Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is too busy to have his head in the clouds.
Thu Jan 4 2007
Photograph: Chris Cassidy for NOVA scienceNOW
The director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium since 1995, Neil deGrasse Tyson just completed Death by Black Hole (W. W. Norton, $24.95), a new collection of his essays for Natural History magazine, and begins hosting the PBS newsmagazine Nova ScienceNow on Tuesday 9. Tyson took a break from charting the stars to talk about making science fun, the problem with Titanic and what it’s like to be a sex symbol.
You’re from New York. When you visited the Hayden Planetarium as a child, did you dream you’d be its director one day?
I wasn’t thinking in terms of a career, but I saw how much the scientists there knew about the universe, and I said to myself, I want to know just as much.
What’s the secret to making astronomy—or science in general—entertaining?
Many people associate science with lab work and math—the grind that leads to becoming an expert. But you don’t need to do all that to celebrate the discoveries. If you think your audience needs all that baggage explained to them, maybe you don’t understand the concepts well enough yourself. I spend a whole section of the book describing how you’d die falling into a black hole. The math version of that chapter would put you to sleep, so I left it out.
But you are a stickler for accuracy. We hear you had a beef with director James Cameron.
In Titanic, we know where the ship sank, what time it sank, the month, the year—but the sky they show in the film is wrong. When I said something to Jim Cameron about it at a dinner at the planetarium, his reply was “Last I checked, the movie made more than a billion dollars worldwide. Imagine how much more it would’ve made had I gotten the sky correct.” Two months later, I got a call from his postproduction guy, who said, “We’re reissuing the ten-year anniversary of the movie. There are some extra scenes we want to put in, and Jim says you have a sky for me to use.” I saw the new director’s cut, and the sky is good.
People magazine named you the sexiest astrophysicist alive in 2000. Did you get a lot of ribbing from the science community for that?
I thought a lot about it when they interviewed me. I mean, what does it even mean to be the sexiest astrophysicist—did I beat out Stephen Hawking? But by then, I was already at a major institution, so I thought my reputation could survive it.
Nova ScienceNow premieres Tues 9 at 8pm on PBS.