NEW YORK -- The Hayden Planetarium at Manhattan's Natural History Museum has been home to many famous voices over the last decade.
Tom Hanks, Liam Neeson, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford have all hosted space-related video presentations within the planetarium's dome. They don't usually show up in person; you might have a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to the space lesson directly above their heads if they did.
But on Thursday, with 300 public high school kids crammed into the planetarium for an event set up in support of the "Youth Inspired Challenge" program, history museum sponsors tried to combine a science lesson and the presence of a Hollywood megastar.
The kids had just returned from a special screening of "Men in Black 3" -- a movie about science! -- and were only told the screening would be followed with a "special presentation" about the film. When Will Smith came out, you couldn't help but feel bad for the poor rocket scientist who had to precede him in the introductions.
The kids just about had a collective heart attack. Then their camera phones were out, armed and ready.
After a few introductory remarks from New York's chancellor of education -- who called Smith a "a man in charge, a man who cares, a man who believes in children and students" -- the most bankable movie star in Hollywood launched into a speech about his own personal version of science and a rather complex discussion of patterns and decision making.
"I've always viewed my life and looked at the things I want to accomplish and my dreams mathematically," he said. "I'm always trying to find the pattern in things. I'm looking for the pattern, okay?"
Smith explained that all of his major career decisions have been based on studying patterns. When he decided he wanted to be a movie star, he looked at the top 10 grossing films of all time and realized they all involved special effects, while "nine of the 10 involved creatures."
"So when I make 'Men in Black' or 'Independence Day,' it's a sound scientific decision," he noted. "You open yourself up to the world of science and it speaks to relationships, it speaks to dealing with bullying. Everything in your life has scientific patterns to it."
Dr. Short, the head of education at the museum, maybe sensing this was going over the kids' heads a bit, piped in to remind Smith that "science is also about creativity and imagination" in addition to finding patterns to make smart business decisions.
When Smith took questions from the kids in the crowd, he found they actually had quite a few scientific questions themselves. A frizzy-haired, soft-spoken boy asked, "Isn't 'Men in Black 3' the, like, time warp? Isn't that kind of like a paradox?"
Smith seemed impressed and then said exactly this:
That's what we kept running into in trying to decide about time travel. Wait a minute, so you go back in time and you change something, so but what changes in the future? So we went back and we, we did this one thing and what we determined is, you know, in the context of the paradox, it's almost ... because we're thinking of it in terms of a timeline ... is what creates the paradox. And what we discovered is actually it's kind of like a tree, right? It sort of splinters out in thousands of different ways and thousands of possibilities of what could happen instead of a similar time line.
Maybe knowing that he hadn't been exactly clear, he joked that his head was about to explode.
A girl on the far left gave Smith a mind-melter of a question: "In the movie you were about to go up to the thing? Some metal thing with the rocket? And y'all was fighting and you went back in time. And you came back and the guy had no arm? I didn't understand."
Smith seemed to concede this one. "Clearly we didn't understand either," he said. But he tried. "So there were two Borises right? One was the normal -- with two arms, he was existing in 1969, but then there was the one from the future who jumped back, and his arm had been shot off, so the two of them existed in one time. You see?" He paused a moment. "That's the problem with time travel."
He answered a few other questions -- about the film he was working on (a M. Night Shyamalan movie with his son, Jaden) the most fun he ever had on a set ("Bad Boys" with "comedic machine" Martin Lawrence) and whether he considered himself an optimistic person (he doesn't; he considers himself "realistic").
After he left, the curator of the current planetarium show, Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, came up to speak.
"Here at the [planetarium] we use the same techniques that were used to make those 10 special effects-laden movies!" he exclaimed.
By then the camera phones had been put away.