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Neil deGrasse Tyson: Facts About Your Personal Astrophysicist

Updated on June 9, 2017
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Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often writes and speaks on topics related to science, philosophy, and religion.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an extraordinary human being-- multi-talented, super-smart, and a genuinely nice person.

Your Personal Astrophyicsist

Neil deGrasse Tyson styles himself as "Your Personal Astrophysicist."
Neil deGrasse Tyson styles himself as "Your Personal Astrophysicist." | Source

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..."

Facts remain facts even if some refuse to believe they are true despite the evidence.
Facts remain facts even if some refuse to believe they are true despite the evidence. | Source

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..."

We are all made of star-dust and thus are part of the universe.
We are all made of star-dust and thus are part of the universe. | Source

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 ..."

The "God of the Gaps" explains less and less as science fills in the gaps in knowledge.
The "God of the Gaps" explains less and less as science fills in the gaps in knowledge. | Source

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"

The answers we do have  are not invalidated because there are some answers we still do not have.
The answers we do have are not invalidated because there are some answers we still do not have. | Source

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

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

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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StarTalk

Use the following links to learn more about StarTalk.

StarTalk TV Series

StarTalk Podcasts



Bill Moyers Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson

© 2015 Catherine Giordano

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 5 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Good joke. Thanks for posting it. However, I might change it a little: God does not believe there is a supreme astrophysicist.

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      Deborah M. Adams 5 months ago

      So.... Reverand Tyson does not believe there is a supreme astrophysicist... yet

    • profile image

      HopDavid 5 months ago

      "It appears that some people like to tear down any person who achieves success."

      There are other successful people I tear down. For example I've called out some of Trump's falsehoods. Am I tearing down Tyson and Trump because I'm envious of their success? No.

      I tear down people who base their arguments on invented facts and history.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 5 months ago from Orlando Florida

      It appears that some people like to tear down any person who achieves success. Please reread the section about Tyson's education and career. It is fine to criticize--that is how science works. Scientists put ideas forward and other scientists test them. Sometimes an idea is proven false. However, I do think it is fair to make personal attacks.

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      HopDavid 5 months ago

      The man is a very sloppy scholar. His fans like to call themselves skeptics and pride themselves for critical thinking. But like most people, they're happy to swallow B.S. if it reaffirms their prejudices. They swallowed Tyson's and Star names fiction for eight years. And many still embrace it even after Sean Davis soundly debunked Tyson's fantasy in 2014.

      Tyson is a sloppy scholar. Google "Fact checking Neil deGrasse Tyson"

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 22 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Tyson can indeed explain complicated things so the average person can understand them. And he is not afraid to say, "I don't know." Like this phrase I have coined, "Science can't explain everything; religion can't explain anything." Every day science can explain more and more.

      I too always appreciate it when someone corrects a typo of error of fact. I checked you comment out, you are correct, and I made the change. Carl Sagan was an astronomer, not an astrophysicist. Thanks.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 22 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      I watched a Cosmos last night. If folks will only listen, Dr. Tyson can explain complicated things in a manner any should understand, and that is a rare gift.

      I love the guy. He comes here to north Texas often, and I hope to see him speak live sometime.

      So far as possible corrections go, I always appreciate it when someone points out mistakes of mine, but I always check to make sure they know what they're talking about first :)

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 22 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Wessman Todd Shaw. I appreciate that you wrote to let me know that you liked my piece about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Thanks for the heads up about Sagan. I'll check it out and I'l make the correction is I got it wrong.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 22 months ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Hi Catherine! Wish I'd used some of those great lines in my article! Nice write. I think I should point out that Sagan was an Astronomer, not actually an astrophysicist.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Catherine

      There was one point I pixked up on and I think Neil is right to reject what he sees as religion and that's the idea of an 'only benevolent deity'

      It might sound strange for a Christian to say that but if you read the Holy Books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam it describes a situation of God having an adversary who is only out to Murder and destroy not just man but all of creation! I think Neil (and 90% of the human race) have fallen for the lie that he doesn't exist (another 5% think he's all powerful) but the truth is he does (as Neil says "just because you don't believe it doesn't mean it isn't true) and although he's a beaten foe he's still trying to do as much damage as possible.

      By the way one reason God doesn't stop it is simply to do so would deny us freedom of choice!

      I really did enjoy the hub as it made me think.

      Blessings

      Lawrence

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Science is constantly updating, so you will probably learn new things if you watch this reboot of Cosmos. I'm sure the science in both the current and former cosmos is impeccable.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 2 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      I remember the original series. But haven't seen this one. Sagan even had me thinking it might be right for a while. I like most of what he says

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Annart: There is a facebook page that looks like a fan page. Its call Dr, Neil Degrasse Tyson https://www.facebook.com/groups/256747248352/?ref=...

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      I should think if not a Fan Club, he surely has a huge following. IMO, listening to him once is enough to hook you! Fascinating, brilliant and a "real" person. Nothing to dislike about him!

      Maybe one of us should do a search about whether he has a fan club or not!...LOL...Although in a sense he is a celebrity due to TV and public appearances, I'll bet he does not see himself as a celebrity. His brain is beyond that kind of thinking!....Thanks Catherine

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thanks fpherj48. We should start a fan club.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Catherine....more humble??? Really. Outrageous. He is a totally laid back, down to earth nice man. A TRUE Gentleman & a Scholar. Add his good looks and Charisma? Yeah, I agree with you, I see the Green Monster lurking!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      FlourishAnyway: Interesting comparison --Eisstein and Neil deGrasse Tyson. If Einstein were alive today, would he be hosting talk shows too? As for religion, I think Einstein was an atheist too. In his era, it was harder to come out and say that. When he spoke of God, as in "God does not play dice with the universe," he was speaking metaphorically. Hmmm. Perhaps I should write something like this about Einstein.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I've seen him but never taken the time to find out much about much about him. Thank you for this bio on this fascinating man. What an inspiring story and courage of convictions, too. I find it interesting to compare the religions views of Einstein and other great scientists.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you fpherj48 for your enthusiasm, your votes, and your shares. I think part of Neil deGrasse Tyson's charm is that he is so low key. I posted this on facebook and I got a couple of comments saying he needs to be more "humble." I know jealousy when I see it.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Catherine.....Hope you don't mind scooting over to leave some room for me. I happen to be a Huge Neil fan. I can watch videos, listen to Neil or read his work for hours on end and still search for more.

      He is all that your fabulous hub claims, no doubt about it. His genius, talents, personality and overall attitude, obviously combine to create an incredibly dynamic & brilliant individual. IMHO, it is a shame that Neil would never consider leading our country. However, compared to his life, career and vast opportunities, being the President would be terribly boring & rather senseless.

      I enjoyed this thoroughly and appreciate that you have shared your collection of knowledge on Neil with your readers. Most of it I have known, but there's always more and more to learn about such a fascinating and accomplished individual. Besides....He's as cute as can be! What a handsome, shining vision of a "man who appears to have it ALL!" LUCKY the woman in his life!! .....Up+++ shared, pinned & tweeted. Have a great week-end, Catherine... Paula

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Austinstar: You said it all. Neil gives nerds a good name. One quote of Neils that I left out but really like is this one: "You know that passage in the Bible that says, “And the meek shall inherit the Earth”? Always wondered if that was mistranslated. Perhaps it actually says, “And the geek shall inherit the Earth.”

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 2 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Everything that Kylyssa and you said and then some. Neil is a huggable teddy bear that seems like the number one nominee to spend a night at a planetarium with.

      Great voice, great appearance, great eyes (they are so kind), and a kick ass smile.

      Plus, he's smart! Smartness really turns me on.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Kylssa: Childlike wonder sums up his appeal. I think I have a crush on him. If they had one of those charity things where you get to bid on someone, and it was Neil deGrasse Tyson, I'd have to cash in my IRA. I also like that he makes a real good case for atheism, with his usual charm.

    • Kylyssa profile image

      Kylyssa Shay 2 years ago from Overlooking a meadow near Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA

      I can't get enough Tyson. I absolutely adored Carl Sagan and I see Neil deGrasse Tyson as his 21st century protégé. Carl had an exuberant brilliance and infectious sense of childlike wonder. I think Neil does, too.

      I was a little concerned his delivery would bother me in the reboot of Cosmos, but they made the wording fit his delivery and I loved it. I was amused at the almost obvious attempts to make Neil appeal to women in the Cosmos reboot and it was cute enough that I didn't see it as pandering. Perhaps they were also trying to make him seem more appealing to children and non-threatening to old people of certain political beliefs, too.

      I enjoy Tyson's delivery enough that even though his television programs and online shows talk science at rather elementary levels, he's so engaging (and cute like a teddy bear) that I watch them anyway.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      D.J. Anderson: Thanks D.J. It is always so nice to know someone appreciates what we do. You are correct in your impression that this took a long time to write. Neil deGrasse Tyson is as charming as he is erudite. He still retains a child-like wonder for the cosmos. It was an enriching exercise for me to unravel his views on life.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
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      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      annart: I have not heard of Brian Cox. I will look him up. The best thing about Neil deGrasse Tyson is that he is so charming. Thanks for commenting.

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      DJ Anderson 2 years ago

      Great article, Catherine.

      I have been watching and listening to Neil Tyson for many years.

      He takes a muddled mess of chaos and brings a sense of order and understanding.

      He is super guy with great knowledge willing to share the mysteries

      of our universe.

      I enjoyed your article and appreciate the time it took to bring this

      article together.

      So much to learn and so little time!

      DJ.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 2 years ago from SW England

      I hadn't heard of Neil Tyson but it seems he's a great character. The quotes you've cited are fascinating.

      We have an astrophysicist here in Britain called Brian Cox; he too has that ability to convey all the complications of science so that the layman can understand. His enthusiasm shines through and he brings to our attention the wonder of all things on earth and in the universe.

      Great hub, Catherine! A most enjoyable read.

      Ann