When I told Neil deGrasse Tyson that he had sold out two nights at the Paramount Theatre next month, he was his usual charming self.
“Did anyone remind people that I am an astrophysicist?” he recently asked on the phone from his office in New York City.
Oh, they know. They’re familiar with your hosting of the “StarTalk” radio show, the “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” TV show, and your 11 books — including “The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.”
They have seen you on everything from “The Colbert Report” to “The Simpsons” to ”The Big Bang Theory.” Online, you’ve been portrayed by rapper Chali 2na on the web series “Epic Rap Battles of History,” and your three AMAs (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit are some of the most popular ever.
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If that’s not enough, consider: If you Google the name “Neil,” deGrasse Tyson is the first full name to come up — before cultural giants “Patrick Harris” and “Young,” and, ironically, well before the first man to set foot on the moon.
Two nights. Sold out. Yes.
And, apparently, no pre-written speech. That’s not his style.
“Because if such a thing existed,” Tyson said, “I would just mail it to the town and stay home. You’re giving a lecture without any reference to who is in the audience.”
So of course Tyson will be speaking about his life experiences, his interaction with politicians. He will lament the state of science education and talk about hosting “Cosmos.” (“I will be sharing with the audience the world as it appears through my lens.”)
But as his Seattle dates get closer, Tyson, 55, will start assembling information derived from current events, people he knows, anecdotes, regional lore — and maybe some insight from his friends at the University of Washington Astronomy Department.
“I fold it all in,” Tyson said. “This is the flavoring. There’s a scaffolding, but that becomes unique. If I came to give a pure talk on the universe, or astronomy, well, you don’t need me for that.”
His goal, he said, is to put people in a new place, so by the end of his talk, “They will have a deeper understanding of why science matters and how they can empower themselves to think about science in the 21st Century.”
Though Tyson is unafraid to comment on politically charged matters of science, he may refrain from talking about his defense of genetically-modified organisms — a debate he entered earlier this month without really knowing it.
Tyson was on a book tour when a reporter approached him in the signing line, and asked him what he thought of GMOs, recording Tyson’s two-minute response.
The take-away? Tyson believes critics of GMOs should “Chill out.”
(“It feels like it was long ago, because the tie I was wearing I haven’t worn in a long time,” Tyson said.)
The video was recently “unearthed,” he said, “and everyone attacks me.”
So he posted a “fleshier” answer than the clip and posted it on his Facebook page:
“If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that,” he said. “If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMOs with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival.”
Added Tyson: “Thankfully, people are basing their comments and reactions on what I put on Facebook instead of this two-minute ditty that’s out there. That was social media working properly.”
He was speaking from his chair at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, the very place he visited time and again as a kid from the Bronx, and where he now holds the title of Frederick P. Rose Director.
In fact, the first time he took in the actual night sky, a blanket of stars over his head, he thought it was mimicking what he had seen at the Hayden — not the other way around.
Tyson — who lives in Manhattan with his wife of 26 years, Alice Young and is the father of two grown children — is still that 8-year-old boy. He sees himself in the kids who come through on field trips and with their parents. The wonder in their eyes. The fun.
“All the time, all the time, I see the 8- and 10-year-old kids looking bright-eyed, and I feel it every day. It is a reminder of what it is to be young.”
He is middle-aged now, but doesn’t feel it. A few weeks ago, he said, the syndicated columnist Froma Harrop wrote that he was “a nice man.” He couldn’t wrap his big brain around it.
“I don’t think of myself as a man, in my mind’s eye,” Tyson said. “I still jump into puddles in the rain and I catch snowflakes in my open mouth and sip the end of a milkshake loudly.”
Most people drink coffee for breakfast; he has hot chocolate with cream. When they are having beer, Tyson is having lemonade. And he can’t help but swivel if his chair will allow it.
“I am one step behind everyone who is being an adult around me,” Tyson said.
So it wasn’t hard for him to wax poetic about the night sky. The first time he saw it, he once told Colbert, “So strong was that imprint, that I’m certain that I had no choice in the matter, that in fact, the universe called me.”
Where is his favorite place to see it? The Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, located about 500 km north of Santiago, Chile.
“That mountain is high enough, and on the coast, so the clouds would come in and surround the mountaintop,” Tyson said. “It’s as if you are in some otherworldly place, or some other world.
“It’s just you and the mountaintop, surrounded by clouds and the universe. And it takes your breath away.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.