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How Neil deGrasse Tyson Became Neil deGrasse Tyson

On not “sounding black” on the radio, growing up the nerdy kid, and falling in love with astrophysics

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration
Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Neil deGrasse Tyson has graced TV sets for over a decade now, sharing his passion for astronomy with the masses. But how did his career begin? He joined Larry Wilmore on the latest episode of Black on the Air to discuss his love for astrophysics, growing up, and much more. This is a portion of that conversation.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

When Tyson Didn’t "Sound Black" Enough for a Graduate School Radio Gig

Wilmore: What was it like for you growing up? Did you have problems being a young black kid who was smart? Like did you have to lose your black card growing up? What was that like? Because you must have been preternaturally smart at a certain age. … When I was growing up, kids would make fun of me for not talking black. You know, they’d say, "You don’t talk black!" And I would think, "Well, I’m black and I’m talking, ergo, I’m talking black." And then I thought, "Well, maybe brothers just don’t like the word ‘ergo.’"

Tyson: You started evoking Latin! Ergo! I’m surprised they didn’t kick your ass just for using that word!

Wilmore: I think I learned to just be myself after a while, because I knew I was different.

Tyson: When I entered graduate school, there was a faculty member, who was a regular participant on this fun kids-oriented radio game show, where it’s like stump the expert. So the kid calls in and if you stump the expert, you get a T-shirt or something. It’s after school hours. There’s pressure on them to diversify their panel. So he recommended me. So I’m 29 or something, [and] I go in there I meet the producer. I meet him, and then I never heard from them again. And then I kind of forgot about it. Like a year later, I go to my colleague and I say, "So whatever happened to that?" They said, "Oh! They couldn’t use you." And I said, "Why not?" They said, "You didn’t sound black."

And I said, "Whoa!" Here they are trying to diversify a panel, so they want to get someone who is not white to sound not-white, so that you know that they are not white.

Wilmore: Yeah, they wanted flavor!

Tyson: That’s what it had come to at that point.

On Valuing Athletics Growing Up

Tyson: Growing up, I valued being athletic and running fast. Stuff that could prove yourself in the playground. I was sort of typically the second-tallest kid in the class.

Wilmore: Me too.

Tyson: I was maybe the second-fastest in the school. On the block, probably the fourth-fastest. In basketball, this is the measure of things: If two captains choose 10 people … in what sequence you are chosen [mattered], right?

Wilmore: Exactly!

Tyson: So typically I was chosen fourth or fifth. So that’s a measure of my Bronx talent. That was enough to stave off what might have been any kind of resentment. Plus, part of it is what kind of attitude you have, if you are smart, or you are getting high grades. If you cop an attitude, you should get your ass kicked. Well, I can’t say that today, because bullies have been outlawed. But [back] in the day, if you have an attitude, half of the blame is on you.

Wilmore: It’s so interesting, because I feel like I kind of hid out in sports a little bit. Because I was good in sports.

Tyson: What’d you play?

Wilmore: When I was younger, it was track and football. I was in the sprints early on. And then some of the mid-races — it was called 880 [meters] — when I was growing up. And I did the jumps. I had my high school high-jump record for a while.

Tyson: Whoa! So you had to be skinny for that.

Wilmore: Yeah! You did. You had to be skinny. And football I was really good in, but I didn’t weigh anything. I think [when] I started high school, I was like 148 pounds, but I was like 6-feet [tall]. So I didn’t weigh anything.

Tyson: Yeah, you take a class in physics, you would have never elected to play football. Momentum transfer to a 145-pound person.

Wilmore: So I switched to basketball in high school. But I grew up in a sports neighborhood. Some people went pro in my neighborhood. In basketball and football, like right in the same block that I was in. It was a real competitive sports environment.

But Tyson Went to a High School for Nerds

Tyson: Another saving bit for me was I attended the Bronx High School of Science, and so that is an entirely shifted ecosystem. So, the Bronx High School of Science had jocks and it had nerds, but on a scale of any other high school, the jocks would have been the nerd. So, the nerds in a nerds school are like super-freak nerds, and I’m old enough [to remember] back when we had "slide rules."

Wilmore: Oh yeah, I remember those.

Tyson: You [would] carry it in your leather pouch walking down the corridor.

*Whistles*

Because it is true that bigger slide rules can make a more accurate calculation.

Wilmore: Really?

Tyson: Oh yeah. So, I’m probably the youngest person formally trained on a slide rule. By the time the spring came around, functioning calculators had dropped in price, from $200 down to $40.

Astrophysics Called to Tyson

Wilmore: So, why? Why astrophysics? Why did you pick that as a place?

Tyson: I was called. It was a total call.

Wilmore: Uh-huh. Like a voice from heaven or did your mom say, "Boy, get your ass over and get to that astrophysics class!"

Tyson: It was a voice, but not from heaven, right.

Wilmore: Exactly, it was from the other room.

Tyson: "Get your astrophysics done — the homework!"

Wilmore: How old were you?

Tyson: 9.

Wilmore: Nine years old! You had a calling? That’s amazing.

Tyson: A visit to the Hayden Planetarium — my local planetarium, where I’m now director.

I went in there, the lights dimmed and the stars came out. I thought it was a hoax because I had seen stars from the Bronx. There were about a dozen of them. In the dome … thousands of stars come out on the dome, and I thought it was a hoax. I said, "I’ll go along with it. It’s kind of a fun hoax." But then, it would turn out, of course, to be real. But that moment, I was starstruck. It took me a couple years to organize it into a trajectory of life. So by the time I was 11, you asked me that annoying question that adults always ask kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? And so I had an answer, from age 11 onward. And it was an astrophysicist.

Wilmore: It’s a complete romance.

Tyson: From the beginning. And I got my first telescope at age 12, a small one that my parents got. Then, by the time I was 15, I saved up. I walked dogs for a living. Fifty cents per dog, per walk. I wouldn’t have known it then, but in retrospect, it was the glory days of dog walking.

Wilmore: Really?

Tyson: Because you didn’t have to clean up after. There were no pooper-scooper laws. So, you could walk five dogs, and they’re pooping everywhere on the sidewalks.

Wilmore: You’re one of the reason why they changed those laws, I’m sure!

Tyson: So, I used that money to buy a camera, a larger telescope, [and] a more serious amateur telescope, and I went on an expedition to Stonehenge. I saw a total solar eclipse off the coast of Africa when I was 15. Gave my first public lecture where I was compensated — I had just turned 15.

Wilmore: What did you lecture on?

Tyson: I showed images that I’d taken with my telescope and camera from a previous summer in the Mojave Desert, where I attended astronomy camp. … [At the camp] we lived nocturnally, and when there was a full moon, which totally destroys your night, we went on expeditions. So we went to visit the Grand Canyon. And also, if you’re going to the Grand Canyon, you also go to Meteor Crater.

I was 15, and there’s a comet coming around that fall, that winter, called Comet Kohoutek, and that comet was supposed to be the Christmas Comet. Beautiful, biggest ever — turned out to be a dud. But a good part of my talk was the discovery of that comet; where comets are. And this is when I realized: Adults, there’s something wrong with them, OK? Because there was someone in the street, holding up a sign saying, "Kohoutek is coming. Repent now." And I said, "This person is an idiot." They’re an adult, they’re supposed to know more than I know about the fate of things. And if this is a grown-up, what is going on here? That was my first indication that there are whole swaths of the public that are embarrassingly scientifically illiterate.

And it’s one thing to be scientifically illiterate. But [it’s another thing] if you carry profound illiteracy with you, and you are leading with it, saying, "This comet is the end of the world." And he only knows about the comet because we told him. It wasn’t in the sky, visible, yet! We’re telling him it’s a comet! And he’s going to then decide that this comet that we discovered with our telescopes is a symbol for the end of the world. And I said, "We all have our work cut out for us."