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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson on dreaming of being a Broadway songwriter & more

Joshua Pickering
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has many titles, but no matter the role he takes on from day to day, they all share one thing in common: popularizing science by making it accessible and exciting.

Editor's Note: This story originally aired on February 20, 2023.

Neil deGrasse Tyson has many titles, but he’s probably best known as “your personal astrophysicist.” You may have seen him as a guest on various news or late night TV shows explaining the science we come across in daily life. Tyson is also an author, podcast host, and heads the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

But no matter the role he takes on from day to day, they all share one thing in common: popularizing science by making it accessible and exciting.

One of the ways he’ll be doing this in Milwaukee is with his upcoming lecture called, “An Astrophysicist Goes to the Movies, the Sequel” on February 24. Tyson will walk audiences through a set of 30 films that range from My Cousin Vinny, to Interstellar, to A Bug's Life and explain all of the science that our favorite movies got wrong, combined with some of the stuff they got right.

While Tyson aims to explain science in a way most ages can understand, he's most concerned about making sure adults develop a good sense of scientific literacy.

"Contrary of what many people think of me, I generally focus on adults rather than children... [children] are as inquisitive as any adult scientist is about the natural world so I actually don't worry about them," notes Tyson. "I worry about the adults who are teaching them later on, and I worry about what happens when you emerge into the ranks of what we would call educated citizens of the world."

Too often, many people look forward to the day they graduate because it means we aren't forced to learn anything new. Tyson says the education system fails when this happens, and he’s trying to do his part to fix that disconnect.

"In our classes, you get this fat textbook and you gotta memorize the bold-face words, that’s the vocabulary, and you take the test and then you move on. And at no time are we really taught what science is or how and why it works — that’s what’s missing," he explains.

Whether Tyson is educating people through podcasts, TV, or in person, he is fulfilling a promise he made to himself as a teenager when he first met astronomer Carl Sagan, who wasn't a mentor to Tyson in the traditional sense.

"Just to be clear, I was probably in his presence maybe six times in my life. So it's mostly just the impact someone can have when there's this sort of resonance between your goals and the wisdom that they share with you," he explains.

Tyson realized that Sagan was making an investment in the future through him, and Tyson promised to himself that if he was ever as famous as Sagan, that he will give attention to the next generation of students above all else who want to do what he's doing.

"It's infused almost every aspect of my pedagogical hat-wearing. When I'm separate from being a scientist, I count myself among the ranks of educators and that's in my portfolio for sure," says Tyson.

But if he had a choice, Tyson wouldn't be the public figure he's known for. "I would actually just stay in the lab and you would never know I even existed," he says. "In fact, I look forward to the day where other people, many more people— a lot are there now —join this landscape of science education."

"I'm happy to have contributed the bit that I have, but it can't just be all Neil all the time," Tyson adds. "Then my efforts will have failed if people learning science requires that I be a part of that equation."

When asked about what his dream job would be if it couldn't be related to science, Tyson says his dream job would be a songwriter for Broadway musicals. "I love musicals, even the corny ones," he admits.

"Songs go beyond words in ways that affect us viscerally. And so as I became more and more facile with the language, with words, with communication really, I said to myself I want to participate in that exercise. And I want to write the simple song that conveys not only ideas, but emotions and advances the plot. So yeah, that's what I would be," says Tyson.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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