NEW YORK — Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star among star folk. He’s one of the most famous astrophysicists on the planet, posing for GQ magazine, gracing a Superman comic, hosting “Cosmos” and appearing regularly on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”
Tyson’s thoughts gravitate toward big things: the universe, star formations, the evolution of galaxies. Yet here he sits in his Hayden Planetarium director’s office, a cluttered museum of sky-and-space-decorated objects — including the Saturn lamp he crafted in seventh-grade wood shop (Saturn is his favorite planet: “Without question, debate or argument, Saturn is the most beautiful”) and at least four representations of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” — with his brilliant mind analyzing possibly the smallest, most annoying form of modern communication.
Which would be tweets.
“They’re small, but they’re forces of nature in pop culture,” says Tyson, 56, who will give a sold-out talk at DAR Constitution Hall on Thursday. He has 3.2 million Twitter followers. His tweets are routinely retweeted 3,000 times, and some, particularly those that appear to challenge religion (“appear” is crucial to understanding Tyson), can take on a life of their own.
His Christmas tweet, “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,” was favorited more than 82,000 times, with Internet commenters feverishly debating whether Tyson was anti-Christmas and anti-Christian.
The thought occurs that the number of astrophysicists who must deal with such problems may be exactly one.
“When I tweet something and see the response, it is a neurosynaptic snapshot of the public’s reaction to my thoughts,” Tyson says in his honeyed baritone. “It empowers me to give more effective talks. It means I kind of know what you’re thinking in advance because I see it in the Twitter stream. It’s awesome data.” He is all about the data.
Tyson claims that he would be delighted “if I never gave another talk again. My perfect day is I stay home with my wife and kids. I would also drink great wine and have great meals with friends and family.” His wife, Alice Young, a mathematical physicist, is a former IT manager at Bloomberg L.P. Their daughter, Miranda, is a graduate of Bronx Science and now a Harvard freshman, following her father’s academic path; Travis is a high school freshman.
So how’s Tyson doing at achieving that perfect day? “Badly.” This month, he has six scheduled talks in six cities.
“I’m a servant of the public’s appetite for science, for the universe, for science literacy,” says Tyson, who hosts the “StarTalk” radio program available on iTunes and SiriusXM (Insight, channel 121), what he calls “the intersection of comedy, pop culture and science,” which will also be televised on the National Geographic Channel beginning in April.
His sister Lynn begs to differ slightly. “Nothing happens in this family that is not based on our own free will,” she says. “If Neil wanted to stop tomorrow and do research, Neil would. I think what satisfies him is when he can make an impact.”
Columbia University astronomy professor Joseph Patterson, an early mentor, says that “a lot of astronomers are jealous of Neil because of his tremendous visibility.” He first met Tyson, then entering 10th grade, at an astronomy camp Patterson ran in the Mojave Desert. Young Neil “arrived full of confidence and swagger, just as is he is now.” Patterson recalls a pith helmet being involved.
Tyson’s popularity and his ability to describe complex concepts were evident in graduate school, Patterson says. “He’s a creative guy and sort of a lone wolf. He has gotten where he is basically because he’s followed his own voice, not anyone else’s.”
Labeled “the most powerful nerd in the universe,” Tyson remains undeniably different. In a field estimated at 2,000 astrophysicists fully employed in research or teaching in higher education in the United States, Patterson believes that perhaps 15 are African American. A television appearance while Tyson was in graduate school at Columbia changed his life. In his 2004 memoir, “The Sky is Not the Limit,” Tyson writes that it was the first time he could recall “a black person (who is neither an entertainer nor an athlete) being interviewed as an expert on something that has nothing whatever to do with being black.”
Over the course of more than two hours, Tyson refers to himself frequently as a “servant of science.” He bristles at the notion of being an advocate for, say, more government investment in the space program, even as the author of the 2012 Foreign Affairs article “The Case for Space” or as someone who speaks eloquently about the influence of NASA’s glory years on his generation.
As a servant, he merely proposes. “You’ll notice that all my statements are if/then statements. I present evidence,” he says. “I’m an educator, and an educator shouldn’t pass you an opinion.”
His YouTube video on whether he is agnostic or atheist (the former) has been viewed almost 1.8 million times, yet Tyson says he prefers not to engage in the religion-vs.-science debate. “I have no opinion about your opinions of God,” he says. “I don’t have any opinion about this at all.”
What he does possess is the common touch. Bill Nye, the other science guy, says that he and his dear friend (they celebrated Thanksgiving together) meet the public’s extraordinary appetite for science presented in a comprehensible, accessible and humorous manner. “I meet a lot of rocket scientists, Nobel laureates, people playing at very high levels academically,” Nye says. “You do not want those people teaching the general public. It’s a different skill from being head of the Harvard physics department. We both consider ourselves informal educators, working outside the classroom.”
Adds Jon Stewart of his frequent “Daily Show” guest: “It’s one thing to be a lauded astrophysicist. It’s another to possess a gift for comedic timing. You don’t normally get both, but that’s Neil.”
But mention those “gifts,” and Tyson corrects the impression. He worked hard, he says, on becoming a great communicator on television, scientifically analyzing and perfecting the sound bite. Each quip “should be tasty. It should be informative,” he says. “And ideally, it should make you smile, or laugh, and certainly want to share it with someone else. So I practiced that.”
Tyson has the curious ability to be simultaneously charming and generous with his time and humor yet prickly, especially about how he might be perceived. He doesn’t hesitate to correct a reporter a dozen times about how he senses an interview is going. And he still nurses resentment over a seemingly admiring year-old New Yorker profile that described him as “not a distinguished student” because his grades weren’t consistently high.
“No, no, no, no, no. As far as I can judge, I was anything but a mediocre child. I was active in all these activities that were intellectually stimulating,” says Tyson, who holds degrees from Harvard, the University of Texas and Columbia and completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Princeton. He has the sensitivity of someone whose parents believed that he could be anything but who ran into teachers — in elementary school and again at graduate school in Texas — who underestimated his abilities and his zeal.
“What’s interesting is I have two or three times as many Twitter followers as the New Yorker has circulation,” Tyson says. “So I haven’t done it yet, but I’m going to post the article and say, ‘This is verbally accurate and impressionistically false.’ It will be an exercise in journalism.”
Yet he will also say: “I’m very hard to upset. I learned long ago to not invest emotions in anything . . . that doesn’t need it.”
Tyson is the middle of three children born to Cyril deGrasse Tyson and Sunchita Feliciano Tyson, raised in the middle-class Riverdale section of the Bronx in a family that remains extraordinarily close. His father, a sociologist, served as a human-resources commissioner under Mayor John Lindsay. His mother went back to school after having children and became a gerontologist.
“They raised the three of us to self-actualize, to do what we love and are passionate about,” says Lynn Tyson, an executive in investor relations. (Stephen Tyson is an artist and a former art professor.) “The ability to express ideas was something that was fostered at a very early age, and a respect for differing opinions. And Neil has honed it. It’s a craft. He takes it very seriously.”
The son of the city fell in love with the night sky at age 9 at the Hayden Planetarium, the very institution he has helmed for almost two decades. In his memoir, Tyson candidly addresses teachers who failed to assess his talents, and colleagues who could not see beyond race: “I shortly came to the shattering awareness that few parts of society were prepared to accept my dreams. I wanted to do with my life what people of my skin color were not supposed to do,” he writes. When he was asked to return to his elementary school and give a graduation speech, he declined, saying that he became who he is in spite of his teachers, not because of them.
The master of the if/then statement, the astrophysicist who is all about the data, becomes passionate on the subject.
“A lot needs to happen in our education system,” he says. “We need to think more deeply about what we consider to be a model student. The fact that your high grades and obedient behavior makes the school and the teacher praise you when, in the rest of our life, no one cares about that. The questions that need to be asked: ‘Are you a leader? Are you moral? Are you a problem solver?’ ”
He adds, “I don’t say much about our education system, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and one day I will. But I don’t like to speak out until I’ve considered every single angle, and that’s what I’m working on in my head.”
In the meantime, he’s here to serve science and the public hunger for it. “The minute I fail at being that,” he says, “I’ll just stay home.”
Which doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.