The voice at the other end of the phone was chipper and bright—even musical.
It was a voice I’d heard dozens of times in YouTube videos and science documentaries: passionately defending evolution, demoting Pluto, or expounding on the search for alien life. It was a little strange to hear it in person, awaiting my questions.
As a science fan, I’d long enjoyed watching Neil deGrasse Tyson, MA ’83, on The Colbert Report and Nova ScienceNOW. So I jumped at the chance to interview him. As it turned out, just getting to “Tyson here” was one of the hardest parts of the story.
The interview was a month in the making. Tyson is a busy guy—he directs the Hayden Planetarium, maintains a packed media schedule, writes books, and does research—and the New Yorker wasn’t exactly thrilled to hear from someone down in Texas.
UT barely gets a mention in his autobiography, and Tyson’s time on the Forty Acres is the one subject that he hadn’t ever opened up about publicly. That’s for a good reason: his doctoral dissertation committee was dissolved here, and he was the subject of some fairly overt racism on campus.
Leaving messages for Tyson and his assistant at first felt like sending words into a black hole: they all went unanswered.
That’s when Frank Bash, an incredibly kind and approachable professor emeritus of astronomy at UT, offered to help. As a favor to an old friend—and a possible PR opportunity for his new book, The Space Chronicles—Tyson finally said yes.
Despite his initial reluctance to talk about Texas, Tyson was incredibly candid and very generous with his time. Over the course of three phone interviews lasting more than an hour each, we talked about everything from hyperdecanting (putting wine into a blender) to spirituality to the art of Twitter. In the background, I could hear calendar alerts dinging on his computer as he missed other appointments.
Tyson was clear with me that he didn’t have warm feelings for UT, and he talked openly about being stopped by the campus police seven times. But he cautioned me not to reduce his story to a narrative just about race. “If you focus on race, then you’re validating my experience that people in Texas can’t move past race,” he said. “Race has never been a defining factor for me.”
One-on-one, the famously ebullient astrophysicist is a bit quieter, a toned-down version of the highly expressive orator you see on TV. He did perk up when I asked how many cosmic-themed ties are in his closet. “Between 90 and 95,” he said. “No, 100. I only wear my favorites, though.”