Neil deGrasse Tyson on Poets Cafe

The following interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson by Lois P. Jones originally aired on KPFK Los Angeles (reproduced with permission). Produced by Marlena Bond.

Biographical Information—Neil deGrasse Tyson

photo by Dan Deitch

Neil deGrasse Tyson was born and raised in New York City where he was educated in the public schools clear through his graduation from the Bronx High School of Science. Tyson went on to earn his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia.

Tyson’s professional research interests are broad, but include star formation, exploding stars, dwarf galaxies, and the structure of our Milky Way.

In 2001, Tyson was appointed by President Bush to serve on a 12-member commission that studied the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. The final report was published in 2002 and contained recommendations (for Congress and for the major agencies of the government) that would promote a thriving future of transportation, space exploration, and national security.

In 2004, Tyson was once again appointed by President Bush to serve on a 9-member commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, dubbed the Moon, Mars, and Beyond commission. This group navigated a path by which the new space vision can become a successful part of the American agenda. And in 2006, the head of NASA appointed Tyson to serve on its prestigious Advisory Council, which will help guide NASA through its perennial need to fit its ambitious vision into its restricted budget.

In addition to dozens of professional publications, Dr. Tyson has written, and continues to write for the public. From 1995 to 2005, Tyson was a monthly essayist for Natural History magazine under the title Universe. And among Tyson’s ten books is his memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist; and Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution, co-written with Donald Goldsmith. Origins is the companion book to the PBS-NOVA 4-part mini-series Origins, in which Tyson served as on-camera host. The program premiered on September 28 and 29, 2004.

Two of Tyson’s recent books are the playful and informative Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet, chronicling his experience at the center of the controversy over Pluto’s planetary status. The PBS/NOVA documentary “The Pluto Files”, based on the book, premiered in March 2010.

For five seasons, beginning in the fall of 2006, Tyson appeared as the on-camera host of PBS-NOVA’s spinoff program NOVA ScienceNOW, which is an accessible look at the frontier of all the science that shapes the understanding of our place in the universe.

During the summer of 2009 Tyson identified a stable of professional standup comedians to assist his effort in bringing science to commercial radio with the NSF-funded pilot program StarTalk. Now also a podcast, StarTalk Radio combines celebrity guests with informative yet playful banter. The target audience is all those people who never thought they would, or could, like science.

Tyson is the recipient of fourteen honorary doctorates and the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the highest award given by NASA to a non-government citizen. His contributions to the public appreciation of the cosmos have been recognized by the International Astronomical Union in their official naming of asteroid 13123 Tyson. On the lighter side, Tyson was voted Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive by People Magazine in 2000.

In February 2012, Tyson releases his tenth book, this one exclusive devoted to space exploration: Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, and he is currently working on a 21st century reboot of Carl Sagan’s landmark television series COSMOS, to air in 13 episodes on the FOX network in 2013.

Tyson is the first occupant of the Frederick P. Rose Directorship of the Hayden Planetarium. Tyson lives in New York City with his wife and two children.



On canvas with paint
In the Artist’s school
It’s red that is hot
And blue that is cool.

But in science we show
As the heat gets higher
That a star will glow red
Like the coals of a fire.

Raise the heat some more
And what is in sight?
It’s no longer red
It has turned bright white.

Yet the hottest of all,
I say unto you,
Is neither white nor red
When the star has turned blue.

from Merlin’s Tour of the Universe

14 thoughts on “Neil deGrasse Tyson on Poets Cafe

  1. Literally “wonderful” to have Neil DeGrasse Tyson share his view of where astronomy and poetry meet. So visual and poetic. We can sense how important it is for him to express his wonder. We are all fortunate to be able to share in his passion for art and science. Great interview!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed Lois Jones’ interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Just like his comment near end of the interview, now it feels like getting an eminent scientist to ruminate on the arts from the scientist’s viewpoint was a complete “natural,” something one wished occurred more often. I found his comments insightful and made from an original and thought-provoking perspective. Thanks to Ms. Jones for putting this together and for allowing Mr. Tyson, all through the program, the leeway to explore his concepts thoroughly and complete his thoughts!

  3. What a great show and a wonderful rapport between interviewer and interviewee. Hearing Tyson speak of not wanting to destroy the beauty of the moment by imposing dry aspects of science on it, I thought of “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and that Tyson would have passed the Whitman test. Some other highlights were the discussion about communing through time with a fountain pen, the body language of handwriting (fascinating!), and how the poet is best able to show others the beauty they take for granted. I also loved the question about what sparks the connection between science and art, and then the answer about interconnectedness and a commonality of DNA. And, finally I must say that I adored the limerick at the end. Great job, Neal and Lois!

  4. The interview with Dr.Tyson,was specially inspiring . My strong believe is that
    Art and Science has the most important impact on our lives, Dr, Tyson’s response to the question was excellent, similar to Michel Angelo ” Art is science, and more than science ”
    Lois has the wisdom and sensitivity to ask the most relevant questions from each individual she is interviewing.

  5. A very thoughtful and unique discussion between science and poetry. I am very glad to listen to this. I also like to poem here and cannot help of wondering how much more we can learn through science and poetry. Great!

    Anna Yin

  6. I loved that Mr.Tyson appreciates the tangible and intangible parts of existence, that he is so alive and full of wonder about the universe. This was an exciting in and enlightening event.Seldom do the arts and sciences meet so excellently in one person. Thank you, Ms. Jones, for bringing us poetry and a real star. I am going out today to buy a fountain pen.

  7. Hello Neil! We Kathabela and Rick hosted your Listening Party here at Caltech’s heart and soul. Poets on Site, (often at Caltech Science Lectures) and also Caltech Red Door Poets… gathered in our Living Room Galley, Poets Salon to listen to your great interview with Lois.. It was a grand occasion, and we hope someday you can join us here in person! Personally, I love Neil’s sense of connections between written work and technologies and the bridge between… I identify with this so much as I love technology as what I call “the magic carpet always wished for through history” and I climb on as much as possible… and yet the everyday handwritten journal I carry everywhere at home and then special ones for our world travels… are like the symbolic weaving in the rug… what it is made from and what it carries in flight. It is exciting to hear the poetic – scientific common ground so strongly put. Your interview came in the midst of the WilsonFest – a conference in honor of my husband’s work (Rick Wilson is math prof at Caltech)—and paired the interview with a repeat performance of his lecture at the conference called “Combinatorics for Poets”. He too was making bridges and at the Caltech conference lecture there were in person twenty poets (including Lois!) and over 75 international and Caltech mathematicians. It was a joy to hear your interview after the repeat of his lecture here, and more poets attended and heard both! Also personally I and my poet-science friends attend many weekly physics and astronomy lectures at Caltech, listening with poetic ears. We hope to perform poems from these as “Poets on Site at Caltech Science Lectures”. (Love your “raised it to an art—got it down to a science” analogy you made.) I have always felt the passion and sense of discovery is the common bond between artist and scientist so I am constantly drawn to that edge of experience. Look forward to hearing the next part of this wonderful interview. Your ending words on talking to poets, really rang true here at Caltech in our home! Love your rhyming, and especially yes, the limerick!

  8. There was something very appealing about this interview: astrophysicist meets poet, and finds much to discuss. I found it interesting that Neil deGrasse Tyson, who deals with the infinite as his daily fare, is looking to explore a different, uninspected side to himself when it comes to art. He’s looking for more of a microcosmic experience, and he wants the artist to be his guide. He asks the poet to show him what he’s missing, what’s taken for granted, what he has “forgotten to recognize,” what he “forgot how to love.” He considers art at its best when he is taken to a place he hasn’t been, where he reaches emotions that he hasn’t tapped before. That is a very specific request, one that an artist can take to heart. This was a really lovely interview with a fascinating fellow, with every answer followed up by an equally interesting question. And I loved the rhythm and mood that was added by the train rocking in the background, the conductor periodically calling out locations. My compliments on getting this interview; I’m glad I got to hear it.

  9. What a delightful interview by Lois Jones. I loved that Mr. Tyson uses a fountain pen. I also appreciate his view of the “job” of poetry. He reads beautifully, which is a gift also.
    Thanks for this interview.

  10. I very much enjoyed this interview. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s voice has the rich resonance of a pitch black sky studded with a river of stars. It contains space. And I travelled inside it. Lois as always was a voice of light, a counterpoint that allowed Neil and his thoughts on poetry, art and science to shine. Together they played a harmony of spheres. I love the fact that Neil fully appreciates the flow of a written word, that the dance of ink and curve of letters is an intimate of expression for him. Words after all are both verbal and visual art. They are music and meaning, chord and calligraphy. i am reminded of kanji. They carry stories in their dancing lines and they carry spirit.
    I was encouraged to hear Neil speak of the role of poetry to remind us of the our world, the ordinary, everyday detail we step over on our way to work. How often do we see a rocket shoot into space? Certainly such events are extraordinary and worthy of passionate attention. But so are the shadows the tree makes on the lawn, the glitter of light in the trail of a snail, the deep purple of a crushed berry on the sidewalk, the extraordinary character of rocks or air or ink. I am reminded of a poem I wrote called “And All That Is, Lives” The last stanza of the poem is:

    Let me remember then, that I am rock
    so I may slow my breathing until I can hear
    the mountain speak and feel the pebble grow into dust.
    Let me remember that I am air,
    So I may loosen my thoughts until
    They dance around shapes,
    changing themselves as they move.
    And let me remember that I am ink,
    carrying shape within its current,
    quick-rhythmed or slow winding,
    coursing down this page
    where air and dust dance ceaselessly,
    and where rock, (being only dust grown old)
    and air, and ink and I
    all meet, so that I will remember what it means to write,
    and remember what it means to live.

    Thank you Poets Cafe, Lois and Nell for reminding me again of the flow of ink, the dance of words, the extraordinary value of the ordinary and most of all for reminding me what it means to see the intricate detail of an expansive universe and the greatness and richness of a present moment–to remember what it means to write and to remember what it means to live.

  11. I feel grateful for such talented and creative people, highly professional in their fields, interested, deeply and widely, in new visions and horizons, and capable of finding the truth and beauty in combining science and arts that, for too long, have been seen as opposed because they are “different”. Rare minds even in the past found what is common in both. We need more people like Neil and Lois and more interviewes like theirs.
    More light, no matter what source is chosen. In awe with you and the world,
    Mira N. Mataric

  12. Dear Lois, dear Neil,

    Although it is said there are no absolute values in the universe, I absolutely loved this wonderful dialogue you had on KPFK.

    I especially enjoyed the bit about quilt and fountain pens, the fading art of handwritten letters. I used to be into fountain pens myself for a while and recall trying to get really creative for a few lines. I usually gave up by the 3rd as it is painstakingly difficult. I really admire the monks that created these magnificent books in the most amazing handwritten script. It took them months of non-stop labor and deep focus to create such masterpieces.

    I agree with Neil about the redundancy of trying to transfer the grandeur of sublime moments into poetry, but then again, as not all beings can witness such events, the poet acts as the messenger for those whose eyes could not behold that beauty.

    I only wish this interview could have gone an entire hour at least. I look forward to a follow-up chat between you two really soon.

    Cordial greetings from southwest Germany.

  13. I enjoyed this interview so much, as I have enjoyed Neil deGrasse Tyson for many years. This is a great interview, and I love the fact that he likes fountain pens, they are the poet’s and writer’s icon.

  14. Loved Lois’ wonderful (albeit much too short) interview of a beautiful man with a beautiful mind. Kudos to both. Lois’ questions and comments were right on point and Dr. Tyson’s responses were a delight. At a time in history where everything is becoming so depersonalized, I still relish the feel of a real book in my hand and take pleasure in penning a letter rather than using email. I’ll not read another Tyson “rhyme” as he would say without envisioning him writing it with a fountain pen. Thank you both for a great half hour.

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