Neil deGrasse Tyson: I Remember

BY Simon Button

14th Feb 2023 Celebrities

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I Remember

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the world’s most eminent astrophysicists. He looks back at growing up in the Bronx, witnessing 9/11 and interviewing Katy Perry

Neil deGrasse Tyson's childhood memories

My earliest childhood memory is watching The Mickey Mouse Club on the lower level of a bunk bed with my brother and mother. I would have been nearly four at the time and I vividly recall it was a Sunday evening and she was pregnant with my sister. At first we lived in the Castle Hill middle-income housing project in the Bronx and it felt like a real community, with playgrounds and playing fields amidst all the buildings.  

When my father's income increased we moved to Riverdale, which was a more plush part of the Bronx and, prophetically perhaps, our building was called Skyview. One day we came home and there were people protesting against black families moving in. That was in 1964, when I was six years old, and that seemed so odd to me. I thought, Why do people feel this way? because when you’re a kid you can’t process complex issues, you just observe things. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson, young

Neil deGrasse Tyson with his camera

My father worked for the New York City mayor's office under Mayor Lindsay and he became a commissioner for the manpower and career development agency, which was very much plugged into the Civil Rights Movement. Keeping New York a liveable and safe place that was free from unrest was a heroic effort at a very difficult time. There were severe riots related to equal rights and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcom X but although New York had a few dust-ups my dad helped keep the city calm in the face of disturbances of the peace. 

"Keeping New York a liveable and safe place that was free from unrest was a heroic effort"

My mother was a housewife to me and my siblings until the nest was mostly empty, then she went back to school. She was very much interested in the plight of elderly people, got a degree in gerontology and worked for the health and human services, which looks after the overall health of the country and includes programmes for elderly people. We had many ageing relatives at the time so it wasn’t a baptism for her, it was a continuation of things she’d been doing all along.  

His love of astrophysics

In 1970 we moved to Massachusetts when my father was invited to become a fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard. We were only there for a year but it was a very formative time for me because, already knowing I wanted to be an astrophysicist, I got to visit the Harvard and Smithsonian observatories. They had open houses where I met scientists and they had a whole library dedicated just to astrophysics, which blew my mind. I was 12 and it cemented a passion I’d had from age nine after a visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York.  

My mother would buy me any book on maths, science and physics she could find in the discounted section. I also walked dogs to earn money at 50 cents per dog per walk. The money added up rapidly to the point where I had enough to buy that first telescope and a camera. When I was 15 there was a comet on its way round that I did research into and took photos of, and City College asked me to do my first-ever lecture about it. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson's first telescope

Neil deGrasse Tyson's first telescope

It's been said that Carl Sagan was my mentor but that’s not strictly true. I met him only four or five times, the first being at Cornell University—which was one of the colleges I applied to when I was 17. He was a professor there and he invited me to visit the lab so I took the bus up to Cornell from New York, where we were again living. He showed me around and I remember him pulling a book he’d written off the shelf without even turning around. I thought, That’s badass if you don’t even have to look for the book you’re grabbing. He signed it, "To Neil, future astronomer" and I still have it. 

"Carl Sagan didn’t know me from Adam yet he was so kind"

After my visit to Cornell, Carl drove me to the bus station and, as it was snowing, he gave me his phone number in case the bus couldn’t get through. In that moment I said to myself, If I am ever remotely this famous I will give attention to ambitious students coming up through the ranks the way Carl Sagan has given to me. He didn’t know me from Adam yet he was so kind. To this day, if I’m on the phone and a student shows up at the door I’m like, "Barack, I’ve gotta go, I’ll call you back later."

Meeting his wife and going to school

I first noticed my wife Alice at a party in graduate school, then I saw her in a class we were both attending on relativity. She’s very smart, honest and unpretentious. We dated for a while but at the time I was seeking someone more gregarious so we broke up. My retrospective analysis is that she was more mature than me about relationships and it was one of the happiest days of my life when she showed up again. We moved in together and three years later, in 1988, we were married. 

I decided on Harvard rather than Cornell, after which I studied at the University of Texas and at Columbia University before eventually becoming acting director at Hayden Planetarium. That in turn lead to me being appointed by President George W Bush to a couple of commissions, although I was only in a room with him once. There were hundreds of people there and we made eye contact for maybe three seconds, and in those three seconds I felt like I was the only person in the world to him.  

Achieving success

Under the Bush administration there were a lot of people trying to do the right thing and it was my first close encounter with educated Republicans so I was able to figure out how to have a rational and productive conversation with people who were very differently politically-aligned from myself. I was especially concerned that here was the most powerful man in the world yet he couldn’t pronounce "nuclear" correctly, but he was hiring highly talented people for his cabinet and that gave me some confidence. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the White House

Neil deGrasse Tyson at the White House, 2000

Getting my own show on PBS wasn't an ambition. I’d never envisioned myself as a TV person but when I was offered that show [Origins in 2004] I agreed to it because at the time I was teaching at Princeton, at most to 200 students, and I thought, I can go on TV and talk to a million people. So I reduced my teaching load and started doing television with basically the same, or less, invested effort. It felt like that would better serve the greater good. 

In 1009 I started the Star Talk podcast which ended up being the first ever science-based talkshow when National Geographic picked it up for late-night broadcast. I delighted in chatting to such a diverse group of people, including former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, David Crosby from Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Katy Perry. She doesn’t come to your studio, you go to her, so I interviewed her on this big comfy couch and she had such a refreshing, childlike curiosity. She asked, "There are so many people in the world, do you think one day we’re going to run out of souls?" You’ll have to check out the show to see what my answer was! 

Remembering 9/11

I was living four blocks away from the World Trade Centre on 9/11. I witnessed events on that day first-hand. How did it make me feel? I’m not a very feeling guy; I mostly think rather than feel.

"Over the coming months I found, oddly, that my writing improved, as did my capacity for empathy"

But halfway through that day I was trudging through the dust on the ground from the collapsed buildings, I had my nine-month-old son in a stroller and I went to pick up my daughter from kindergarten. At that point emotions flooded into my rational mind and over the coming months I found, oddly, that my writing improved, as did my ability to communicate and my capacity for empathy. It changed me profoundly. 

Appearing on The Big Bang Theory

Appearing on The Big Bang Theory was the funnest day I have ever spent. The thing that really tickled me was that there was a TV show that was all about science. They had a PHD physicist on the payroll analysing every equation and every statement.

Did the cast geek-out over meeting me? Not really because they’re actors and not necessarily from the geekdom. The people who really geek out are the ones who attend Comic-Con

Starry Messenger is published by Harper Collins and is available now 

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