Neil deGrasse Tyson, noted astrophysicist, frequent television guest, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC decided to become an astrophysicist at the age of nine after a visit to the planetarium. Here he muses on the experiences which brought him to his current life and position as a scientist and as a black man in the United States.
Like many people, I first became aware of Dr. Tyson through his television work — specifically in my case, through his frequent visits to The Daily Show. I always enjoyed his discussions with Jon Stewart, but it wasn’t until they showed the following segment that I really became a huge fan.
It was here that I learned he wasn’t just a scientist. He’s also a dork and a geek, neither of which negates his coolness in any way. It made him more relatable — not just a random scientist, but someone I might enjoy having a conversation with.
Tyson has written several science books for the general audience, but this isn’t really one of them, though there is some scientific content. This is a memoir, specifically a memoir of his development into an astrophysicist. It begins with his visit to the planetarium at the age of nine, the visit which inspired him and fueled his desire to make that his field.
Though they comprised a pretty small portion of the book as a whole, it was his experiences as a teenager participating in non-school based science programs that I found the most fascinating. He seems to have been able to take part in some truly astonishing things, even as a very young kid. At the age of fourteen, he was able to take a star-studded cruise (Isaac Asimov! Neil Armstrong!) out into the Atlantic to view a solar eclipse, apparently with no other chaperone aside from himself. He attended a camp in the Mojave desert for astronomically inclined young people. He was invited to give guest lectures at the City College of New York’s Center for Open Education. And, of course, he was able to take classes offered at the Hayden Planetarium.
As a girl from NH who spent several years in high school trying to find myself astronomy-based programs to do in the summer (and with pretty much no money to use for said), I confess: I am sooo jealous! I don’t begrudge Tyson his good luck, because he surely earned it by being motivated and working hard, but I’m still very jealous, because the stuff he got to do is just So. Very. Cool.
Only the first third of the book is truly chonological; the remainder leapfrogs back and forth through time, each chapter made up of anecdotes loosely connected by their topic. The topics themselves are wide-ranging, from the scientific and mathematical illiteracy of the American public, to the issues he’s faced as a black male in our society. Several were thought provoking, such as his reaction to being asked to participate in a calendar of scientific studmuffins. Others were just darn interesting, like when he collaborated with a Chinese history scholar to try and pinpoint the exact nature of a celestial event referenced in the historical record.
It was after I finished reading this book that I realized that in addition to his hosting duties on PBS’s NovaScienceNOW, Tyson has also been hosting a radio program. Somehow I hadn’t connected the dots until I saw both him and John Hodgman tweeting about Hodgman’s visit to the show. Apparently Bill Nye is also a frequent guest! Worth checking out.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has proved in his multiple television appearances that he’s not just a scientist but a witty and amusing conversationalist. This talent translates very well into this memoir, and he fills the pages with fascinating bits from his life.