Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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One On 1: Astrophysicist Dr. Neil Tyson

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his series, "One On 1," with a profile of one of the nation's leading astrophysicists, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Neil Tyson.

 View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.


Neil Tyson loves everything about the cosmos - anything and everything. There's his wardrobe, which includes a tie with an astro-physics theme, and Van Gogh's "Starry Night" plays a prominent role on his wall, on the cover of one of his books, and on his couch.

“My parents bought me this ÎStarry Night’ pillow,” he says. “What's fun about this is you press the moon and the stars light up.”

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium. What’s a typical day like for him? There are no typical days.

He conducts and organizes research; he teaches up at his old school, Bronx Science; he's the author of seven books, including a memoir called "The Sky Is Not the Limit;" he's served on two White House commissions on space; and he oversees all that happens in one of New York's most beloved institutions.

"It's not my goal to turn everybody into a scientist. That would be a boring world. We need musicians and artists and statesmen and all the rest of this,” he says. “But as a minimum, I would want everyone to come out of this a little bit more scientifically literate."

Tyson's passion for his subject is palpable.

“We’ve got to grab people in the street and say, ÎCheck this out!’” he says.

NY1 got a peek at that passion in a visit to his old school, Bronx Science, where he spoke to students in the classroom of one of his math teachers. One of Tyson's messages to these students is that you may not remember everything from calculus, but it will affect how you think for the rest of your life.

“So when someone comes up to you who is otherwise an idiot telling you things like, ÎHey, want me to read your palm? Because I can then predict the future for you and tell you what the moons and the planets are going to be,’ you say, ÎGo home. I took math. You're an idiot,’” he says.

After Bronx Science, Tyson went to Harvard, got a masters at the University of Texas and a PhD at Columbia. But he says there is still a social stigma attached to expertise in the math’s and sciences.

“In the same corner where you have the people who are well-read and one of them says, ÎOh, I was never good at math,’ and the others all agree and chuckle about it,” he says. “Suppose over in our corner we said, ÎYou know, I was never good at nouns and verbs?’ We would get laughed out of the room."

Tyson may be able to laugh at such ignorance, but he thinks a failure to stress the importance of science will have far reaching ramifications.

“The emergent economies of tomorrow are going to be derived from science and technological innovations,” he says. “If we remove ourselves from that contest, we are disenfranchising ourselves from the world marketplace."

Neil Tyson says he's been in love with the stars ever since he took a telescope on the roof of his Riverdale apartment building as a kid. That's where the love affair with the stars began, and in the building where he now works.

“I was minding my own business under the stars at the Hayden Planetarium, and the universe just poured down out of the sky into me, and I felt electrified by it,” he says. “From then on there was no doubt."

Tyson's ability to make the universe understandable to the masses puts him in demand in the media. He grew up in a middle class neighborhood in Riverdale. His father was a commissioner in the Lindsey administration. His mother became a gerontologist. And yet he says many of the profiles of him don't let the facts get in the way of a good story.

“At no time in my life have I pleaded the poverty card,” he says. “It's like, ÎYes, I was a poor black child, and then·.Î No. It's not how it was. But in spite of that fact, there are profiles written about me that try to play that angle like, ÎOh, he·,’ and it's just not the case."

But at Bronx Science, Tyson says he did meet with some resistance in trying to realize his dream.

“I remember wanting to be part of the physics club, and people looked at me like there was something wrong with me because that didn't fit their expectation of who or what I should become,” he says. “It's subtle. No one is saying, ÎThou shall not be an astrophysicist.’ It's just subtle in their emotion that they invoke when they speak with you.”

Some of Tyson's thoughts about how this society views him are perhaps best revealed by a comic strip on his office wall that depicts three white scientists with thought balloons referencing their black colleague that say, “I wonder how he feels about O.J.? I wonder how he feels about Farrakhan? I wonder how he feels about affirmative action?" The black scientist’s thought balloon shows he’s actually doing calculus problems in his head.

Tyson was a graduate student at the University of Texas, living under the typical graduate student tight budget. For a brief moment - a very brief moment - the man who is now one of the nation's leading astrophysicists considered taking a job at a male strip club.

“They came out dancing, they had on asbestos-lined jockstraps that had been ignited, and the song to which they were singing was Jerry Lee Lewis' ÎGreat Balls of Fire,’” he says. “And I said, ÎNo, maybe I'll be a math tutor.’”

Years later, with his credentials well established, people magazine named Tyson, a husband and father of two, "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive."

“My year, the sexiest man alive, above all categories, was Brad Pitt,” he says. “And they put him on the cover, and me and the rest of the guys got half a page.”

Tyson's success has allowed him to view the stars from parts of the world which don't suffer what he calls the "light pollution" of New York City. And yet...

“To this day, as a full-grown adult with gray hair, whenever I'm under the night sky, in perfect viewing conditions, I think to myself, ÎIt reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium,’” he says. “It's kind of weird. It’s kind of an urban statement to make, but I'm an urban astrophysicist, so I can't help it."

He’s an urban astrophysicist with a love of the universe and a desire to share that love with the next generation.

"There is an old saying, ÎWisdom is what remains after you've forgotten everything you've ever learned in your life.’ What's left is wisdom,” he says. “It’s a perspective on how to handle the next problem you have never seen before.”

- Budd Mishkin

ONE ON 1 EXTRA

 Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video:

  PART 1

  PART 2

  PART 3


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