The Life and Times of the Famous Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson has led an extraordinary and inspiring life. Let's take a look.
Christopher McFadden
Neil deGrasse Tyson at Howard University, 2010.Brucefpressphotography/Wikimedia Commons

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a scientist, teacher, public speaker, showman, tie lover, and wine enthusiast. But how did he become so well-known around the world?

Neil's life has been filled with a fascination for the cosmos, a drive to learn more, and a 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.

Some people may not know that he is actually a respected and published scientist, not just a celebrity. Others may be aware that he has worked tirelessly to make astrophysics and science in general, more available to the general public.

For that, we applaud you, Mr. Tyson.

Who is Neil deGrasse Tyson?

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a highly accomplished astrophysicist, planetary scientist, author, and something of a celebrity science educator to millions of people around the world. He is also the director of the Hayden Planetarium, and has hosted various well-known space-based science shows like "Cosmos" and "StarTalk". 

Outside of his public persona, deGrasse Tyson has dedicated his career to exploring, and hopefully explained, some of the deep mysteries of the universe. 

Neil currently also works as a research associate at the Department of Physics at the American Museum of Natural History. At the time of writing, deGrasse Tyson is 62 years old and lives with his wife in Tribeca, Lower Manhattan, New York.

A quick tour of Neil deGrasse Tyson's life

Tyson has published various books, as well as numerous professional publications, and has also found time to appear in many popular television shows and films, often as himself. We invite you to join us as we uncover some of the recent "controversies" Neil has found himself embroiled in.

The Life and Times of the Famous Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
The man himself. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Did someone mention Pluto or Flat Earth? Tyson 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!

Where was Neil deGrasse Tyson born? 

Tyson was born on the 5th of 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. Department 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. His parents eventually moved to Riverdale. Tyson spent his early education, up to high school, attending public schools in the Bronx area. 

At the tender age of 9, Neil's passion for Astrophysics was ignited by a visit to the Hayden Planetarium.

Tyson 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 2017
Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Wikimedia Commons

During his time at the Bronx High School of Science, between 1972 and 1976, Tyson was the school's wrestling captain as well as the editor-in-chief of the Physical Science Journal.

Where did Neil deGrasse Tyson go to college?

His interest in astronomy is intriguing, given his upbringing in a city. Tyson recalls that living in a city means he didn't often see the beauty of the night sky.

In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Tyson remarked that whenever he sees the night sky without light pollution, it reminds him of the Hayden Planetarium.  

After his early exposure to the wonders of the Universe, Tyson found himself regularly attending lectures and classes at the Planetarium, and he got his first telescope. As a teenager, he would watch the skies from the roof of his apartment building.

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.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson face
Source: Brucefpressphotography/Wikimedia Commons

Quite a compliment!

According to Tyson, Mr. Chartrands III's energy-infused teaching style left its mark on him. Tyson certainly seems to have followed in Mr. Chartrands III's footsteps with the charming and entertaining teaching methods for which he is so popular.

His interest blossoms

Tyson obsessed over his newfound interest during his teenage years. He did this to such an extent that he even began giving lectures on the subject at the age of 15!

The late, great Carl Sagan, who was a faculty member at Cornell University, even tried to convince Tyson to do his undergraduate studies there.

In Tyson's own memoirs, 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 17-year-old Tyson to spend a day in Ithaca. Sagan even offered to put him up for the night.

"I already knew I wanted to become a scientist. But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become," Tyson added.

degrasse tyson on stage
Source: Scott a hurst/Wikimedia Commons

Every day is a school day

After his time at High School, Tyson studied Physics at Harvard, where he earned his Bachelor's Degree in 1980. Tyson then went on to earn a Master's Degree in Astronomy from the University of Austin, Texas in 1983, and a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991.

During his time at university, Tyson joined the various dance, rowing, and wrestling teams. He 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.

His lecturers at the time actually tried to encourage him to choose a different career path! The doctoral dissertation committee at the University of Austin was dissolved, temporarily putting a stop to his further post-graduate pursuits there.

Not content to stop at an MA, Tyson went on to study for his doctorate at Columbia University, completing his Ph.D. in 1991. Following his doctorate, he spent the next few years working in postdoctoral research as an assistant at Princeton University. 

degrasse tyson haydan planetarium
The Hayden Planetarium. Source: Mike Peel/Wikimedia Commons

In 1994 he joined the Hayden Planetarium as a staff scientist and worked as a 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 takes off

Tyson'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 Ph.D. in 1991.

Tyson secured funding from NASA and ARCS foundation for his doctoral thesis, thanks to the help of Professor R. Michael Rich. This funding enabled him to attend international meetings in Europe, South America, and South Africa. He also hired students to help with data reduction.

His doctoral work helped in the understanding of Type 1a Supernova and led to the improved measurement accuracy of the Hubble constant and dark matter.

Tyson was also the 19th author of a paper by Brian Schmidt. Schmidt later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011 for his work on Type 11 Supernova and the Hubble constant.

In 1995, Tyson was promoted to the role of acting Director of the Planetarium. While under his tenure, the facility underwent a $210 million dollar reconstruction project. The works were completed in 2000.

deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins. Source: BDEngler/Wikimedia Commons

Tyson 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. The commission's findings noted their recommendations would promote a healthy and vigorous future for transportation, space exploration, and national security.

His research interests are pretty broad and include star formation, solar explosions, dwarf galaxies, and the Milky Way.

deGrasse Tyson's career kicks into gear

Tyson was inspired by his experiences at the Hayden Planetarium to continue his work as an educator, saying, "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. Tyson also narrated the documentary "400 Years of the Telescope" for PBS in 2009. He has also appeared as a regular on the History Channel's very popular series "The Universe". He was the host of the NOVA ScienceNow documentary series from 2006 to 2011.

In 2009, Tyson launched a weekly podcast, Star Talk, that originally ran for thirteen weeks. After a brief hiatus, StarTalk evolved into a fully-fledged radio talk show in 2010, and in 2015 a late-night TV talk show spinoff began airing on the National Geographic Channel.

The StarTalk radio show 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 an 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, Tyson has appeared in various popular culture series and films.

Do you remember "Stargate: Atlantis"? Did you know Tyson appeared in the 2008 episode "Brain Storm"?

Tyson has also made other cameos on the "Big Bang Theory", "Martha Speaks", "Family Guy" and even "Batman versus Superman"! Neil even had a part in "Zoolander 2", an interesting choice.

Tyson'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.

Apart from the dozens of professional research publications, Tyson has also managed to fit in writing works on science for popular publications. Between 1995 and 2005 he was a monthly essayist for the Natural History magazine, and had a series titled "Universe".

He has, to date, 13 published books, including his personal memoirs. His best-known work is probably "Origins: The Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution" which was co-authored with Donald Goldsmith. This was a companion book to the PBS mini-series "Origins".

His more recent works include the New York Times 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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's personal life

Tyson 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.

The couple 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 also a great wine enthusiast, with a large collection that was actually featured in a 2000 issue of the "Wine Spectator". 

deGrasse Tyson and the Pluto controversy

Tyson has also occasionally gone against the grain somewhat. He was instrumental in the eventual downgrading of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet. In 2000, Tyson was part of a team designing an exhibit on the solar system at the American Museum of Natural History.  At that time, researchers were discovering many new, small objects in the outer solar system that were similar to Pluto. Tyson and other researchers felt that Pluto properly belonged not as a planet, but as one of a new class of objects that populates the outer zone in the solar system.

So, they made the decision that the exhibit would describe Pluto not as a planet, but as one of these dwarf planets. That museum exhibit led to what Tyson called a “firestorm” of response and debate.

However, six years later, in 2006, astronomers at a meeting of The International Astronomical Union (IAU), voted to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status. Although the controversy continues, Tyson has pointed out that there’s a much bigger picture out there in learning more about the huge variety of different types of objects in space. 

deGrasse Tyson Pluto
Pluto. Source: sparxastronomy/Flickr

What honors does Neil deGrasse Tyson hold? 

Apart from his success on screen and in academia, Tyson has been the recipient of twenty honorary doctorates, as well as NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal. This medal is the highest award NASA can give to non-governmental personnel. 

His contributions to public discourse on astronomy were also recognized by the International Astronomical Union when they officially named asteroid 13123 "Tyson".

deGrasse Tyson NASA
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson visited Goddard's Space Flight Center with Director Chris Scolese and the James Webb Space Telescope team at Goddard in Greenbelt, Md. on June 3, 2014. Source: NASA/Flickr

Tyson 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.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and "The Flat-Earth Conspiracy"

Most recently, Tyson has been in the spotlight for attempting to rebuke Flat Earth ideology.

degrasse tyson flat earth
Source: 1, 2

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. 

Tyson recruited his young rapper nephew, Stephen Tyson, to produce a rebuttal "diss" track of their own. This track was titled "Flat to Fact" and is a pretty high-brow and classy response.

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"

Tyson 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.

And that, as they say, is all folks. 

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 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 as more of a showman than a published research scientist?

We'll let Neil deGrasse Tyson himself have the last word, you're welcome!

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