An image from NASA's Hubble telescope looks down a long corridor of galaxies -- and billions of years back in time.
An image from NASA's Hubble telescope looks down a long corridor of galaxies -- and billions of years back in time.

Star Power

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007

NEW YORK -- The first time Neil deGrasse Tyson got a good look at the universe, he thought it was a hoax. He was a 9-year-old, visiting the Hayden Planetarium on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and when the lights went down and a narrated tour of the night sky began, an ocean of stars twinkled overhead.

Yeah, right, he thought.

"I grew up in the Bronx, and I'd never been in total darkness before," he says. "The closest you'll get is a movie theater, but even in a movie theater there's a glow from the doors. So I had a kind of urban view of the universe, and when I was at the planetarium and the stars came up, I remember thinking, 'Nice show, but this is not the real universe. I've seen the real universe, and it has 12 stars in it.' "

Once Tyson learned otherwise, he was smitten. He'd talk about the universe, read about the universe and, whenever possible, stare at the universe through a telescope he'd lug to the roof of the apartment building where his family lived. Whenever anyone asked what he'd do when he grew up, he had an answer, one that he had trouble pronouncing at the time: "I'm going to be an astrophysicist."

Which is what he became, though his PhD in the subject is but one line of a rĂ©sumé so packed with titles and achievements that it is tiring to read. Tyson is the author of eight books on all things intergalactic, most recently "Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries," a bestseller that was just released in paperback. He is also the host of "Nova ScienceNow," a "60 Minutes"-style show on PBS, as well as a lecturer, researcher and a TV pundit whenever the heavens make news.

Through a mix of erudition and approachability, Tyson has inherited the job created by Carl Sagan: pop culture's public brain for all cosmos-related matters. A teddy-bearish guy who can be hammy at times, giggly at others, he seems born for the role. He is magnetic in a way that suggests you can ask him anything and he will answer, even if the question is a bit idiotic. A decade from now, you'll hear kids talk fondly about how Tyson introduced them to the marvels of space, either because they saw him on TV or read his books -- or paid a visit to the Hayden Planetarium. As of 1996, Tyson has been director of the very institution that hooked him as a 9-year-old.

"I know, it's sort of a small-town story," he says. "Which doesn't happen very often in New York."

Tyson says this while sitting on a bench outside the Lab School in Chelsea, where he is about to speak before a couple of dozen sixth-graders. Typically he works larger rooms, but this is the science class of his daughter, Miranda, one of several kids who greet him when he walks past the school's large metal gates. Another greeter is a classmate of Miranda's, who cannot contain his enthusiasm.

"Where have you been!" he shouts. "I haven't seen you since the first day of school!"

"The universe," Tyson replies with barely a hint of irony, "has needed my attention."

A Piece of the Sky

Tyson is a 6-foot-4 African American who today is wearing a dark suit and a vest knitted with white suns, each with a human face. It's the vest of a guy who (a) believes he is the universe's ambassador to Earth and (b) does not care what you think of his vest. Part of being a geek, Tyson says, is not worrying about whether you fit in, and for as long as he can remember, he's been a geek. Last month he took an online test to determine exactly how geeky he is. He scored high.

"One of the questions was, 'How often do you go to RadioShack?' And you got points if you go once a day, once a week, once a year. I go once a week. Another question is whether you can count in binary numbers. I can do that. 'Do people bring you their computers to fix?' Yes."

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