As director of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and the author of many books on the universe beyond Earth, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is helping to make science more fun and more approachable.
Tyson's cluttered office at the Rose Center for Earth and Space looks almost as much like a wizard's lab as it does the headquarters of one of the America's foremost astrophysicists and science educators.
But whether it's the chunk of meteor, the bust of Sir Isaac Newton, the meter-and-a-half-high model of the Saturn V rocket, an 18th-century astrolabe, or one of the scores of other exotic items here, every artifact in his office has to do with the universe itself. When asked to explain just what the universe itself is, Tyson says it's a fascinating question.
"It's like asking an unborn infant, 'What is your mother?' We don't have an exterior view just yet," he says with his characteristic half-jovial, half-serious chuckle. "A more tractable way to approach that question is, 'What is in the universe?' And there are planets and galaxies and stars and black holes and that sort of thing."
Tyson says the next question would be, "How did it all get here? What formed the stars, and what formed the planets?"
Promoting science literacy among the public
As scientist, author, television host and director of the Hayden Planetarium, one of the world's premier celestial imaging facilities, Tyson has made a dazzling career trying to answer these questions. But Tyson says his main calling is to promote science literacy as a public scientist.
"There are two reasons for this," he says. "First, most pure science that goes on in the United States is financed by tax-based funding sources. And you pay for it. So you have the right to know what we're doing in the lab, and I have the obligation to tell you."
He adds, "In a pluralistic democracy, you want people to have a say in what science gets done. And in order for them to have a say, you want them to be scientifically literate. So I bring science to the public as a duty."
'In love with the universe'
In addition to his frequent television appearances on shows as diverse PBS/Nova: Science Now, which he hosts, and cutting-edge late-night talk programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Tyson has written scores of scholarly articles and nearly a dozen popular books on the cosmos.
But Tyson adds that there is more than "public duty" at work in those efforts. He says he is simply "in love with the universe," and, like any lover, he wants to tell other people all about it.
"I don't jump into people's face unless [I'm] invited. But if they ask, I am in your face, and I'll tell you about the black hole and big bangs and the search for life and colliding galaxies and the next asteroid."
He then "monitors" what he says that excites people.
"I see their pupils dilate and their eyebrows raise, and I say, 'They're really getting into this. This is good.'"
An early interest in the heavens
Tyson's own fascination with the heavens began when he was 9 years old. That's when his parents took him to the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, a subway ride downtown from this native Bronx.
"I looked up at the night sky projected onto the dome, and there it was: countless thousands of stars. And I thought it was a hoax, initially. I knew the night sky. I had seen it from the Bronx! It was, like [only], a dozen stars," he laughingly recalls.
Tyson remained unconvinced until his family took a trip to the countryside.
"I looked up at the night sky. I said, 'Wow! This is just like the Hayden Planetarium!'"
Another big moment in Tyson's life occurred when he was 11, and a friend lent him some binoculars, a device that, as a city kid, he had previously used only for sporting events and for looking into windows. But this time, he looked up and saw the moon.
"It wasn't just bigger. It was better! Mountains, valleys, craters, hills! I was hooked."
From that moment on, Tyson wanted to be an astrophysicist.
"I was on a quest," he says.
Investigating the 'cities of the cosmos'
That quest took Tyson to the famed Bronx High School of Science, a public school famous for its "geeks" and the many Nobel laureates it has produced. He went on to major in physics at Harvard, before getting his doctorate at Columbia University, where he specialized in the birth and death of stars and the structure of the Milky Way galaxy.
When asked why he chose galaxies as his main course of study, Tyson answers with a tone of proprietary awe.
"First of all, galaxies are just visually beautiful. Let's start there! Second, the galaxies are the great organizers of stars in the universe. They are like the 'cities of the cosmos,' and there are tens of billions of them. So if you want to know what the stars are doing, ask yourself what the galaxies are doing."
Scientist calls work 'spiritual'
Today, most astrophysicists observe the heavens indirectly - and in relative comfort - by viewing electronic images transmitted to their computers by satellites and space telescopes like the Hubble Telescope.
"But in the old days, when you'd go to mountaintops and meet the universe face to face, I felt it was a kind of pilgrimage," recalls Tyson.
Those "pilgrimages" usually meant a long to trip to the mountain, living nocturnally "where it's you and the dome and the night sky." Tyson remembers feeling a "deep inner peace" from those experiences "because you are far away from civilization, and there is this light that has been traveling, in my case, for 30 thousand years from the center of the galaxy that lands on my detector."
And like other astrophysicists, Tyson uses that light to think about, and deduce the nature of the universe. But for him, the universe is not far from us. It is also us. He calls the happiness and fulfillment he derives from a nuanced awareness of this fact "spiritual."
"… Particularly when you realize that the very atoms that are your body… were forged in the centers of stars in our galaxy, stars that then exploded at the ends of their lives, scattering these enriched ingredients to gas clouds that would later form stars and planets and people."
He says the natural human urge is to think, "We're here," and the universe is "out there."
"But no. Earth is in the universe. We're on Earth, yet the universe is also in us. We don't have another word other than 'spiritual' for that," he says.
Tyson still has many worlds to explore - and to share with the rest of us- before he hangs up his wizard's hat. He is currently at work furthering the education and outreach efforts at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. He also plans to start work on a book on teaching science to children.
"Kids are natural cosmic explorers," Tyson says, and the main job of adults should be "simply to get out of their way."