pop me Associate Editor Courtney Linder recently spoke with world-renowned astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the PBS series Nova ScienceNow and Cosmos: A Space-Time Odysseycreator of the StarTalk franchise and bestselling book author Astrophysics for people in a hurry. Tyson’s career in astrophysics, coupled with a knack for making science easy to digest, made him a celebrity in his own right.
In this first installment of our multi-part video series, pop me Explain the universe, we explore Tyson’s cosmic baptism at the age of nine. New episodes debut every Wednesday, so be sure to check back for more Tyson’s thoughts on the multiverse, aliens, the James Webb Space Telescope, and more.
A “cosmic baptism”
Tyson’s passionate childhood turned into a lifelong space race, searching for answers to his questions about the universe. It all started with his first family trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he discovered what would later become his longtime home: the Hayden Planetarium. By age nine, Tyson already knew his interest in science was growing, so he pursued his curiosity.
Between 1972 and 1976, Tyson attended Bronx High School of Science. At age 15, he was invited to attend undergraduate lectures at Cornell University by Carl Sagan, the famed scientist who played a leading role in America’s space program in the 1950s. Tyson’s time with Sagan contributed to his interests in astrophysics, his studies continued at Harvard University. Tyson received his master’s degree in philosophy of astrophysics from Columbia University in 1989. From there he went 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 endeavors to interrogate the universe have 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 scientist in 1994, while conducting research at Princeton University. He is now director of the planetarium, a position he once drew inspiration from.
Role models are “overrated”
Tyson’s parents, Sunchita and Cyril, were instrumental in shaping his cosmic outlook. Sunchita, also known as “Toni”, took great care of her children and understood the daily difficulties of racism in America. “My three kids are brown and they stay brown all year… We had to say very, very clearly at a very young age that some people aren’t going to be very nice to them,” Ms Tyson told WNYC. Studios in 2014. As the civil rights movement progressed with important legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Fair Housing Act of 1968, inherent racial biases remained in America. Toni kept a close eye on her boys, while encouraging Tyson to pursue his dreams.
Cyril Tyson was a sociologist and civil rights activist. A former educator turned athletic star, Cyril led anti-poverty programs, many of which were designed to improve public schools to be fair and equal to their students. At a 1964 education conference, Cyril exclaimed, “Teachers just don’t teach…They have low expectations and say the kids can’t learn because they’re black.” Cyril encouraged Tyson to be exactly what he wanted to be, and growing up, Cyril was right next to him, building his first telescope.
Still, the idea of role models is “overrated,” says Tyson Popular mechanics. Why? Because you limit yourself to a way of thinking, an example to follow, by idolizing others. Tyson had many inspiring personalities in his life, from his parents to Carl Sagan, to other scientists and professors. He took pieces of their stories, their research and their passions, and made them his collective inspiration. In his words, “I do this kind of Frankenstein model with pieces of people who had talents that I wanted to emulate.” Tyson explains that having a role model limits an individual’s freedom of choice. If you want to explore all the possible outcomes of your life, you have to believe in yourself rather than someone else.
You can read more about Tyson’s cosmic outlook in his brand new book, Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization.
Taylor Vasilik is a video producer for Popular mechanics, The runner’s worldand Ride a bike magazines. She recently graduated from Temple University where she studied film and media. Her favorite hobbies include DIY projects, exploring new music, videography and travelling. On weekends, you can find her shopping at her favorite thrift stores and antique stores.
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