Neil deGrasse Tyson tie lover, wine enthusiast, scientist, teacher, public speaker, showman and all round nice guy. But how did he become so well known around the world?
Neil’s life has been one filled with a fascination for the cosmos, drive to learn more and passion for passing on what he has learned. His labors have brought the sometimes perplexing “secrets” of the Universe to the general public in an informative and fun way and he has no doubt inspired scores of future generations to pursue careers in science. Most people may not know that he is actually a respected and published scientist, not just a celebrity. Others may well know he has worked tirelessly to make Astrophysics, and science in general, more available to the general public. For that, we applaud you, Mr. Tyson.
Neil has managed to publish various books as well as professional publications and even found time to appear in popular culture and films. In the following article, we’ll take a quick tour of Neil’s life. We invite you to join us as we uncover some of the recent “controversies” Neil has found himself embroiled in. Did someone mention Pluto or Flat Earth? Neil has appeared on the big screen and made many notable appearances on popular culture shows. A quick search on YouTube will reveal a plethora of his interviews and shows. Well worth a few minutes of your day to expand your horizons. He currently holds various prestigious positions and has various honors attributed to him. He even has an asteroid named after him! Imagine that!
More on those later. First, let’s take a quick look at his upbringing and life. Enjoy.
The man himself [Image Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls]
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s early life
Neil was born on the 5th October 1958 and he was raised in New York City. He was the second of three children to his mother Sunchita Maria Tyson, of Puerto Rican descent, and his father Cyril deGrasse Tyson, an African American. Neil’s siblings are his brother Stephen Joseph Tyson and sister Lynn Antipas Tyson. His mother worked as a gerontologist for the U.S. aartment of Health, Education and Welfare and his late father was a sociologist and human resource commissioner for New York City’s mayor John Lindsay. He was also the first Director of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited.
Neil deGrasse Tyson spent his early childhood living in Castle Hill in the Bronx of New York. His parents eventually moved to Riverdale. Neil spent his early education up to high school attending public schools in the Bronx area. During his time at the Bronx High School of Science, between 1972 and 1976, Neil was the school’s wrestling captain as well as the editor in chief of the Physical Science Journal. At the tender age of 9, Neil’s passion for Astrophysics was ignited by a visit to the Hayden Planetarium.
Neil still has fond memories of this experience, “so strong was that imprint [of the night sky] that I’m certain that I had no choice in the matter, that in fact, the universe called me.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson
The spark of interest
His interest in astronomy is intriguing given his upbringing in a city. He recalls that living in a city means you often don’t see the beauty of the night sky. In his interview with Stephen Colbert, Neil speaks about his embarrassment of still thinking that whenever he sees the night sky without light pollution that “that reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium”. It’s an interesting fact that most city dwellers, probably never really appreciate the night’s sky. Hardly their fault but many people who don’t live in cities probably take its beauty for granted.
After his first exposure to the wonders of the Universe, Neil found himself regularly attending lectures at the Planetarium. While he was a student in high school, he made time to feed his appetite for knowledge in astronomy. He called this “his most formative period”. Dr. Mark Chartrand III, who was the Director of the Planetarium at the time, is credited by Tyson as being his first intellectual role model. Quite a compliment!
According to Neil, Mr. Chartrands III’s mixed style and energy infused teaching style left their mark on him. No pun intended, ok it was. Tyson certainly seems to have followed in Mr. Chartrands III’s footsteps with his charming and entertaining teaching methods for which he is so popular.
His interest blossoms
Neil deGrasse Tyson obsessed over his new found interest during his teenage years. He did this to such an extent that he even began giving lectures on the subject at the tender age of 15! Wow! The late and great Carl Sagan even tried to headhunt Neil for undergraduate studies. Carl was a faculty member at Cornell University. In Tyson’s own memoires he recalls:-
“My letter of application had been dripping with an interest in the universe. The admission office, unbeknownst to me, had forwarded my application to Carl Sagan’s attention. Within weeks, I received a personal letter..” In his first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey”, Tyson revisits the event. He pulls out an old 1975 calendar and finds the day Sagan invited the young 17-year-old Tyson to spend a day in Ithaca. Sagan even offered to put him up for the night is his bus to the Bronx didn’t arrive. “I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become.” says Neil deGrasse Tyson.
What’s in a name
Did you know Neil’s middle name, which does stand out, to say the least, deGrasse, was the maiden name of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s paternal grandmother, Altima deGrasse, She was born on the island of Nevis, British West Indies.
Every day is a school day
After his time at High School, Tyson went on to study Physics at Harvard. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in 1980. Neil went on to earn a Masters Degree in Astronomy from the University of Austin, Texas in 1983. He later completed an MPhil in Astrophysics at Columbia University in 1989. During his time at Universty Neil joined various dance, rowing and wrestling teams, as you do. Neil admits that his busy extracurricular activities often prevented him from spending time in the research lab. This doesn’t seem to have damaged his career, however. But it did come close. His lecturers at the time actually tried to encourage him to choose a different career path! The doctoral dissertation committee at the University of Texas was dissolved, temporarily putting a stop to his further post-graduate pursuits.
Not content with his time already in Academia Neil deGrasse Tyson went on to study his doctorate at Columbia University completing it in 1991. Following his doctorate, Neil spent the next few years working in postdoctoral research as an assistant at Princeton University. In 1994 he joined the Hayden Planetarium as a staff scientist and worked as research scientist and lecturer at Princeton.
Despite his time in education, or perhaps because of it, Neil is a strong advocate for educational reform.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s career
Neil’s career began between his BA and MPhil during 1987 where he lectured astronomy at the University of Maryland. In 1988 he was accepted for the astronomy graduate program at Columbia University and completed his MPhil in 1989 and PhD in 1991.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s doctorate thesis secured funding from NASA and ARCS foundation thanks to the help of Professor R. Michael Rich. This funding enabled him to go to international meetings in Europe, South America and South Africa. He also hired students to help with data reduction. His work helped in the understanding of type Ia supernovea and led to improved measurement accuracy of the Hubble constant and dark energy. Neil was even the 19th author on a paper by Brien Schmidt. Ben later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for his work on Type 11 supernovae and the Hubble constant.
Neil was quickly promoted to the acting Director of the Planetarium in 1995 and under his tenure, the facility underwent a $210 million dollar reconstruction project. The works were completed in 2000.
Neil was appointed by President Bush to be part of the 12-member commission to study the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. The report they filed in 2002 contained various recommendations. Its findings noted it would promote a healthy and vigorous future for transportation, space exploration and national security.
Neils professional interests are pretty broad and include star formation, solar explosions, dwarf galaxies and the Milky Way.
His career kicks into gear
In 1994 Neils joined the Hayden Planetarium as a staff scientist and later became the acting Director in 1995. Neil reflects on this appointment as follows:-
“when I was a kid… there were scientists and educators on the staff at the Hayden Planetarium… who invested their time and energy in my enlightenment… and I’ve never forgotten that. And to end up back there as its director, I feel this deep sense of duty, that I serve in the same capacity for people who come through the facility today, that others served for me…”
His TV career really started when he hosted a four-part series for PBS Nova called “Origins” in 2004. Neil also narrated the documentary “400 years of the Telescope” for PBS in 2009. He has also appeared as a regular on the History Channels very popular series “The Universe”.
In 2015 Tyson launched his ambitious one-hour radio talk show, Star Talk. The show was originally a weekly podcast that ran for thirteen weeks. After a brief hiatus StarTalk was later resurrected in 2010 and eventually evolved into a fully fledged radio talk show. StarTalk tends to broadly follow a podcast format with pre-recorded conversations between Tyson and a random guest. Recordings are often interspersed with live segments in front of a live audience.
Following various keynote speaker appearances and appearances at film festivals, it was announced that Tyson was to resurrect Carl Sagan’s iconic series The Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. In 2014 the groundbreaking series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey hit the airwaves.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s time in the spotlight
Apart from TV documentaries and educational series he has appeared in various popular culture series and films. Do you remember Stargate: Atlantis? Did you know he appeared in the 2008 episode “Brain Storm”? He’s made other cameos on the Big Bang Theory, Martha Speaks, Family Guy and even in Batman versus Superman! Neil even had a part in Zoolander 2, interesting choice.
Neil’s career hasn’t all been on the big screen. He is a well-published research scientist with papers on subjects ranging from The Hubble Space Telescope to Dwarf Galaxies. Most of these works were between 1985 and 2008. Good effort.
Apart from the dozens of professional publications he’s participated in, Neil has managed to fit in some literary works too. Between 1995 and 2005 he has been a monthly essayist for the Natural History magazine under the title of “Universe”. He has, to date, released 13 books including his personal memoirs. His best-known work is probably “Origins: The Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution” which was coauthored with Donald Goldsmith. This was a companion book to the PBS mini-series “Origins”.
His more recent works include the New York bestseller “Death by Black Hole and other Cosmic Quandaries” and “The Pluto Files: The rise and Fall of America’s favorite Planet” which chronicles his experience in the eye of the storm that was the controversy over Pluto’s planetary status.
His personal life
Neil currently resides in Lower Manhattan with his wife Alice Young. Alice was the former IT manager for Bloomberg Financial Markets. The couple has two children Miranda and Travis. They actually met in a physics class at the University of Texas at Austin. Romance blossomed with the couple marrying in 1988. Their first child Miranda is actually named after the smallest of Uranus’s moons. Tyson is a great wine enthusiast with a large collection that was actually featured in a 2000 issue of the Wine Spectator. I knew I liked the man.
The Pluto Controversy
In the position of Director at the Hayden Planetarium, Neil has certainly gone against the grain somewhat. He has refused to allow Pluto to be referred to as the ninth planet at their exhibits of planets. His justification is that he desires to group celestial bodies by commonality rather than convention. For instance, grouping the terrestrial planets together, the gas giants as a collection and Pluto with other like objects. Counting the planets is simply not scientific.
As you can appreciate this left him wide open to hate mail and disdain, especially from children. He explains his decision in the Colbert Report and various other shows such as “Horizon” produced by the BBC. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) confirmed and agreed with Tyson’s reasoning in 2006 relegating Pluto to dwarf planet status.
Apart from his success on screen and in academia, Tyson has been the recipient of twenty honorary doctorates as well as the NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal. This medal is the highest award NASA can give to a non-government citizen. Congratulations Neil! His contributions to public discourse on astronomy were also recognized by the International Astronomical Union when they officially named asteroid 13123 “Tyson”. Now that is cool! Neil was also voted the “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People Magazine in 2000. Surely this is his highest accolade and most treasured achievement!
Tyson is currently the fifth head of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium in New York. He is also the first occupant of the institution’s Frederick P. Rose Directorship. To top it all off he also manages to spread his time as a research associate at the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. Quite a busy man it seems.
Is Neil deGrasse Tyson an atheist?
Neil has previously written, not to mention broadcast, his views on science and spirituality. In an interview with Paul Mecurio Tyson expressed his opinions quite clearly:-
“For me, when I say spiritual, I’m referring to a feeling you would have that connects you to the universe in a way that it may defy simple vocabulary. We think about the universe as an intellectual playground, which it surely is, but the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual, I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe.”
Neil has often needed to correct his supporters who claim him to be an atheist. He has even needed to amend his Wikipedia entry only to have it changed. Neil categorically prefers to be referred to as an agnostic but simultaneously dislikes labels of this kind.
“So what people are really after is what is my stance on religion or spirituality or God, and I would say if I find a word that came closest, it would be agnostic … at the end of the day I’d rather not be any category at all.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson and NASA
Neil is, unsurprisingly, a strong advocate for increasing the budget and operations for NASA. He argues that “it is the most powerful agency in the dreams of the nation”. So impassioned on the subject is Tyson that he often argues that NASA is underfunded contrary to public belief.
Neil even testified in front of the US Senate Science Committee about NASA’s underfunding.
“Right now, NASA’s annual budget is half a penny on your tax dollar. For twice that—a penny on a dollar — we can transform the country from a sullen, dispirited nation, weary of economic struggle, to one where it has reclaimed its 20th-century birthright to dream of tomorrow.”
The Flat-Earth Conspiracy
Most recently Neil has been in the spotlight for attempting to rebuke the currently popular Flat Earth ideology. You may remember in 2016 recording artist B.o.B’s public declaration of his belief in the theory. Neil wasted no time responding on twitter in an attempt to enlighten him. Twitter, being twitter, their polar differences of opinion escalated pretty quickly. The rapper refused to retract his comments and even accused NASA of avoiding questions on the matter.
B.o.B even went as far as releasing a “diss track” targeting Tyson. If you’re interested here it is in all its “glory”.
Tyson recruited his young rapper nephew, Stephen Tyson, to produce a rebuttal “diss track of their own. This track was titled “Flat to Fact” is a pretty high-brow and classy response. Fair play! Tyson upped the pressure and addressed the issue on TV on the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. He said “It’s a fundamental fact of calculus and non-Euclidean geometry: Small sections of large curved surfaces will always look flat to little creatures that crawl upon it… and by the way, this is called gravity”
He said, “It’s a fundamental fact of calculus and non-Euclidean geometry: Small sections of large curved surfaces will always look flat to little creatures that crawl upon it… and by the way, this is called gravity.”
He followed his comments by dropping the microphone, nice touch. You’ll not be surprised to hear that he has been asked about this exchange many times since.
The final word
So there you go. You certainly can’t accuse Neil deGrasse Tyson of “resting on his laurels”. From humble beginnings, his interest was sparked by a single visit to a planetarium. Fuelled by this passion he worked hard through school, less so at University, but got there in the end. His passion and hunger for the subject have opened many doors for him and to his credit. If Carl Sagan saw something in him then who are we to criticize?
Men like Neil deGrasse Tyson are incredibly important for the profile of sciences which can all often be seen as an untouchable and perhaps “dry” subject to the public. His presenting style and lack of fear for controversy have allowed for the public to share his passion and find science fascinating, as they should. Far from being resigned to white coats and labs, scientific exploration is critical for a healthy society and the future of our species. Neil deGrasse Tyson is certainly an inspiration for all of us.
So do you like Neil deGrasse Tyson? Fond of his work? Do you think of him more of a showman than a published research scientist? Feel free to comment below, especially if you’ve met him in person and remember what tie was he wearing.
We’ll let Neil deGrasse Tyson himself have the last word, you’re welcome!