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Bringing Astrophysics Down to Earth

This passionate public scientist is a champion of science literacy.

THE FIRST TIME NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON saw the night sky from inside the Hayden Planetarium, he found it so beautiful he thought it might be a hoax. He'd never seen anything like it growing up in the Bronx. Thousands of stars shone clear and bright in the Milky Way and the planets seemed close enough to touch. At the ripe old age of 9, he knew he had been called, and from that day on, whenever anyone asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he told them he was going to be an astrophysicist.

A little over two decades later, that starry-eyed kid came back to the Hayden Planetarium as a part-time research scientist, and in 1996 became its director. He's written a monthly column for Natural History magazine called “Universe” since 1995. In fall 2006, Tyson premieres as the host and executive editor of the new PBS series NOVA scienceNOW, a magazine-format show that explores the frontiers of science. He's on the board of directors of the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, which helps children from disadvantaged backgrounds develop the attitudes, skills and values to lead satisfying and productive lives, and he's on NASA's Advisory Council, which helps guide NASA's scientific, technologica, and budgetary steps forward in space.

All that is part of what Tyson calls being a “public scientist.” He's also finishing up work on an international study of the larger-scale structure of the universe based on observations of some extremely distant galaxies through the Hubble Space Telescope.

Tyson says that he loves deep math so much that he sometimes gets lost in calculations. He loses track of time and feels a sense of peace and direct connection with what he calls the “engine that drives our universe.” He jokes, he makes mental leaps, looking for metaphors and connections that will bring the wonders of the universe down to earth, and he wears vests and ties with bold astronomical motifs, like a 21st-century wizard might.

The Making of an Astrophysicist. A few years after his first visit to the planetarium he had another revelation when he looked up at the moon with a pair of borrowed 7x-magnification binoculars. The craters and shadows he saw gave it a depth he hadn't imagined, and it became not just an object but a place, a destination.

Tyson walked dogs in the neighborhood to raise money for his first telescope, and as soon as he got it he took every chance he had to study the sky: He spent every free, clear night with the stars and the planets. He was single-mindedly fixed on learning as much as he could about astronomy.

In sixth grade one of his teachers suggested he take some classes at the planetarium. Over the next few years he took half a dozen, from an introduction to astronomy for youngsters to seminars in advanced topics in astrophysics. Tyson was also captain of the wrestling team and editor of the prestigious Physical Science Journal at the Bronx High School of Science (where a wood shop teacher just might be an actual rocket scientist).

He was 15 years old when he gave his first slide show and lecture on astronomy. “For me, talking about the universe was like breathing,” Tyson writes in his autobiography, The Sky Is Not the Limit. “I suppose it was no different from another kid talking about his treasured baseball card collection. I could not have been more comfortable sharing what I knew.”

Why Science Matters. Tyson tries to use his position to promote science literacy throughout society. “Science is life,” Tyson says. “It is the intersection between our lives and the natural world. Without it we're victims of nature rather than participants.”

Understanding science can help us make decisions about economics, health and safety that we seem to have trouble making. “You know not to build an igloo in the tropics. Why build a house in a flood plain? At what point does someone obey the laws of physics?” Tyson hopes that we will embrace the scientific method as a key tool for critical thinking, he says, “the kind of thinking that enables you to use the scientific laws of nature to judge whether someone else is a crackpot.”

Sharing the Adventure. This fall, Tyson is debuting as the host of PBS's new science show, NOVA scienceNOW, which will feature news from the cutting edge of all the branches of science, including physics, engineering, biology, physiology and chemistry. Tyson is not a science nerd himself; he's a prize-winning Latin dancer who turned down a chance to be on the 1997 Studmuffins of Science calendar, but in 2000 was named one of the Sexiest Men Alive by People magazine (in the Sexiest Astrophysicist category).

“The next frontier is the search for life elsewhere in the solar system – not an alien civilization, but any evidence of life at all would be biologically fascinating,” says Tyson. Scientists thought until recently that the gas giants were too far from the sun to be warm enough to have liquid water, but it turns out that other energy sources, like friction from tidal effects, may be enough to melt some of the water on bodies like Jupiter's moon, Europa. “I want to go ice fishing on Europa,” Tyson jokes. “I'd have to bring a biologist and a chemist to help make sense of what we'd find. It would be fascinating.”

Clearly, that same thrilled kid who was enraptured by the night sky in the Hayden Planetarium is alive and well in Tyson's heart, still planning fantastic voyages to discover more about how the universe works. It doesn't take a telescope to see that he's loving every minute of it.

Jake Miller has written three dozen history, science and craft books for children. This article originally appeared in NRTA Live & Learn, Fall 2006.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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