Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson On His Life Influences and 'Starry Messenger'

Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses his new book 'Starry Messenger,' the influential 2001: A Space Odyssey, Carl Sagan and why he says the Universe chose him.

By Monica Cull
Apr 24, 2023 1:00 PM
Neil deGrasse Tyson photo, credit © Amazon.com
(Credit: Amazon.com/Neil deGrasse Tyson)

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Neil deGrasse Tyson's latest book, Starry Messenger, analyzes real-world issues like race, gender and politics using scientific methods. In a recent interview with Tyson, we asked why he thought it was important to view these issues through a scientific lens. He answered in true Tyson fashion, "Well, nobody else was."

A Starry Messenger

Starry Messenger wants us to take a step back and look at contradictions from a different perspective — a cosmic perspective if you willTyson takes a rational approach to the topics that divide us and the ideals we question. This book may make you rethink your place in the Universe. 

What we wanted to know in our interview was what led Tyson here. What inspirations and experiences drove him to where he is today so he could share this book with all of us? Strap in; it's quite the cosmic ride. 

(Credit: Neil deGrasse Tyson/Henry Holt & Company)

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Universe

As a kid, looking up through a pair of binoculars at the moon, Tyson was inspired to know more about the Universe. 

"If you look at the moon through good binoculars or even through a simple telescope, oh my gosh, it's not just this thing in the sky. It's a world with mountains and valleys and craters and shadows and gullies, and all of a sudden, the moon goes from just this object that you ignored most of your life to a place you say, 'Hey, I want to visit that. I wanna know more about what's in the Universe,'" says Tyson.

After his first visit to a planetarium when he was nine, Tyson believed that perhaps his draw to the Universe wasn't a coincidence.

"I'm pretty sure I was starstruck in that moment," Tyson said. "Maybe the Universe chose me instead of vice versa." 

How Neil deGrasse Tyson Became an Astrophysicist

After learning that there was a word associated with what he wanted to be when he grew up, at age 11, Tyson knew he would be an astrophysicist. Since then, Tyson has become one of the most renowned astrophysicists in the world, thanks to the moon and the Universe itself. 

Within Starry Messenger, Tyson mentions other important aspects of the moon, particularly with the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s.

"In that first of nine such [Apollo] missions, our goal was to explore the Moon, but while doing so, we looked back over our shoulders and discovered Earth for the first time," says Tyson in Starry Messenger.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's Inspiration

While real-life situations with our exploration of the moon sparked Tyson's interest in becoming an astrophysicist, some science fiction also played a role in his cosmic pursuits. 

Science Fiction Stories

Science fiction stories — whether through books, TV, movies, or comics — have inspired many. These stories have predicted or brought about modern inventions we now take for granted. 

Star Trek has been credited with sparking the idea of the cell phone, while Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea inspired the first submarine. Karel Čapek's play Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R) even coined the term "robot." 

Regarding science fiction, Tyson tended to lean more toward movies.

Space Odyssey

One particular film that piqued his interest was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“I recently learned — like weeks ago — what Stanley Kubrick, the director, said of his own film. [...] He said this film is not to be watched but to be experienced," says Tyson.

The film debuted just over a year before the first people landed on the moon. Tyson went on to say that movies like this can help spark "subsequent conversations, subsequent dreams, even subsequent goals of a nation."

Things that seemed like a far-off dream have now been achieved since Kubrick's movie was released. Rovers have landed on and explored Mars. Two advanced space telescopes have launched and successfully sent images of the Universe back to Earth. And soon, people will walk on the moon again.

Carl Sagan Influence

Along with inspiration from the cosmos and science fiction, the prominent astrophysicist and science communicator, Carl Sagan, is often referenced as Tyson's mentor. However, according to Tyson, Carl Sagan wasn't a mentor in a traditional sense. 

"[Carl Sagan is] commonly referenced as my mentor. But in the traditional understanding of that word, that's not true," Tyson says. "The traditional understanding of a mentor is someone you consult with frequently and they guide you through important key moments or decision points in your career and in your life. So that was not the case. In fact, I was probably in his presence four times in my life."

One of those times was on a winter's day in Upstate New York. Sagan had personally written Tyson, then 17, a letter inviting him to visit Cornell — where Sagan taught. Though Sagan had not yet hosted the series Cosmos, he was still a household name. Sagan had been on late-night talk shows, like The Tonight Show, and had a best-selling book. Yet, he still took time out of his day to reach out to a potential student. 

"Why is he spending this much time with me?" Tyson says. "We just met; I don't know him. I'm 17. He's a full-grown, famous person, and I swore after that encounter that any future occasion to serve [...], to advise or to offer [...] helpful comments to a student, that no matter how famous I became, I would give time to the student the way Carl Sagan gave time to me. And I, to this day, I do that as best as I can."

Tyson explains how one can have a mentor that leads by example as long as the mentee is open and receptive.

"And another one [of Sagan's inspirations] was his near infinite patience. Speaking to people who may have twisted, tangled mental pathways of thought and he would find ways to disentangle the Gordian knot that was their brain wiring, [...] and I don't know that I even have that much patience as I've seen him exhibit, but it's something to aspire to," he says.


Read More: The Man Who Brought Us the Universe: 4 Things We Have Thanks To Carl Sagan


Starry Messenger: A Cosmic Ride

Tyson has undoubtedly gone on to be a mentor and inspiration to many in similar ways that Sagan was to him. Tyson appears on late-night shows and even hosted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the follow-up to Sagan's CosmosA Personal Voyage. 

Tyson's work has helped open up the Universe to everyone. If you're looking for a better understanding of your place in this vast and ever-changing Universe, Starry Messenger is a great place to start. 

Check out more of our Neil deGrasse Tyson interview here. You'll discover more about Tyson's Forbidden Twitter File, why physicists never gamble and much more!

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