Neil deGrasse Tyson
One starry night, in the autumn of 1957, the life of nine-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson’ changed forever. In the middle of a vast, domed amphitheater, the house lights dimmed and a booming voice announced: "We are now in the universe, and here are the stars."
Comets streaked. Planets whirled. The moon waxed and the constellations appeared. A meteor vaporized, leaving a glowing trail in its wake. Seated in the dark, Neil was transfixed by a celestial light show the likes of which he had never seen.
This was Neil’s first visit to a planetarium—the Hayden Planetarium in New York City—and his first encounter with the wonders of astronomy, the science of observing the sky.
When the lights rose, Neil realized that what he had just seen was only an amazing simulation projected onto the theater’s dome. Nevertheless, Neil’s interest had been piqued, and his imagination fired. He decided then and there that he wanted to follow the stars for the rest of his life.
“The study of the universe would be my career,” he said later, “and no force on Earth would stop me.” From then on, whenever someone asked Neil what he wanted to be when he grew up, he proudly answered: "I'm going to be an astrophysicist!"
What seemed like a journey of a thousand light years was in fact just a short ride on a subway. Neil grew up in New York City, not far from the Hayden Planetarium, in the Castle Hill neighborhood of the Bronx. Later, he lived in Riverdale, in the fittingly named Skyview Apartments. Neil was the second of three children. Both his parents worked for the U.S. government.
Neil attended public school in New York City, and he did not distinguish himself in the classroom. One teacher complained on his report card that Neil should spend less time socializing and more time studying. “Your son laughs too loud,” another remarked to Neil’s mother during a parent-teacher conference.
But there was one teacher who saw potential in the young boy. She knew that Neil was interested in the stars and planets. So when she saw a newspaper ad for an astronomy class at the Hayden Planetarium, she cut it out and gave it to him.
The visit to the planetarium left Neil feeling that the universe was calling him to study it. But he still didn’t know how. Then, one day, a friend named Phillip lent him a pair of binoculars.
“What am I supposed to do with these?” Neil wondered. “Look in people’s windows?”
“No, silly,” Phillip said. “Look up!”
And when Neil did, he saw a whole new world of wonder. That night, he used the binoculars to gaze up at the moon, mesmerized by the giant craters on its surface. Magnified by the binoculars, the moon was no longer just a circle in the sky—it was another world waiting to be explored.
Then, when Neil was eleven years old, his parents gave him his first telescope. It was small, but it seemed infinitely more powerful than the binoculars. Now Neil could see way past the moon to the planets beyond. Even far-off Saturn, whose majestic rings Neil had read about, seemed as close and as clear as his own outstretched hand.
Neil could not get enough of his new hobby. In fact, his fascination with the universe soon outgrew the power of his beginner’s telescope. He needed a larger instrument. But that would cost money, and his parents were not very wealthy.
Determined to have a more powerful telescope, Neil started a dog-walking service in his apartment building. In time, he had earned about half the money he needed, so his parents chipped in the rest.
Neil’s new telescope was a thing of beauty: a fivefoot- long tube that “looked like a cross between an artillery cannon and a grenade launcher,” as Neil once described it. It came with a long extension cord that had to be plugged into an electrical outlet. Neil also bought a high-tech camera so he could take photographs of the things he saw in the sky.
One night, Neil brought his new telescope up to the tar-covered roof of his building to test it out. A dentist who lived a few floors below let Neil plug in the cord inside his apartment. But a kid dragging around telescopes and cameras is bound to arouse suspicion. Another neighbor saw him, thought he was a burglar, and called the police.
Two officers quickly arrived and climbed up to the roof to make sure Neil wasn’t up to no good. Neil assured them that his expedition was all in the interest of science. He encouraged the officers to peer through his telescope while he told them facts about the planets: Aren't Saturn's rings amazing?
The officers had to agree. It really was pretty amazing. Neil continued with his astronomical investigations for the next several years, eventually earning admission to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. The summer he turned fifteen, Neil signed up for “space camp” at the Hayden Planetarium, where his adventure had begun. For the next month, Neil studied the stars and talked to scientists about the universe.
He also took a class with the planetarium’s director, Mark Chartrand III, who became his first role model. Dr. Chartrand had a way of using humorous examples to make complex scientific ideas understandable to everyone. Neil received a certificate for completing the course, signed by Dr. Chartrand, which he still has to this day.
On returning home from camp, Neil was asked to give a talk to fifty adults. He told the audience all about what he’d learned at the planetarium. The sponsors of the talk paid Neil $50—more money than he had ever earned in a single day. “That’s one hundred dog walks!” Neil marveled, thinking back to his old job.
Neil’s presentation was so poised and polished that other astrophysicists started to take notice of him. Carl Sagan, a renowned astrophysicist and host of the TV show Cosmos
, wrote a letter asking Neil to consider enrolling at Cornell University, where Sagan taught. Neil was highly impressed by Professor Sagan, whose shows and books made things like quarks and black holes sound as cool as comic books and video games.
In the end, Neil declined Professor Sagan’s offer and decided to attend Harvard University. But their connection would one day be renewed. In 2015, several years after Carl Sagan died and Neil had succeeded him as America’s best-known astrophysicist, TV producers asked Neil to host a new series of Cosmos
In 1996, Neil returned to the place where his love for astrophysics began—the Hayden Planetarium—but now he was its director, a job he still has today. Neil revived Dr. Chartrand’s tradition of presenting every astronomy student with a graduation-style diploma. He signed each one, as a way of honoring the scientists who came before him.
Like Dr. Chartrand and Professor Sagan, Neil uses humor and plain language to convey his enthusiasm for the science of astrophysics. That common touch has helped make Neil deGrasse Tyson one of the most popular and respected scientists in the world.
Copyright © 2018 by David Stabler; illustrated by Anoosha Syed. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.