Last night, gangs of glammed-out New York techies and science enthusiasts trekked uptown to the Rose Center for Earth and Space to take in a stunningly optimistic program presented by Gizmodo and the American Museum of Natural History. The event was planned and hosted by Gawker Media founder Nick Denton (with the help of Brew PR), who appeared so eager about the “celebration of technology and discovery” that he tweeted about it numerous times prior to the event, published a grandiose blog post on Gizmodo reveling in the glorious achievements of science, and sent out an email to attendees: “This evening should be inspiring and fun,” he wrote.
“I’ve never seen Nick so excited for a social event,” one colleague remarked.
And who could begrudge Mr. Denton his excitement? The event was everything he claimed it would be–and perhaps more, depending on how many free cocktails you indulged in. Hosted by Ellen V. Futter, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and Mr. Denton himself, the gathering was as swank and inspiring as expected.
Betabeat arrived to the First Comes the Dream event around 7:30 p.m. and immediately checked in on Foursquare, as tech reporters at Foursquare-branded events are wont to do. As residents of Brooklyn, we were happy to discover we’d unlocked the Far Far Away badge–“Welcome to the world above 59th street!” it exclaimed.
In the lobby of the Rose Center, we were checked in via an iPad by a lovely woman from Brew PR, who handed us a program and directed us to the Hayden Planetarium, where the night’s first event would take place. The entry hallway to the Planetarium was packed with eager attendees swigging wine and snacking on cheese and grapes. We spotted Reddit general manager Erik Martin collecting drinks for fellow attendees at the bar and stopped to say hi. He escorted us over to his group, which included Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian and Gawker head of ops Scott Kidder, who had just gotten back from a trip to Budapest.
“I’m a daily Betabeat reader,” admitted Mr. Kidder. “But you guys should post more.” (We’re working on it–promise.)
Mr. Martin and Mr. Ohanian could only stay for the first half hour of the event, as they had to get to an Internet Defense League party–complete with a stories-sized projection–downtown.
Notable names gathered at the museum included Gilt Groupe founder and CEO Kevin Ryan, NY1 newspaper addict Pat Kiernan and his colleague Jamie Shupak with New York Times media nerd Brian Stelter, and AllThingsD honcho Kara Swisher, in town from San Francisco. We also spotted NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr., father of RSS Dave Winer, Talking Points Memo deputy publisher Callie Schweitzer, and Business Insider startup reporter Alyson Shontell. A sci-fi themed string quartet scored the evening with Star Trek and Star Wars songs, while the crowd bantered and nursed their cocktails.
Soon we were ushered into the Hayden Planetarium, where we found a seat in front of Branch founder Josh Miller and his mentor, former Twitter VP of Product and current COO of the Obvious Corporation, Jason Goldman. Ms. Futter, AMNH’s president, began her opening remarks as Scrollkit founder Cody Brown and New York Times media reporter David Carr snuck to their seats.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden Jr. said a few words before deputy mayor for economic development Robert K. Steel took the podium, lamenting the fact that Ms. Futter called the astronaut “cool” but not him. Soon, the lights began to dim and the crowd was treated to a stunning walkthrough of current NASA data displayed on the Planetarium’s dome by ANMH’s director of astrovisualization, the lion-maned Carter Emmart.
We craned our necks back to take in the dizzying site: Data captured just yesterday danced across the screen as Mr. Emmart zoomed in and out. He took us to the international space station, and then out further to the moon, where he focused in on some craters before taking us out further still, to Mars. Next we were viewing our entire galaxy, and then out as far as possible so that the millions of galaxies scientists have documented twinkled like pinpoints of light on the vast darkness of the unknown. There was much oohing and aahing. When Mr. Emmart remarked that his time was up, one person in the audience actually yelped: “Awww!”
The presentation was easily one of the coolest things Betabeat had ever seen. We weren’t the only ones. “I don’t know what to do about how much I love space,” tweeted New York Times reporter Jenna Wortham.
As the lights came back on, the crowd shuffled into elevators and down to the Cullman Hall of the Universe, where drinks and hors d’oeuvres were served and the string quartet cleared from the stage to make room for i09 editor in chief Annalee Newitz and renowned physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Mr. Tyson, who skipped a pre-screening of The Dark Knight Rises to attend, was arguably the biggest attraction of the night. At the mere mention of his name by Ms. Futter earlier, the crowd burst out into spontaneous applause. The director of the Hayden Planetarium since 2000, Mr. Tyson has risen to cult status in recent years, thanks to a combination of blatant genius and a wry brand of humor that lends him a personability untouched by most physicists. To the crowd of science geeks and Redditors on the Internet, Mr. Tyson is basically a god: memes have been carved in his name for years.
The energy in the room was palpable as Mr. Tyson took the stage and the crowd erupted into wild applause. Ms. Newitz proved a deft interviewer, easily matching Mr. Tyson’s impressive wit. He spoke of his dream plans for NASA (“I want aliens to be proud of what we’ve done”), of why we need to rekindle our space-race era love for science, and how much he loves Star Trek. At one point, while answering a question about his ideal space program, he referenced a ship that could be outfitted with various “strap-ons.” The audience giggled nervously. “That’s… not the right word,” he admitted, chuckling, before moving on, while patches of the audience muffled their guffaws.
Soon, program wranglers were giving Ms. Newitz the cue to wrap it up, and Mr. Tyson closed the session with remarks about how to get inspired about science again. Hungry and tired, we ducked out of the event and trotted to the exit, where we were handed a First Comes the Dream-branded moleskin and wished a pleasant evening.
All of this talk about space just made us want to go up to the stars. Luckily, we ran into the one person perhaps best enabled to allow us to reach our goal: tech investor (and former journalist) Esther Dyson. Ms. Dyson is on the board of XCor, a private corporation aiming to bring sub-orbital flight to the general public, or as general a public that can afford a $95,000 per-flight ticket. Ms. Dyson told us that she was recently trying out spacesuits for the company – she’s planning to be on the last flight before the company opens it up to the masses. We eagerly asked when we could join in on the zero-gravity fun. “A few years,” she told us, reassuring us that, while she would be getting a preview to the experience, she would be going up after they test it thoroughly: “When they get it right.”
Though we typically bleed skepticism, we found ourselves uncharacteristically moved by the event as we crossed the park to catch a cab. The air was thick with summer, the musk of trees momentarily eclipsing the normal exhaust fumes that blanket the city. We felt filled with the vastness of space the way we always do after leaving the planetarium (we are embarrassingly regular guests there), aware again of the knowledge of just how tiny our lives, our planet, even our galaxy are.
“First comes the dream,” we thought.
It was probably just the wine.