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Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's one-man mission

Tyson tells Charlie Rose about his fascination with the universe and his own personal journey to reignite interest in the great beyond
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's one-man mission 12:50

The following script is from "Starstruck" which aired on March 22, 2015. Charlie Rose is the correspondent. Robert Anderson and Aaron Weisz, producers.

Forty-five years ago, astronauts landed on the moon and space travel captured the country's imagination. But NASA isn't launching astronauts anymore and America's fascination with space has come down to Earth. Neil deGrasse Tyson is on a one-man mission to change that. He wants to get people so interested in the universe that they look up every time they go out. Tyson is reigniting a fascination for the great beyond. He's succeeded Carl Sagan as the country's most captivating scientific communicator. Here's something you haven't seen before: an astrophysicist, on stage, in a sold-out auditorium.

60 seconds inside the mind of an astrophysicist 01:06

His following has grown as he's mastered many mediums -- including television, Twitter and radio.

[Neil deGrasse Tyson: The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.]

We caught up with him in Seattle where he said: "a cosmic perspective, could improve life on Earth."

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We in astrophysics we think of the universe all the time. So to us, Earth is just another planet. From a distance, it's a speck. And I'm convinced that if everyone had a cosmic perspective you wouldn't have legions of armies waging war on other people because someone would say, "Stop, look at the universe."

Look up from your phone 01:54

Charlie Rose: So, you've become a superstar of the universe.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The status that you refer to is-- I'm shocked by it every day, just every day. Every day I wake up, and I look at my Twitter feed, and--

Charlie Rose: Two million, by the way--

"And I'm convinced that if everyone had a cosmic perspective you wouldn't have legions of armies waging war on other people because someone would say, 'Stop, look at the universe.'"

Neil deGrasse Tyson: --Two and a half million. I'm thinking, "I need to remind these people, hey look, I'm an astrophysicist, did I tell ya that?" You can-- there's still time to back out. But for me, as an educator and as a scientist, what it tells me is there really is an underserved curiosity in adults.

To spark that curiosity, he told us this is the most mind-altering picture ever taken -- shot 46 years ago from Apollo 8, while orbiting the moon.


Neil deGrasse Tyson: This was the first time any of us had seen Earth the way nature had intended, with oceans and land and clouds. So many of us had only ever seen Earth on a school room globe. And so this is the birth of a cosmic perspective.

Charlie Rose: And that idea should change our world.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Back then that idea did change our world. Earth Day was founded. Leaded gas was banned. DDT was banned. All of a sudden people were thinking about Earth as a world, that we're all in it together. We're thinking we're exploring the moon and we discovered the Earth for the first time.

He's the head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York; and lives in the city with his wife and two children. Tyson received his doctorate from Columbia. He says there are so few astrophysicists, that they are literally one in a million.

Charlie Rose: Please tell me, what is an astrophysicist?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: In astrophysics, we care about how matter, motion and energy manifest in objects and phenomenon in the universe. Stars are born. They live out their lives. They die. Some of the ones that die explode. Our sun will not be one of those, but it will die. And it'll take Earth with us. So we b-- make sure we have other destinations in mind when that happens. And I've got it on my calendar.

Charlie Rose: I was gonna say, when is this gonna happen? I wanna make-- I wanna make plans.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: --about five billion years and so, we probably have other issues to concern ourselves with for our survival between now and then.

Charlie Rose: You said, "I am--we are stardust."

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes.

Charlie Rose: What does that mean?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: For me, the most astonishing fact is that the molecules that comprise our body are traceable to the crucibles of the centers of stars, that manufactured these elements from lighter versions of themselves, and then exploded, scattering this enrichment across the galaxy into gas clouds that would later collapse to form next generation star systems. One of those star systems was ours. These atoms and molecules are in us because, in fact, the universe is in us. And, we are not only figuratively, but literally, stardust.

Tyson became most widely known hosting the television series "Cosmos."

[From "Cosmos": When we try to look farther into the universe we come to what appears to be the end of space but actually it's the beginning of time.]

Fans line up down the block to watch him record his radio show, "StarTalk."

[From "StarTalk": "The sun keeps all the planets on their appointed orbits. Yet somehow manages to ripen a bunch of grapes as though it had nothing else in the world to do." Galileo. StarTalk Radio. Thank you.

Next month, "StarTalk" radio will also become a weekly cable television show. He is not in movies yet, but he becomes a movie critic when he spots a scene that's supposed to be scientifically accurate...but isn't.

Charlie Rose: You saw the movie "Titanic."

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yes.

Charlie Rose: And there was a scene in which they're looking up at the stars, and you see it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It wasn't just a scene. The ship is sinking at a longitude/latitude/time/date we know. And there's-- only one sky shoulda been over that-- that sinking ship.

Charlie Rose: And it wasn't.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It was the wrong sky. But it was not only the wrong sky, they, like, made it up. And the left half of the sky was a mirror reflection of the right. So it's not only the wrong sky, it was a lazy sky.

Charlie Rose: It's a movie.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: OK? Now, you really want to take me there. You want-- say it again. Lemme hear it.

Charlie Rose: It's a movie!

Neil deGrasse Tyson: OK. They found the Titanic. They photographed the Titanic. They knew what the state rooms looked like and the China patterns and the--

Charlie Rose: So they set the standard.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: They required of me that I analyze it at that level.

Instead of the fake sky, Tyson said the real sky would have looked like this. So, in a later release, director James Cameron, changed the sky to Tyson's specifications.

And as for what's falling from the sky, he showed me a piece of an asteroid that he keeps in his office.

Charlie Rose: And where is this rock from?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: And this is a rock from space.

Charlie Rose: Oh my, ooh. Heavy.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Yeah, yeah. You can feel just the weight of this thing. And this was part of a much larger asteroid that collided with Earth about 50,000 years ago. And so now imagine about a million times larger going 40,000 miles an hour colliding with Earth. And you get a sense of the energy of what is out there and that Earth is in a shooting gallery. And the--

Charlie Rose: And this is why we have to worry about asteroids?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I should think so.

Tyson first became interested in the stars staring up at them from the roof of his apartment building. Now his playground is the Hayden Planetarium.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Milky Way's actually visible behind me here.

This is the planetarium that changed his life when he was just nine years old.

Charlie Rose: You'd seen the sky from your rooftop--

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Oh, from my roof in the Bronx. And I saw all dozen stars that are visible. On a good night, maybe 14 stars. And I come in here, and they dim the light, and I said, "Wow!" And it was the universe.

Voyeurs of the cosmos 00:56

Charlie Rose: When you walked out of this planetarium, I mean, were you a different person because you were overwhelmed by the experience?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: You put your finger on it. I've spent my entire life never knowing that such a sky existed. And then to be struck by it, to be star-struck by it. And after that day I said, "I wanna learn more about it."

Children keep changing their minds about what they want to be, but Tyson stuck with the stars.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: And if you asked me, as a kid at age 11, that annoying question that adults always ask kids, "What is it--

Charlie Rose: What do you wanna do when you grow up?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I would say, "Astrophysicist" And that pretty much shut everybody up in the room. The universe is so amazing and so limitless, who wouldn't want to study the universe?

Charlie Rose: What was so amazing?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The endless frontier of it all. The vastness of it. The mystery of it.

But Tyson had to fight societal stereotypes to reach his goal. Because he is black, he said, teachers pushed him toward athletics -- not astrophysics -- which he called "the path of most resistance."

Neil deGrasse Tyson: When I needed to overcome the low expectations of others or the bias that would be expressed in one circumstance or another, I'd keep on keeping on. And I climb over the obstacle, go around it, dig under it, fly over it. That's what kept me going. Otherwise I would have never been an astrophysicist.

At age 56, Tyson is still star-struck by both the sky--and the planetarium that brought it to life.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: So imprinted was I by that sky that to this day I go to mountain tops where the finest observatories in the world are located and I say to myself, that reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium.

Charlie Rose: And when you walk outside wherever you are, do you look up, every time you walk outdoors?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Any time I exit a building I look up, even if there are clouds. I can tell you that kids--kids'll look up when they come out and adults just stop. We've stopped catching snowflakes in our mouth, we stopped jumping into puddles and I, I don't want to ever lose that. In life and in the universe it's always best to keep looking up.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's epitaph 01:20

Uplifting and upbeat, he is as ebullient backstage as he is on it.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Everyone should--their minds should be blown at least once a day.

[Ceiling speaker: We are moments away from opening the house. This is a half hour call to the top of the show.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I am ready. The ceiling has spoken. (laugh)]

He relates easily to everybody. Watch how he connected to this questioner.

[Questioner: I saw you a couple of years ago in Houston.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Houston, the first word ever spoken from the surface of the moon. "Houston. Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed." (laughter)]

But Tyson upset a lot of people when he argued in part that Pluto was too small and insignificant to qualify as a planet--despite what we'd learned in school.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I didn't kill Pluto, but I was an accessory.

Charlie Rose: Yeah, you were complicit.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I drove the getaway car, perhaps. That's all I'll admit to.

He got hate mail from elementary school students including this letter he read during his performance in Seattle.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: "Why can't Pluto be a planet? Some people like Pluto. And if it doesn't exist then they don't have a favorite planet. Right? Please write back but not in cursive because I can't read cursive."

His big finish is often this picture of Earth -- taken from the Cassini spacecraft showing Earth as a tiny dot under Saturn's rings.


Neil deGrasse Tyson: Carl Sagan would ultimately write a book called "The Pale Blue Dot" where he waxed poetic about its meaning and significance. I wanna end with a recitation from the book of Carl. "If you look at Earth from space you see a dot, that's here. That's home. That's us. It underscores the responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known. Thank you all."

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