Award-winning author, science communicator and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is heralded as having one of the world’s most incredible minds. It’s a notion he doesn’t subscribe to.
“There’s the assumption that there are smart people and not smart people and smart people do smart things,” Tyson said. “That’s not how I view the world. I view the world as having people who are curious about the world around them and people who aren’t.”
His newest book “Letters from an Astrophysicist,” released on Tuesday October 8, provides insight on both ends of the spectrum across a host of topics.
Tyson has been the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, which is part of the American Museum of Natural History, since 1996. He founded their Department of Astrophysics in 1997.
Over the years, he’s managed to make science cool – and a part of the pop culture dynamic through television shows, talk show appearances and other programming on television and online.
The popular personality and leading authority in his field will be in St. Louis to discuss the “Letters from an Astrophysicist” in the flesh on October 17 at Stifel Theatre.
The book features 101 letters. Most of them are his responses to feedback he had received over the years on an array of topics. Some are related to science. Others are heartfelt questions on everything from purpose to parenting – that seek to pick his brain based on his views of the world.
“It’s intensely personal, but what they all have in common is the expectation that I can come to them with a cosmic perspective that will help illuminate a decision they need to make,” Tyson said.
There’s a chapter on parenting. There’s a chapter on death and dying and people relating to their own mortality – a person who was told that he had six months to live wrote to Tyson.
The book grew out of the letters he found himself doing extra homework and adding a bit of literary flair. “I’d put that letter in a folder. Then I woke up one morning and I had 500 letters in a folder,” Tyson said, adding his robust laugh. “I said ‘It is time.’” He wanted others to read them – partly because of the work he had put into formulating the response, but mostly because those responses might apply to other people’s lives as well. The outcome was something he feels is a very special exchange.
“For me it’s a very emotional collection,” Tyson said. “And there are about a half dozen letters where he wells up when he reads them. The range of the human condition almost knows no bounds – and we can all use a little bit of guidance.”
About a dozen are personal notes that Tyson has written – a 60th birthday note to NASA, a 30th anniversary letter to his parents, a letter written on September 12, 2001 reflecting on the past 24 hours of life witnessing ground zero four blocks from where he lived.
His letter to NASA juxtaposed his life alongside the inception of the institution. They were both born the exact same week.
“I Wrote a ‘Dear NASA’ letter comparing our two lives,” Tyson said. “Especially through the 1960s. It is the peak of the Civil Rights movement and we are heavy in Vietnam. There is a lot of social unrest and yet we were going to the moon.”
He contrasted my challenges of growing up in that era with their challenges of trying to get to the moon.
“There were picketers in front of the apartment that my family was trying to move into in 1964 that wouldn’t let Negroes into the apartment building.” It was ultimately overturned.
“We did move in and the name of the apartments were the Sky View Apartments – perhaps prophetically,” Tyson said. “I would go to that rooftop and drink in the universe.”
Tyson was so compelled to share the experience of “Letters from an Astrophysicist” that he signed on to do a book talk tour, which he doesn’t particularly care for, because he feels like charging for a talk about a book and a book is excessive.
“It’s content that you never see me talk about because of how personal it is and how introspective it is,” Tyson said.
To satisfy his disdain for double charging, three of the five price points for tickets sold at the St. Louis talk include a copy of the book in the purchase price.
He hopes that reading the book will ignite a new sense of curiosity of learning.
“I just want people to know that science is not some detached enterprise that has nothing to do with how you think and feel,” Tyson said. “This book is a reminder that scientists are people too. It’s just that we have them informed by a cosmic perspective and when that happens it can make for quite a potent source of wisdom.
I have very good material – it’s called the universe. All I’m doing is shaping the information in ways that are accessible.”
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson will discuss his newest book “Letters from an Astrophysicist,” at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 17 at Stifel Theatre, 1400 Market Street. For tickets or additional information, visit http://www.stifeltheatre.com or call (314) 499-7600.