Home > Education > Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on Cosmic Quandries (and death row)

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on Cosmic Quandries (and death row)

September 20, 2009

Got 90 minutes to spend with Neil DeGrasse Tyson?  Or perhaps, do you have a better way to spend 90 minutes?

Tyson can be glib: “The rate of seeing UFO’s is lower among amateur astronomers because when we look up in the night sky, we study this stuff, we know what the hell we’re lookin’ at!”  But he is also packing a seemingly endless reserve of deep insight.  I’m currently reading his 2000 memoir, The sky is not the limit; adventures of an urban astrophysicist.  Here’s an excerpt:

“There was no point in formally tutoring prisoners who were on death row, or who were serving life sentences with no chances of parole.  They mostly just wanted a chess companion or someone to talk to – for many, their families had long abandoned them in prison.  The several lifers that I met all managed some kind of benign hobby.  One grew plants.  One cared for goldfish.  Another was writing his life story.  The surreal juxtaposition of a murder who cares for goldfish in his prison cell moved me.  It was indeed possible for a prisoner to sustain a modicum of civility and quality of life even though he had taken someone else’s life and even though he had no prospect of rejoining society.  I valued this fact and vowed to pay whatever extra taxes society levies to sustain those with life sentences rather than execute them…”

Tyson has some stunning reflections on education, on defense, on confrontation, and I’m only a third of the way through the book.  It’s interesting that used copies on Amazon are still 7 bucks.  One measure of a book’s value is the price of used copies.  For instance, Webmastering for dummies has 66 copies available “from $0.01”.

One thing that attracted Tyson to Cornell University was Carl Sagan, whom he met personally while considering what college to go to.  Sagan spent time with the promising student and was kind and helpful, but in the end Tyson wound up going to Harvard because the program was a better fit for his interests.

While in graduate school Tyson was so poor that at one point he seriously considered working as a male stripper to make ends meet.  Oh, Neil!  You should have done it, at least a couple times.  If nothing else, the pictures would have surfaced on the Internet and your current science popularization audience would be enhanced.  But even having considered it puts him in good company with Feynman, who hung out in strip clubs, making pencil drawings of the performers in their off hours.  And like Feynman, Tyson writes that his understanding of the world was enriched by learning to draw, and by learning to cope with the arts on at least some level.

It’s just as well he didn’t go to Cornell, because then people would be saying he was Sagan’s protoge’.  As it is, he stands fully qualified by his own experience and story as the world’s current top science popularizer -  a position of highest honor in my pantheon.


  • If you want to skip all the PBS introductions and happytalk, zoom in to 15:00 on the video, where begins Tyson’s portion.  Which really makes it a 75-minute video.
Categories: Education
  1. September 20, 2009 at 10:45 | #1

    I admit, not without some trepidation, that I have no idea who this guy is, and have never heard of him, not knowing, I have no idea why I should give him 10 seconds of my time, let alone 90 minutes.

    I’m willing to be educated if you are willing to tell me what he’s all about.

  2. September 20, 2009 at 11:00 | #2

    I did make the assumption that everyone would know who he is, good catch.  He’s an astrophysicist, director of the Hayden planetarium, author of many books and host of the PBS television series; Nova ScienceNow.  I find him very funny and informative, and while insightful, a lot less overwhelmingly serious than Sagan. 

    Depending on what other authors you like, he may or may not be to your liking.  Probably take longer than ten seconds to find out, but probably not more than five minutes.  The first several minutes of the video is introduction by others, so you might want to zoom in about 15 minutes.

  3. September 20, 2009 at 15:06 | #3

    I saw NDT speaking not too long ago on the subject of Pluto, which his most recent book is about. To say he’s an engaging speaker is a massive understatement – he could probably do standup comedy if he wanted.

  4. September 21, 2009 at 13:37 | #4

    Well worth the 90 minutes to learn of a new subject to my limited circle of knowledge presented by a person of knowledge with just enough humor to keep the dryness of the subject away.  My thanks to you and SEB for presenting it.

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