In Lifechangers, Kevin Fong talks to people about their lives in science.
Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, Neil deGrasse Tyson is well known in the US since he presented the TV series Cosmos: a spacetime odyssey. He talks to Kevin Fong about growing up in Brooklyn, becoming obsessed with the night sky and how he became a broadcaster and writer.
Image: Neil deGrasse Tyson, © Cindy Ord/Getty Images for FOX
United States


00:00:00welcome to discovery a chance to explore scientific inventions and revelations please write to us if you can and let people know about us on social media BBC world service put concert supported by advertising thank you for downloading from the BBC the details of a complete range of podcast
00:00:19and outcomes of use go to BBC world service dot com slash podcasts anything you can do as a kid that you just like in like candy are doesn't mean you want to be a candy manufacturer but I'd like to the universe and there was a limitless this to
00:00:36it and on ending frontier I'm Kevin fall on this week's life changes I'm talking to Neil degrasse Tyson broadcaster astro physicist and director of the Hayden planetarium in New York City in twenty fourteen he presented cosmos a spacetime Odyssey billed as the successor to call Sagan's iconic nineteen
00:00:59eighty series the cross Tyson has become one of the most recognizable scientists in the United States and has dedicated his life to popularizing physics and astronomy receiving the prestigious National Academy of sciences public welfare medal for his extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science
00:01:20but as a child Neil grew up in Brooklyn and can identify the Big Bang moments the Lewis his fascination with the universe with pinpoint accuracy I was ninth grade visiting the Hayden planetarium that was prophetic for me and from then on I aligned events in my life to
00:01:38serve that curiosity and in retrospect it was kind of weird when you think about it because most kids don't know what you want to do when you grow up so you bounce from one interest to another without necessarily focusing in it without necessarily knowing that how long you
00:01:54want to do it it's more it's a random walk through possible careers knowing that early I was able to take classes at the Hayden planetarium advanced classes in astrophysics I was eight I lived in a huge apartment complex and I are there people didn't wanna walk their dogs
00:02:13what would you choose to lazy to have more money than they had dog walking energy so I walk dogs this is the golden age of dog walking in the city because it before you have to clean up after so I don't know it was the golden age of
00:02:27the time I can say for sure it's the guy who was the golden age so you you walk the dogs at fifty cents per walk her dog that as a free quickly I use that money to buy a telescope and so yeah there was not other than the
00:02:40ninth grade suit being nine years old in the headlines are there is no other singular epiphytic moment what do you do you remember that clearly the Balkans opponents here in the first was a quite imposing places for anyone of any age of nine year olds walking into a
00:02:53place like that we is your recollection about what you're so the planetarium of those of that generation had a huge %HESITATION piece of equipment in the middle of the room looks like a giant insect the Zeiss mark two four or six we have observed mark six when I
00:03:14was growing up in the Hayden planetarium slices amid the optical manufacturer in East Germany and then they open up an office in West Germany during the Cold War but in many ways it was never as good as the original one in East Germany but but anyhow this is
00:03:30bug in the middle of the room the lights go out in this thing turned silently and the star so it's it's really weird and as I told people I thought was a hoax when I first saw that night sky correct I grew up in the Bronx and the
00:03:44number of stars on that sky didn't match the number of stars in my sky clearly they're wrong because I'd look at third correct night sky and later on of course I would come to the revelation that it was an accurate representation of the night sky and and now
00:04:01as director of the planetarium I think every time I see a kid come in as I wonder if what I've helped create to surround their experience in the museum today will impact them influence them in the way educators and scientists to come before me influence my child from
00:04:20that point nine years old and on woods through high school on to college do you then think that your life is going to be as a professional academic in the field of astronomy and physics yeah well so by age eleven astrophysicist I knew there was an academic position
00:04:37and and at the time most academics would be found in university so I imagine myself in a university a doing research the immensity of the it wasn't just simply that I like to the universe twenty things you can do as a kid that you just like in like
00:04:51candy or does he want to be a candy manufacturer but I'd like to the universe and there was a limitless nis to it and on ending frontier on the boundary between what we know and do not know in the universe and I just want to straddle that boundary
00:05:11so you get to the point where you're thinking about your college Korea ands and and you you've got pretty free choice so you must be doing pretty well ants high school to be offered places I'm in your place often places as as novices Cornell Harvard so I went
00:05:28to the Bronx high school of science which I'm proud of that that was an important set of years for me and just to put this in context the Bronx high school science has counts eight Nobel laureates among its graduates the Bronx high school of science that's as many
00:05:50Nobel laureates as the country of Spain so that's a special place no discussion because in a great teachers for some perhaps but not for me it was special because everyone else there cared about learning and cared about science or good academic topics so in that sense it was
00:06:10influential thinking how many minutes you spend not in class either between class during lunch break getting to school coming home from school all this interstitial time that I might have otherwise been talking about girls are talking about some the outdoor sports with the Yankees did causing accuser from
00:06:27the Bronx as a mine no we were talking about Einstein's equations %HESITATION we're talking about lebron's loss we're talking about Newton and so it was the environment that that school represented that was had such influence on me and I brought to that the fact that had all these
00:06:48other activities out of school activities that serve my academic interests so rather than saying why did well in high school to the more accurate way to say that is while in high school I did well as a person I I even my first time ever to the UK
00:07:07was when I was when was throws fourteen and I was part of an expedition to study stone monuments similar to Stonehenge but less celebrated are up in the British are I mean high up weird England meet Scotland up in near the border and just beyond their some uncharted
00:07:29stone monuments that have prehistoric there is sitting in the middle of farmers fields image want to get rid of the stones we said no don't we can bring some science to this then get rid of it if you got to do it because they were just gonna topple
00:07:40stones and call them off so they called us in an apartment expedition team of did all this at fourteen something the teacher would never know or see or have any clue about it all that gets to show up on a college application and is this the trip that
00:07:54you won the prize to go on this cruise at fourteen is that also that was different so crude you the law and you foresee I went on a I I I went on a cruise on a ship that was completely refitted to be a floating science observatory to
00:08:09go witness the total sold solar eclipse of the sun in the end it was June thirtieth nineteen seventy three one of the longest on record because lasted more than seven minutes and when you have a ship you can target where you are at sea to view the eclipse
00:08:27that minimizes the chance of cloud cover in fact we found a good place for cloud cover this eclipse one across central Africa but we it was close to the continent and a dust storm he kicked up with Sarah as which had change the viewing conditions to the sun
00:08:43and so we went farther off coast to get a bit even better view on a ship you have that kind of latitude ever my dog walks paid for telescope with me and yeah so I'm too so there wasn't a contest that was this I mean as a scholarship
00:08:59it was a scholarship assistance you wanna school should position to get on the ship a you know what I got that so I'm taking a class with adults at the Hayden planetarium on modern topics in astrophysics and I don't just eat this is this is where I died
00:09:14and went to heaven right there I'm asking questions about black holes and quasars in the universe and some guy comes up to me after and says give me his card and says I work for the explorers club %HESITATION give me a call if you want to do more
00:09:29things strident in Orlando social psychologist explores covered so we called up and he is the director of education for the explorer's club and alerted me of the scholarship that I can apply for and compete for and then and then they came through and I went on these two
00:09:44expeditions so to just tell me about that cruise ship because I read not only that and also the other half of one of those summers I attended an astronomy camp called camp you're on a board that's the name of of of the observatory of a to go box
00:10:01on your right aboard the SS I write a check yet arts well I I'm not saying I don't know not practice it too cool but all their that's so the the Danish say so it's a camp for nerds we live nocturnally we had telescopes %HESITATION you have telescopes
00:10:17went out with nocturnally and that's my first exposure to an automatic computers that was fun and had a library of astrophysics books I'm in the desert a city kid in the desert for the first time first time ever sort tarantula that freaked me out and scorpion was like
00:10:34oh my gosh I thought these were only in horror movies these things are real but anyhow this comprised my experience outside of the classroom that contributed to who and what I was over those years so you'll totally immersed right you'll totally in no time completely from a young
00:10:51age completely and my parents would buy books from the remainder table of bookstores marked down to a dollar fifty cents and they don't know what they're buying they just knew it sounded like physics or the universe so I had the biggest library of any thirteen year old I
00:11:06knew and and masses wells makes first exposure to math is a beautiful subject rather than as some chore you have to slog through just so you know flunk out of school just tell me about the creeds lamb intrigues I I read somewhere that your mother took up the
00:11:23gangplank chopped you on the ship and told some elder older people to look off to use is that true yeah apparently but I didn't know that I was alone so the ship at the time I was on the ship others I was fifteen when I was on the
00:11:36ship by lighting Tolliver sixteen I thought that maybe then they'll give me respect until all the results that I really sixteen so I had my telescope apparently they had a friend of a friend of a friend who was on the ship and they told them to look at
00:11:57I'd I would later learn but I don't need looking after me I got my telescope and the night sky I'm done you out excuse me you know please knock I'm busy here and also the undiluted by this time and how will you on the ship also the ship
00:12:11was two weeks instead of fifteen acres set seven days there one day for the eclipse seven days back yeah and with one port of call two ports of call Canary Islands in one and Dakar Senegal is he was funny %HESITATION just a little store just little things %HESITATION
00:12:30so the poor call center also really gets off the ship %HESITATION and you take a look in town and you come back on the ship and has come ready to come back on the ship they would let me back on because I was like the only black person
00:12:42on the ship and this is Senegal a black African country and they thought I was someone from Senegal try to go on the ship it was really funny here is this this is nineteen seventy four wow yeah yeah justice but it's you know it's worse than that wasn't
00:12:59occurred I want to get water from the water station that they put on the dock and they wouldn't serve me to work initially and then I have to speak and then telling from New York City and show them my passport and okay then you must be on the
00:13:11ship so how much how much of a of a how much of the burn was not view as a teenager happen all the time not just it was like today's read know it happened daily it's just it's just a tax you just pay the tax Texas you know
00:13:25%HESITATION the cars don't pick you up in the street you know that the Texas it's just you know what eventually one does and just get on with one that was just part of my annual normal hardline yes that's how how that goes and other bigger struggle was being
00:13:40fought by my parents especially my father so so yeah I don't I didn't dwell on it if I dwelled on I'd be dead so did you ever think you might limit used to you know because you're limiting what you will it would damage me if the person felt
00:13:54that way was between me and my goal yes but it was a taxi driver why would I care this is what they think and they're not getting the money that I'd otherwise give them so I just look at it holistically and the to the extent that it happened
00:14:08between me and my goals I had enough of a fuel reserve to just keep going and you dig under climb over it navigate around it just keep going wanna come on too cold so you can now because you must have come to know him before the television series
00:14:23and before yes so you met him three through his books I knew of him through his books before the television series they met him before the television series I know from his books and his appearances on the on the late night talk shows and Johnny Carson's tonight show
00:14:38was an influential figure even thinking of just reading about someone seeing those late night shows I'm it's a pleasure to me by influential it was I was impressed vat there's an appetite for science that he was serving in that way because I don't remember anyone doing that it's
00:14:55really not in any regular intervals his books were best selling books so it was kind of is the same after an existence proof then that someone that has that kind of energy and talent for bringing science to the public has a platform on which they can ascend to
00:15:11which they can ascend so but his real influence on me was not to become a scientist I knew that well before men or even do anything about him it was when I visited him and realize how much the tension he gave me when he didn't have to I
00:15:27was in high school and he was %HESITATION sent me a letter the admissions office upon reading my application to college this is at Cornell sent to my application for his response he then wrote me a letter asking if I want to come up and see the campus to
00:15:43make a better judgment I'm more informed judgment about what what school I would choose that took him up on it and just looked amazing it's really him he came out and greeted me at the sidewalk and went up to the in the in the plaza went up to
00:15:55his office show me the lab signed a book for me still have that book tuned to kneel few you'll Tyson future stronger still have that book so his level of investment maybe it's not the right word his the attention he gave me was entirely %HESITATION it was it
00:16:19was on a level where you would not expect it especially from someone of his fame value is his frame level and to this day I say to myself if I'm ever in a position to help someone enter the field that I'm in I will drop whatever else I'm
00:16:34doing to do so unified on the phone Brock I got it is a student at the door a call you back first things first of course you tune called Satan down well we didn't convey that in the in the cosmos unless they're reading script that part in but
00:16:55yes I did not actually attend Cornell %HESITATION I decided for for what might be viewed as very geeky reasons to not go but I can tell you if you're interested but don't do it would take a minute to do you have a minute I haven't you got a
00:17:09minute okay so at the time I subscribe to to a scientific American and my favorite part believe it or not was the section called about the authors and it would describe a little bit of the author's history their past where they went to college with a got your
00:17:29PhD because remain remember in Scientific American all the authors are themselves scientist who did the work that you're talking about so they're not journalists for scientists so with the got their masters their bachelor's master's and PhD and where on on what institution with a serving as faculty so
00:17:48it occurred to me that if scientific writing for Scientific American is a measure of your success then one of my track where all these people went to school so I made a checklist of all the schools they went to verses all schools I was accepted to and by
00:18:04the time I was done the list of where they went to undergraduate got the message and get that PhD and whether on the faculty was three times longer for Harvard there for anybody else on the list including Cornell just like I'm going to Harvard that simple I'm not
00:18:23this is not even a decision here this is it's all there and to top that off court will you might seem a bit Carl Sagan invited me well I knew enough about academic posts lose that in the four years I'd be in college you might get a different
00:18:38offer and switch schools and I'm left to Cornell not that that would be bad but it would mean the primary reason why I attended with that evaporate and I have to reconstruct my reason for being there whereas a place like Harvard which had all these people I would
00:18:55later learn why there was just twice as long the Smithsonian astrophysical observatory of Washington DC cold located very observatory with Harvard's so all of their staff are collected together close spatially in this one institution called the center for astrophysics and that's why the list for so long because
00:19:15it had people who were not even on the Harvard faculty but they're working under the same roof set of roofs so if you're looking for like summer jobs are just the energy of what it is to that permeates the halls when people doing astrophysics that place had it
00:19:29wow I mean that that is a that's a lot of organization and in sight for a seventeen year old on what I studied Esther physics because because the universe applications hamburgers alphabetically arranged it makes me feel very bad of so so so you go on from his apology
00:19:45with a gun to that before and I do what is your guilty on and that's me I am so so use so you go on and you know you you're doing a standard course Nichols you have choices within that but you'll drawn towards calls military what want because
00:19:59I'm in it but I know I naively thought that once you've chosen astrophysical choices done but actually they're mentally to hear what happens to someone in my wiki page wrote that I'm a cosmologist button but I'm not which is false also so occurs not just as someone who
00:20:15specializes in questions that relate to the origin and evolution of the universe now almost anybody who works in this field does something that relates to that could be the the the lifecycle of stars which were born billions of years ago and the state of the universe mattered at
00:20:32that time so we're all thinking about that but specifically as a cottage industry of astrophysics no I'm not a cosmologist but I do care about the large scale structure of the universe I care about our galaxy the Milky Way a and my PhD thesis was about the enrichment
00:20:49of heavy elements among the stars in the Milky Way galaxy I care about stars that die especially ones that die explosively as supernovas those are cool you want to keep your distance when the so yeah so then I take on this expertise and graduate schools where you specialize
00:21:09what point is it pivot what point you think actually my greatest contribution to science might not be the traditional route it might be the thing that first sparked my interest yeah so that's that's a great question I to this day I continue to view myself however delusionally as
00:21:26simply a servant of the public's appetite the public's curiosity for the cosmos if I had complete control of our pope of my own life all I would just drop it all and I go back to the land and but what I mean by that is course I could
00:21:44in principle do that in any time but what I've decided is let's take cosmos for example when I hosted that when entry and came to me and she holds to basically holder of the the franchise the rights to the franchise injuring his crossing his widow co writer of
00:21:58the regional councils and the current cosmos I'm she asked if I'd be interested in hosting and I said and I thought about it and I said look I know Carl I have this deep feeling for the universe I and I realized I had this portfolio of talents related
00:22:19to this exercise and I said to myself I would be irresponsible if I did not avail myself of this request and so that's how I view my modern life I do things if I think that no one else can do it would do it in the same way
00:22:38then I feel obligated to do it was that was in no trepidation stepping into not even just the big she's a call second but his biggest pair of shoes that he's my known for it you know what I mean issues ever of these is the coalition so within
00:22:58no trepidation with dumping of it and not in the least and I'll tell you why I could try to do the next the cosmos as Carl Sagan but then I would fail because I don't know if I could be Carl Sagan I don't know if I could emulate
00:23:15his dulcet tones but I know I can be me I could be an awesome version of me and I said to myself if I do this and I fail I want to fail as me not as someone who's trying to emulate exactly how Carl Sagan did it thirty
00:23:33six years ago so so yeah that so that's why celebs be me and by the way I was already me in other media before then so it's not like I'm discovered overnight for doing cosmos I'm already known so it already had a very good sense of who I
00:23:51was I had a good sense of me so so yeah I wasn't I wasn't worried about and with the comparisons with with call his style his general tone was to be in a %HESITATION to see science as as a beacon for truth and for progression and and to
00:24:15I guess evangelize for that do you feel that the you have a responsibility to carry the hassle no I I think I have I'm I'm a little different in the sense that most of what I do it may not seem this way but it really is it's also
00:24:34what I do is passive so I wake up in the morning if the phone doesn't ring that's a good day and I can go play with my kids and you know go to a fancy restaurant and pay slightly too much than it's worth I can do that and
00:24:48I will do that and I do do that with the phone rings or this ABC news we need a comment because a star just exploded or there's a new Nobel Prize and so I feel duty yes when asked and then I come when called so my goal is
00:25:07to get other people doing exactly what I'm doing so that I can fade away and no one will notice and then it just fine in the lab your ambition is to be unemployed no just employed differently that set for life changes this week but before I go his
00:25:22one last thought from Neil degrasse Tyson who had a particular take on my question about recent events I mean given recent events but not by me anytime soon as a result they mean the trouble actually my mutt's early night when I get I get recent events and events
00:25:43but puts it but well actually I don't just mean this but do you mean you know the the blunt by large the thing the guys use is is a rational approach to life again and the evidence that guides you in line rationalism is under attack just it to
00:25:57put a sentence in your mouth would you agree with that I would say that the more people learn what role science has played in their lives the less they will think that life is a spooky random thing happening to them and it can be quite empowering I would
00:26:12say even enlightening yeah I think people say we got to train the kids I'm not worried about the kids kids have built in curiosity genetically as kids that's why there was asking questions it's the adults that worry me most and I think if you can construct arguments that
00:26:29make it compelling for the adult to listen then society can change overnight don't control everything adult vote adults will resources adults are president Congress members of Congress in parliament so if you convince one of them about what role the methods and tools of science play in our understanding
00:26:50of ourselves a that's quite an achievement that day there are dozens of different podcasts now available from the BBC including used documentaries science business out since both the details of the mall go to BBC world service dot com slash podcast

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