The name Neil de Grasse Tyson is a familiar one both in the professional world of science and in the popular culture. He has written several books on astrophysics and has been an advocate of the national push for young people to get involved with STEM programs, both in high school and college. Despite the recent negative publicity (which is not part of this list) here are 20 things that are often overlooked about the sometimes controversial public scientist.
1. He was named “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive” by People magazine.
Of course, this must have been the result of a woman’s panel of voters since the man’s choice by far would be Astrophysicist Amy Mainzer (who also has an asteroid named after her). Now we all know that sexy is largely a personal construct, often imaginary, but it’s important to give credit where credit is due. The fact that People magazine even noted someone of intelligence may indicate a change of direction in the universe.
2. His stellar career had a foundation even before he entered college.
Tyson did not attend a regular high school but the Bronx High School of Science way back in 1976. He would be admitted to Harvard where he earned his bachelor's degree in Physics, followed by Ph.D. in astrophysics after moving on to Columbia University. His innate talent combined with a charismatic personality led to him being one of the most well-known scientists in a country whose interest in science doesn’t seem to go beyond The Big Bang Theory.
3. He loves wine and gourmet cooking.
As they say, behind every successful man is a great woman, and this seems to be the case with de Grasse Tyson. His wife, Alice Young, has a Ph.D. in Mathematical Physics which actually makes for a great combination of professional careers. It is not known whether it is his wife who is responsible for his palate or whether this was true from birth, but it would be interesting to see how this would work out if he had married a Nutritionist. The gravitation forces of nature are something to behold, no?
4. Tyson played a key role in removing Pluto as the 9th planet of the Earth’s solar system.
de Grasse Tyson would be hired by the Hayden Planetarium during his doctoral studies, and that would lead to his refusal to include the former planet Pluto as the ninth planet on the grounds that it did not have similar qualities that the other eight planets have. The issue was revisited in 2014, where a panel of 3 astrophysicists voted 2 to 1 to restore Pluto’s right to planet status - however, this has yet to become official.
5. Tyson would later personally back off of his planetary demotion of Pluto in an odd way.
Professionally, he has not retracted his position, but it is of interest that on his personal blog just a few years later he would state that Pluto should retain its place of “honor” in the list of planets in Earth’s solar system. He used political terminology, including the word “diverse” in his explanation. It is fair to make the case that his public persona and the not-so-small public backlash of his position attributed to the reversal of position on his public blog.
6. He has at least one other career as a film critic.
The blockbuster movie Titanic showed the night sky during the final scenes of the movie, where Rose, the star struck woman, was clinging to a piece of driftwood for survival. Tyson noticed that the stars in the sky were not correctly aligned, also noting that the left and right parts of the sky were basically mirror images of one another. But Director James Cameron, who received a message from Tyson to the error, moved onward and upward, releasing the film with the astrophysical error.
7. His error, though a technical minutiae, actually resulted in a change in the movie.
Cameron’s initial response to Tyson’s message wasn’t exactly friendly, as Cameron responded with a witty remark, telling Tyson that the firm had grossed $1.3 billion at the box office with the stellar error. But when Titanic was re-released just a few years later, the same sky was technically adjusted to reflect the actual star alignment of that fateful night. No word whether it impacted sales of the re-release.
8. He interviewed God on his Star Talk podcast.
For those who have yet to discover the social media world of de Grasse Tyson, he indeed has a podcast where he claimed to have a Twitter conversation with God. The reality is it was God with a lower case “g”, the god emanating from the Twitter handle @TheTweetofGod. What makes Tyson’s podcast “interesting” is that it is not purely a scientific podcast but a combination of popular culture, science, told with an irreverent tone. Clearly, part of his persona is his ability to give people what they want.
9. A caricature of him can be seen in Action Comics, volume 14.
Always seeking to improve the level of astrophysical knowledge in the world, Tyson got his hands dirty in paper and ink as he offered his considerable knowledge to accurately describe the explosion of Superman’s home planet of Krypton. He had already attempted to destroy the existence of Pluto, so this can be considered to be a follow-up on that effort. Mathematically, Earth would not see Krypton’s destruction for at least 27 years, and the comic was written to reflect this scientific reality.
10. On a more serious note, de Grasse Tyson was directly responsible for the reboot of the “Cosmos” television series.
The “Cosmos” series, originally hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan back in the 1970’s, was one of the most popular shoes on television. It came to an end in 1980, and Tyson personally took on responsibility of navigating the reboot. It turns out that Sagan was Tyson’s mentor during his astrophysics career, and his effort may be seen as paying homage to the passing of Sagan in 1996. The reboot would run 13 episodes and capture the attention of both old and young.
11. He once considered becoming an exotic dancer??!
OK< this one is not exactly what you would expect from an aspiring astrophysicist, and the source of this “fact" is not the most reputable. Nevertheless, the story is that as he worked his way through college, he, like many other starving students, needed some extra cash. At the suggestion of a friend (or enemy, depending on how you look at it) he paid a visit to a male “dance” club and saw its short term potential. In the end, he opted to go in a different direction.
12. After being accepted to Cornell University he decided to switch to Harvard for his undergraduate studies - Part One.
This may not seem important, but there is a lot behind this simple fact. His mentor, and the man who basically “discovered” Tyson, was Carl Sagan who worked for Cornell. Tyson gives unending credit to Sagan for his interest and development in the field of astrophysics, so this change of venue can be seen as somewhat of a betrayal. Tyson’s decision to go to Harvard was based on the fact of Harvard having a larger astrophysics department. Just from a perspective of decision-making, this personal conflict is not uncommon to many people, and the final decision has obvious long term personal and professional impact.
13. After being accepted to Cornell University he decided to switch to Harvard for his undergraduate studies - Part Deux.
Why is there a part two? de Grasse Tyson recalls his early meeting with Sagan at the young age of 15, a time when Sagan basically opened up his home to the aspiring astrophysicist. Tyson says that Sagan’s commitment and dedication to developing young scientific talent is something that he not only remembers, but uses as a model to inspire other young scientists. Is this a subtle admission of guilt by Tyson, recognizing that the path to Harvard was not as important in the long term as remaining faithful to the person who was largely responsible for his career direction? He isn’t saying, so you can make the call.
14. He made frequent appearances on the Comedy Central cable network.
Though Comedy Central hasn’t been the same since the promotion of Steven Colbert to the CBS Late Show host spot soon followed by the departure of Jon Stewart from The Daily Show, de Grasse Tyson could be seen discussing the wonders of science to Stewart’s and Colbert’s audiences on a regular basis. His easy going style combined with his scientific take on many cultural and scientific current events made for an interesting and sometimes very finny segment. It is worth nothing that both Stewart and Colbert tended to hit the pause button on the humor when de Grasse went full scientific mode.
15. He says his daughter is a “geek.”
Apparently, from one scientist to another (remember, Tyson’s wife is a brainiac as well) their daughter once performed some serious calculations and created an image of what her father would look like at 85% of the speed of light. Then she posted it on Twitter. No word as to the accuracy of the calculations, but since dad seems to be OK with it, who are we to argue?
16. Sir Isaac Newton is his “hero.”
He once used a more culturally correct representation of Newton, which began on a segment of The Daily Show. But there remains some debate about exactly who is the greatest astrophysicist in history. Tyson would likely not vote for himself despite his 1.9 million social media followers, making Newton the number one selection. Newton invented calculus when he was a youthful 26 years old, a feat which few can match up against. But if popularity is the measure, de Grasse wins hands down.
17. de Grasse was appointed by a president to serve as an aerospace industry advisor.
That president, George W. Bush, decided that Tyson’s public recognition and futuristic tendencies would be ideal to determine the future direction of the United States aerospace industry. Though his contributions are likely classified material, you would be well-served to check out the advances in aerospace technology since the year of de Grasse’s appointment in 2000. He would later be selected to examine’ America’s space exploration program.
18. He would literally start from the bottom up to make his career mark.
The Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, located in New York City, was the place where de Grasse found himself starting as what amounts to an internship. After demonstrating his smarts and competency, he would later take over the directorship of the planetarium and raise more than $200 million for its renovation. He remains director today. Attribute his popularity as well as his commitment to astrophysics to bring about the renovation is a country where science continues to lose interest in competition with technology.
19. As one of the few African American astrophysicists, Tyson has encouraged diversity not only in the field of science, but specifically astrophysics.
Television and Internet ads that announce that young girls who have female role models who are scientists are much more likely to stick with STEM programs are making the rounds. One of those ads specifically has a female astrophysicist telling a group of young girls they can search for aliens. One girl then says that we (Earthlings) are aliens in the eyes of aliens. When you stop and think about it, this is a subtle diversity message which is intentionally placed in the ad.
20. He may be starting to get super scientific serious about popular celestial jargon.
On a recent Star Talk show, de Grasse became very serious about the popularly coined term “Super moon.” He pointedly said there is no such thing, that in effect it is simply a matter of distance rather than any actual change in the size of the moon. Why he is so animated about this issue is unknown, but stay tuned to see if he begins a shift in orbit on his popular podcast.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker