Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Universe
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tirelessly promotes scientific literacy as a civic necessity, with a little help from luminaries such as Stephen Colbert. To those who claim to be “not into” science, Tyson counters, “Science is into you.” And to those who reject science on religious grounds, he offers this reassurance: “Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science.… It’s also a soaring spiritual experience.”
In 1975 Neil deGrasse Tyson, a 17-year-old senior at the Bronx High School of Science, applied for admission to Cornell University. Professor Carl Sagan, of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, invited the future star to visit Cornell’s Ithaca, New York, campus. “He was very inspirational and a most powerful influence,” Tyson recalled. Nevertheless, Tyson chose Harvard (which had denied Sagan tenure in 1968). “They have a larger astronomy department,” he wrote to Sagan. “I will have more surrounding me in the way of ongoing research.”
Five years later, that friendly Cornell professor, an erudite champion of science literacy, stepped onto the national stage to helm the most-watched science television program of all time—Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. In his final interview, in 1996, Sagan asked, “Who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?” Tyson took up Sagan’s mission to educate the public. In 2014 he starred in an updated documentary series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Tyson’s version commenced with a playback of his predecessor’s opening line: “The cosmos is all there is or ever was or ever will be.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson first visited the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History when he was a kid. Accustomed to the meager scattering of stars visible in New York, his native city, he thought the planetarium’s projection was a “nice hoax.” In the summer after ninth grade, as an attendee at Camp Uraniborg, a monthlong course of intensive astronomy held in California’s Mojave Desert, Tyson was thrilled by the “bezillions” of stars he saw. “It reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium sky” was his self-proclaimed “embarrassingly urban thought.”
Tyson has been director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996. But he launched his astrophysics career there decades earlier, when he began taking classes at the planetarium while in junior high school. His enthusiasm eventually attracted the attention of a fellow student who happened to be director of education at the Explorers Club. In 1973 that venerable research society awarded Tyson a scholarship to join an expedition off the coast of Africa to see a total solar eclipse. The 14-year-old’s shipmates included Isaac Asimov, Neil Armstrong and Hayden Planetarium director Mark Chartrand. That fall, the budding astrophysicist gave his first lecture, to a continuing-education class at City College.
As a 14-year-old, Neil deGrasse Tyson helped his team of mostly adults win a trivia contest. He knew, among other things, that the “linguistically correct” name for objects (or aliens) from Venus is not Venutian but Venereal. In 1930 another precocious youngster, 11-year-old Venetia Burney, had proposed the name Pluto for a ninth planet discovered in the solar system’s outer reaches. For 76 years Burney was the only living person, and the only female in history, to have named a planet. Then in 2006 Pluto, despite its overwhelming popularity among schoolchildren, was demoted. A small ball of ice with an irregular orbit, lacking the requisite mass to enter the planet class, our lonely fellow wanderer is more closely allied with a group of similar bodies found in an area of space called the Kuiper belt. Tyson was one of Pluto’s early detractors. When Hayden Planetarium’s new home, the Rose Center for Earth and Space, opened under his direction in February 2000, Pluto was not included among our solar system’s planets. This incited a storm of protest. Tyson reported, “It was so bad—there was, like, hate mail from third graders.”
Although vilified for demoting Pluto from planet status, Neil deGrasse Tyson said all he did was “drive the getaway car.” Astronomer Mike Brown played the essential role when he discovered Eris, a body similar to Pluto, in 2003. Depending on how these bodies were classified, he suspected we had either 10 planets or only eight. The International Astronomical Union responded by redefining planet the following year. Pluto no longer fit the parameters and was recategorized as a dwarf planet. Author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, Brown proposed a new mnemonic for the planets’ order. Instead of “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas,” he suggested “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature.” Stephen Colbert quipped, “My very educated mother just said, ‘Uh-oh! No Pluto!’”
In promos for “The Pluto Files,” a Nova episode based on Tyson’s book of the same name, Diane Sawyer calls the astrophysicist a “planet-pilfering, sky-squishing, Pluto-pulverizing marauder of the cosmos.” And Colbert claims Tyson turned Pluto into a “solar pebble” or “dust mote,” recalling Carl Sagan’s description of Earth, photographed by Voyager I from 4 billion miles out, as a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Comedy Central’s Colbert Report (as well as the Daily Show With Jon Stewart) featured Neil deGrasse Tyson numerous times; he and Stephen Colbert, in his role as a blowhard pundit, had a snappy rapport. Out of character, Colbert interviewed Tyson at a New Jersey prep school in 2010. Their wide-ranging conversation encompassed truth, beauty, morality, man-animal hybrids, atomic bombs, dark energy, “star stuff,” the movie Titanic, wrestling singlets, Gilligan’s Island, “Mars farts,” parenting advice, black holes, magic and, most important, the power of knowledge. Instructed to reply in 10 words or fewer to Colbert’s final question—“Why is there something instead of nothing?”—Tyson gave the koan-like answer “Words that make questions may not be questions at all.”
Tyson has said he finds the universe “hilarious” and considers humor an effective educational tool. While discussing the dangers of knowledge with Colbert, Tyson paraphrased atomic bomb mastermind Robert Oppenheimer: “If God didn’t want this power to be there, he shouldn’t have put it in the atom in the first place.” The talk turned to Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge, and Colbert concluded, “God does put things into Adams he doesn’t want us to know about.”
Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson frequently explore each other’s professional territory. Colbert often interviewed scientists on The Colbert Report, and Tyson was one of his favorite guests. “I love what Neil knows,” Colbert told the audience when he interviewed Tyson at New Jersey’s Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2010, and “I love that he loves what he doesn’t know.”
Self-professed “science geek” Colbert has appeared on Tyson’s radio show, StarTalk, which Rolling Stone named one of 2014’s best comedy podcasts. Tyson’s appropriately late-night StarTalk television adaptation debuted on the National Geographic Channel in 2015, featuring scientists and comedians discussing “astronomy, physics and everything else about life in the universe.” As the late-night talk-show world seismically shifts—David Letterman and Jon Stewart bow out, Colbert moves over to The Late Show, and Tyson steps up—fans look forward to the conversation continuing on Colbert’s and Tyson’s new gigs. Humor and entertainment aside, Tyson’s message is serious. He wants a “scientifically literate electorate, so that when you go to the polls you can make an informed judgment and you can draw your own conclusions rather than…have your conclusions handed to you.”
Easily America’s most media-friendly astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to point out scientific infelicities in the film Gravity, which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in space. Tyson called his series of tweets Mysteries of #Gravity. Some examples of these head-scratchers: “Why Bullock, a medical doctor, is servicing the Hubble space telescope,” “Why Bullock’s hair, in otherwise convincing zero-G scenes, did not float freely on her head” and “Astronaut Clooney informs medical doctor Bullock what happens medically during oxygen deprivation.” But Tyson also pointed out that Gravity “depicts a scenario of catastrophic satellite destruction that can actually happen”—and admitted he still enjoyed the film.
This wasn’t Tyson’s first movie review. He lambasted Titanic director James Cameron for depicting the “wrong sky” over the iceberg scene. Nor was this his most controversial Twitter moment. That came when he tweeted, on Christmas Day 2014, “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642.” One outraged reader criticized the scientist for “tweeting his disdain for Christmas on Christmas day.” He continued, “Your arrogance extends to ruining other’s [sic] holidays.”
In 1974 Neil deGrasse Tyson joined an expedition to Kilmartin Glen, Scotland, to figure out how the site’s Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments relate to astronomical events, as those at Stonehenge align with the rising or setting sun of the solstices. Tyson introduced highlights of New York City’s own architectural astrophysics in 1997, in a Natural History magazine comic strip. Pointing out the Stonehenge-like nature of Manhattan buildings, Tyson’s caricature speculates, “Future civilizations will think we built all this as an observatory to view the stars.” And in fact, twice a year, the sunset aligns with the island’s east-west grid of streets, glowing between the buildings that line them. Tyson dubbed this phenomenon Manhattanhenge.
By dashing up the World Trade Center’s towers at dusk, cartoon Tyson claims, one also could theoretically “freeze the sunset” floor by floor; four years later, from his apartment near Ground Zero, Tyson watched those towers fall. Tyson’s avocation has long informed his worldview. “The laws of physics,” he writes in his memoir, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist, “serve as one of my intellectual anchors amidst the irrationalities of society.”