An Eye on the Skies
Several individuals have won the New York Lottery, although the odds of doing so usually are put at one in a million. So when Neil de Grasse Tyson, one of the nation’s top astrophysicists, says the odds are less for an asteroid to hit the Earth on April 13, 2036, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. Tyson, who is director of the Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, says he’s no alarmist. “Alarmists misrepresent risk, or do not quantitatively convey it all. I gave the risk of Apophis hitting the Earth based on current data to be one in 45,000. What the public and Congress decide, based on this figure, is up to them,” he says, referring to the danger posed by the asteroid named after the Egyptian god of death and destruction.
Declared “a near-Earth asteroid” in December 2004, Apophis is one of the thousands of asteroids that cross Earth’s orbit. On its current trajectory, Tyson said on the Fox News Channel show Fox and Friends, it will impact the Earth in the Pacific Ocean, causing tsunamis that will inundate all land bordering the ocean and leave mankind susceptible to assaults on its ecosystem and, possibly, extinction. “Earth has been hit countless times in the past and we will be hit again,” he says.
His advice: Deflect Apophis from its trajectory. “Put a spaceship near the asteroid and the gravity will act as a tether to pull it away,” he says.
Becoming an Astrophysicist
Anyone might spend enormous amounts of time stargazing. For Tyson, gazing at the stars is more than a hobby. It’s his life.
His interest in astrophysics began when, as a 9-year-old living in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, N.Y., he looked at the moon through a pair of binoculars from the roof of his home. On his 12th birthday, his father, Cyril, and mother, Sunchita, bought him a telescope. They encouraged his curiosity, often taking him to visit the Hayden Planetarium. Those visits and the gift of the telescope stimulated his young mind, he says. “My singular focus was on the study of the universe. I knew I had to take whatever path was necessary to pursue that interest,” writer Charles Whitaker quoted him as saying in an August 2000 article in Ebony magazine.
Tyson remained grounded on terra firma even when he was gazing at the skies. At the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, he was a member of the wrestling team and editor-in-chief of Physical Science Journal, the journal of the school’s Physical Science department. By 15, he had gained fame as a knowledgeable and budding astronomer, and was often called on to lecture on the subject. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University; a master’s in astronomy from the University of Texas, where he met and married Alice Young, a doctoral student in mathematics; and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University. His postdoctoral work at Princeton University, lasting four years, focused on the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. In 1996 he was appointed the director of the Hayden Planetarium.
Tyson is a member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and was appointed by President George W. Bush to separate commissions on space exploration policy and the future of the U.S. aerospace industry. An asteroid, “13123 Tyson,” has been named after him.
Tyson hardly conforms to the stereotype of an astrophysicist. Indeed, People magazine in 2000 declared him one of the “sexiest astrophysicists alive.” Donning a regular suit and tie when necessary, but more comfortable in jeans, an open-neck shirt and blazer, he is no nerdy-looking, bespectacled and bookish scientist. Much of his prodigious writing (several essays and nine books) is done during what he calls “the interstitial moments”—waiting on line or riding the subway.
His own experiences and thoughts on human existence within the wider scope of the cosmos help him make astronomy and astrophysics comprehensible for those interested in the sky but ignorant of what is happening there. To the untrained, pulsars, quasars, quantum physics, the measurement of interstellar distances using the speed of light, and analyses of galaxies, would be difficult to understand.
In Death by Black Hole (R.R. Donnelly, 2007), his latest book, Tyson renders these concepts less complex. His goal, he says, is to leave the world a little more scientifically literate than how he found it, but he goes about this in a direct, no-nonsense way. Addressing the constructs of conventional human thought within the context of the universe, he writes in Death by Black Hole: “What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind? That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos.”
Tyson does not dwell on issues of racial discrimination and the indignities he has suffered as an African-American in the predominantly white field of astronomy and astrophysics: There are only 40 African-American astrophysicists in the United States today. Those who cry “race” and “discrimination” do so when things do not go their way, he argues. These are a frequent excuse for lack of progress in the workplace, when in fact the alleged victims may have overrated their talents, he contends. Those who rise to great heights in their professions do so because of their real, noticeable talents. “That’s why the first Blacks to break into almost any field tend to be far and away more talented than the average white person who is already there,” Tyson says.
His positions on astronomical matters at times are just as controversial. His opposition to the classification of Pluto as a planet, insisting that it is a large icy comet mislabeled a planet, drew the ire of several in the astronomy community. Last year, however, the International Astronomical Union, which decides the status of celestial bodies, agreed with him and demoted Pluto to “dwarf planet” while elevating three asteroids—Charon, Eris and 2003UB313—to the status of planets.
Tyson also attracted attention when he lobbied vigorously against accepting and relying on “superstring theory,” wherein all the particles and fundamental forces of nature are viewed as vibrations of tiny supersymmetric strings, as a basis of mathematical projections. Instead, he advocated using testable variables.
Opportunities for African-Americans
Tyson sees opportunities for African-Americans in professions that depend on knowledge of the placement of satellites in Earth’s orbit, including transportation, global positioning systems, space exploration, weather and stellar predictions and the effect of intercontinental ballistic missiles and defense systems. It may take another generation or two, he suggests, before African-American students forgo majoring in subjects directly tied to a high income for fields like astrophysics and astronomy.
Employment opportunities are huge in aerospace, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, astrophysics and mathematics, Tyson says. “For African-Americans to become participants in the aerospace industry, they need to start in high school and college. Some would say earlier, like elementary or middle school. Early exposure is what promotes an overall science literacy. The later exposure is what tunes a student’s literacy into a career,” he says.
Astrophysics is not for the entrepreneur at heart, Tyson cautions. Rather, it is an area of thinkers and experimenters, where cosmic discoveries hardly ever translate into a marketable product. “In other words, in spite of the fact that one can make a decent living at it, hardly anyone has ever gotten rich by doing astrophysics,” he says.
Recalling his parents’ encouragement, Tyson argues that the study of astrophysics must be nurtured in children at home, so that they see it as a fundamental aspect of life rather than one apart and to be shunned. “This advice is not specific to African-Americans. But it should nonetheless be taken to heart,” he says.
By Antoine B. Craigwell