Pop Mech Deputy Editor Courtney Linder recently sat down to talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the world-renowned astrophysicist and science communicator, host of the PBS series Nova ScienceNow and Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odysseycreator of the StarTalk franchise, and author of the best-selling book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Tyson’s career in astrophysics, alongside a talent for making science easy to digest, has made him a full-on celebrity.
In this first installment of our multi-part video series, Pop Mech Explains the Universe, we explore Tyson’s cosmic baptism at the early age of nine. New episodes will debut every Wednesday, so be sure to check back for more of Tyson’s thoughts on the multiverse, aliens, the James Webb Space Telescope, and more.
A “Cosmic Baptism”
Tyson’s passionate childhood spiraled into a life-long space race, pursuing answers to his questions about the universe. It all started with his first family trip to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, where he discovered what would later be his long-term home: The Hayden Planetarium. At the age of nine, Tyson already knew his interest in the sciences was growing, so he chased after his curiosity.
Between 1972 and 1976, Tyson attended The Bronx High School of Science. At 15, he was invited to attend undergraduate lectures at Cornell University from Carl Sagan, the famous scientist who played a leading role in the American space program in the 1950s. Although Tyson’s time with Sagan helped drive his astrophysical interests, his studies continued at Harvard University. Tyson earned his masters in philosophy of astrophysics at Columbia University in 1989. From there, he would go on to complete his doctorate in 1991.
Tyson studies many components of our universe. From exploding stars to dwarf galaxies, he has been at the forefront of understanding the structure of our Milky Way and what lies beyond. His ventures to question the universe earned him nine honorary awards, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal—the highest civilian honor.
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Today, the Hayden Planetarium holds a special place for Tyson. He began working at the planetarium as a staff scientist in 1994, while also conducting research at Princeton University. He now serves as the planetarium’s director, a position he was once inspired by.
Role Models Are “Overrated”
Tyson’s parents, Sunchita and Cyril, played a large role in shaping his cosmic perspective. Sunchita, also known as “Toni,” took great care of her children, and understood the daily hardships of racism in America. “All three of my children are brown, and they stay brown all year round… We had to make it very, very clear at a very early age that some people are not going to be very nice to say,” Mrs. Tyson told WNYC Studios in 2014. While the Civil Rights Movement was making headway with important legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, inherent racial biases lived on in America. Toni keeps a close eye on her boys, while encouraging Tyson to pursue his dreams.
Cyril Tyson was a sociologist and activist for the Civil Rights Movement. A former track star-turned educator, Cyril led anti-poverty programs, many of which were designed to improve public schools to be fair and equal to its students. At an education conference in 1964, Cyril exclaimed, “Teachers are just not teaching… They have low expectations and say the children can’t learn because they are black.” Cyril emboldened Tyson to be exactly who he wanted to be, and as he grew up, Cyril was right beside him, building his first telescope.
Yet the idea of role models is “overrated,” Tyson tells Popular Mechanics. Why? Because you are limiting yourself to one mode of thought, one example to follow, by idolizing other people. Tyson has had many inspirational figures come into his life, from his parents, to Carl Sagan, and other scientists and professors alike. He has taken bits and pieces of their stories, their research, and passions, and made those into his collective inspiration. In his words, “I make this sort of Frankenstein role model with bits and pieces from people who had talents that I wanted to emulate.” Tyson explains that having a role model constrains an individual’s freedom of choice. If you want to explore all possible outcomes of your life, you must believe in yourself—rather than someone else.
You can read more about Tyson’s cosmic perspectives in his brand-new book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.
Taylor Vasilik is a video producer for Popular Mechanics, Runner’s Worldand Bicycling warehouse. She recently graduated from Temple University where she studied film and media. Her favorite hobbies include DIY projects, exploring new music, videography, and traveling. On the weekend you can find her shopping at her favorite thrift and antique stores.