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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Fun with Earthlings

The first time Neil Tyson saw the hotbed of stars pulsing in the dome of the sky theater at the Hayden Planetarium, he thought it was a hoax. “I’d seen the sky from the Bronx,” he says, “and it didn’t look like that.” From that moment he was, as he likes to say, “imprinted by the universe.” He was nine years old.

In 1970, for his 12th birthday, his parents gave him a telescope. The family lived in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in an apartment complex with the auspicious name of Skyview. While the other kids played ball, Tyson would clamber up to the top of his own private 22-story observatory. “The roof of my building — that was my access to the cosmos. No matter the temperature, as long as the sky was clear, I was there. And while you can’t see many things with the naked eye in the city, the telescope brings you all the planets, the moon, and the sun, too, if you have the right filters.”

The year that Tyson got his telescope, the family sojourned in the Boston suburb of Lexington. Tyson’s father, Cyril deGrasse Tyson, was a sociologist who had served as a commissioner under New York mayor John Lindsay during the civil rights struggle, and had now received a one-year appointment as a fellow at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard. The Lexington house had a backyard, and that was where Tyson, under a densely jeweled canopy, was able, each quiet night, to “snuggle with the universe.” During the day, he followed the spots on the sun as they made their 25-day trek.

The family returned to New York. Tyson attended Bronx Science, where he became captain of the wrestling team and editor in chief of the school’s prestigious Physical Science Journal. He also took courses in astrophysics at the Hayden Planetarium.

In the summer of 1973, Tyson got his first taste of another kind of star power. He was 14 and drifting on the coastal waters of northwest Africa aboard the S.S. Canberra, whose cargo of 2000 scientists and other skygazers had come to view the total eclipse of the sun. Present on this floating laboratory were astronauts Neil Armstrong and Scott Carpenter, Hayden director Mark Chartrand III, and sci-fi author and educator Isaac Asimov ’39GS, ’48GSAS. On the return voyage, Tyson, the youngest unaccompanied person on the ship, distinguished himself to these luminaries by winning a trivia contest that hinged on a question about Saturn. Later that summer, he spent a month in the Mojave Desert at Camp Uraniborg, an astronomy program codirected by Joseph Patterson, now a professor of astronomy at Columbia.

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