Star Power
As an Astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson Is A Universal Expert

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 résumé 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."

When he stands before this sixth-grade class, the geek in Tyson comes out, but so does the showman. His brain seems overstuffed not just with facts -- temperatures, elements, astronomical history, particulars about galaxies, trivia about time -- but strategies to explain those facts.

"I brought a piece of the universe with me," he says at the outset.

Ooohs all around.

The piece, it turns out, is a dark, jagged chunk of an asteroid. It is 5 billion years old and weighs 12 pounds, but because it's so small and dense it seems heavier.

"Who here is strong?" Tyson asks.

One by one, kids take turns standing in front of the class and trying to hold the chunk in one outstretched hand without the arm dipping, which proves comically difficult to do. There's talk of boiling points, freezing points and the surface of Mars -- where water boils and freezes at the same temperature, which Tyson describes as "pretty freaky."

The kids have questions.

"What would happen if you touched your hair with dry ice?" asks a girl.

"It would get brittle and you could snap it off," Tyson says. "If your ears get frozen, you could snap them off like potato chips."

Ewwww! shouts the class.

"That is so cool," counters one undaunted youngster. "Would you bleed very badly?"

Tyson never gets to answer this one, because he's interrupted.

"How old do you have to be to buy dry ice?" asks another lad.

"If you knew how to order it, I'd sell it to you," says Tyson, briefly and sincerely imagining himself as a dry-ice salesman. "I'd figure you were a kid interested in science, and I'm not going to stand in the way of that."

'There Were Noogies'

"I've got an idea for a future book project called 'How to Raise a Scientifically Literate Child,' " Tyson says, walking out of the school. "Not 'How to Raise a Scientist.' I don't care if my kids" -- Tyson and his wife, who has a PhD in mathematics, also have a son, named Travis -- "are scientists. But I want them to be literate about science."

He heads to the subway, which delivers him to the American Museum of Natural History, home to the Hayden Planetarium. His office is cluttered with certificates, photos, scientific journals, a bust of Newton with a "Jeopardy!" hat on it.

"I never got to be on the show," he says. "But I did record an Audio Daily Double for them recently."

Tyson is one of those rare scientists who seeks out TV appearances, and one of the few good enough on camera to get invited to places like "The Daily Show." Time magazine this year picked him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world -- a distinction, he points out, that makes more sense when you realize that the magazine anointed people by category. ("They're counting me as one of the most influential scientists," he says.) People magazine once named him "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive," and though he wonders aloud about the depth of the competition, he is surely one of the few in his field who briefly considered exotic dancing as a part-time job.

At the time, he was a PhD candidate at the University of Texas, and several friends in a student dance troupe he had joined tipped him off about their part-time work at a Chippendales-style club.

"It seemed like a good idea, until I went to watch and they set their jockstraps on fire to the tune of 'Great Balls of Fire,' " he says. He knew that the lighter fluid burned out in an instant and that the jockstraps were lined with asbestos. But still. "I thought to myself: math tutor. I should be a math tutor."

Tyson started writing books after he transferred his PhD work to Columbia. The first, "Merlin's Tour of the Universe" in 1989, was illustrated by his older brother, an artist who lives in Upstate New York. Then came "Universe Down to Earth," "One Universe: At Home in the Cosmos" and "City of Stars: A New Yorker's Guide to the Cosmos," which included helpful hints about which days the sun sets directly over Manhattan's east-west streets.

When the Hayden Planetarium decided it needed to boost attendance, it went to the astrophysics departments at Columbia and Princeton and asked for ideas. Hire an astrophysicist to run the place, both universities suggested -- specifically, Tyson, by then a lecturer at Princeton.

"It took Neil about five minutes to win over his students," recalls Richard Gott, a former colleague. "I taught Astronomy 203 with him and [fellow heavy hitter] Michael Strauss. We were the Three Tenors -- and Neil was Pavarotti."

Tyson accepted the director's job after the planetarium agreed to add an academic research arm to the place, which he figured would keep it intellectually vibrant. Hayden also offers, as it long has, mini-courses to the public, and signing the certificates for completing those courses is a task Tyson enjoys. He had a collection of those certificates as a kid. To Tyson's parents, it was just part of the larger curriculum offered by the five boroughs.

"We used New York City as a learning lab," says Sunchita Tyson, his mother, who worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services before she retired. "My older son would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My daughter would spend time riding horses" -- a surprising number of parks keep stables -- "and Neil was always interested in science."

She and her husband, a sociologist by training who has worked in New York City government and taught at Harvard, scoured bookstores for remaindered volumes for Neil. His younger sister was enlisted to help haul telescope parts to the roof.

"I was his Sherpa," says Lynn Tyson, an executive with Dell Computers. She was also, it seems, his first student. "Everything was an experiment when you were around him. He'd be making dinner and he'd ask you a question like, 'Why is the sky that color? Why is algebra the way it is?' "

Did he ever just, you know, give you a noogie? Like a normal big brother?

"Oh, there were noogies. And spiders in my bed. I think I'm still afraid of insects because of that."

At 14, Tyson won a week-long trip to Senegal on a boat filled with scientists, all seeking the perfect view of a solar eclipse. As soon as he returned, he left for the Mojave Desert, home to what was billed as the only astronomy summer camp in the country, to which he'd won a scholarship. He showed up sporting an outfit you'd expect on a colonial British explorer, circa 1850.

"It was very 'Dr. Livingston, I presume,' " recalls Joe Patterson, now a professor of astronomy at Columbia, then a counselor at Camp Uraniborg. "What I remember is that he seemed to be curious about everything. My brother was at this camp, fixing cars, and Neil hadn't spent a lot of time studying cars, so he just asked one question after another about them."

Tyson attended Bronx High School of Science, one of New York's magnet schools, where he was the captain of the wrestling team. This was the mid-'70s, and virtually all of his friends were at least dabbling in drugs. Tyson was never tempted. His head was filled with enough mind-blowing facts -- Saturn can float! Some sunspots are larger than Earth! -- that mind-blowing drugs seemed redundant.

"It was never a choice," he says. "I never stood in judgment of anyone else, but I just never saw the value in altering my perception of the world."

He takes a break from the interview to spend 25 minutes on the phone, offering career advice to a student at Ohio University whom he's never met and who recently got in touch via e-mail. ("Arizona is kind of a party school," he says at one point, surveying the student's options for a PhD. "But the sky is really clear there.") When it's noted that 25 minutes is a rather generous helping of time, Tyson goes back to his own senior year in high school. He was visiting Cornell as a prospective student, and Carl Sagan gave him a lengthy tour of his lab. When it was time for the young Tyson to head back to the Bronx, it had started to snow.

"He gave me his phone number and he said, 'If the bus doesn't get through, call me and you can stay with us,' " Tyson remembers. "I'll always remember that hospitality. That's the benchmark when I deal with students."

Despite that hospitality, Tyson chose Harvard instead of Cornell because he had carefully determined that it was home to a brighter cluster of astrophysicists. "I had a stack of Scientific American magazines and I looked at the author's notes of every physicist and astrophysicist, to see where they were undergraduates, graduate students, where they taught. When I got done with that list, Harvard was at the top. But I assure you, if it had been Toogalooga State, that's where I would have gone."

The Flaw in 'Titanic'

On a shelf in Tyson's office there's a framed copy of a New Yorker cartoon showing four scientists working in a lab. Three are white, one is black. The thought bubbles of the whites show questions like, "I wonder what he thinks of Farrakhan?" and "I wonder what he thinks about O.J.?" The thought bubble of the black scientist contains a complicated mathematical formula.

"There's much less of this in the last 10 years, but I used to be the token commenter on all that is black in the world," Tyson says. " 'What do you think of the Rodney King riots?' Well, actually I was thinking about the universe."

In 1988, Tyson was interviewed by a Fox news team after reports about menacing-sounding blobs headed from the sun toward Earth. Tyson watched his performance that night and was struck by a singular thought. "I may have been the very first black person -- certainly the first black person I ever noticed -- to appear on TV as an expert on something that had nothing to do with being black. This was 1988. That's tragic. I shouldn't be the first anything. I should be the hundredth. Or the thousandth.

"But there's been an evolutionary change, I'm happy to report. There are visible blacks in professions that have nothing to do with being black now. And the more there are, the less able you are to construct a stereotype."

Dismantling stereotypes is a side benefit of Tyson's principal calling, which he describes as feeding the national appetite for information about the universe. That and, when the occasion arises, encouraging a little more scientific rigor from Hollywood producers. Tyson remembers watching "Titanic" and noticing that the stars over Kate Winslet's head as she floated in the ocean were a fictional hodgepodge of constellations -- and that the right half of the sky simply mirrored the left half.

"That's just lazy," Tyson grumbles. "We know the longitude, the latitude, the time that the Titanic sank. A $50 software program would show you exactly what the night would have looked like."

When Tyson later met director James Cameron at a NASA conference, he picked this nit. Tyson still remembers Cameron's reply: "Last time I checked, 'Titanic' sold $1.3 billion worth of tickets, worldwide. Imagine how many more tickets we would have sold if we'd gotten the sky right."

Touché, Tyson thought. But when the 10th-anniversary edition of the movie was being readied for release on DVD, a post-production staffer with Cameron's company called Tyson for some advice.

Rent "Titanic" now and take note of the sky. Nice show, to paraphrase a 9-year-old, and it is the real universe.

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