Into the Head of Neil deGrasse Tyson - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Into the Head of Neil deGrasse Tyson

Into the Head of Neil deGrasse Tyson

By Joshua Eferighe


Because when the man who has all the answers speaks, we listen.

By Joshua Eferighe

Arguably one of the sharpest minds alive today, with bestselling books on the cosmos like The Pluto Files, as well as hit shows like A Spacetime Odyssey, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a walking vessel of endless knowledge. In this episode of The Carlos Watson Show, he imparts some of that knowledge, as well as shares where his journey began. You can find excerpts below or listen to the full interview on the show’s podcast feed.

Growing Up

Carlos Watson: Where did you grow up, Neil? Are you a New York City kid?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: College and graduate school I went up to Boston to attend Harvard, majored in physics. Then I began graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin but then changed to Columbia so I was back in Manhattan, back in New York City for the completion of the Ph.D. Then I left again to go to Princeton, did a postdoc there, but then returned back to the city when the American Museum of Natural History decided they wanted to do something with the then-aging Hayden Planetarium, so I agreed to come in and help that out. Ultimately, I was appointed to an endowed chair as director of the facility.

By the way, that was my first night sky … the night sky of the Hayden Planetarium because the city … no one in the city has any kind of relationship with stars, with the sun, moon and planets. Because you look up and there’s a building, look a little higher there’s light pollution and when I grew up, it was air pollution. It was all forces operating against anyone’s attempt to look up. The planetarium became my portal and my conduit to the cosmos at a very early age.

So if you sort of package the whole story, it’s like a hometown kid comes back to lead the institution that so influenced him. I tried to tell that to people; they just don’t care.

Family Matters

Watson: I love the story though because I was surprised. I don’t know why I didn’t expect you to be a New York City kid. Were you kind of a second-generation scientist or did you find your own path to the stars?

Tyson: Yeah, it was my own path. My father degreed in sociology, and he went on to work under Mayor Lindsay during the heat of the civil rights movements and the assassinations.

My mother raised me and my brother and sister until we were mostly empty nest, and then she went back to school and got a degree in gerontology to study aging and the needs and wants of the elderly.

There was none of these pressures in my household. We were exposed to things grown-ups do who love their jobs. Two weekends a month, the five of us went on trips to the area museums, the aquarium, the art museum, the science museum, the natural history museum, the planetarium. But we also went to sporting events — baseball, football, even hockey. Also the opera, Broadway, musicals. So we got to see, we got to broaden the options that you might imagine you might become when you grow up, by seeing adults as experts in these multiple fields.

My brother ended up as an artist. He illustrated two of my books, actually.  I can say without hesitation that my heart has been in the universe since I was 9 years old.

Watson: What happened at 9?

Tyson: The singular sort of turning point was a trip to the Hayden Planetarium. Family trip when I was 9 years old.

His Love for Astrophysics

Watson: Why do you love astrophysics so much?

Neil: I have a weak answer and I have a strong answer for you. My weak answer is, at age 9 when I looked up at the dome of the planetarium and the stars came out, I think the universe called me and I had no say in the matter.

But really, it was looking up into that projected night sky, seeing the immensity of it and realizing, “Oh, my gosh, there’s still so much to learn, so much to discover.” I want to be on that frontier.

Watson: Which scientist do you admire the most, either alive or dead?

Tyson: My favorite scientist is Isaac Newton, for what he achieved very quickly in his lifetime, what he wrote, how he thought. If you read his writings, this man was connected to the cosmos.

On His New Book

Watson: Talk to me about Cosmic Queries. Why did you write it and what for you was the most interesting part of writing that book?

Tyson: The book Cosmic Queries is the sort of printed spin-off, if you will, of one of the formats of my podcast, which is called Star Talk. In that podcast, it inverts the journalistic model where … you might think of a science program where the journalist interviews scientists every week. This inverts that, where I’m a scientist and I’m the host and I interview people hewn from pop culture. The conversation explores all the ways that science has touched their lives.

One of the more popular formats of that show is called Cosmic Queries, where we solicit questions from our fan base, and if we’re soliciting sort of astronomical questions, then it’s just me and my co-host, who’s a professional comedian, by the way. The comedian is there to offer a force of levity to balance the force of gravity of the scientific content. So the valve that you turn to balance that enables a consistent delivery from show to show to show.

Imparting Wisdom

Watson: What are two or three things, when you talk about spreading scientific knowledge, that you hope that those of us who are everyday people, that we may have missed but interesting things that have happened over the last year or last few years that you think we should know about and could ultimately impact our lives?

Tyson: What I would say is … consider how much of your life depends on space right now. You’re probably not thinking about that. From hailing an Uber or Lyft, how do you get that? Oh, well you just send a signal to a satellite that gave your coordinates relative to a nearby car.

All right, that’s one economic extreme. Another one is, “Oh, let me swipe right.” Who is that person? That’s someone who a GPS satellite has established is within three blocks of you. “Oh, is there a bar nearby? OK, let’s find that.” So much of people’s lives today are enabled and empowered by space. So that when I hear someone say, “Why are we up in space when we have problems here on Earth? We got to solve the Earth problems first.”

I’ve said this many times and maybe it’s not enough. Let’s go back 30,000 years and we’re all in the cave. Someone peeks out the front door of the cave and sees a mountain, a valley, a hill, a stream. It tells the people there, “I want to go out there and explore this.” “No, we have cave problems. We have to solve the cave problems first before you exit the front door.”

You saying, “We got Earth problems, let’s solve the Earth problems before we step off of this speck we call Earth into the vastness of the universe,” if that’s what you’re saying, you sound like that person in the cave to me.

To believe that all of our answers can be found on this third rock from the sun when the vast greater universe lay undiscovered before us is naïve at best and it’s dangerous at worst. That’s insight that I’m delighted to offer you that is not simply, “What latest discovery did I miss?” That is something you might not have reflected upon that perhaps you should.

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