Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the most well-known scientists on the planet. In addition to authoring numerous books, he hosts the wildly popular podcast, StarTalk, and has helped revive the epic TV series Cosmos that originated with Carl Sagan, whom he met when he was in high school. Neil is also the director of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium, part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space that he helped launch at the American Museum of Natural History in his hometown of New York City. In this episode of Your Hometown, we turn a giant lens on the galaxy of Neil’s childhood to explore the origins of his mission to make science fun and intelligible to the public. What inspired him as a kid growing up in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in an apartment complex called, of all things, the Skyview? What were the forces that propelled him, and what were the barriers he had to push through to achieve his dreams?
"It was a geek universe, but it still had the full range of cliques you would find in any normal high school. It still had the jocks and the geeks, except the jocks were geeks and the geeks were geeks squared; just magnified. Take your bell curve of who you find in high school and shift it on the geek spectrum."
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Theme from “Head of The Class” (1986)
Christopher Cross – “Arthur’s Theme” (1981)
Gladys Gooding – V-Disc 741 (1947)
Original Composition: Sterling Steffen
Intro to “Startalk Podcast: Cosmic Queries Galactic Grab Bag” (2021)
Cosmos: Possible Worlds Official Trailer (2018)
Clip from “Dark Universe” | Hayden Planetarium (2014)
WABC Music Radio 77: Chuck Leonard reports on the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4 1968) – (2011)
Opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Opening scene of Escape from New York (1981)
Illustrations – Nick Gregg
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.
7: Neil deGrasse Tyson – Riverdale, The Bronx
April 27, 2021
Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York, with generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Neil deGrasse Tyson: It was a geek universe, but it still had the full range of cliques you would find in any normal high school. It still had the jocks and the geeks, except the jocks were geeks and the geeks were geeks squared; just magnified. Take your bell curve of who you find in high school and shift it on the geek spectrum.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us and what happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us. I’m Kevin Burke and this is Your Hometown.
My guest is Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most popular scientists on the planet — no, the universe or should I say, the expanding universe. He has a wildly popular podcast.
[we hear the intro to “Startalk Podcast: Cosmic Queries Galactic Grab Bag” (2021)
Neil: “Welcome to Startalk, I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson, your personal astrophysicist.”]
Kevin (Voiceover narration): He’s on television, where he’s helped revive the epic series Cosmos that originated with Carl Sagan, whom he met when he was in high school.
[we hear the Cosmos Possible Worlds Official Trailer (2018)
Neil: “What does knowing our place in the universe do for us? Maybe the answer is everything.”]
Kevin (Voiceover narration): He’s written numerous books. And he’s the director of the world-renowned Hayden Planetarium, part of the Rose Center for Earth and Space that he helped launch at the American Museum of Natural History.
[We hear a clip from “Dark Universe” | Hayden Planetarium (2014)
Neil: The universe contains clusters of galaxies, like this one. Each cluster, home to trillions of stars, generates enough gravity to walk the space around it into a giant lens that distorts our view of the galaxies beyond.”]
Kevin (Voiceover narration): Speaking with Neil. I wondered what turning a giant lens on a different galaxy, his own childhood in New York City, would reveal about the origins of his mission to make science fun and intelligible to the public writ large. What inspired him? What were the forces that propelled him? What were the barriers he had to push through to achieve his dreams? You’ll hear he has a lot to say on all of this, beginning with one of his most important teachers of all: his hometown.
Neil: My brother, sister, and parents would take trips. We would visit institutions where there were adults who had expertise that went beyond doctor, lawyer, or the traditional portfolio of what you might be when you grow up. Looking back on it — well, now that I’m a parent, I’m pretty sure they took us out each weekend just to wear us down, so we’d just fall asleep when we got home. That’s surely a secondary motive, but a primary motive was to expose us to all the things that creative and talented humans do. Living in New York City became an ideal backdrop for that. Ultimately, my brother would become an artist. He was deeply moved by what he saw, not only at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, [but at] the Guggenheim Museum, as well as the Museum of Modern Art. And he was forever altered in his life’s ambition because of those trips.
I, in a trip to the American Museum of Natural History — we’d go around back and enter the Hayden Planetarium. That first encounter with the night sky, which is something New Yorkers don’t have when you think about it, particularly back then, because — I’m that old — there was a lot of air pollution. I remember walking to school, you’d have to brush ash from your shoulder that landed from trash that was burned in incinerators in the apartment buildings. So there was air pollution. Buildings were tall, so a sight line up? Chances are it landed on a building unless you looked straight up. And then what happens to be straight up? Just a little patch of sky.
So really, my awareness of the universe required this artificial setting: the planetarium. There I was, a kid in the Hayden Planetarium, the lights dimmed. By the way, of course this would happen in any planetarium. You sit in a big comfortable chair, the lights dim, the stars come out.
And of course, I thought it was a hoax. It was definitely a hoax because I’d seen the night sky from New York City and I counted all fourteen stars. It was an entertaining hoax, but a hoax nonetheless. And only later would we take trips to the Caribbean, where I have family heritage, and I’d see the night sky unimpeded by pollution and by city lights and realize that what I saw in the Hayden Planetarium was not a hoax. It was real. And to this day, and quite embarrassingly I confess, if I’m on a mountaintop where the finest observatories are located in the world and I look up and it’s just the sparkling beauty of the cosmos staring down upon me, my first thought is, this reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium. It’s a very urban, embarrassing way to describe the actual universe. But that’s how imprinted I had become. I was literally star struck at that time.
That set the seeds. I knew I liked the universe, but I didn’t think that you could become somebody who studies it. At age nine, you just do what feels good. You’re not thinking, “career.” By the time I was eleven, I’m entering sixth grade and I thought I was a man about town. Man of the world at age twelve, I was like, I’m almost a teenager, I can think about my grown-up years. My friend Phillip Branford, he pulled out a pair of binoculars and the moon was in the sky. I looked at the moon through the binoculars and there it was. It wasn’t just a bigger moon. It was a better moon, with craters, mountains, valleys, and shadows. And all of a sudden, the moon became this sort of tactile place.
[we hear archival clip audio of Walter Cronkite and the CBS News crew broadcasting the 1969 moon landing, when astronaut Neil Armstrong, of the Apollo 11 mission, famously said, “the eagle has landed.”]
Neil: I was with him when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, ok. You could see it on the TV. It was in the summer. We were visiting his relatives in Virginia and there was a little black and white TV. But still, the moon was a little distant to me. It wasn’t until I saw it through binoculars that it became a world, a place. And I said, if simple binoculars can do this with the moon, imagine what telescopes can do with the rest of the universe. And I aligned important decisions for the rest of my life to become an astrophysicist.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): It was his decision to pursue science, but it was his parents who had put him in position to make that choice – from taking him to the planetarium to moving when his father got a new job that paid more and took them out of subsidized housing to a leafier neighborhood: Riverdale. Now, if you Google them on a map, you’ll see that the Castle Hill Housing Projects and Riverdale are on opposite corners of the Bronx. One faces sunrise, the other sunset. In Riverdale, by the way, Neil’s new home was in an apartment complex called the Skyview!
Neil: After I got my first telescope, the first that I purchased with my own money that I earned from walking dogs, of which there were many living in the Skyview apartment complex. I’d earn money, fifty cents per dog, per walk, which adds up very quickly. And of course, I would drag that to the roof and I’d be in my solitude there. Just me, the telescope, and the universe, as accessible as it can be from New York City,
Kevin: The elevation — and for those listening, the Castle Hill section of the Bronx is in the southeast corner of the Bronx. Riverdale’s in the northwest corner of the Bronx. [They are] about nine miles apart, but the elevation’s drastically different. Castle Hill is about 23 feet above sea level. And the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where the Skyview is, is 231 feet.
Neil: Yeah, not only that —
Kevin: It’s a drastic difference —
Neil: You did your homework there. And not only that, I would later learn that the hill on which the Skyview Apartments were built is one of the highest elevations in the entire city. And so, to have a very tall building on a high hill where I would then take my telescope, that was special. And I’d look over the Hudson to the Palisades of New Jersey. You can see not only the Tappan Zee Bridge looking north, but the George Washington Bridge looking south. [You can see] stupendous sunsets, and especially when the early crescent moon is suspended there in the sky, sometimes with Venus, it’s just a gorgeous place to continue to be inspired.
Kevin: And do you remember the move from Castle Hill to Riverdale?
Neil: Yes, I remember that we were the first family to live in the apartment that had been built. The Skyview Apartments were relatively new. I also remember this was in the mid 60s, early to mid 60s, and people were picketing outside the building. This is in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, [and it was] to prevent Black people from moving in. And this was odd. I was like, why are these people — why do they think I’m different? Because here I am just a kid in school thinking about the universe. I’m not thinking I’m some Black kid and there are people who don’t like me because of my skin color. That was just really weird. This was a luxury apartment; it was really upper middle class. Three huge apartment buildings brilliantly conceived to surround a park. There were tennis courts, a recreation center, a little cafe. and a skating rink — that’s where I learned how to skate. I became an ice guard, a rink guard, and became pretty good. I was nimble on my feet on the ice.
This was very different from the Castle Hill Housing Projects, I can tell you that. And that happened because my father ended up getting a job. He was in school. My mother was a homemaker. And so, our income was very low at the time. My parents were very frugal and they remained frugal throughout their lives, even when the income outstripped the threshold for living in the middle-income housing projects. Other things I remembered about this move was that the bathroom had a fluorescent light, and it was just so bright. It flickered before it turned on. And it was like, wow, this is really modern. I just remember thinking that. Another little thing was the faucet in the bathroom had hot and cold water coming through the same spigot so that you could make warm water. I came from the housing project. There’s the cold water and the hot water one. And you’d have to shove your hands quickly, left and right, to try to balance it out. To me, these were simple expressions of a modern future, a future that I was ready to see happen, having visited the 1964-65 World’s Fair.
[we hear archival audio from the newsreel, “President Johnson Opens New York’s World Fair 1964.”]
Neil: A lot of interesting things were there, including the Pietà from the Vatican loaned for that occasion. The Vatican had a pavilion. Holding aside the international dimensions of this, there was a very strong messaging about the role of science and technology in shaping our future, [like] the gift of U.S. steel, the tilted earth, which is now the symbol of Flushing Meadows. I was imprinted by that as well. That was pre-universe for me. That was what got me thinking about the future and what role science and technology might play – will play – and will have to play to make that happen.
Kevin: It’s so interesting that you mentioned that because one of your predecessors in what you do was Carl Sagan, who grew up in Brooklyn. He talked about how the 1939 World’s Fair and “the World of Tomorrow” that he engaged with as a little kid also excited him about the very same way you’re describing. Those two World’s Fairs played a role for both of you on your journey.
Neil: Yes, precisely. And we were approximately the same age. He might have been five- something, but in the same chapter in one’s life we were both exposed to what the future might be. And, of course, 1939 would be followed by the Second World War, so a lot of that promise was deflected by the turbulence in the world. Of course, in the 1965 World’s Fair, we’re still in the middle of the Cold War, where the world is held hostage by two warring superpowers.
Kevin: So you’re viewing the sky, you’re taking in the cosmos as a little kid, but you’ve got other people’s eyes on you. As you mentioned, when you moved in, there were picketers. You’ve talked about how when you were up on the roof, one out of every three times the cops would be called. How did that feel to know that you were being watched in that way as you were going way, way out into space with your own imagination?
Neil: If I said one in three times that the police came up, that’s what it felt like. But it probably wasn’t that high. It might have been closer to one in five, one in seven.
Kevin: That’s still a lot.
Neil: Yeah, it’s still real. In all fairness to the people who called the police, I used telescopes that required electricity. And my dentist happened to be on the 20th floor and I had a long extension cord and I would lower down and plug it into a power outlet on his balcony. So if someone saw something on the roof lowering what looked like a rope, I get it. I get it. But I’m a kid with ambition and I know the world has problems. My parents, my father, especially in the 1960s, was active in the civil rights movement. [He was in] human resources with the city, became a city official in the 1960s. So I had daily awareness of this, but I chose to not carry that burden. I don’t want to call it like water off a duck’s back, but I was able to say this is not standing between me and my goal. And I will continue to pursue my goal.
Today you might call it microaggressions. A psychologist might analyze it and wonder whether I was compartmentalizing it and would it then manifest later in my life? And I don’t have that level of expertise to know whether I was successfully shielding myself from it or whether it worked its way in. I can tell you that the number of people who did not share my own ambitions for what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was able to use that as a launchpad to excel even more.
And I base that on some stories that my father told me. He was in high school, Morris High School in the Bronx. He told a story where he’s in gym class and he’s on line. And there’s the track and field unit and the gym teacher is describing the different events and pointed to my father and said, in the track part of this track and field unit, see Cyril Tyson over there, he has the body type that would not work as a good runner. And he [my father] said, what? He’s telling me what I can’t be? Preordaining what my ambition should be or should not be? And he, in the years that followed, lived in defiance of that assertion by his gym teacher. And in doing so, he started training, he started running. He became part of the track team, he became world class in the 600-yard run, he was a middle-distance runner. He had the fifth fastest time in the world in that event. Any time people questioned what I wanted to be when I grew up and said, “Why don’t you want to be an athlete, why don’t you be this or why don’t you be that?” I’d say, “No. I want to be an astrophysicist. Now I want to be one even more.”
Kevin: I read somewhere one of your teachers [during] a parent teacher conference told your mom that you laughed too much in elementary school.
Neil: It’s right.
Kevin: And of course, your laugh is one of your signature hallmarks. Anyone listens to you loves your laugh. It’s part of who you are. And I was thinking, what was that teacher missing and how were you using that laughter in class?
Neil: I laughed at funny things. It was more of a guffaw. And I came to realize, now as an educator and as a scientist, that so much of school is about homogenizing your behavior. And the most homogenized behavior in a class is the person who is praised as the really good student. You don’t speak up in class. You pay attention. You listen. You speak only when you’re spoken to. You study hard, you get good grades. You do everything they want you to do. And that’s considered an excellent student. And then I wondered, can you be an excellent student if you don’t fit that mold? If you have a social energy that spills out of the box that they want to draw around you — suppose you have energy to learn that’s not from the book they handed you, but from other books that you obtained from other sources that don’t match a curriculum that’s being handed to you.
I was highly active. My parents bought remainder books for me at local bookstores. I had math books, physics books, and astronomy books. I must’ve had several hundred books in middle school — no, maybe about a hundred books in middle school. And the whole library probably cost no more than ten or twenty dollars. I had a very engaged middle school and high school life — from the money I earned from walking dogs, I was part of a local astronomy club. I not only bought a telescope, I bought a camera [and] took photos. I created a dark room in our interior bathroom, which could be made completely dark. I took all my own photographs. I still have them organized and alphabetized. I won a scholarship to study historical stone monuments throughout the British Isles, such as Stonehenge, [which] is the most and best-preserved example. I had a bit of astral archeology. In my first years of high school, I was part of an astronomy camp that lived nocturnally in the Mojave Desert.
All of this happened and my grades were average. All of a sudden, the system’s box is the metric. It’s a metric of what, in their judgment, you might become in this world. And no teacher throughout my entire life — and I went to public schools my entire life, New York City public schools K through 12 — no teacher at any time ever said, “Hey, he’ll go far. There’s someone you should watch out. He’s on top. He’ll go far.” And you know why? Because they reserve that for people who get straight A’s. That’s their only measure of this. They reserve this for the people who obey everything the teacher says. They reserve that for what they call and think of as the perfect student. But don’t then presume that everyone else who doesn’t fit that box will not achieve. I’ve known since I can think about this world what I wanted to be when I grew up, what I wanted to contribute to this world, and how much energy I had for it. The school system did not intersect this. And I’m glad I had this self-driven energy. I guess they call it grit today, because without that I would have gotten lost in the system.
Kevin: Do you think your trajectory might have been different had you been met with flattery by your teachers or just mere indifference? It seems like the resistance is what fed you.
Neil: Yeah, so that’s a really good question. I’ve thought long and hard about this, more in my later years in school than earlier years. What I realized is if someone is assessing you — let’s say you have a really loving family, “Oh, you’re great, you’re this, you’re that.” That’s as bad as people saying, “Oh, you’re no good, you’ll never amount to anything.” If you think you’re great and you’re not, this is a rude awakening that is coming your way in your life. And if you think you’re not great because people tell you that and you are, that is a completely lost resource in this world for society and civilization, beyond even just the loss [and] life of ambition that the person could have realized.
What you want is an accurate understanding of your talents. I never really paid attention to people who said I would not amount to anything, or even in the rare case when people said, “Oh, you’re amazing, you’re this or that.” No, I’m going to analyze this myself. Otherwise you will claim a lost opportunity and blame the wrong reasons. You might think you’re discriminated against. I have to know if someone, if there’s an opportunity that did not come my way because I was not talented enough, in whatever dimension you would measure this, or because there was outright discrimination. You have to know that. Otherwise it becomes too easy to say everything is not going right in my life because they don’t like my gender, they don’t like my sexual preference, they don’t like my skin color. And you want to be accurate there. Otherwise you’ll be angry. And in fact, if it is because of these discriminatory ways, if you let it get to you, then you could become even more angry and you lose your arc of life, your professional arc where you could have become much more.
But now you’re deflecting energies. And I get it. It can make you so angry, not only to witness it in others, but to have it happen to yourself. But at some point, you have to ask, are you going to martyr yourself to change society by saying, I’m going to fight this? — And some people have and not all of them are alive today for having done so. Or do you focus on your own life? And I focused on my own life.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): That life unfolded in a set of schools in a neighborhood and a home where Neil was a member of an accomplished family. His mother “Toni’s” family had come from Puerto Rico, and she went on to become a gerontologist. His paternal grandmother, Altima Tyson, had been born on the island of Nevis, like another famous New Yorker, Alexander Hamilton.
Neil: She came to New York to raise a family, and the family then rose up. My father became a city official. [My] uncle became an attorney. My aunt became a schoolteacher and another uncle became a nurse. Everyone became professionals. And she had no more than a sixth-grade education. But she knew the value of education. She knew how to put the guiding light into place.
Kevin (Voiceover narration): She also ended up living with Neil’s family toward the end of her life. In that same apartment were his mom and dad; his sister, Lynn; and his older brother, Stephen, the artist. Now, as a younger brother myself, I was curious to know what that was like.
Kevin: You guys lived on the eighth floor and you shared a bedroom with your older brother, Stephen. And I was going to ask you, sharing your room with your brother, whose decor, whose music, whose dreams dominated the room? Or did you somehow manage a way to coexist peacefully?
Neil: No, no. He was an older brother, so he dominated everything. Older brothers win every time. I would be in there — we had a TV in the room and I’d be watching a TV show, he’d come in, just change the channel, and lay down in the bed and start watching. [He] wouldn’t ask what I was watching or is it interesting. So that’s the little brother syndrome. You get, you learn to —
Kevin: I’m one, too.
Neil: Ok. You learn to adapt to that. He was only two years older, but the two years is a lot when you’re eight and ten or six and eight. My little corner — I was much neater than he was. I was a little more fastidious. And my little corner had my bookshelves. I kept a neat bed and I was pretty organized. So, yeah, he dominated that room and then his mess would spill over. [That] was the era where you have beads that separate two spaces. So we bought these beads and it turns out they were just completely noisy. Every time you went through it was like [Neil makes cackling noises]. Plus, they didn’t stop noise from the other side from coming through. It was an interesting experiment in beading — a beaded divider – which was all in style back in the 1960s.
Kevin: If you could give us a sense of your home, the feeling of the place.
Neil: Growing up?
Kevin: Yeah, because you have these interesting influences, the Afro-Caribbean through your father’s side, the Puerto Rican influences through your mother’s side, that kind of blended house. What did the house feel like? When you think about it in your mind and you go back there, in your memory what was the feel like?
Neil: So, the way you even asked the question presupposes a certain cultural blending. And that’s not really what happened. What happened was we just had a household and my father went to work and worked long hours. My mother maintained the household. My father would cook and clean on the weekends. He did his sort of domestic duties only on the weekends. And we had family dinners on the weekends, but not so during the week — he would get home too late and we all had homework and this sort of thing. With regard to the cultures, the culture was not explicitly in the home. We made our own home according to our own needs and our own desires. But Christmas vacations, we would take trips to Puerto Rico and experience Puerto Rican culture over the holidays. We would go to the British West Indies and experience the culture there. Our exposure was real and consistent, but it was not something that happened daily at home other than foods that we’d eat.
There’s certain staple foods that are cultural foods, [like] meat patties or Spanish rice. Pork was a major food group in this. So, yes, it affected cuisine, but not in terms of anything else that would happen during the day. And my mother didn’t try to get us to speak Spanish. My father didn’t try to get us a West Indian accent. By the way, we would also attend the West Indian Day Parade and the Puerto Rican Day Parade. Yes, we knew about multiculturalism throughout this entire time. We were not insulated from it. And it was a fundamental part. And by the way, you can do that when you grow up in New York City.
[we hear archival audio music from these parades.]
Neil: If you care about cultures, of your own and others, you would step out and watch people celebrate these cultures and — which is odd today when you see people tribalizing because of it. And I’m so disappointed in society when you have to say, “I’m better than you,” rather than say, “Oh, that food is different. Can I try it? Well, that’s interesting. How do you make that? Why don’t you try this?” I was imprinted in that. I saw that at the World’s Fair. I’m thinking, yeah, this is the future where we all live together. Come on now.
Kevin: Thinking about your father’s New York in particular, I wanted to just dive in there a little bit. He had done so many things; he’d been the director of Harlem Youth Opportunity Unlimited. He had worked for the Lindsay administration. He had helped to found 100 Black Men of New York with future Mayor David Dinkins. Jackie Robinson. He was really a man of the community. When your father passed away in 2016, you wrote this very moving tribute to him. And there’s one line that stood out to me and I wanted to read it and get your thoughts on it. You wrote about him [and] this is addressed to him. “You worked behind the scenes on this, with your only reward the quiet knowledge that the nation’s largest city did not burn during the most turbulent years of the most turbulent decade in American history since the Civil War.”
Neil: It was dark when he came home. And of course, I’m too young to fully grok the social, cultural significance and meaning of what’s going on in the city; the plight of the disenfranchised, the frustrations and angers. And he had a job title that was longer than I could easily recite. And people would say, “What does your father do?” This is back when they would never ask what your mother did, they’d only ask you what your father did. And growing up in Riverdale, which is mostly not Black, it was the most common question I was asked, “What does your father do?” Alright, people wondering what I am doing in my neighborhood? Yeah. Yeah,
Kevin: “Why are you here?”
Neil: Yeah, “Why are you here?” And so he was a commissioner under Mayor Lindsay – of the Manpower and Career Development Agency. That’s a lot of words for an eleven-year-old kid to recite, much less fully understand what it means. But in my later years, looking back, recognizing that he played a key role in ensuring that people who would otherwise feel disenfranchised, don’t. So that there are job opportunities for them. What is a riot if not the last desperate act when you know you have no other options?
[we hear archival audio of WABC Music Radio 77: Chuck Leonard reports on the Assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (April 4, 1968)
Neil: Going through the 1960s, Watts burned. And Detroit burned. And Washington burned. New York City, there were some isolated things, but with the largest “ghetto,” as it was called in the day in the country, it does not burn in 1967, 1968, or [in] any of these other times. It means there are glimmers of hope that people otherwise retained that didn’t have them descend into a state of riots. And my father was behind the scenes in all of that. And no one writes articles on the riots that didn’t happen in New York. It’s just not news. And so everyone is looking elsewhere. And meanwhile, there is New York, the hot, sweltering nights of the 1960s.
Kevin: And did his work to you feel like a world apart? Here you are in Riverdale, he’s living there, but he comes home, as you said late. His work is downtown or it’s in Harlem.
Neil: Yes. It would be removed no matter what he did, because I was doing astrophysics. I think pretty much everything is removed if your kid is an astrophysicist. It would not be until I was in college and later that I’d look back, see, more deeply recognize, and appreciate what my father did and how and why he accomplished it.
Kevin: Also wondering, given the fact that you are coming of age at this really tumultuous time in New York and in the country, late ’60s, early ’70s — lots of things happening, some good, some scary, [with] lots of change, turmoil. Did you find that the cosmos and the stars were more dependable than people?
Neil: Oh yeah, that was clear from when I first saw that my building didn’t have a 13th floor. I said I think people might be the last entity I should be depending on in this world.
Kevin: But it’s also deeper than that, too, right? Your father was a sociologist. He engaged his whole life with the laws of society, if you will, or the irrationalities of society and a man. And here you are called to the laws of physics.
Neil: Yes. He thrived in the uncertainties of human behavior and in the way those uncertainties still come together and create a society in which people have to function. I would later, when we were building the Rose Center for Earth and Space, the new Hayden Planetarium, where I have to deal with the city, departments in the institution, the whole bureaucratic structure of the Museum and the Department of Education, and the Landmarks Commission, because that whole set of buildings was landmark on that part of New York City. And we’re about to rebuild it. What does that mean, all of this? He would say, “Neil, what’s happening now?” He was like a kid in a candy store. He wanted me to just tell him all of this. And then he would come back to me with an analysis that is like, there was no way I could have arrived there because our brains are just wired completely differently. And he would talk about the motives; what’s driving people and what they really want versus what they say they want; how to navigate that; and how to put something in front of people so that they don’t distract with other things that would stop them. They see a goal, they see the prize, and then they align with you because we all see the prize. There [were] tactics, methods, and tools to navigating people that were all new to me.
[we hear Gladys Gooding, of Madison Square Garden fame, playing the organ.]
Kevin: In your memoir, you mention a few dates, but one of them stands out, as you mentioned, the day April 17th, 1973. Why is that significant? It’s because that was the date that you first dunked a basketball.
Neil: Oh, thank you.
Kevin: Now, of course, that was the year when the Knicks were on their way to a second championship. And you did something that every kid wants to do. You did it.
Neil: Yeah, in the early 1970s, it was a dry spell for the New York Yankees. And I was a big Yankee fan, but a big dry spell. But the Knicks had Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, later Senator Bill Bradley, and Earl the Pearl Monroe. This was a dream team, really. And they won championships. It was a good time in my life when I was feeling good about the city and about the sports. At that time in the street, it mattered that you were good at sports. You couldn’t hang out with people if you were — there was no room for the nerd. The nerd culture had not really taken root. And I date that from the beginning of the film Revenge of the Nerds (1984). I think that film was the birth of nerds realizing that we are a community, we can find each other, and then we stop getting shoved into the lockers by the football jocks. Why? Because as computers came out, they wanted to know how to use their computers. The nerds were the only ones who knew how to do that. So our stock value rose, not only in the schoolyard, but in society.
Nonetheless, it was still clear to me that you had to be athletic. And so dunking a basketball, you not only had to jump high, but your hands had to be large enough to hold the ball because the ball’s in one hand. You’re not so good a jumper that you can dunk with two hands. It’s a one hand stretch. And so, I was able to do that. And I did it in Converse All Star sneakers, which had a very good grip on a wooden floor. That was important to me. It was a certain athletic achievement that said, yeah, I can do that. That’s a bucket list, take that off the list. Now let me get back to the universe and continue contemplating the cosmos.
Kevin: You accomplished this feat of dunking a basketball [and] then go back to astrophysics, but you do take up another sport, which is wrestling. And you became the captain of the team in high school at Bronx Science, wrestled at Harvard. It’s an ancient sport, a very different form of competition. What drew you from dunking to wrestling?
Neil: Yeah, on Grecian urns, there are wrestlers, not basketball players. There’s only one reason why I wrestled. I began wrestling in high school only because I didn’t know if we had enough money for me to go to college or to a college of my choice. I knew that scholarships were available for wrestlers in ways with more — the accessibility of that may have been greater than in other sports. And so it was a tactic. I ended up just falling in love with the sport and no longer [thought] about scholarships at all. I fell in love with the purity of it. And if you lose, you lose. You’re not blaming someone else around the corner who dropped the ball that you tossed to them. And so and to be physically fit, to be agile, to be flexible, to be nimble, all of the above, I greatly value that just in terms of my physical being.
[we hear the theme music for the 1980s NBC TV sitcom, Head of the Class.]
Kevin: And Bronx Science, which is a vaunted high school, people who grew up in the 80s, know it from this show, Head of the Class. You went — Class of ‘76. Tell me about your Bronx Science and how competitive it was.
Neil: Yeah, the most formative years of my life were the years I was coming out of middle school [and] going into high school. It was formative in my life because other students around me were as motivated as I was, to learn and to think deep thoughts. It had nothing to do with the teachers. These teachers are drawn from the same pool of teachers that fill other high schools throughout the city. It’s not like this is a special school because it has special teachers. It’s a special place because other students are special, special in the sense that they’re motivated. There’s no one saying, “Hey come over here, do some heroin.” That’s not happening in that school. And by the way, it was a geek universe, but still had the full range of cliques you would find in any normal high school. It still had the jocks and the geeks, except the jocks were geeks and the geeks were geeks squared; just magnified. Take your bell curve of who you find in high school and shift it on the geek spectrum.
Kevin: And in that way, where did you feel you most belonged and where do you feel most like an outsider?
Neil: I was a geek jock. And so I was totally jock, totally all there, especially as captain of the wrestling team. But I had very deep respect, empathy, and compassion for the folks on the other end of that social spectrum. To this day, I see and feel myself as a protector of the geek class, where if you wanted to be a superhero, I would be the superhero [for] if there’s a geek in trouble somewhere because there’s some bully trying to bully them, some big, strong bully bullying my geek brethren? You just put up the pi symbol (π) in the sky. Put up some mathematical symbol and I’ll be there. And I know I can kick some ass because I was captain of the wrestling team. I also studied martial arts, so I could jump into that, protect that. This is back when you never really reported the — I don’t know why you didn’t report bullies to the principal. You just kind of lived with them. They were just part of life.
Kevin: And did you ever have to use your fists?
Neil: Never, never, never…. It was because I realized I was also socialized so I could socially divert attention, ask questions, and just stand in the way. And I could be a possibly physical threat if they believed it. And they’d be accurate on some level with that thought. But my point is, no, I’ve never been in a fight in my life. And I’m the only one growing up among all my friends who can say that, I’m a completely nonviolent person.
Kevin: And most people from the outside think of what you do and they fall in love with the stars as kids. I know I did. I loved the stars. I loved going to the planetarium. But when I took an astronomy course in college and realized, oh this is all math. It’s all physics, you lost me. How did you translate that romance that you had for the cosmos into a staying power, when you realized and discovered it’s math and physics [that] are really the core of that unlock.
Neil: I wanted to do astrophysics so badly that I would do whatever it took to arrive there and learning that, yes, it requires math. I remembered when I first took calculus — and just to be clear, if you don’t otherwise know, if your listeners don’t otherwise know, calculus is way more different from algebra, than algebra is from arithmetic.
Neil: Okay, so whatever challenges you had going to algebra, they are manifold greater going to calculus. Calculus doesn’t even use the alphabet. It’s squiggly lines. It uses the Greek alphabet. Now you got a whole other alphabet. What does this mean and why? And what? And here’s something that doesn’t even have an equals (=) sign in it. What does that mean? I remembered looking at the book, opening it up on day one and went, I will never understand this, like not ever. I said, but I need this to understand the universe because math is the language of the universe. My ambitions — where I wanted to land was a propulsive force for me, moving through the challenges of learning whatever I needed to learn, and that included the math and the physics. I put an extra effort there, and slowly these equations became more and more transparent to me. It was like a fog lifted. The transparency, to my understanding, became more and more apparent. Though my grades in high school were average, my highest grades were in math and physics. My lowest grades were in Spanish, embarrassing because I had a Puerto Rican mother. But just saying.
Speaking about whether it’s competitive. I guess it was. But I didn’t care and I didn’t think about it that way. I had students come up to say, “What grade did you get on this?” I wondered, like why do they even care? I don’t care what grade they got. Why do they care what grade I got? And I would realize later that they wanted to know what opportunities would come my way, and they wanted to strictly compare. Again, you compare box things like, what grade did you get and what score did you get on an exam? And this is how people think about the world. To think the school is actually making a difference I think overstates the case. If a school such as the Bronx High School of Science is only accepting you because you got a high grade on a test that they administered, you were already doing well coming out of middle school. You already know this stuff. You’re already there. Now you collect these people together and they do great things. And you say, “Well, look what we did.” No, excuse me? And I take this all the way up. Let’s look at Harvard. People say, “I went to Harvard, I did Harvard this and Harvard that.” Excuse me, who does Harvard admit? They admit the cream of the cream of the cream in their high schools. Before your senior year, you knew who these people were. And so Harvard then collects the people who are already upwardly mobile and got their life’s path tattooed on their arm. And then they do great things that Harvard wants to say they had a rat’s ass to do with it. Excuse me?
If you want to believe you had something to do with it, the Bronx High School Science and Harvard should do the following: they should go to the middle school, go to the high schools and get people who are perfectly average, where nothing stands out about them. Then send them to Harvard. See if you can make something stand out about them. If you can, now I believe you had something to do with that student body. Until you do that experiment, you’ve got nothing to show me.
Kevin: Are your coming-of-age years in New York, that chapter of your life, and the New York of today different universes for you? And how do they exist for you in terms of the way that you relate to the city?
Neil: You know, when you grow up and you don’t know anything else, your world is just normalized into what you expect and think things are. I think that’s true for all children, and to their gain or to their detriment, whatever is going on is normal. So growing up, especially going into the 1970s, there were seven homicides a day, two thousand murders a year in New York City. In the 1960s, there was a garbage strike, it was garbage everywhere. And even when there wasn’t a strike, there was still garbage everywhere, just less of it. One of the measures of this — I like finding measures of — in the early 1960s, right up to maybe 1965, movies portraying New York City were postcards. Just take a look at Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). It was, here she is at the Lincoln Center or Rockefeller [Center]. It’s a postcard of the city.
(we hear the openings of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Escape from New York.)
Beginning in the late ’60s, movies that were filmed in the city changed and it was about the grit, the grime, and the violence. The nadir of this was Escape from New York (1981), where the government turned Manhattan into a prison. They said, forget it, let’s just make the whole thing a prison. But my point is, that’s the city I grew up in: the drugs, the sex trafficking, and Times Square and the Triple X movie theaters. That was life. And here I am becoming an astrophysicist in the middle of that.
Then the ’80s came, and into the ’90s. And I say, wait, things are slowly changing here. Wow, it doesn’t have to be like that. Oh my gosh, Bryant Park is showing movies? Bryant Park? And plus, the bombed out South Bronx. Just look at the inner city, the ghetto known in its day, it seemed almost entirely hopeless, not knowing that decades are not a long period of time in the history of a city, relative to the history of my life growing up. So a decade is my whole life, my whole conscious life, by the time I’m fifteen. [My] point is, when I look at the city today, even with the strife we’ve been through, even after September 11th, the city is cleaner, it is safer, it is kinder, it is more family friendly than any time I grew up. And how often do you get to say that about where and when you grew up? Because so often the rose-colored glasses come on and it’s, “Back in my day things were safer and we could do this. We left our doors unlocked.” And it’s like, no, not in my day. No, no. Every measurable thing about the city today is better than when I grew up, period.
So when I compare the two, there are two different universes, but it is the greatest source of hope I have ever encountered. Anyhow, you ask about childhood and now? That’s the difference. And I think about that every day. People say, “Oh, when you were captain of the wrestling team, do you wish you were still wrestling?” I used to dance as well. “You wish you were still dancing?” And I was like, “No, no.” And I can’t tell you how many times people say, “Oh, do you want to?” When they learn I used to dance, they say, “Oh, do you want to go on Dancing with the Stars?” Because I’d be a star and the “star” and that thing. I say, “No, no.” By the way, when I was dancing, no one was publishing my books. Why? Because I hadn’t written any books yet. When I was wrestling, I was in really good shape, but I wasn’t making any money doing other things. I wasn’t writing the way I am today. So when I look at my life, I see it as a series of chapters in a book that time has written. And I look back on those chapters, it’s not to relive them. I’m happy to remember them, but not to long for them, because to long for them is to live in the past, when you don’t have access to the past. All you have is access to your present and to your future. And if you have any control of your present and future, what you should be doing, in my opinion, is writing that chapter. And you should have more wisdom in the present than you ever had at any previous moment of your life. So do something with that wisdom. I have a couple of books that I’m still brewing that will have a level of wisdom captured in it that I could not have possibly written at any previous time. I don’t think about my past as something that I reflect on, “Oh the good old days.” No, I just don’t do that. I never carry pictures in my wallet. Back in the day when you would do that, I never cared. I had never had pictures on my desk, of anybody, at any time because I remember what you look like. I don’t need a picture to remember. I remember okay. And in fact, you know what the picture does? It forces you to remember only that moment. Without a picture, I remember an entire video of everything that happened that I did with you. And so here’s a guy who took pictures. I took thousands of pictures, but they weren’t to remember moments. They were to preserve them, but not for me to relive it.
CBS Sunday Morning did a profile on me. They wanted to take me back to the roof of the Skyview apartment. So we went back. That was kind of fun. But I wasn’t saying, “Gee, bring me back to those days.” No, no. Since then, I’ve used bigger telescopes and gotten better data, in darker skies. Since then, that’s what I’ve done.
Kevin: But is the feeling still the same inside, the feeling that you felt on those magical nights when you’re up there by yourself taking in the universe? Do you still have that certain inner feeling that you had?
Neil: I’ve had better feelings since then on higher mountaintops with bigger telescopes. And so that’s my point. Life continues to move. Every time you do a back loop into it, you’re admitting to yourself that what’s going on in your life now is not as good as what happened back then — either in your thought, emotion, in kind and in place.
There are certain things that happen only once. I do remember what it felt like first seeing the full night sky in the Hayden Planetarium. I do remember first seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope. And I wrote of this, that I felt that I communed through time with Galileo, who first saw the rings of Saturn through a telescope. And I had never seen them through a telescope before, and neither had he. I’d known that they exist. I’d seen photos. But to see them with your own eyes, that has a power over you. Again, because it tells you that what’s in the sky is not just points of light — that they’re real places. So that’s a feeling that I work to repeat, not by repeating the same action, but by doing something new that I haven’t ever done before. That’s how I’ve laid out my life. Otherwise, you sit back, it’s like the person who threw the winning touchdown pass in a football [game], then the trophies on the mantle and the photo of their being held up. And every day you walk into the room and that’s the picture, the one you want to relive. I can’t do that. I choose to not do that. I want more occasions where the future visions, expressed in the New York World’s Fair. We should have one of those every 10 years, but we don’t. I think every now and then we need something that the world can point to and say this is a safe, nonviolent, prosperous, healthy future that we can all align our resources to accomplish. I want to bottle that energy of that World’s Fair and distribute it — not even sell it — distribute it to every next generation so they can think about the future the way I did. The way Carl Sagan did in 1939.
[we hear Christopher Cross’s “Arthur’s Theme” (1981)]
Kevin (voiceover narration): Just like the character in the movie, Arthur (1981), as a kid, Neil was “caught between the moon and New York City.” And he fell in love. But he isn’t interested at all in reliving his past, but in looking for new firsts that will give him that same star struck feeling he had at the Hayden Planetarium. And “the best” that he wants us to “do” is not to look back, but to look forward and up. Thinking about the future that he’s chasing brought me to my last question.
Kevin: Here’s where I like to end, Neil, in every interview, which is going back to my favorite poet, the great New Yorker Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass (1855) wrote, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
And my question from that is if 50 or 100 years from now, people discover Neil deGrasse Tyson, want to investigate him, know about him — and more than the little plaque I imagine one day will be on the Skyview Apartments saying, “This is where Neil deGrasse Tyson lived with his telescope.” [If] they want to know you and find you, where in your map of New York should they look for you?
Neil: Yeah, that’s a totally fair question and let me not answer it first and then maybe answer to your satisfaction second. I don’t care if I’m remembered at all. If you have to remember me, it meant I failed as an educator because my goal as an educator is to empower you to know this world and to take action according to your own sense and sensibilities. If you do something because I did it, that’s not the reason to do something. If you [go], “I want to be just like [him].”. No, you should make your own life, do your own things.
Kevin: That’s very Whitmanian of you, that’s the essence of Walt Whitman. Don’t take anything second hand. Do it yourself.
Neil: Yeah, do it yourself. But I’d be delighted to help empower you to do it yourself. But I don’t need reference to me at the end of this. So that’s my first comment.
Second, by the way, there is a plaque, the last I checked, with my name on it in the vestibule of the Bronx High School of Science. I think there’s notable graduates and there’s the eight Nobel Laureates, seven in physics, one in chemistry. I’m up there. I don’t have a Nobel Prize, but I’m up there among them. And I’m charmed that my name would be listed, among others, in the school. That school has a mural out front that has very famous scientists and engineers of the past. It’s a mosaic and I’d walk under that every day. Rumor has it that the money that was going to pay for a swimming pool, an indoor swimming pool, was instead spent on a mosaic which pissed off many people. But then I realized, oh, mosaics tells stories in ways that swimming pools don’t. Walking under there, there’s Galileo, Newton, Marie Curie, and Imhotep. And they’re these people. I say these are other human beings who have lived among us, who have achieved great things. That’s what I want to do with my life. Not so much achieve great things – I want to live to my potential, whether or not that achieves a great thing. And so if someone who’s seeing these plaques is motivated, I don’t want to take that away from them because I was motivated by these great historical figures that are in the mosaic.
If you want to find me, I don’t know. How about this: let’s put a plaque on the Tudor City overpass, over 42nd street. Right in the middle of that overpass, perfectly aligned on the street, put a plaque there. On that plaque say, “Twice a year from this vista on these two dates, enjoy Manhattanhenge, with the sun setting precisely on the Manhattan grid, a concept first popularized by Neil deGrasse Tyson, who as a child visited Stonehenge and was forever influenced by that visit and wanted to bring a little bit of that cosmic alignment to his hometown.”
And Manhattanhenge, now a word lifted into the Oxford English Dictionary. My first ever photo of Manhattanhenge was actually 34th Street with the Empire State Building. But the best place to view it is in the middle of the street without blocking traffic and that would be on the Tudor City overpass right off of Second Avenue. So that way you’re not remembering me, you’re remembering something I gave you. It was hidden in plain sight. I guess like the blade of grass. It’s there in plain sight, but you don’t think about it. You can’t read that passage without thinking about having trammeled this blade of grass for not having thought of it, but now when you get to the next blade of grass, it’s there for you to embrace. So don’t remember me, remember what I have offered. And that is Manhattanhenge.
Kevin: I love it. Neil deGrasse Tyson, let’s let it lie there. Thank you so much for taking me to your hometown.
Kevin (voiceover narration): If you’re interested in experiencing Manhattanhenge, it’s coming up on Memorial Day weekend, which also happens to be Walt Whitman’s birthday. And again, in mid-July. Definitely check it out. Meantime, thank you for listening.
Kevin (voiceover outro): Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke Production. For more, please visit our website at yourhometown.org, where you can listen to all our past episodes and find our show notes and artwork for each guest. You can also follow us wherever podcasts are available and on social media channels like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Also, please look up the show’s New York City series page, including information on live events on the Museum of the City of New York’s website at MCNY.org/yourhometown-podcast.
Now I’d like to thank the amazing team that I’m star struck by, the team that works with me on Your Hometown: beginning with our executive producer, the great Robert Krulwich. Then there’s our art director, Nick Gregg; our editor and sound designer, Otis Streeter; composer and performer Sterling Steffen; and our researcher Shakila Khan.
Also, a special thanks to my wife, Anna, for helping me shape the narrative of this episode.
Our branding and website design is by Tama Creative, and our social media team is led by CURE and Jessica Sain-Baird.
A special thanks too, to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York. I also can’t possibly thank enough the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and all our financial supporters for their belief in this series.
Until next time. Thanks so much for taking this ride with me. And remember, everyone is from someplace. And everywhere, everywhere — in the cosmos – is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.