Neil deGrasse Tyson: Facts About Your Personal Astrophysicist
Neil deGrasse Tyson is an extraordinary human being-- multi-talented, super-smart, and a genuinely nice person.
Your Personal Astrophyicsist
Who Is Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Tyson is an astrophysicist who doesn’t have his head in the clouds. He’s the academician without an ivory tower. He’s as down to earth as a grasshopper. He’s the poet laureate of astronomy; the philosopher king of cosmology, the spokesperson of science. Personally, he’s as huggable as a teddy bear, as friendly as a puppy dog, as charming as a day in June.
On the TV show, StarTalk, which Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts, he said that astrophysicists are literally one in a million. There are only 7,000 astrophysicists in the world and 7 billion people. He is one in a million in the popular sense of the term also--a person of unique talents.
You may have first heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson when he hosted the 13-episode documentary TV series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, an update of 1980 Cosmos series hosted by Carl Sagan.
Tyson has the ability to bring science to the masses. He makes science understandable as he infects us with his own sense of awe and wonderment about the universe and about science. Maybe that is why he styles himself as "Your Personal Astrophysicist."
What Are the Facts of Tyson’s Personal Life?
Tyson was born in New York City in 1958, the second of three children born to Sunchita Maria (née Feliciano) Tyson and Cyril deGrasse Tyson. His mother is of Puerto Rican descent and was a gerontologist for the U.S. Department of Health. His father is African-American. He was a sociologist and served as a human resources commissioner during the mayoral term of John Lindsay and was the first Director of Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited.
Have you ever wondered about Tyson's unusual middle name, deGrasse? It is the name of his paternal grandmother, Altima deGrasse Tyson, who was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean.
Tyson became interested in astronomy at the age of nine after a visit to the Hayden Planetarium. During his teen years, he took courses in astronomy at the Hayden Planetarium. By the age of fifteen, he had already gained a bit of fame within the astronomy community for lectures he gave on the subject.
He attended Bronx High School of Science, an elite public school. (Prospective students must pass an exam in math and science to be admitted.) He was editor—in-chief of the school’s Physical Science Journal. He was also an athlete--captain of the school’s wrestling team.
Tyson married his wife, Alice Young, in 1988. He named his first daughter Miranda after the smallest of Uranus’s five major moons. He currently resides in Lower Manhattan with his wife and two children not far from the 9/11 Ground Zero site. He witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in 2001.
Tyson is a fine-wine enthusiast with an extensive wine collection. Articles about his wine collection have even appeared in magazines for wine connoisseurs.
Tyson tells his own story in a charming and inspirational memoir, The Sky is Not the Limit, filled with hilarious and moving personal stories about growing up in New York City. He also deftly touches on race, explaining how being black affected his life.
What Are the Facts of Tyson’s Education and Career?
Neil deGrasse Tyson is closely affiliated with The Museum of Natural History. He is the director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. He currently works as a research associate for The Department of Astrophysics (which he founded in 1997) at the American Museum of Naural History.
His education is extensive. He received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University (1980) and a master’s degree in astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin (1983). He later earned a master’s and doctorate from Columbia University (1989 and 1991, respectively). .
In 1986-1987, he was a lecturer in astronomy at the University of Maryland. He was a post-doctoral research assistant at Princeton after getting his degrees at Columbia. In 1994, he went to the Hayden Planetarium as a staff scientist and also served as a visiting research scientist and lecturer at Princeton. In 1996, he became director of the Hayden Planetarium.
Tyson has done important research and published papers in professional journals in fields of cosmology, stellar evolution, and galactic astronomy.
He has also been involved with many projects related to space exploration. He served on the 2001 government commission on the future of the aerospace industry and on the 2004 “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” commission. In 2004, he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal.
However, the reason you and I know his name is because Tyson has been a great popularizer of science. He hosted the PBS show Nova Science Now for five years (2006 to 2011). Starting in 2009, he hosted a podcast, StarTalk, and he is currently hosts a TV show on The National Geographic Channel by the same name. In 2014, he hosted the limited run TV series Cosmos: A Space Time Odyssey. He is a frequent guest on talk shows and he has had many science articles published in mass market periodicals. He has written or co-authored several books for the general public. In 2015, he was awarded the Public Welfare Medal by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences for his "extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science."
"The Good Thing About Science..."
What Are Tyson’s Ideas About Science?
Obviously Tyson is a strong believer in science as a means to discover truth. Here is my favorite Tyson quote:
“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”
Tyson believes that truth does not come from authority, but from questioning and the application of critical thinking.
“Science depends on organized skepticism, that is, on continual, methodical doubting.
“Science needs the light of free expression to flourish. It depends on the fearless questioning of authority, and the open exchange of ideas.”
“Knowing how to think empowers you far beyond those who know only what to think.”
“In modern times, if the sole measure of what’s out there flows from your five senses then a precarious life awaits you.”
“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.”
"We Are in the Universe..."
How Does Tyson Feel About the Universe?
Tyson is in awe of the universe. He moves into the realm of poetry when he tries to describe how he feels about the universe. I would call his views “spiritual.”
“We are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”
“Every living thing is a masterpiece, written by nature and edited by evolution.”
“There’s as many atoms in a single molecule of your DNA as there are stars in the typical galaxy. We are, each of us, a little universe.”
“The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up.”
“We live on a cosmic speck of dust, orbiting a mediocre star in the far suburbs of a common sort of galaxy, among a hundred billion galaxies in the universe.”
"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 … the moment you learn something that touches an emotion rather than just something intellectual, I would call that a spiritual encounter with the universe."
"God Is ..."
What Are Tyson’s Views About God and Religion?
I think it is clear from Tyson’s statements that he is an atheist. However, he has said that if he had to put a label on himself, he would choose “agnostic.” He added, “But I really don’t care. I’m not trying to convert anybody.”
Tyson makes the mistake that many make. He thinks an atheist has to be a “militant atheist.” Not so. Atheist simply means “not a theist” or “someone who does not believe in a deity or deities.” Not all atheists are activists. As for the term “agnostic,” Carl Sagan, who was a mentor for Tyson, wrote in his novel Contact, “An agnostic is an atheist without the courage of his convictions.”
Below are some quotes from Tyson on the subject of God and religion. What label do you think is appropriate?
“God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance that is getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.”
“I want to put on the table, not why 85% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject God, I want to know why 15% of the National Academy don’t.”
“I don’t have an issue with what you do in the church, but I’m gonna be up in your face if you’re gonna knock on my science classroom and tell me they’ve got to teach what you’re teaching in your Sunday school. Because that’s when we’re gonna fight!”
"Every account of a higher power that I've seen described, of all religions that I've seen, include many statements with regard to the benevolence of that power. When I look at the universe and all the ways the universe wants to kill us, I find it hard to reconcile that with statements of beneficence.”
“The more I learn about the universe, the less convinced I am that there's any sort of benevolent force that has anything to do with it, at all.”
“If the world is something you accept rather than interpret, then you're susceptible to the influence of charismatic idiots.”
"It's Okay Not to Know All the Answers"
What Is Tyson’s Philosophy of Life?
My impression is that Tyson derives great satisfaction form learning and teaching, and those two things guide him in everything he does.
“It's okay not to know all the answers. It's better to admit our ignorance than to believe answers that might be wrong. Pretending to know everything, closes the door to finding out what's really there.”
“I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You'd be surprised how far that gets you.”
“I get enormous satisfaction from knowing I'm doing something for society.”
“Some of the greatest poetry is revealing to the reader the beauty in something that was so simple you had taken it for granted.”
Astrophysics Brought Down to Earth
Tyson has written many best-selling books about science and astrophysics. His most recent book became the number one best-seller on amazon based on pre-orders alone. This book is much more than a dry compendium of facts--Tyson includes anecdotes, cultural references, philosophical ruminations, and even poetry.
My family moved from New York City to Hawaii when I was 10 years old. For the first time in my life, I saw a night sky filled with stars. I felt a sense of awe then, and now Tyson has reignited that feeling in me with this very readable book.
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Bill Moyers Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson
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© 2015 Catherine Giordano