Workbench
12.18.2009, 10:34 AM

Oliver Sacks portrait by Doron Gild

Growing up in the Bronx, Tyson had always known the night sky as a meager handful of stars. So, at age 11, when he first saw the heavenly tableau of constellations in a planetarium, he thought it was a hoax. The experience had a striking impact, inspiring him to follow a prestigious career in astrophysics. His journey eventually came full circle, with his appointment as director of the very place he first gazed at the universe as a boy: the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. That role—along with his science TV series—has delivered Tyson, and his gift for explaining complex concepts with humor and charm, from astrophysicist to a steward of the sciences in general. We spent the morning at his office to talk about that role and all the cosmic-related gifts that accumulate there.

Interview by Greg Boustead
Photographs by Nikki Schiwal

Precocious Genius

Sir Isaac Newton—he’s maybe my favorite character of all time. If you read his original writings, it can make the hair stand on the back of your neck, just from the sheer depth of his connectivity to the operations of nature. He’s an inspiration for me, knowing that if I ever achieve over the span of my entire life a fraction of what he did before he turned 26, then I would have led an extremely productive scientific career. He discovered calculus, the laws of optics, the laws of gravity, and the laws of motion—and then he turned 26! [Laughs.] Well, that’s earned him a spot on my desk.

Not Just a Sleepy Village

Who could not like Starry Night? What I think is interesting is that when Van Gogh painted that, he could have called it “Sleepy Village” or “Bush in the Foreground” or “Mountainous Terrain.” But no, he named it after the night sky. And how often does someone paint a landscape and then name it after what’s in the background? I view this as an interesting transition between artists seeing the night sky as backdrop and an artist seeing the night sky as a subject. So I keep that oil painting behind me, which is obviously a facsimile of the original. I also have a Starry Night pillow on the couch. If you press the moon, the stars light up. Pretty cool! It was a gift. One of many thoughtful gifts. I get all things space-, stars- and universe-related—ties, pillows, t-shirts, whatever, you name it. I mean, if I’m the only astrophysicist you know—which is true for many of my friends and my entire family—then who else do you give such things to? Consequently, my office has become the repository of all cosmic stuff!

The Act of Writing

I collect classic fountain pens, which are really just mechanical versions of quill pens. So my collection includes quills. Every one of those feathers is either already cut into a quill pen, or will soon be cut into a quill pen. While a fountain pen is far more convenient than a quill pen—you can’t slip a quill into your pocket—they’re a reminder to me of what people needed to do just for the act of writing. And I like to write, and it’s important for me emotionally and psychologically to keep a connection through the history of people’s efforts to write. So, I keep those quills on my desk. I use them about once a month.

Tool of the Trade

I’ll be honest, the telescope is basically just a prop I keep in my office. It’s a working telescope, but it’s a rather underpowered one. The press likes to take pictures of me standing near it, and it fulfills most people’s expectations of what a telescope should look like. However, a week ago, I did buy my first telescope since I was 14 years old. It’s quite portable yet has extraordinary optics. Even with all the powerful mountaintop telescopes and major observatories you have access to as a researcher, there’s no substitute for putting your own eye to an eyepiece and seeing the universe firsthand. I want to set it up on a street corner, grab people walking down the street, and say “You want to see Saturn? You want to see the Moon?” In my heart of hearts, I’m still an amateur astronomer. And that kind of crazy behavior is what any amateur astronomer might feel compelled to do. As Carl Sagan said, “When you’re in love, you want to tell the world.”

Labor of Love

I made that lamp as a 12-year-old in seventh-grade wood shop class. The task was to make a lamp, and they offered us all of these prefabbed plans to use. And I said no, no, no, I’m going to make my own damn lamp. I knew what I wanted: I wanted to make Saturn. It’s my favorite planet. The ring, the moons—it’s just gorgeous. If you’d ever seen it through a telescope, it would be your favorite planet, too. I had to teach myself lathing—the complicated technique of carving round shapes from glued-together cubes of wood—and make several attempts at getting the ring right and making a base wide enough to stabilize it, but eventually I got my Saturn. [Laughs.] I was a stubborn kid! It’s been my official desk lamp ever since.

Modern Ruins

This is a soapstone carving of one of the observatory domes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which has a half a dozen dome-shaped structures situated on a summit in the Andes Mountains. There you will find some of the most powerful telescopes in the world. My PhD thesis data were all obtained from that observatory. The local people of the nearby town of La Serena look up and see these strange things, and they don’t necessarily know what they are. The artisans just sort of create sculptures like this based on the impression it makes rather than what they see. There’s not some thing sticking out of the top, and they add several subtle flourishes based on their own abstraction. An interpretation that seems influenced by indigenous culture and architecture. So, I value the fact that this was an artistically cross-pollinated conception—cutting-edge technological modernity meets ancient religious iconography. It’s an interesting cultural vocabulary, and also a nice reminder of all the work that went into my thesis.

License to Drive

“Cozmic”—Oh yes, that was actually my license plate for a while. I’m a city kid, and when I did my early graduate work in Texas, I didn’t know how to drive. I was 25. I got a car as a gift from a nice little old lady whom I took care of and who was too old to drive. So I finally had an excuse to learn how to drive. I was so excited, I went for the personalized plate, and when I moved back to New York, it was available. So that was my plate for some time. That was also the pet name I gave to my car. I’d say, “I’m driving Cozmic to such and such.” When I originally got the name approved, the guy at the DMV said, “I bet you’re the only one who’s got that plate.” And I was like, “Well, yes, I’d hope so.” [Laughs.] That’s kind of true of everyone’s plate.

Private to Public Scientist

On the top shelf there, I hide away many of my awards, the majority of which I’ve received for science outreach and public awareness. It’s an honor to be recognized for it. But in a fantasy world, I would stow away somewhere to only do astrophysics research. The thrill of discovery brings me great pleasure. But even university professors, at some point, need to teach a class in order to earn their keep. It turns out people will pay me to bring the universe to the public, as is part of my responsibilities here as director of the Hayden Planetarium. I was on the faculty at Princeton until 2004. And then I realized I could either teach 150 already-privileged students, or I could do a television program that brings a million people to the frontier of cosmic discovery. While my expertise is astrophysics, I have science literacy that crosses other disciplines. That’s what I like to bring to the NOVA ScienceNOW series. The age of the generalist has been dead for decades. Fascinatingly, however, certain problems require collaboration across disciplines to answer questions that would otherwise be unknowable.

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