Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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It’s the size of the Rose Bowl,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson in his blunt, personable way. “It’s going to be the biggest, closest object to pass by Earth in our recorded history.”

Tyson ’92GSAS is seated in his exuberantly cluttered office at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, where he is director. Behind his desk hangs Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The shelves are crammed with globes, books, awards. The desk holds a collection of long, luxuriant quill pens of ostrich and vulture. On a chair rests a pillow adorned with suns and moons, and Tyson’s vest is similarly emblazoned.

“If it hits, it’ll create a tsunami that’ll wipe clean the West Coast of the United States.”

Tyson is talking about an asteroid that astronomers named Apophis. In Egyptian mythology, he notes, Apophis is the god of death.

“This asteroid could do a trillion dollars’ worth of damage to the West Coast,” Tyson says, with a missionary spark. “People want to know about it, and I’m happy to tell them.” Frequently, Tyson tells them through the medium of late-night TV, where he performs the important, often funny, occasionally awkward, always fascinating service of conveying the high concepts of astrophysics in terms intelligible to Jay Leno. As he recently explained on The Tonight Show — and maybe a comedic atmosphere is the best place for material this heavy — Apophis will, on April 13, 2029 (“a Friday,” Tyson adds with twinkling portent), give our planet a “buzz cut,” dipping below our communication satellites. At that point, should the asteroid’s orbit thread the center of a 600-meter-wide zone called a keyhole, we’ll have to fund a project to deflect the thing — or else seven years later, when Apophis returns, it’s sayonara, Santa Monica.

“These are little facts that anyone is going to be interested in, even if you’ve never cared about science in your life,” Tyson says. “If you’re not interested, you don’t have a pulse. So talking about things like asteroids becomes a very effective means of getting a person to think about the universe, and to understand that Earth is not some island, isolated from cosmic forces.”

Tyson wants us to look up. He wants to empower us by communicating ideas about the machinery of the universe — not the names of the stars, or the order of the planets, but truths about the natural world as revealed by the laws of physics. To that end, he has published nine books (including a memoir, The Sky Is Not the Limit, and the best-selling Death by Black Hole) and written scores of essays on science and culture for the museum’s journal Natural History. He hosts the PBS program NOVA science NOW, and often materializes in less-rarefied sectors of the tube, from CNN to Comedy Central. There he is on CBS’s The Early Show, explaining Jupiter’s knack for attracting comets (it has more gravity than all the planets combined), or there, on The Daily Show, comforting Jon Stewart, who was shaken by Tyson’s matter-of-fact report that the expanding universe will scatter the galaxies so far apart into the cold depths of space that all processes will eventually “come to a rest.” And then, before you can say Copernicus, he’s off to an academic lecture on black holes, or to serve on a presidential commission on space, as he did in 2001 and in 2004. Since last year, he’s hosted a weekly radio show called StarTalk, aimed at an audience outside of the orbit of NPR: His sidekick is Lynne Koplitz, a salty comedienne who did not major in physics, and StarTalk is one of the few programs where you’re liable to hear the words “quasar” and “breasts” in the same conversation. Which is to say, Tyson is taking astrophysics further into the public sphere than anyone since Carl Sagan — all while leading one of New York’s most cherished institutions.

Oh, and then there’s that little matter of Pluto. But we’ll get to Pluto.

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