Star Power

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson, MA ’83, is the public face of science. But he says his success has nothing to do with UT.

“Hey, aren’t you the scientist?”

The voice calls out on a bustling Manhattan sidewalk. Neil deGrasse Tyson—celebrity astrophysicist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium—whirls around, looking for its source. He sees a disheveled homeless man with a piercing stare.

“Yes, I guess I am,” says Tyson, MA ’83. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve seen you on TV,” the man replies. “I just want to know—how exactly would a black hole kill a person?”

So Tyson launches into a quick account of spaghettification, or the way extreme gravitational forces near a black hole would stretch a human body from head to toe—like a skinny pasta noodle—until its very atoms would be wrenched apart. “A black hole is a one-way trip,” he is fond of saying. “You ain’t coming out.”

Perhaps no other scientist in the world is so famous that even someone lacking basic shelter stops him on the street to ask a technical question. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, 53, is like no other scientist. More than anyone else living today, he is the public face of his entire field.

You may not know his name, but you’ve seen him on CNN, ABC, The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show, Jeopardy!, or even Stargate Atlantis. TIME named him one of the 100 most influential Americans; People gave him the inimitable title of “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.” And when his new show debuts on FOX next year, Tyson will be exposed to his widest audience yet.

“People stop me on the street all the time,” Tyson says. “Taxi drivers, janitors, businessmen. It doesn’t matter who you are—it’s human nature to ask deep questions about the universe. To look up and wonder what’s out there. And I’m happy to talk about it.”

Connecting with such a prominent alumnus could be huge for The University of Texas. This is even truer because Tyson is African-American, and UT has long had a troubled relationship with the black community. But Tyson is not exactly UT’s biggest fan. That’s because he and the University had a bad break-up—one that prompts tricky questions about how academia defines success. As we’ll see, his time at UT is the one thing Tyson doesn’t like to talk about.

Talking is Tyson’s greatest skill. When he speaks—confidently, clearly, and with a preacher’s cadence—people listen. He translates complex scientific concepts into everyday language, but more than that, he makes science compelling. Really compelling. You might think you don’t care about asteroids, but Tyson will make a believer of you in three minutes or fewer.

“The universe wants to kills us!” he proclaims in one lecture. “We’re on a collision course with the Andromeda galaxy. The universe is expanding on a one-way trip to oblivion!”

Never mind that we aren’t set to crash into the Andromeda galaxy for another three billion years. Tyson speaks with such urgency that you can’t help but care. He jumps around the room; he gestures with the broad, powerful motions of an orchestral conductor on the edge of bliss. The man is more excited about science than most people ever are about anything in their entire lives.

Tyson believes that raising the public’s science literacy is crucial to our economic future—and he says we can start, as he did, by looking up.

Called by the Universe

Tyson grew up middle-class in the Bronx. His energy and goofiness kept him from being a classroom standout (“Neil should cultivate more serious attitude toward his school work,” his third-grade report card cautioned), but after class, he was an astrophysics child prodigy.

At age nine, after a trip to the Hayden Planetarium—the same planetarium he would direct 25 years later—Tyson decided on a career in astrophysics. “I felt called by the universe to do this,” he says, “and that has never changed.”

In junior high, Tyson took to using his telescope on the roof of his apartment building. At the sight of a teenager fumbling with a mysterious object in the night, neighbors often thought they saw a thief and called the police, whom he would placate by offering a look through the lens.

In high school, Tyson won summer scholarships to study astrophysics in Africa, Utah, and Scotland. He rubbed elbows with astronaut Neil Armstrong and biochemist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asmiov. At 15 he was invited to give his first lecture, to an extension class at the City University of New York.

“It was as natural as breathing,” Tyson recalls. “I was just talking about what I knew, the way other boys talked about baseball cards.”

When Tyson was choosing a college, he got a personal tour of Cornell from the most famous astrophysicist of all time, Carl Sagan. Tyson picked Harvard instead, but he never forgot Sagan’s kindness.

“There are very, very few African-American astrophysics PhDs,” Tyson says. “That’s for a reason. I was doing something people of my skin color were not supposed to do. So people who believed in me, like Sagan, were important.”

Trouble in Texas

After Harvard, Tyson moved straight to Texas to start his PhD at UT-Austin. He felt stereotyped from the start, as he would later describe in a speech at Columbia: “The first comment directed to me in the first minute of the first day by a faculty member I had just met was, ‘You must join the department basketball team!’”

Tyson was offended, but he liked basketball, so he signed up anyway. He also joined UT’s competitive dance, rowing, and wrestling teams—unusual activities for a PhD student. “I should’ve spent more time in the lab,” Tyson admits, “but that wasn’t me. I took my studies very seriously, but I also did these other pursuits.”

Frank Bash, professor emeritus of astronomy and former director of UT’s McDonald Observatory, supervised Tyson as a teaching assistant for Intro to Astronomy. “Neil had a natural gift for teaching,” Bash says. “After he taught, the students would beg for him back. He did crazy stuff—moonwalking in class.”

Doing the moonwalk for his students wasn’t a gag, Tyson says—it was a strategy. “If you’re only using words to communicate as a teacher, why show up?” he says. “Why not just type your notes? Teaching is a full-body performance. The moonwalk was all the rage in 1983, and the students loved it. It made the material work for them.”

According to Tyson, one of the biggest reasons scientists so often struggle to communicate research to the public is not jargon or lack of interest. It’s a culture gap.

“The average person watches 30 hours of television per week,” he says. “But the average professor doesn’t own a TV, let alone watch the Kardashians or cute kitten videos on YouTube or whatever. And people live for that stuff. We have to speak their language.”

Tyson still counts Bash as a friend and credits him as a major influence. “Frank Bash’s class was the only one I ever knew,” Tyson says, “where a student could get a C and still say it was the best class he ever had. That’s how inspiring he was.”

After class, Tyson explored Austin by bicycle. The New Yorker was thrilled to discover Tex-Mex—he sampled his first margarita and fajitas at a South Austin restaurant. And he fondly recalls people-watching at Eeyore’s Birthday Party, the annual hippie celebration in Pease Park. “I loved how cheap Austin was, and how colorful,” he says. He met his wife, Alice Young, PhD ’85, in a class on relativity.

Back in the lab, though, things weren’t going as well. Tyson wasn’t making progress on his dissertation, and professors encouraged him to consider alternate careers. He took the criticism hard, and he also faced racial discrimination on campus.

“I was stopped and questioned seven times by University police on my way into the physics building,” he says. “Seven times. Zero times was I stopped going into the gym—and I went to the gym a lot. That says all you need to know about how welcome I felt at Texas.”

At the same time, Tyson says that racism, while an everyday reality, didn’t play a major role in his leaving the University. “Getting stopped by the police—I don’t count that as significant racism. That’s just ‘same shit, different day’ racism. I was stopped by campus police at other schools, too—though not with the same frequency as in Texas. And I still get followed by security guards in department stores.”

After Tyson finished his master’s thesis, his advisors dissolved his dissertation committee—essentially flunking him. “I still don’t talk about it much,” he says, “because it was a failed experiment, and I’ve moved on from that chapter of my life.”

“With or without skin color, I wasn’t the model student,” he adds. “There was simply no room for me to be the full person that I was. If race was at play in all this, it was only at the edges of the experience.”

A Rising Star

The Rubik’s cube puzzle hit the U.S. market in 1980. When Tyson got his hands on one, he could concentrate on nothing else until he solved it. He didn’t leave the couch of his Austin apartment for a week. “I may have stopped to sleep,” he laughs. “Food and basic hygiene were forgotten.”

An obsessive focus on one thing at a time; a strong connection to pop culture, from the moonwalk to the Rubik’s cube; and a refusal to put research first: these traits contributed to Tyson’s failure at UT.

Yet the same qualities that doomed Tyson as a UT graduate student also brought him the fame and success he enjoys today. His intense focus makes him a riveting public speaker; his cultural savvy is key to his teaching. And if he ever puts research before outreach, the world will see a lot less of him.

In 2009, Tyson got another Rubik’s cube as a gift on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Just as in 1980, he couldn’t focus on anything else. He sat in Stewart’s green room until he solved the cube.

But this time, instead of hurting his work, the episode was a hit. The show aired it as a special feature; the audience cheered when he solved the puzzle.

Who knows how many kids watched that segment, saw a scientist showing that being a nerd can be cool, and thought about a career in science or math?

The One Who Got Away

After UT, Tyson transferred to Columbia, where he earned his PhD in 1988. From there, it was a straight shot to a postdoc at Princeton, and then the directorship at the Hayden Planetarium. He single-handedly started a research wing at the planetarium, bringing on 15 full-time researchers. He’s served on dozens of prestigious boards and councils, including a presidential commission on the future of space exploration—all while raising two children with his wife and juggling a packed media schedule.

Tyson has appeared on The Colbert Report eight times—the show’s record. “He’s my favorite guest because he can answer the universal questions, like ‘Why is the sky blue?’ and ‘Is thunder really God bowling?’” Stephen Colbert tells The Alcalde. The comedian dubbed Tyson his “BFF (Best Friend Physicist)” after his fifth visit to the show.

So what’s next? “The lab beckons,” he says. “Right now the public stuff takes up most of my time. But I want to get back to more research. That’s what fuels me.”

As for his relationship with UT, Tyson claims he’s moved on. “I don’t hold a grudge, and I don’t blame the department for kicking me out. I might have done the same thing in their position,” he says.

But at other moments, it’s clear that he’s still raw about Texas, almost 30 years later. “When I get mail from the Texas Exes, it goes straight in the trash. Why should I believe in an institution that didn’t believe in me?”

That’s the way Tyson sees it: UT didn’t believe in him, while Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton did. “When I look at my life, the tracks of my success take a detour around Texas,” he says. “It’s the only place where I didn’t succeed, and I’m still figuring out what that means.”

So is the University. Astronomy professor Craig Wheeler remembers Tyson: “Research was not his strength. He was never going to solve any major scientific problems. But I knew he was going to do something big, because he had charisma. He’s warm and funny, but he also has serious backbone, ambition, confidence—and that’s taken him far.”

And so it has. But for Texas, he’ll always be the one who got away.

From top: Tyson in the American Museum of Natural History (Gabrielle Revere); at age 13; at age 4; with friends at Town Lake in 1980; on the UT dance team, 1985 (courtesy Neil deGrasse Tyson); on the set of The Colbert Report (courtesy Jennifer Sims).

 

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