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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Father of the Sky

It was 1994, and the Hayden Planetarium was in trouble. Attendance was down. Many of the exhibits were outmoded. That year, Tyson, still a postdoc at Princeton, was hired by the Hayden as a half-time staff scientist, and asked to lead the effort to rebuild an institution that opened in 1935.

“I understood that the old facility was not serving the current generation,” Tyson says. “It was a planetarium dome with corridors that had mostly flat-panel exhibits, and that was basically it. The facility was good at showing the night sky, but now we know about black holes and quasars and colliding galaxies. There are more places to explore than just the night sky as seen from Earth.”

But if Tyson was going to help conceptualize the new $230 million Rose Center for Earth and Space, he had a precondition. “I said, ‘One thing we have to do is build a research department.’ And they said, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that now, we just want to get this off the ground.’ ‘Well, then you’re not serious about it. Call me when you’re serious.’ And in 1996 came the full offer for me to become director, once the institution committed to building a research department for astrophysics.”

It took two years to vet architects and designers and look at plans and ideas, says Tyson. The new structure, which opened in February 2000 on the footprint of the old planetarium, is a sevenstory glass cube that houses the 87-foot-diameter, 4-million-pound Hayden Sphere. Inside the sphere is the Space Theater, where a Zeiss Mark IX star projector floods the vault with a throbbing night sky.

But Tyson takes most pride in the growth of the research department. “We went from one scientist, me, to 18 PhD scientists,” he says. “They’re doing research on the birth, life, and death of stars, the evolution of gas clouds within the galaxy, binary stars and their evolution, stars that might one day explode and what effect it would have on their environments, and the detection of planets orbiting around other stars.” Three of the researchers — Michael Shara, Ben Oppenheimer ’94CC, and Mordecai-Mark Mac Low — have full-time permanent adjunct positions at Columbia.

In 2004, Tyson stopped teaching at Princeton, going, as he says, “from a classroom of 200 to a classroom of 1 million.” Via TV satellites high above Earth, Tyson’s message is being carried around the planet.

“Neil is one of the great public spokesman for science and particularly for astrophysics,” says Ellen Futter ’71BC, ’74LAW, the former Barnard president who became director of the American Museum of Natural History in 1993. “He’s just a master at making a place that most people can’t see, and have difficulty imagining, come alive and be visible, not only in the sense that they’re seeing what it is or might be, but that they’re conceptualizing it intellectually. He makes the concepts accessible, and he relates them to us and to life on Earth.”

Now, in the Rose Center’s 10th year, Tyson is revisiting the exhibits to see what needs updating, modification, or reprioritizing. “Most of the exhibits here are idea-based rather than object-based,” he says. “It’s all too easy to talk about things. It’s much harder to talk about ideas. But ideas are what empower you.”

Ideas also can be divisive. One of Tyson’s decisions for the new facility, which involved an adjustment to the planetary displays, brought some unexpected shock waves: Tyson, the messenger, found himself in the center of a firestorm that spread from U.S. elementary schools to the outer limits of our solar system.

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