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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, presenter of the TV series Cosmos, has always had his eyes on the heavens.

By Wendy Zukerman.

Mr Universe, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Credit: Courtesy of Think Inc

Some say he killed Pluto. But American astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers to call himself an accessory to the space rock’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet.

It all began 15 years ago, when New York’s Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History reorganised their exhibit on the solar system. This was six years before NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft began its long-haul mission to the distant, icy rock. The planetarium, where Tyson serves as director, decided that Pluto would no longer be placed with the big guns – Earth, Mars, Saturn and the like. Instead, it was relegated to go on display with the scrabble of icy rocks and comets that were recently discovered orbiting the outer solar system, known as the Kuiper Belt. And that was as much fanfare as it got.

There was no announcement of Pluto’s demotion. No discussion of a restructure of the solar system. A year later, a front-page story in The New York Times announced: “Pluto’s not a planet? Only in New York.” And that’s when the hate mail began. Tyson said it was rolling in. He blames people’s love of Mickey Mouse’s dog for their misguided anger.

“I have nothing against Pluto,” Tyson says, after a friendly rebuke that this is the billionth and one time that a journalist has asked him about it. “I’m just trying to give people the assortment of arguments that they might have missed.” Arguments such as that Pluto is a relatively puny space rock. “Almost everyone I know who loves Pluto doesn’t know that our moon is five times the mass of Pluto itself.”

By August 2006, six years after Tyson’s exhibition went on display, the international community of astrophysicists made the controversial move to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet. New Horizons had already started its journey, and a month after its destination had been demoted, the first images of the newly defined dwarf were sent home.

Last month, when the spacecraft completed its mission and the world reached peak Pluto, we saw unprecedented images of the alien world five billion kilometres away. New Horizons also calculated the most accurate measurements of Pluto’s size. While larger than expected, the dwarf’s diameter is a measly 2370 kilometres. Pouncing on Plutomania, Tyson tweeted to his now four million followers: “Pluto would fit comfortably between New York & Dallas. Between Rome & Moscow. Between Perth & Melbourne.”

“If Pluto were dragged where Earth is in our orbit, the heat would evaporate that ice and it would grow a tail,” says Tyson. “Now, that’s just embarrassing. You can’t be a planet and have a tail.”

Other than his notorious status as a planet killer, Tyson has become a much-loved science communicator. Associate Professor Charles Liu, a friend and colleague of Tyson’s at the Hayden Planetarium, says, “Dr Tyson plays a leading role, if not the leading role, in the communication of science to Americans through mass media today.”

He was the host of the wildly popular reboot of Carl Sagan’s television series Cosmos last year, and since 2009 has presented StarTalk, a podcast, and now television series, in which scientists, entrepreneurs and comedians share the stage to discuss life and the universe.

Tyson, who is undertaking a speaking tour of Australia this month, has an addictive laugh and a beautifully geeky turn of phrase. In an interview with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone for his podcast, he described Twitter’s stratospheric rise as “the emergence of a species”, and when discussing the tiny bugs that live within humans, he said, “We are vessels for the lives of 200,000 different species of micro-organisms.” Liu describes Tyson as “genuine, thoughtful, caring and kind”.

His schtick is about promoting scientific literacy as a powerful weapon against ignorance and charlatans. He once questioned whether the financial collapse might have been avoided had the public known how to calculate variable interest rates on monthly payments. “I am an educator,” says Tyson. “One of my tasks is to get you to think, not to get me to think for you.”

In 2006, he took Richard Dawkins to task by suggesting that the famed atheist is “not being an educator” by throwing out statements with an attitude of “here are the facts, you’re either an idiot, or you’re not”. Tyson went on: “I worry that your methods – how articulately barbed you can be – end up simply being ineffective.” As evidence of his unwavering charm, the characteristically piercing Dawkins replied, “I gratefully accept the rebuke”, before pointing out that he is “not the worst” and quoting a former editor of New Scientist magazine, who said: “Science is interesting, and if you don’t agree you can fuck off.”

 

Tyson was born and raised in New York City. Growing up in the Bronx, he never saw a full night sky until his family took him to the Hayden Planetarium, now under his stewardship. He was nine years old and vividly remembers looking up as the lights dimmed and the artificial synthesis of the stars beamed. “It stimulated a kind of cosmic curiosity within me,” he says. “I was hooked ever since.” He returned to the planetarium to see the rest of the space exhibits and took classes in astrophysics.

“So it sent me on a journey, a cosmic journey,” he tells me. “I would look up at night and say, ‘Doesn’t everyone want to know what’s up there and where we came from?’ ” As a kid, instead of a rubber ducky, he wanted to play with a rubber Saturn in the tub, because teeny Tyson knew that the gas giant’s density was so low it could float on water.

To an ambitious young boy, the questions emerging from space were “deeper and profounder” than the questions raised by other scientific disciplines. “They were just based on Earth, for goodness sake. These questions were extending into the known universe. So that had a potency that fed my curiosity like nothing else.” His cosmic journey took him to Harvard, Columbia and Princeton, before landing a job at Hayden. He became its director in 1996.

Amid the highlight reel, however, it wasn’t all intergalactic wonder. Tyson was a man of colour growing up in the Bronx. His mum, Sunchita, told Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker that trying to make sure her kids didn’t hate people “because of the way they were treated – was a full-time job”.

While at Harvard, Tyson met a talented economics student in the wrestling team named Frederick T. Smith. An African-American, Smith – later a Rhodes scholar – planned to use his degree to pull the economically disenfranchised out of poverty. Tyson recalls that upon telling Smith he was studying astrophysics, the economist replied: “The black community cannot afford the luxury of someone with your intellect to spend it on that subject.”

“It was very hard and it stuck with me for years and years and years,” says Tyson, who describes his choice to continue studying space at that time as a “burden”.

It wasn’t until years later, when at Columbia University completing a PhD on the galactic “bulge”, that he became at peace with his career choice. He was asked by a local television station to discuss solar flares. “Some blob of solar energy was headed toward Earth.” The host asked him whether Earth would be okay. “I said, ‘Yeah we’ll be just fine.’ ” That night, he excitedly flicked on the TV to watch his first television appearance. It then struck him that he’d never seen someone of his skin colour “interviewed for just knowledge sake”. He wasn’t talking about racial issues, the class system or discrimination. He was a man of colour on TV discussing solar flares.

It was at that moment he suspected he would have a “greater force on society” by demonstrating that science is not just a pursuit for white people. “I realised that maybe more people need to know that people with darker skin colour than they have can become scientists and engineers.”

Nowadays, Tyson is one of the world’s most famous living scientists. As a consequence, people want his opinions on all manner of topics, including spirituality. He recently tweeted: “The next time anybody asks me about my religion, I think I’ll reply ‘Geek Orthodox’.” Atheists like to claim him, although he tentatively declares himself as agnostic.

“They want validation of their own opinions, or their own views,” he says, a view that he believes stems from a lack of scientific literacy. In Tyson’s mind, if people analyse the world rationally, based on evidence, they won’t want his opinion.

“It seems to me that if you’re educated and you’re empowered with the capacity of curiosity and investigation, you don’t need anybody’s validation for anything,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “Once you have the data, make whatever the hell opinion you want.

“For me, I don’t give a rat’s ass if someone shares my opinion about anything. That’s why I don’t make a big deal of my opinions. I don’t try to convert anybody, I don’t give talks on my opinions. Because I don’t care if you agree or not.”

While not bothered by the existence of religion, Tyson does, however, take issue with the imposition of unscientific principles on others. “My issue as a scientist is if someone tries to take a religious philosophy and then create legislation based on that,” he said on his podcast. “Then you’re overstepping.”

It’s a curious time for science around the world. We were awed as New Horizons snapped images of Pluto from across the solar system. Yet a recent Pew survey found that 50 per cent of Americans do not believe that human activity is causing climate change.

“I wonder whether without anybody going to the moon, you don’t have the daily headline reminder of the great achievements that science makes,” says Tyson. He describes the technology found inside a smartphone – the receiver that speaks to a GPS satellite orbiting Earth, the accelerometer counting steps, and the built-in camera sending photos around the world. “Most people who use their cellphone are not stupefied by how powerful it is. Yet it’s all science, every bit of it is science. So I fear that people in modern times are taking science for granted.”

He warns that there is more at stake here than ingratitude. “You are disenfranchising yourself from the moving frontier of scientific innovation, because you will think to yourself that you don’t need to continue to innovate, because you have everything that you need, or you want. And that’s a dangerously short-sighted posture to have.”

In February 2004, Tyson was appointed by George W. Bush to a presidential commission tasked with implementing a new space policy for the US. The experience showed him firsthand the forces needed to get funding for large scientific projects. Perhaps as a result, he used to joke that the US would land astronauts on Mars in a couple of years if a leaked memo revealed that China had plans to build Martian military bases. In an essay for Foreign Affairs in 2012, he wrote: “The joke does not seem quite so funny anymore.”

Rather than international hubris, he argues for funding space projects because of the unthinkable technological advancements they can bring. Visual techniques used in the Hubble Space Telescope, for example, have been adopted for the early detection of breast cancer. According to Tyson, this is no fluke. Space exploration by its nature involves many scientific disciplines – engineering, biology, geology – that would otherwise rarely cross-pollinate.

He also talks about the power of space to unite the world. Describing the drive of Russian cosmonauts and US astronauts, he has said, “There is something that bonds people with that level of ambition that transcends whatever might be a national boundary.”

Despite being a cosmic romantic, Tyson does not consider the colonisation of other planets to be a viable plan B if Earth were to go belly up. According to the astrophysicist, if humans had the technology to terraform another planet, thus turning it into an Earth-like habitat, we should have the power to convert Earth back into Earth. That’s a much easier goal, he believes, than shipping nine billion people to a newly transformed home.

Tyson is a tireless advocate of progress, and bucks against the warm nostalgia often held for history. “The people who make discoveries are not the people who are nostalgic about the past,” he says.

With his distinctive chuckle, he adds, “Every person of colour and woman in the world should not be wishing that they were in the past ... So I always think about the future.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Mr Universe". Subscribe here.

Wendy Zukerman
is a science journalist and host of the Science Vs. podcast.