Who Is Neil deGrasse Tyson?
On June 30, 1973, a total eclipse covered the sun for a full seven minutes. It was the longest eclipse in more than 1,300 years. Passengers on the ocean liner SS Canberra
watched it from off the coast of northwest Africa. But these were no ordinary cruise ship passengers. On board were two thousand scientists, engineers, and eclipse watchers. There were even two astronauts, Scott Carpenter and Neil Armstrong. The ship had been converted into a floating laboratory to do experiments during the eclipse.
Among all these grown--up scientists was one fourteen--year--old boy from the Bronx. His name was Neil deGrasse Tyson. He had won a scholarship from the Explorers Club, an association in New York City dedicated to science.
The Explorers Club allowed Neil to go on the cruise by himself. He wanted the adults to take him seriously, so he told everyone he was sixteen.
On board the ship, Neil listened to talks given by scientists. He watched and took part in experiments. And he looked at the stars through the Criterion Dynascope telescope that he brought with him. The cruise lasted for fifteen days.
One night on the journey home, there was a trivia contest for the scientists aboard. They were grouped into teams of four or five. They had to answer all kinds of questions about the universe. One by one the teams dropped out, stumped by questions like “Which day of the year can never have a solar eclipse?” and “What are the correct names of objects or aliens from Mars, Venus, and Jupiter?”
Finally, there were only two teams left. Neil was on one of them. The pressure was on. Neil didn’t want to let his team down. The man leading the trivia contest read the last question into a microphone. Whichever team knew the correct answer would win. The final question was: “What feature of the planet Saturn, other than its beautiful ring system, strongly distinguishes it from all other planets in the solar system?”
Neil broke into a big smile. He loved everything about the universe and his favorite planet of all was Saturn. There was little he didn’t know about it. The other contestants, some of them respected professional scientists, looked at one another. None of them knew the answer.
Neil stood up and raised his hand. All heads turned to the teenager with the Afro. “Saturn,” he said clearly, “is the only planet with an average density less than water.” In other words, if you dropped Saturn into a giant bathtub, it would float.
“Correct!” said the host. The room burst into applause. Neil had won a bottle of champagne for his team and he wasn’t even old enough to drink it. Chapter 1: Skyview
Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx borough of New York City on October 5, 1958. His father, Cyril, was a college professor and a sociologist. That meant he studied how human beings lived together. When Neil was born, his Puerto Rican mother, Sunchita, was a stay-at-home mom raising Neil and his older brother, Stephen. When Neil was four, his parents had another baby, his little sister, Lynn. They lived in an apartment complex called Skyview on a high hill, close to the Hudson River.
When Neil was nine, his parents took him and his brother and sister to the Hayden Planetarium. The Hayden Planetarium is part of the American Museum of Natural History. The museum is dedicated to studying the natural world. It displays fossils of dinosaurs, models of animals from all over the world, and minerals from deep in the earth. A planetarium is dedicated to the study of outer space: stars, planets, and distant galaxies. Neil sat under a dome that showed a projected re-creation of the universe. Neil looked up at the thousands of tiny stars and thought, This isn’t real.
The Bronx is one of the five boroughs of New York City. Residents of New York don’t see stars when they look up at the night sky because the city is so bright and filled with electric light. When all that light is reflected by gas and particles in the atmosphere, the stars fade away. This unique situation is called sky glow. Neil had lived his whole life surrounded by sky glow, so he barely saw any stars. He thought the stars in the planetarium were a fantasy, like the TV show Star Trek.
After his trip to the planetarium, Neil’s family visited Pennsylvania. One night, standing on a mountain, Neil looked up and saw a night sky that looked just like what he had seen at the Hayden Planetarium. At that moment, he knew he wanted to learn more about the universe.
Neil’s teachers wished he would pay more attention to the things he was studying in school. “Neil should cultivate a more serious attitude toward his schoolwork,” one of them wrote on his report card. Another teacher thought he spent too much time talking to other kids and not enough studying. At a parent-teacher conference, Neil’s mom was told, “Your son laughs too loud.” But Neil loved having fun with his friends, so he didn’t stop laughing.
His best friend was Phillip Branford, who lived in a nearby building. He and Phillip were often at each other’s apartments. In July 1969, Phillip took Neil on a trip to visit his relatives in Virginia. Neil was ten years old. Together, the two boys watched on TV as the first humans walked on the surface of the moon.
Sometimes, Neil and Phillip went up to the roof of one of their buildings. One night, Phillip brought a pair of binoculars. Neil had only ever used binoculars to watch sports, but on this night, Phillip suggested he look up at the sky.
When Neil pointed the binoculars at the crescent moon, he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was not just bigger, he thought, but better. He could see the shadows of craters and valleys and hills on the moon’s surface.
Many scientists had already seen what Neil was seeing on the moon. But for Neil, it was as if he had just discovered a new world. A world he wanted to know everything about. He wanted to study it in detail. In that moment, Neil knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. He wanted to study the universe. He didn’t yet know what that was called, but he soon found out: Neil wanted to become an astrophysicist. Chapter 2: A New Explorer
An astrophysicist studies what stars and planets are made of and how they came to be. They try to learn why and how they move through space. An astrophysicist needs a good telescope to magnify the image of objects in space at which to get a closer look. To earn the money for his telescope, Neil offered to walk the dogs for his neighbors in the building. He quickly earned about two-thirds of the money to pay for the telescope. His parents paid the rest. Neil’s telescope was called a Criterion Dynascope. He said it looked like “a cross between an artillery cannon and a grenade launcher.”
Neil started taking his telescope up to the roof of the building, often making his little sister help him carry it. A neighbor on the top floor let Neil plug the long extension cord in at his apartment. Neil was amazed at how different the night sky looked through it. Later, he would describe looking through his telescope as astonishing: “Saturn has rings! Oh my gosh, the moon has craters! Things that you’ve heard about and read about—but to experience them yourself becomes a singular moment in your life.”
Sometimes, people in other buildings noticed Neil on the roof. More than once they called the police because they thought he was a burglar! When the officers arrived, Neil let them have a look through his telescope.
School became a lot more interesting for Neil, and his grades improved. One teacher noticed that all of Neil’s book reports were about space. One day, she gave him an advertisement she had clipped out of the paper. It said that the Hayden Planetarium was offering classes about astronomy. She suggested Neil take one called “Advanced Topics in Astronomy for Young People.” The class was for kids a few years older than fourteen-year-old Neil, but she thought he could handle it.
The Hayden Planetarium was the place where Neil had first seen the night sky full of stars. The classes he took there showed him that there was a much bigger universe even beyond the stars. He attended classes there regularly on the weekends or after school and applied what he learned to his schoolwork. In shop class in seventh grade, all the students had to a build a lamp. They were given several designs to choose from, but Neil designed his own lamp based on his favorite planet, Saturn. The switch to turn the lamp on and off was a tilt of Saturn’s ring.
At fourteen, Neil was always the youngest person in his planetarium classes. Many of the other students were adults, like Vernon Gray. Vernon was the director of education at the Explorers Club in Manhattan—a society for scientists, explorers, and people who loved science. During a break in the class one day, Neil began asking the teacher questions about black holes, regions of space where the gravity is so strong, everything is sucked into it. Vernon heard Neil’s questions, gave him his phone number at the Explorers Club, and suggested Neil call him.
Neil put Vernon Gray’s card in his pocket. He didn’t know what to do with it. But when he got home and showed the card to his mother, she knew this was a great opportunity. Obviously, Vernon Gray thought Neil should be in the club, and she called him right away.
Vernon told Neil about the scholarships the club offered. He thought Neil should apply for one of the educational experiences that the club paid for. Neil was fourteen, and he decided to apply. He was given a scholarship to join his first scientific expedition. Neil was going to Africa!
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