, Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson explains how he helped Superman find his home planet of Krypton. Tyson appears as a character in the recent DC Comics' ACTION COMICS #14, "Star Light, Star Bright." In real life, he consulted a star index and found a real star that supported the backstory of the comic. In this video Tyson explains how the real power of interferometry combined with Superman’s super powers could work together. Created by American Museum of Natural History.

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Video transcript

The Museum got a call a couple months ago from DC Comics, and they said well here's our idea: we want Superman to come to the Hayden Planetarium and observe the destruction of Krypton. We all know the profile of Superman he left Krypton in this basket, Moses style, to escape the destruction of his home planet. If he comes to the Hayden Planetarium and observes the death of Krypton from an actual star that star will have an actual distance. If it has an actual distance it tells us exactly how old Superman is. So, my task, at their request, well actually they didn't even know how to ask it, they just said, could they just show this and I said sure you can show it why don't I get you an actual star alright they didn't even know that maybe we could do that, alright? There are star catalogs let me see if there's a star that is late twenty-something light years away. Then it would have taken twenty-something years for its light to get here Superman is twenty-something-years old, he sees the destruction of Krypton. There's a huge effort that's been going on for the past several decades to catalog the nearby stars in the night sky. I look at the nearby catalogs, and I find a star that's twenty-seven light years away, that's a nice virile age for Superman to be, and it is an M Dwarf, it's red, so was Superman's home star. hHs home star, which I would learn in my conversation with them, has a name it's called "Rao". R-A-O. It's red. So we got a red star at the right distance, that star, as far as we know, does not have a planet, so the Krypton remains the fictional part of this. The catalog is called the LHS catalog this is star number twenty five twenty in that catalog, so you ID the star LHS twenty five twenty. An added little feature, because there's several stars that I've offered them, they said let's pick this one in particular, and I said why? Because I also told him where on the sky it it is, this one is in the constellation Corvus, which is latin for the crow. There are 88 constellations in the night sky one of them is the crow, it's found in the Southern Hemisphere and they picked that one because, something I didn't know, Smallville High School, were the Crows. You know what more could you want out of this, out of how all this works out? Alright so now what's next? Well he's got to watch it get destroyed, well we have data on planets now we don't actually see the planets 'cause they're too small they're too dim and they're lost in the glare of their host star. That's the problem. In astrophysics there's a branch of our field called interferometry, where, you know, what you really want is the biggest telescope you can possibly bring to bear on your object. A bigger telescope collects more light, allowing you to see dimmer things. You can't make a telescope big enough to see the detail on Krypton, so we do something very clever and create what's called an interferometer . An interferometer is, you know, I want a telescope this big, but this is a hundred miles, I can't make a hundred-mile diameter telescope or a thousand miles, but if I'm clever I can put a telescope here, and a telescope here, and observe the object at the same time and keep track of how I'm observing it with such detail that I can combine these two sets of data together and I'll have the resolution as if my telescope were actually that size. We don't yet know how to make huge interferometers using visible light telescopes, which is just an ordinary telescope. So I said here's what I can do for you, speaking to the DC Comic folks. I said we can get all the telescopes of the world to observe Krypton at exactly the same time, then we can pretend like we figured out a way to do it with our supercomputer that doesn't exist yet. And they said "No, no, no, no. You don't need the supercomputer that doesn't, exist because we have Superman." So, an additive power that Superman now has, because of this comic strip, is that he can stand over your computer and use his powers to analyze and reduce data in such a way to create the world's largest optical interferometer of all the world's optical telescopes. And so he does this in our dome because we, before this, coordinated all the observations he brings them all together we project on the dome the destruction of Krypton. I was wondering why you felt it was so important to have the science right? Because we're talking about comic books, and you know there's a lot of stretches of the imagination there, but it's wonderful that you came to it with this passion to make it real. That is an excellent question, and I have a simple answer. In my experience, my life experience, many artists don't reach as far. many artists who are inspired by science don't reach as far into it as they could. I think out of fear that the science might restrict their creativity. So they take some of the low hanging science, put it in, and then they wrap it in their storytelling, but I maintain that there's so much science particularly in astrophysics, that if you did you understand it it adds to your creativity. It gives you more places and ways to be creative. So, rather than constricting you, I think it liberates you.