“Don’t overvalue my existence relative to the messages that I deliver,” says astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson during a Skype conversation, downplaying himself with Spock-like reserve. But deGrasse Tyson is one of those rare souls whose well-informed words can bring the entire universe to life for the rest of us earthlings, a “people’s scientist” with a following of millions thanks to television appearances and his dozen or so books. In them he provides down-to-earth explanations of black holes, string theory (he’s not a fan), and wormholes, offering stargazers young and old an easy-to-read roadmap from infinity to beyond. Seen by many as the successor to the late Carl Sagan, whose soul-infused explanations of extra-terrestrial phenomena touched countless Americans in the 1980s, Neil deGrasse Tyson has made it his life’s work to unravel the mysteries of outer space in a way that everyone, even the chronically science-illiterate, can understand. Here's what he had to say to me...
I knew from the age of 9 that the universe was calling me. And it was my duty to listen. My parents helped—they would visit book stores and go to the table where things were marked down to a dollar and pick things up for me. So I had a rather fertile library for when I wasn’t outside playing basketball. And that fed my interest. One of the books was called “One Two Three . . . Infinity”, by a physicist called George Gamow. It’s an exploration of all the weird stuff in mathematics, physics and in the universe. It talked about four dimensions, black holes, how there are hierarchies of infinity. You know how numbers, you can count them forever? Well how about fractions? The infinity of fractions is bigger than the infinity of numbers; and then there are transcendental numbers, like Pi. There are more transcendental numbers than pure irrational numbers, and there are more irrational numbers than counting numbers. And more fractions than all of them. Yet they are all infinite. Weird things like that. So that was an awesome book, an intellectual baptism into the fun world of math and science. Now when I think back on it, if your first book on math and science is like a text book, well that’s not necessarily fun. Its like, take your medicine here. Perhaps if everyone were exposed to the fun side first, then fewer people would be frightened of math and science.
I saw the Milky Way for the first time at the Hayden Planetarium in New York aged 9. I just assumed it wasn’t real. I had seen the real sky from the roof of my apartment building in the Bronx, and it didn’t look anything like that. I thought “ok, this is the sky they wish was there, but it can’t be the sky that actually is there.” Then I went on a trip to Pennsylvania, which is maybe 100 miles west of here, far enough away so that the city lights are not too bright. And there it was – the night sky. It reminded me of the Hayden Planetarium. To this day, the night sky reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium. The penny dropped and I said “whoa…they were telling the truth back there.”
I attended the Bronx High School of Science. There would always be someone within arm’s reach to talk to about your latest ideas, or some hypothesis you might have dreamed up the night before. To this day, those were the most formative years of my life. I guess that school has seven Nobel Laureates, as many as Spain, or so I’ve heard. I don’t feel any pressure to win a Nobel prize, but I do feel there’s a legacy of excellence to carry on.
When I was 15, I visited the Mojave desert and talked to a group of people about a comet that was about to visit us. It was my first experience of public speaking. I gave two 45 minute lectures, and they paid me $50. I couldn’t believe it. Why am I being paid to talk about what I love? They were paying me just for my knowledge and my expertise. I would come to learn that of course that is what a free market is. You have a talent and ability, and that is what people want.
I started wrestling in 10th grade, and carried on through college and a little bit in graduate school. I enjoyed it immensely. Because if you lost, you lost. You can’t blame it on anyone else. It’s you against one opponent. And I deeply respected the purity of that contest. I also rowed. So I stayed in pretty good shape over the years. One of the great crimes is that I remember the shape I used to be in.
It was while I was applying for college that I met Carl Sagan, one of the most popular American scientists of modern times. His television show, Cosmos, was first broadcast in 1980, and it opened up the universe to the masses in a way that had never been done before. He was deeply poetic. When you hear his narration on Cosmos, the way he delivers his lines and his words, it is deep and resonant and almost brooding in its depth of majesty and respect for nature. So, Carl was a professor at Cornell University, and when I applied, the admissions office showed him my application. I don’t know why—I guess it was dripping with the universe, and it was clear to the admissions people that there was one person whose lap this belonged in, and that was Carl Sagan’s. He sent me a personal letter and invited me to visit him. So I did.
That afternoon at Cornell, I remember wondering why Carl Sagan would want to spend this much time with me. He had nothing invested in me, after all? I remember thinking in that moment that if I were ever to become as notable or important as Carl Sagan, or even approximately that, that I would treat students with the same generosity that he had shown me. To this day, if I’m meeting with students and Washington calls me, or congress, or the White House or whatever, I say “you gotta wait. I got a student here.” I hold my time with students in very high priority, because of that first meeting with Carl.
I didn’t end up going to Cornell, I went to Harvard. In college, and since then, I never experimented with any substances in some attempt to get closer to the cosmos. It’s interesting how susceptible the brain is to hallucinogenic thoughts in the presence of very simple chemicals. But I have never presumed that to alter what the brain does, might somehow connect you closer to the actual universe. It might connect some people closer to art, to creativity maybe. There is certain music you could say that could not have been composed without being under the influence. But science is not subject to some random creative thought you may have, because at the end of the day, you have nature to answer to. The scientist has to reckon with the truths of nature, the artist has to reckon with the truths within. If hallucinogens make them closer to themselves and make them a better artist – fine. But there is no obvious evidence that altering the capacity of the brain to interpret reality actually brings you closer to reality. For that reason, I’ve not been drawn to efforts to alter my state of mind.
While I was at college, I met a young black man who criticized my choice of academic pursuit. He said my efforts should not be wasted on the field of astrophysics, which he saw as having little to do with the betterment of black people. That was a powerful statement to me at the time, mainly because I didn’t have a rebuttal. He was majoring in economics, and he was planning to empower inner cities with enterprise zones,. All signs indicated that he was going to make a difference in the world, and I wasn’t. I was deeply troubled, especially because my parents were active in the civil rights movement. I kept with physics, but struggled with my intent for years. In fact it would be about ten years before I would climb out of this hole that he had put me in, before I realized that doing what I loved would have a greater effect on society than anything this other guy could have possibly done. And sure enough I look back now, I try to find him on the internet and he has no internet footprint. I don’t know what he is doing. Where is he? I don’t know.
I met my wife in graduate school. She has a PhD in mathematical physics and we were in some classes together. That was in 1980. It started pretty slowly, it wasn’t love at first sight. We got together early and then broke up. So that meant it was for real when we got back together. We’ve been married since 1988. There are always challenges in any relationship, but I have to say, there are whole categories of conflict that don’t arise for us, simply because we both have the capacity to approach the solution in a rational and logical way. It’s cool. . It would be a boring world if everyone just approached everything rationally and logically. Actually we’d be rid of many problems that exist in the world but sometimes you have to take both together. If the problem is a side effect of the great expression of emotional creativity, I guess I’ll take it.
When I was finishing my PhD at Columbia I started interacting with the media for the first time. I was the go-to physicist when reporters would call. And I started learning a little bit about how the media works. For starters, there’s been about 3 articles about me in the history of articles about me that had no errors about my identity or life or story. Once, for instance, I was interviewed by a relatively short reporter, she might have been 4 foot 9 in heels. And so afterwards I stood up and shook her hand and she reported me as being 6 foot 4. In the New York Times. I’ve never been 6 foot 4. That might have been how she felt when I stood up, but I’ve been 6’2 all of my life. Of course then everyone else picked it up and I became the “strapping 6 foot 4 physicist”. It was because of that article that I created my own Facebook page that had accurate information on it with regards my height and weight.
In 1996, I became the director of the Hayden Planetarium and found myself back at the same institution that so influenced me when I was a kid. It’s one of those great small town stories, isn’t it, except this is New York. I came full circle. That same year, Carl Sagan died, and America lost a great scientist and communicator. Sometimes people ask me where I think Carl is, where do we go after we die? Well, one of the things Carl taught us is that the universe isn’t what you want it to be. Truths aren’t decided by what feels good; they are decided by experiments, observations and analysis. And occasionally those truths are unpleasant. Or make you sad. The claims that something other than your body is released upon death, the claims that you go to heaven, hell or purgatory—these things remain sufficiently unconvincing to me that I don’t experience any urges to change my behavior in an attempt to influence what happens after I die. What is convincing is that I see things die, and then they decompose in the ground. Worms eat them, and bacteria. Why should we object to that, I don’t know. Personally I don’t hold worms as being lesser than any other kind of creature. They’re just uglier, I guess, unless you’re another worm. The people who are cremated, the energy is pulled out of them but it becomes heat, which just escapes into space, and what good is that. No one benefits from that when you radiate out in to space. I’d rather stay here on earth.
It’s true that I did turn down the chance to be on the “1997 Studmuffins of Science” calendar. It was a cute thing done by National Public Radio, they were trying to attract women into science. But it was a little too weird for me. That said, a few years later, in 2000, I did agree to be featured as People magazine’s “Sexiest Astrophysicist”. Studmuffin is kind of like a boy toy, whereas Sexiest Astrophysicist—that’s something you pause and think about.
In 2006 for the first time in my career, I got some hate mail—people were mad at me for getting Pluto demoted. Yes, I’ll admit my part in having Pluto stripped of its planetary status. Now it is classified as an icy body, and we grouped it with other icy bodies. It’s happy. I promise. It’s the biggest icy body of the group, instead of the smallest planet in the solar system.
People ask me if there are secrets that the government or NASA keep from us—well, there are no secrets. Look at how much we knew about President Clinton’s genitalia. If there ever should have been a state secret, it’s that. People ask me about CERN, if we’re safe from dark matter—yes we are. We are bombarded by much higher energy particles from space than anything they are creating in CERN. In fact, has there ever been a time where people predicted some kind of science apocalypse and it actually happened. Where robots started controlling people, where we split the atom and the atom destroyed the world? No, it has never happened. All the science apocalypses have not even come close to coming true. People are worried for no reason. If they are worried, they should be worried about the environment. Although the universe has no shortage of energy in it.
My single favorite musical genre is the blues. The depth of pain that is infused in every note and phrase, every thought, I find to be some of music’s greatest expression of emotion. I am especially tickled every time an artist takes ownership of a scientific idea, like an idea about the universe, and it serves as the muse for their creativity. Then and only then would I assert that science has become part of our culture. If the artist doesn’t deem it worthy of reaching for, I think it just lives out in the peripheries, completely ignorable by the rest of society. Scientists and artists, we’re both searching for some inner germ of creativity that can bring more of the world in reach of others.
Some time in 2013, I’ll be hosting the sequel to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, so that it can reach a new generation of viewers. It’s such an honor. I’m working with his Carl’s widow, Anne Druyen, and right now we’re figuring out the right tone. Will I pursue the deeply respectful prose for which Carl was known? Or will I be more myself, which has a more persistent comedic dimension to it. Carl is more poetically quotable. Not than I am incapable of this. In fact every now and then a poetic Tweet comes to my mind and I put it out there. It’s not that I am not capable of it. But it’s not my natural state, my average state. My average estate is that I will make an observation about the world, and maybe it’s a snarky observation or a humorous observation, but it always has a certain down to earth quality to it. Will that accomplish the goal of reaching down into the soul of a person’s poetic curiosity and stimulating it? Or will it just allow the person to laugh and move on to the next topic? Right now we are exploring what balance between the two would be right. Because honestly, when I talk to audiences, I am not delivering brooding statements. Usually, I am just having fun. I can’t help it. Why? Because the universe is hilarious.