Neil deGrasse Tyson, MA ’83, is the public face of science. But he says his success has nothing to do with UT.
“Hey, aren’t you the scientist?”
The voice calls out on a bustling Manhattan sidewalk. Neil deGrasse Tyson—celebrity astrophysicist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium—whirls around, looking for its source. He sees a disheveled homeless man with a piercing stare.
“Yes, I guess I am,” says Tyson, MA ’83. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve seen you on TV,” the man replies. “I just want to know—how exactly would a black hole kill a person?”
So Tyson launches into a quick account of spaghettification, or the way extreme gravitational forces near a black hole would stretch a human body from head to toe—like a skinny pasta noodle—until its very atoms would be wrenched apart. “A black hole is a one-way trip,” he is fond of saying. “You ain’t coming out.”
Perhaps no other scientist in the world is so famous that even someone lacking basic shelter stops him on the street to ask a technical question. But Neil deGrasse Tyson, 53, is like no other scientist. More than anyone else living today, he is the public face of his entire field.
You may not know his name, but you’ve seen him on CNN, ABC, The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show, Jeopardy!, or even Stargate Atlantis. TIME named him one of the 100 most influential Americans; People gave him the inimitable title of “Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.” And when his new show debuts on FOX next year, Tyson will be exposed to his widest audience yet.
“People stop me on the street all the time,” Tyson says. “Taxi drivers, janitors, businessmen. It doesn’t matter who you are—it’s human nature to ask deep questions about the universe. To look up and wonder what’s out there. And I’m happy to talk about it.”
Connecting with such a prominent alumnus could be huge for The University of Texas. This is even truer because Tyson is African-American, and UT has long had a troubled relationship with the black community. But Tyson is not exactly UT’s biggest fan. That’s because he and the University had a bad break-up—one that prompts tricky questions about how academia defines success. As we’ll see, his time at UT is the one thing Tyson doesn’t like to talk about.
read more about Neil’s journey and struggles