Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Wrestling was his outlet while he was in college, but it was the stars and the planets that led Neil DeGrasse Tyson to Harvard. And following them has led to his extraordinary success.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose Director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, knew he wanted to study astrophysics "since the age of nine."
When it was time to choose a college, astrophysics was his only criterion. "I had a subscription to Scientific American," he remembers, "and they had really detailed biographies of all the article authors. I culled the biographies for astrophysicists and made a grid of where the authors worked and went to school."
By this method, the choice was obvious. "Harvard blew away all the other schools," says Tyson. "The Ivy League held no seduction for me, but the number of people doing astrophysics there was huge."
An undefeated wrestler in high school, Tyson came to Harvard intending to wrestle and row. He quickly lost interest in rowing, though. "I rowed freshman crew and was in the Head of the Charles (a famous series of races that taking place on the Charles River)," says Tyson, "and I had the highest erg score (a measure of rowing power using an ergometer) of anyone that year." But "the repetitiveness of the rowing stroke was not interesting."
He soon devoted himself to only wrestling. "Wrestling's much more interesting. There's a purity of contest - you and the other person." He also found wrestling reveals character, and an incident involving Harvard teammate Ed Bordley, who is blind, was especially illustrative.
"There's a courtesy start, with hands touching, when one of the wrestlers is blind," explains Tyson. "Bordley's opponent slaps his hands away and goes around [Bordley's] back to take him down. He only wanted to win. Bordley wouldn't let him pin him, the guy had to win it on points," he remembers. "Nothing compares to wrestling. I'd rather be a mediocre wrestler than a good rower."
Describing his Harvard wrestling as "second string," Tyson did letter his senior year. He also found time to pursue astrophysics. "I spent my interstitial time over at the Smithsonian [Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]." He found balancing athletics and academics not particularly difficult. "I've been doing it since high school. I didn't think of it as balance. It's the slot in the day given over to [athletic] effort."
Earning an A.B. degree in physics in 1980, Tyson did his thesis research in the "whole new field of x-ray telescopes," in the research organization of Professor Riccardo Giacconi, who later won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics. He then went on to earn an M.A. in astronomy from the University of Texas in 1983, and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia in 1991. After teaching and performing research as a Princeton postdoc Tyson joined the American Museum of Natural History in 1994, and was named Hayden Planetarium Director in 1996, where he continues today.
It's a very public position. Tyson has written nine books and dozens of articles and refereed scientific papers. He has appeared in national television shows ranging from "PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" to "Comedy Central's 'the Daily Show' with Jon Stewart," and earned numerous honors, including eight honorary degrees, in the process. He is also the on-camera host, narrator, and executive editor of PBS' NOVA Science Now. "A big part of what we do is in public forums," explains Tyson.
One current subject for Tyson is the likelihood of a catastrophic asteroid hitting Earth. In his most recent book "Death by Black Hole" he explains that the risk of dying from an asteroid hit is roughly the same as the risk of dying in an airplane. The logic? "Simple," writes Tyson. "By the end of 10 million years, when the sum of all airplane crashes has killed a billion people, an asteroid is likely to have hit Earth with enough energy to kill a billion people."
It doesn't have to be this way. "We need an asteroid risk policy," he says, and "America is the best equipped" to lead the effort. "Establish an intergovernmental organization, because if an asteroid hits anywhere we are all at risk." Tyson explains "if an asteroid hits the ocean, the resulting tsunami would wipe out all the cities on the coast [irrespective of country]. Establish a mitigation fund, with countries contributing a fraction of G.D.P."
What does he think of fellow Ivy wrestler and current astronaut Ed Lu's plan to use a "gravity tractor" - a satellite that would be positioned to track an asteroid closely, using gravitational attraction to deflect the asteroid off its path with Earth? "It's one of the best ideas out there," says Tyson, "but it requires a long lead time. Otherwise, it's unusable." Thus the need to get started on the problem. "The time [to implement a solution] is longer than political time horizons. It's harder to make it important."
If mankind doesn't address this problem, then perhaps in the future "the dominant species that replaces us in postpocalyptic Earth just might wonder, as they gaze upon our mounted skeletons in their natural history museums," writes Tyson, "why large headed Homo Sapiens fared no better than the pea-brained dinosaurs."
— Stephen Eschenbach