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Astrophysicist takes UB audience on mind-boggling tour of universe

In his mission to advance the cause of scientific literacy, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wednesday shared some mind-boggling and terrifying facts about the universe.

And he did it with a sense of humor and passion that most high school science teachers might envy -- a style that makes him eminently suited to host "NOVA scienceNOW" on PBS.

Tyson, who is also the author of several popular books on astronomy, was the guest lecturer for the Distinguished Speakers Series in Alumni Arena on the University at Buffalo's North Campus.

"Often, talks like this are loosely veiled commercials for somebody's latest book, and this is no exception," Tyson said to gales of laughter from the audience of several hundred.

"There are things I could talk about, but I won't -- like the fate of NASA's space program, the demotion of Pluto to a dirty ice ball," he said, poking fun at Pluto's nonplanetary status.

One of the many facts he did share is that the Milky Way, our home galaxy, contains more than 100 billion stars -- the sun merely one them.

"This stuff you should know, I think. The universe has a boatload of stars. How many? Let's find out. . . . Let's count our way there," Tyson said.

The gist of what he conveyed is that the universe is vast. To demonstrate just how vast Tyson first had to get his audience to wrap their minds around the concept of a billion, then a trillion, a quadrillion and a sextillion. To understand what it means that there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, Tyson referenced the nearly billion hamburgers the McDonald's restaurant chain claims to have sold since its inception.

A billion burgers, laid end-to-end, would wrap around the world 52 times and still leave enough, laid end-to-end, to reach the moon and back, Tyson said.

"This is terrifying news for cows," he added.

"You can count to a billion, but it would take you 32 years. You cannot count to a trillion; it would take you 32,000 years. Thirty-two-thousand years ago, cave men were still drawing on cave walls," Tyson said.

Tyson, who graduated from the Bronx High School of Science, earned his bachelor's degree in physics from Harvard and his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia. He is the author of "The Sky is the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist." In 2000, he was named People Magazine's Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffneww.com

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