Is he a comic performer? A genius astrophysicist? A man intent on bringing America back to its place of prominence in the world of science? Come ponder the universe with Neil DeGrasse Tyson as we re-publish our 2012 profile in honor of his new show Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, which is airing Sundays on Fox.
On a hay-mown crest, dozens of people crouch in the dark. The Earth has turned away from the sun, and the sky has flowed down a color chart, from light gray to orange to bluish black. A sliver of a waxing moon appears briefly and then slips below the western horizon, leaving the sky to blinking airplanes rising from La Guardia 50 miles to the south, to satellites gliding in low orbit, to Jupiter and its herd of moons and to the great river of the Milky Way beyond.
The crowd that sits in this chilly field in North Salem, New York is surrounded by a ring of telescopes. There's a Dobsonian, a giant barrel-shape contraption that's so tall you have to climb a stepladder to look through its eyepiece. Small, squat Newtonian cylinders sit on tripods, rigged to computers that give off a weak glow from their monitors. A few older men are fussing over the telescopes, but everyone else is huddled on the grass.
"Just get snuggly. There's nothing wrong with that. Get snuggly."
The voice is deep and loud—not loud from shouting but from some strange acoustic property that gives it a conversational boom. It comes from a man who looms in the dark at the edge of the crowd.
"We still have the remnants of what we typically call the Summer Triangle," he says. "The Summer Triangle is three stars that are about equally bright. One is here——"
"Oh my God," the crowd murmurs.
The looming figure is Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. He has just put the crowd into a swoon by switching on a laser and pointing it toward the zenith of the sky. The green beam seems to reach up from the field and touch the star.
"And one is here and here," he says, sweeping the laser across the sky to mark the stellar triangle. The onlookers gasp, swear in amazement again and laugh at themselves. Tyson's laser is creating an optical illusion: He seems to pull the sky down into a dome that floats close overhead, like an astronomical Sistine Chapel.
"Here we have Deneb," he says. "Everyone say Deneb!"
"Good. And down here we have Altair."
"And up here we have Vega."
"One of the telescopes is actually trained on a star that's in the middle of this triangle," Tyson says, moving his laser to a faint dot called Albireo. "It's right there. It doesn't look very interesting at first, but when you whip out a telescope, what you'll find is that this star is not alone, as a solo star. It has a companion star. Albireo is in fact my favorite star of the night sky. If you look closely, one star is this brilliant, beautiful blue color, and the other is gold. And we know from astrophysics what must be true if an object is glowing at one or the other of those colors. Unlike what an artist will tell you, something glowing red-hot is the coolest among all the hots. You get way hotter than red-hot. If you crank the temperature, it becomes white-hot. Crank it some more, it then begins to glow blue."
Tyson moves the laser to other regions of the sky, to the feeble North Star, to Cassiopeia, to Sagittarius. As he talks, the people huddling on the ground blast questions at him. Where is Venus? Is that a satellite? Is that a satellite? Is the Chinese calendar based on the lunar cycle? Tyson stops to answer each question. He twirls his laser in a tight circle midway down the handle of the Big Dipper.
"If you look really carefully at it, you should be able to see two stars there," he says. "How good is your vision?"
"Awesome!" a boy says.
"I can see it!" says another.
"Who cannot see two stars inside my little circle here?" Tyson asks.
"Me," says a third.
"Okay, therefore you cannot be drafted into the Roman army," says Tyson. "That was their eye test. This pair of stars is called Mizar and Alcor. Mizar is the brighter of the two. Alcor is the dimmer of the two. This is a very loosely bound double-star system. If you take out a telescope and point it on Mizar, that's a double star. Then if you take the telescope and point it on the brighter of these two, that's a double star. So what you have here," Tyson says, "is a double-double-double-star system, all in mutual harmonious orbit around their common center of gravity. Such is the layout of this cosmic ballet that we call the universe."
For most of the stargazers, tonight is the first time they've spent an extended period looking up at the sky. For three hours Tyson keeps his audience staring so hard at the heavens their necks cramp. He speaks of galaxies and the delusions of astrology, how to calculate latitude, the fate of the universe. It is not a lecture. He delivers something more akin to a solo concert. Although he is a card-carrying astrophysicist with a long list of scientific papers, Tyson has turned himself into a rock-star scientist. He plays to sold-out houses. He appears on TheDaily Show With Jon Stewart, on the New York Times best-seller list, on Twitter (@neiltyson, with more than 1.74 million followers). He's begun shooting a remake of Carl Sagan's classic Cosmos series, which will air on Fox in 2013.
Tyson spreads himself wide for two reasons. One is that there's so much in the sky to talk about. The other reason is down here on Earth. For all the spectacular advances American science has made over the past century—not just in astrophysics but in biology, engineering and other disciplines—the best days of American science may be behind us. And as American science declines, so does America. So here, in the dark, under the stars, Tyson is trying to save the future, one neck cramp at a time.
Tyson first saw the Milky Way when he was nine, projected across the ceiling of New York's Hayden Planetarium. He thought it was a hoax. From the roof of the Skyview Apartments in the Bronx, where he grew up, he could see only a few bright stars. When Tyson turned 11, a friend loaned him a pair of 7x35 binoculars. They weren't powerful enough to reveal the Milky Way in the Bronx sky, but they did let him glimpse the craters on the moon. That was enough to convince him the sky was worth looking at.
He began to work his way up through a series of telescopes. For his 12th birthday he got a 2.4-inch refractor with three eyepieces and a solar projection screen. Dog walking earned him a five-foot-long Newtonian with an electric clock for tracking stars. Tyson would run an extension cord across the Skyview's two-acre roof into a friend's apartment window. Fairly often someone would call the police. He charmed the cops with the rings of Saturn.
Tyson took classes at the Hayden Planetarium and then began to travel to darker places to look more closely at the heavens. In 1973, at the age of 14, he went to the Mojave Desert for an astronomy summer camp. Comet Kohoutek had appeared earlier in the year, and Tyson spent much of his time in the Mojave taking pictures of its long-tailed entry into the solar system. After a month he emerged from the desert, an astronomer to the bone.
It was a good time for a plunge into astronomy. Neil Armstrong had landed on the moon four years earlier. In 1973 NASA launched Pioneer 11, and the space probe began its journey to the asteroid belt and then onward to the outer solar system. At the suggestion of Carl Sagan, NASA had bolted a plaque to Pioneer that depicted a naked man and woman, along with a cosmic map of Earth's location, should an alien civilization encounter the probe after it left our neighborhood.
Tyson learned how astronomy could also bring out the crazies. As Kohoutek got closer to Earth, a cult called the Children of God warned it was an omen that the world was about to be destroyed. Psychics declared that the comet disrupted the psychomagnetic equilibrium of the planets and would cause mass violence. Timothy Leary had a happier opinion of Kohoutek, which he preferred to call Starseed. It comes, Leary said, "at the right time to return light to the planet Earth."
In the face of this superstition, Tyson wished he could talk to people about the beauty of the universe. At the age of 15 he was invited to a continuing education class. He delivered an hour-long lecture to 50 adults, showing them his pictures of planets, stars and Kohoutek. As he stood before his first audience, he didn't know he would be doing this sort of thing for the rest of his life. But it certainly felt right. "For me," Tyson later wrote, "talking about the universe was like breathing."
Tyson graduated from Bronx High School of Science in 1976 and went to Harvard. He wrestled, tutored prisoners in math and studied astrophysics. In his sophomore year he was talking with a fellow black student, a senior who was about to start a Rhodes scholarship. The senior was appalled to hear Tyson talk about astrophysics. "Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being wasted on astrophysics," he declared.
It was as if Tyson had been stung by a hornet. But then he got his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia. During graduate school he became the department's go-to person when reporters called to ask about something weird in the sky. He began answering questions readers sent to StarDate magazine. One day a satellite recorded explosions on the surface of the sun, and a local TV station asked Tyson if he would talk about it on camera. After the filming, he went home and watched himself. It was the first time he could recall ever seeing a black scientist speaking as an expert on American television. His college shame fell away.
By the time Tyson had finished his Ph.D. and taken a job at Princeton, he had turned his StarDate columns into his first book, Merlin's Tour of the Universe. And it was that willingness to engage the public that brought him a visit from representatives of the American Museum of Natural History. They wanted to talk to him about the Hayden Planetarium. Pushing 60, it was in bad need of a renovation.
"They were really just coasting on the glory days of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s," Tyson tells me. "I said, 'Change out all the exhibits. Oh, and by the way, you should start a research department there.'"
Tyson began to split his time between teaching at Princeton and working as a staff scientist at the Hayden Planetarium, helping to plan its redesign. "It went beyond just a face-lift," he says. "It was an entire reworking of the architecture, which involved demolition and reconstruction."
Tyson held out until Frederick Rose, a New York developer and philanthropist, put $20 million on the table for a renovated planetarium and a department of astrophysics. "Where do I sign?" Tyson recalls thinking. In 1996 he was appointed the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium. He could still recall being mesmerized by the Milky Way the first time he stepped foot in the planetarium, as a nine-year-old. Three decades later, he was in charge.
When the Rose Center for Earth and Space finally opened in 2000, it startled a city grown blasé about new buildings. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for TheNew Yorker, wrote that the building "is a temple of serene geometries, perhaps the purest piece of monumental architecture built in the United States since the Washington Monument went up on the Mall."
A decade later, on a bright Sunday morning in 2010, a smattering of kids and their parents gathered to celebrate the Rose Center's 10th anniversary. By 11 a.m. every chair was occupied. Tyson climbed onto the dais dressed in a dark suit and bright tie covered in Renaissance drawings of the sky. He welcomed the crowd. He talked about the design of the center, how the giant planetarium's signature sphere was encircled by models of the planets—eight of them.
"Pluto is a planet!" a boy in the back shouted. The crowd rumbled.
"Apparently people are still angry about this," Tyson replied with a smile.
Tyson's decision to kick Pluto out of the league of planets may be the most famous thing he's done so far. Yet he didn't make a big deal of it at the time. In the late 1990s, astronomers were beginning to discover a vast belt of giant hunks of ice at the solar system's outer edge.
"Pluto and they look more alike than any one of them looks like anything else in the solar system," Tyson explained to the crowd. "That's a good excuse to group them. That's how you make categories. That's all we did."
Tyson's demotion of Pluto came to the public's attention after Kenneth Chang, a New York Times reporter, noticed that the Rose Center featured only eight planets. When Chang asked other astronomers to comment, they called the decision absurd. Letters of protest poured into the museum. But Tyson held firm, and in the years that followed, astronomers discovered other icy bodies at the edge of the solar system that were even bigger than Pluto. In 2006 the International Astronomical Union decided to classify it as a dwarf planet.
"By the way," Tyson said, scanning the crowd, "who's the kid who said Pluto is a planet? What's your name?"
The boy answered, "Sebastian."
"Sebastian, a question for you. You know Pluto is small, right?"
"Do you know how small it is?"
"No, you don't know how small it is!" Tyson roared. When he works a crowd, he doesn't maintain a cool composure like his hero Carl Sagan. He has a touch of Chris Rock. "So how can you say Pluto must be a planet? For example, if the planet Saturn were a car, how big a car would Pluto be sitting next to it? Do you have any idea? If Saturn the car were like Saturn the planet, how little would you have to make a car to be the size of Pluto? Would it be like a Mini Cooper? Or what's that, the Smart Car, that little stubby car that's got no butt?" Tyson sidled around onstage, the crowd laughing at his imitation of a car without a butt. "That little thing? You've seen those. Great for parking. You think it's that small maybe?"
Tyson stood tall again. "I'll tell you how small!" he shouted. "To make Pluto the size of a car relative to Saturn the car, it would have to be the size of a Matchbox car sitting on the curb." He squeezed his fingers. "Like that. There are seven moons in the solar system bigger than Pluto, including Earth's moon. And practically everybody I know saying 'Pluto must be a planet' did not know that. Did you also know that Pluto is mostly ice by volume? If you slid it into where Earth is right now, heat from the sun would evaporate that ice and it would grow a tail. That's no kind of behavior for a planet, I wouldn't think. There's a word for things with tails. What do we call them?"
The crowd answered, "Comets!"
"Comets, thank you. No, I think Pluto is happier now as the king of the comets instead of being a pip-squeak planet."
Tyson glared again at Sebastian. "So you agree with me? You admit it?"
Sebastian, arms folded, gave a nod.
"We have a convert right there," Tyson declared.
It's not easy being Earth's ambassador to the heavens. No scientist has worked as hard as Tyson to bridge the gap between the stars and pop culture. On a night I met Tyson in his room at the Hotel Ambassador in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he was in the middle of a frantic week. He was in town to give a talk at a sold-out 2,300-seat auditorium, guiding his audience through the universe for an hour and a half. Two days earlier he had been in Los Angeles to film a cameo on The Big Bang Theory, the remarkably successful sitcom revolving around the lives of two socially awkward physicists.
For Tyson, a show like The Big Bang Theory is worth a trip across the country. With an audience of 14 million a week, each episode can deliver a large injection of geek culture into pop culture. "I had Mr. Wizard and Carl Sagan growing up," says Bill Prady, the show's co-creator and executive producer. "There were science celebrities. And I think that's something there should be more of. Someone like Neil comes on television, he's friendly, he's funny, he's a good teacher. More people like him would represent a positive shift in the culture."
Carl Sagan appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Tyson went a step further. In 2009 he sat in the host's chair, with a radio show called StarTalk. When I ask Tyson if it airs on National Public Radio, he answers with an emphatic no.
"It's the anti-NPR," he says. Tyson has had Stephen Colbert on StarTalk, confessing his own geekhood, and he's talked about astrobiology with Joan Rivers. "I said, 'Joan, what happens if the aliens come? What do you do?'" Tyson recalls. "She said, 'I don't care as long as they're single and Jewish.'"
He's also embarked on a remake of Cosmos, working with Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow and co-writer of the original series, which aired on PBS in 1980. Druyan asked Tyson if he would host the new show, and then Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy (and a massive science buff), offered to bring them together with executives at Fox. Tyson decided it was a good place for the show. If he can reach a huge audience of people who aren't already science fanatics, he says, "it would have the greatest chance of influencing the science literacy of the nation."
One of the few times I was able to sit down with Tyson in New York was on a day when Barack Obama was visiting the American Museum of Natural History. Rather than deal with the hassle of security, Tyson decamped to Smith & Wollensky, a Midtown steakhouse, to participate in a wine auction. The second floor of the restaurant was crowded with tables of bidders. A flat-screen television hung behind the auctioneer, displaying lot numbers and bids. Tyson had a table to himself in the middle of the room, where he was answering e-mails on his laptop.
We talked over a rib eye about the future. From time to time, Tyson took a break to wave his paddle or shake a waiter's hand. For the past few years managing the future of astronomy has been a part-time job for Tyson, as he served on the Committee for a Decadal Survey for Astronomy and Astrophysics 2010. The committee, assembled by the National Academy of Sciences from American astronomy's top ranks, had as its mission the ranking of a vast number of proposals for future projects.
Astrophysics is entering a precarious phase in the United States. As scientists probe deeper into the universe, they need increasingly sophisticated tools to make more progress. And those tools are becoming hugely expensive.
"Let me give you an example," Tyson says. "The entire Rose Center cost $230 million. That was years of fund-raising and three years of demolition and construction. If the shuttle can't land in Florida because of a thunderstorm and has to land at Vandenberg Air Force Base, that's $250 million."
At the moment, the missions Tyson and his colleagues have endorsed are stuck in line behind the James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to lift off in 2018. The JWST will be delivered into space essentially as a rolled-up ball; once it emerges from its rocket, it will unfurl a 6.5-meter mirror, one more than twice as big as the Hubble Space Telescope's. It's a magnificent concept, but it's turning into a budgetary nightmare. Its projected cost has leaped from $5 billion to more than $8 billion. Nature called it "the telescope that ate astronomy." Last summer, as Congress tried to find ways to cut its budget, the JWST ended up on a list of projects under consideration for elimination.
Shortly after Congress raised this possibility, Tyson appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher. He pointed out that the 2008 TARP bank bailout had already sucked up more money than NASA had in its entire 50-year existence. "You are removing the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow," he warned.
The audience broke out in applause.
Tyson believes that the scientific community has to do its part to keep costs down, but he worries that politicians may not recognize that there is value to exploring the universe. The first exposure many people have to astronomy is in a planetarium or on a NASA website. By learning about black holes or dark energy, people become acquainted with science itself. Some of them go on to become scientists, and others become scientifically literate citizens. And that's how to keep a country thriving.
"There's no greater engine of economic growth than innovations in those fields," Tyson said.
A truly galling sign of the times came in 2009, when Russia announced a space mission to the asteroid Apophis, which has a very small but genuine chance of hitting Earth in 2036. Recently Russia invited the United States to be a partner on the mission.
"Excuse me?" Tyson asks, setting down his fork. "Roll that tape back. Aren't we the ones who propose missions and then bring other partners in with us? Aren't we the leaders in this?"
For Tyson, the tale of Apophis speaks of a broader decline—in America's science education and its skills in science and engineering. "Katrina didn't destroy New Orleans—the levees did," he says. "What, we can't hold back water? This is the 21st century. What is our problem?"
I ask Tyson if he thinks something could stop America's slide.
"Space exploration," he says without missing a beat.
When the United States was sending men to the moon, science thrived. "You had to beat people back at the door who wanted to major in science and physics and become science teachers," says Tyson. "You had people making the space program the measure of what is possible."
But Tyson does not simply want to turn back the clock. As he explains in his forthcoming book, Space Chronicles, the Cold War that made the Kennedy-era space program possible is long over. Tyson has been pondering a plan to take its place. "You multiply NASA's budget by a factor of two or three and you give it a grand vision," he says. "You say, 'We're going back to the moon. We're going to Mars. Oh, by the way, we're going to be on Mars on this date, and right now we are looking at the elementary school children of the nation to see who has the right stuff, because by the time we're ready to go to Mars, they will be the right age to be astronauts.' You attract an entire generation of people into these epic projects. And to solve those problems that have never been solved before, they have to invent things. They have to have new ideas. New branches of mathematics get discovered. This feeds into society, into our culture. It's a difficult sell, but I think it's our only hope."
The star party in North Salem, New York is winding down. People are milling around the telescopes to see the moons of Jupiter or the Andromeda galaxy. The younger set and their parents have hiked away in the dark to find their cars. Tyson's own son is fading fast and has clamped onto his father's leg like a barnacle.
"Any other questions?" Tyson asks. "Oh, there was a question about dark matter, right?"
A boy named Henry pipes up. "Yes, thank you! Thank you, I've been waiting."
"Okay, what do you know about dark matter?" Tyson asks.
Henry muses in a high voice, "Just, like, there's 70 percent or so—maybe even more—of the universe that's missing, and we think that's made of dark matter."
"Okay, so why are you asking me what dark matter is?" Tyson asks. The hardness is back in his voice—a joke varnishing a challenge.
"Because, like, that's all I know," Henry admits. "I don't really get what it is."
"Oh, so you think there's more known about dark matter than what you just told me?"
"Yeah. Sure," Henry says. He doesn't sound sure.
"We don't know any more than what you just said," Tyson says.
"Wow, Henry," Henry's mother says. "That's neat." Henry doesn't pay her much mind.
"Okay," Tyson explains, "everything we've ever seen in the universe has gravity—Earth, the moon. And you can tell how much gravity something has by how fast something moves around it. For example, I can use an equation that was given to us by Isaac Newton. Remember those satellites we talked about? I said they're going 17,500 miles an hour and they're in orbit. Earth has to have a particular amount of gravity if you see that happening. Okay?"
"All right," Henry says.
"All right. So now let's look around the galaxy. There are 100 billion stars. There are gas clouds, there are black holes, there are…."
"Dwarfs," says Henry.
"Dwarf stars, there are planets, there are comets. Add it all up. We've done this. Add it all up and say that should give me this much gravity. But when you look at how fast things are moving, you get six times as much gravity as the stuff that we know about is generating. It was originally called the missing-matter problem. Where is the matter that's making this gravity that we see? Because everything we do count up doesn't get us where we need. We now call this the dark-matter problem.
"But really, we have no idea what's causing it. We so don't know what's causing it that we shouldn't even call it dark matter because that implies we have some understanding that it's matter. We don't know what it is. I could call it Fred. Eighty-five percent of all the gravity in the universe comes from something about which we know nothing."
"That's a problem," Henry declares.
"That's a problem," Tyson calls back. "It's called the dark-matter problem. It's been with us since 1936, and it's one of the longest-standing unsolved problems in astrophysics."
"So that's going to be your goal," Henry's mother says. "Grow up and solve that."
"That's a little too big," Henry says.
"Wait, that's only the beginning," Tyson says, waving his finger close to Henry's nose. "What year were you born?"
"In 1999," Henry says.
"In 1998, a year before you were born, it was announced that the expanding universe is not only expanding, it is accelerating in its expansion. Meaning.…"
"It's getting faster?" Henry asks.
"Faster and faster and faster," Tyson says. "We expected that the universe's expansion would be slowing down because all the gravity is trying to pull everybody back in. But we found the opposite is true. So we learned that there is a mysterious pressure in the vacuum of space that is pressing the universe to expand against the wishes of gravity. We call that dark energy. We don't know what's causing it. We can describe it, we can say what it's doing, but we don't know what it is. When you add up the missing gravity or the missing cause of the gravity to this mysterious dark energy, it is 96 percent of the universe."
"That's a lot," Henry says.
"Everything we know and love—electrons, protons, neutrons, light, black holes, planets, stars—everything we know and understand occupies four percent of the universe. Dark matter and dark energy are everything else. So we're just dumb—stupid—about what's driving this cosmos. And we've got top people working on it. Top people. This problem has been around a long time, so a whole lot of top people have failed. We're waiting for another generation of top people to come along and help us out."
When Tyson says "another generation," he might as well be saying "Henry."
"Yeah!" someone calls out. It's not Henry.
"Okay?" Tyson asks.
The night is now deeply dark. It's good for seeing the Milky Way. It's good for training telescopes on planetary nebulae. It's good for contemplating the 96 percent of the universe left to figure out. But it's too dark now to see what Henry is thinking.
Photos courtesy of Patrick Eccelsine/FOX