Neil deGrasse Tyson Is Your—and Everyone Else’s—Personal Astrophysicist

We met America's rock-star astrophysicist to talk about the new season of his TV show, water on Mars, and the art of the sound bite.

Oct 26 2015, 4:20pm

Illustration by Armando Veve

Illustration by Armando Veve

When I recently met Neil deGrasse Tyson in his office inside the American Museum of Natural History, where he serves as the director of the Hayden Planetarium, the first thing I noticed was how very happy he was. Despite being at the end of a day of press interviews promoting StarTalk, his show on National Geographic, he was positively oozing pep and energy. Tyson was excited about getting dinner and going to the theater with his wife later that evening—"We're both foodies," he admitted. The 57-year-old astrophysicist loves Gershwin, and they were going to see An American in Paris. His office is an easy place to be happy: To get there, you ride a glass elevator to the top of the planetarium, overlooking the Hall of the Universe, where museum-goers, tourists, and school groups can check out a meteorite, a chunk of moon rock, and a swirling gas sculpture model of a black hole. Tyson's office itself, lined with bookshelves and strung with twinkle lights, is so full of model rockets, model planets, and antique scientific instruments that it could double as a hobby shop. To even the mildly inquisitive, it's a pretty magical place. For Tyson, who fell in love with astronomy in this very planetarium—growing up with the less-than-crystalline night skies of the Bronx—it must be even more so.

According to Tyson, the ideal sound bite should be "informative, tasty—like, 'Yeah, I like that'—and maybe make you laugh, and make you a little happier for having learned it."

I'd spent the morning reading about those possible alien structures orbiting some distant star, and planning how I will someday tell my grandchildren that I got to talk with Dr. Tyson on the very day the public first read about the existence of our alien overlords. But he hadn't heard about it. "They have kept me locked up in this office," he explained, gesturing to the three publicists sitting across the coffee table from us. "So maybe I missed the discovery of the century. But I'm thinking that if today we discovered alien intelligence, I would have been all up in it." We talked about the discovery of water on Mars instead. Or rather, he talked, launching naturally into teacher mode, explaining it wasn't the presence of water on Mars that was surprising—there was already evidence of ancient rivers and deltas —the surprise was finding water in its liquid form oozing out of a crater wall. "It was salty liquid," he pointed out, "which means it has a lower freezing point."

Tyson, for all intents and purposes, is the public face of astrophysics. As of this writing he has 4.45 million Twitter followers, a number that increases by about 2,000 every day. On both his podcast StarTalk Radio and his TV series StarTalk, he interviews serious celebrities: Not just those with obvious geek bona fides like original Star Trek castmember George Takei or evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, both of whom have been guests on the podcast, but also Larry Wilmore, Bill Clinton, and Susan Sarandon, all of whom appear in the new season of the television series.

Tyson talks about his fame as if it's an accident. When I asked him how he came to focus on science communication, he explained, "It's not like I wake up in the morning and say, 'How can I communicate today?" throwing his deep voice even deeper with faux self-importance, "No! No, no, no. It's because I get called to do so." At first I thought he meant called, as though he has a calling, a vocation—but no, he meant called on the phone. "If you're going to call me for an interview, or call me to be on the evening news, I'll come, because it's duteous, it's a responsible thing to do as an educator and a scientist. Plus we're in New York City, so I'm local to all the news—I'm an easy date!"

But it's more than location that has turned Tyson into the public ambassador of astrophysics. His combination of cheerfulness and knack for condescension-free explanation helps. He also does voices, and is kind of a ham. But plenty of sixth-grade science teachers have these qualities and don't have their own TV shows. Tyson has also applied a very analytical approach to his media appearances.

"The first time I was ever asked on an interview, I gave my 'best professorial reply,'" he recalled, throwing erudite air quotes around the words with his voice. "I had come from the classroom. And then it came out as a sound-bitten thing, 20 seconds long. I thought, Hmm, I could call them up and complain. Or, the next time, I could hand them sound bites." When media people told him not to worry, he could talk as long as he wanted, and they'd cut to get what they needed, he thought, "No, I'll pre-cut myself." According to Tyson, the ideal sound bite should be "informative. Tasty—like, 'Yeah, I like that,'" he said, making a nibbling sound like he's sampling a particularly good snack. "And maybe make you laugh, and make you a little happier for having learned it."

"I've worked at this!" he exclaimed, and recalled the prep he did before his first appearance on The Daily Show, back in 2007. "I studied how many sentences [Jon Stewart] lets his guests speak before he jumps in with a comedic quip, and I said, "Well, if I have an idea, that's my time limit, because if I only get it out halfway and here comes the quip, I'm stuck dangling there, and now we're laughing at half-information and there's no way to put the pieces back together... So if I want the cleanest interview that still respects his comedic wit, I'm going to parcel it, and I did, and there it goes."

Tyson often talks about what it means to think like a scientist. "Many people just receive the world as it comes to them, whereas the scientist queries the world. That's why, when I see a film, I'm analyzing what I'm seeing at all times." In Forrest Gump, for example, he said he noticed the actor playing Lieutenant Dan shifting his body in a way that betrayed the presence of full legs, even though the actor's legs had been green-screened out below the knee. "They could make his legs disappear visually, but the couldn't cheat the physics."

Tyson no longer conducts his own research, though some of his work at Hayden helps him "keep a foot in the research world." He says he is in a "possibly delusional dream state" that one day he will get to spend all day conducting research, but these days his time is mostly devoted to a combination of media appearances, fundraising, collaborating on educational projects, science talks with colleagues, reviewing others' manuscripts, and working on his own writing—he has published ten books and is working on more. But he misses it. "I miss it entirely," he said. "If I were in complete control of my life that's all I would do, I would never go out to the public or appear in the media, I would just stay in the lab. I derive extreme pleasure from staying in the lab."

"The metaphorical lab," he was quick to correct himself, explaining that astrophysicists can work from anywhere, looking at the data on a computer, which is sent digitally from the telescope (though "we have someone there to make sure it doesn't break"). "There's a little bit of lost romance there," he lamented. "Back in my day, through planes, trains and automobiles, it would be a like a pilgrimage to the mountaintop, and you'd be communing with the cosmos from the mountaintop: you, the telescope, and the universe, alone." His voice went dreamy with vocal hushed awe.

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In his own research, Tyson has focused on the births, lives, and deaths of stars. But his interests rove to broader questions: "Is there life elsewhere in the universe? What was around before the Big Bang? Are there multiverses? These are deep, interesting questions that don't happen to be my area of expertise. But I have questions shared by many, because I'm a human being."

Tyson has said on StarTalk that there are only about 7,000 astrophysicists, and since there are seven billion humans on Earth, everyone in the field is "one in a million." When I bring this up during our interview, he quickly corrects me—there are closer to 10,000 astrophysicists, so each one is really more like one in 700,000. But there are only a few that anyone outside the field can name. Meanwhile he introduces himself on StarTalk as "your personal astrophysicist." I wondered whether his high profile made his colleagues envious. "I've thought about it," he said. "And here's an answer that I'm pretty sure is right: When I'm asked to explain someone's result, I say, 'No! Go interview them. Then come back to me, and I'll tie a bow on it, I'll say why it's relevant or why we should care.' So my colleagues see themselves, and then I come after that, and all boats are lifted. So I think the respect I receive has been preserved because of this effort." It makes sense—probably not too many people go into astrophysics looking for fame.

When one of the publicists mentioned we had 30 seconds left and asked for any final short questions, I asked Tyson why space exploration matters. "In 30 seconds? You're calling me out!" he replied, having just described his philosophy of sound bites. But he was up for the challenge. "Bring it on," he said, wagging his fingers, and delivered this: "Right now, four-tenths of a penny of every tax dollar you spend goes to NASA. That pays for the space station, astronauts, all the NASA centers—activities that discover our place in the cosmos. And so I ask you this," he said, dropping his voice to sci-fi-movie voice-over low: "How much is the universe worth... to you?" The publicists and I applauded, and Tyson let out a James Brown-style howl, whirling an arm and kicking up his legs, pantomiming—and really seeming to feel—like a rock star.

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StarTalk airs on Sundays at 11 PM ET/10 CT on National Geographic.