He may have tried to downgrade Pluto from planet status, but we still love him — and today, we celebrate the life and times of Neil deGrasse Tyson! On this, his sixty third birthday, let’s take a look at a man who has not only made enormous contributions to the planetary sciences, but embraced the mediums of internet and pop culture to ignite a passion for science in a brand new generation.
Born in New York on October 5, 1958, Tyson was the son of academics — Cyril deGrasse Tyson, a sociologist working for the mayor of New York City, and Sunchita Maria Tyson, a gerontologist for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. An athlete in his youth, he was captain of the wrestling team at the Bronx High School of Science and lettered in wrestling his senior year at Harvard. However, he was drawn powerfully to a study of the stars at a very early age after a visit to the Hayden Planetarium. He went on to take classes there, and has gone on record as saying that the director of the planetarium at the time, Mark Chartrand III, as his first intellectual role model.
As his star rose in the scientific community, with legendary astronomer Carl Sagan trying to recruit Tyson to Cornell for his undergraduate studies when Tyson was only fifteen years old, Tyson continued to pursue multiple interests, rather than losing himself in academia, with sports and even dancing. While such diversified interests may have hampered Tyson’s studies early on — he, himself, has gone on record saying that he likely should have spent more time in the research lab during his graduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin — they likely helped him in his future, not merely as a student of the universe, but as a science communicator.
While Tyson’s studies have covered a variety of subjects such as cosmology, stellar evolution, galactic bulges, and stellar formation, Tyson is best known for his public discourse on the subject of his work. As a writer for the “Universe” column in Natural History Magazine, Tyson publicized the two day event that takes place annually where the evening sun aligns with the Manhattan street grid, and the sunset is visible along unobstructed side streets. He termed this phenomenon “Manhattanhenge,” drawing a corellation to the sun’s solstice alignment with England’s Stonehenge.
However, Tyson’s most infamous astronomical contributions came as a result of his interest in looking at the commonalities of celestial objects by grouping the terrestrial planets together, the gas giants, and to group one object in particular with other like bodies, rather than identifying the known entities in the solar system as a numerical order of planets.
In 1996, Tyson became the director of the Hayden Planetarium — the same venue that shaped his desire to study the planets in his formative years. It was a post he took very seriously, the role not just of director, but as educator and of scientific advocate. During his tenure there, Tyson enacted his agenda in a move that follows him even to this day.
Under Tyson’s decree, the planetarium began removing mentions of Pluto as a planet from educational materials and instruction. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) later agreed with Tyson and downgraded Pluto to a ‘dwarf planet,’ which resulted in controversy. Tyson received a great deal of hate mail over the campaign, much of it from children who disapproved of his decision.
The debate over Pluto’s planetary status made Tyson a contentious figure in pop culture circles—and it made him a popular pop culture figure as he became the centerpiece of innumerable memes, online debates, and even earned him a guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory where his classification of Pluto was the focus of his role on top of his work in astrophysics. He has also become a staple of Twitter, and a common face attached to the sciences through his appearances on shows like the revival of mentor Sagan’s Cosmos series, as well as the PBS series NOVA and the televised version of Tyson’s podcast, Star Talk.
Whatever your stance may be on Pluto, there’s one thing that’s for certain: thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson, the public is talking about astronomy, celestial events, and science in general. He makes the planetary sciences cool, and that’s makes him out of this world.
Liz Carlie, the Mad Woman with a Box, a regular book reviewer for SCIFI.radio and a regular guest on ‘The Event Horizon’. She has been in and around science fiction fandom for years, and works with the American Red Cross on blood drives at science fiction conventions all over Southern California.