Down to Earth
PBS' Neil deGrasse Tyson is a science guy with a common touch

By MARK McGUIRE, Staff Writer
First published: Friday, September 24, 2004

Neil deGrasse Tyson calls science his calling, and traces it back to the Bronx building where he grew up. It was called the Skyview Apartments.

As a 9-year-old, Tyson would go up to the rooftop and gaze up at the night sky. Because of the glow of the city's lights, he was convinced there were only a dozen or so stars in the universe.

When he first saw the thousands of stars projected across the dome of the Hayden Planetarium at Manhattan's Museum of Natural History, Tyson worried that he was the victim of a hoax: "I thought, 'You guys must be kidding me.'

Tyson was hooked.

Then came astronomy camp, The Bronx High School of Science, Harvard, the University of Texas and Columbia University. Since 1996, he's been the director of the Hayden Planetarium, which in 2000 opened its new facility in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Rose Center for Earth and Space. The building resembles a glass cube containing a giant's marble set.

The planetarium has been praised for its ability to combine the sciences and showmanship. Sounds like Tyson.

A famously natty dresser, the 46-year-old doesn't look like your stereotypical lab-coated scientist. He doesn't necessarily talk like one, either -- he's equally comfortable discussing the intricate mysteries of the universe and his favorite lines from the baseball comedy "Major League." Tyson's personable style and impeccable academic credentials make him the perfect person to translate complex concepts for the masses.

Tyson serves as the narrator and guide in "Nova: Origins" (8-10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, WMHT Ch. 17), a four-hour examination of the beginnings of the Earth and the universe. On Oct. 14, Tyson will visit the University at Albany.

"Origins" goes after science's big enchiladas: How did we -- meaning, um, everything -- get here? How did the Earth evolve over 4.55 billion years from a "primeval hell" to the planet that sustains us today? Are we alone in the universe? Oh, and where did that 100 million trillion gallons of water in the Earth's oceans come from, anyway?

The content is deep, but the presentation remains breezy, even fun. Tyson shares screen time with scientists who like their work and are able to share that passion. "Origins" doesn't feel like some required course you need to graduate, but it never places style over substance -- it's style working hand-in-hand with substance.

It takes more than your eyes to study the cosmos, and how Earth came to be in the universe. It takes a multitude of sciences -- astrophysics, biology, chemistry, geology. Above all, it takes imagination.

"Origins" employs the perspectives of multiple scientific disciplines, and employs thoroughly modern computer-generated imagery to bring to life the molten ball that was Earth billions of years ago. It's one way to make the events of millions of years ago feel more immediate.

Regardless of their fields, Tyson said, scientists "each think about and worry about events in the distant past where there were no eyewitnesses."

But Tyson might be the show's best special effect. When he wears jeans and a denim shirt, he looks ready to introduce a cable home-improvement show. PBS is billing him as the first African-American scientist to host a TV show, but forget about that novelty: Tyson -- a solidly built former college wrestler and rower -- is more interested in striking down the image of the scientist as a geek with a pocket protector.

"Emergent today is a new generation of scientists who no longer view science as a geeky enterprise," he said. "They view it as something fun to do."

There are sure to be comparisons to Carl Sagan, whose 13-part series "Cosmos" was a ratings smash for PBS in 1980; Sagan's companion book was a bestseller. (Sagan, who taught at Cornell, died in 1996.)

Will Tyson be the next scientist to restore some of our sense of wonder?

"I am honored by (the Sagan comparisons), but do not expect to fill his shoes completely," Tyson said. "I am on the landscape that he created, working to bring the universe down to earth."

In the powerful opening of "Cosmos," Sagan captured the spirituality that undergirds our sense of the universe. Many religious fundamentalists think the Big Bang is bunk, and that the universe is only 10,000 years old because the Bible says so. (If you really want to see religion and science collide, dip into the nascent debate over what existed before the Big Bang. The next step is to ponder what existed before God -- or what was God doing before he created the universe -- say, 10,000 years and a day ago.)

But others experience a spiritual awakening when exploring the universe and its beginnings. Tyson is in touch with that emotion, which he thinks is rooted in science.

"For many religious people, or spiritual people, they find (science) deeply enriching as an expression of God's relation (to the universe)," he said. And "for people who are agnostic or outright atheist ... it gives them a sense of belonging in the cosmos."

It makes you wonder.

Mark McGuire is the Times Union TV/radio writer. His column generally appears Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Call him at 454-5467 or send e-mail to [email protected].

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Neil deGrasse Tyson