Neil deGrasse Tyson decided he wanted to become an astrophysicist at age nine, after his first visit to New York City’s Hayden Planetarium. Less than 30 years later, he was appointed its director. The Columbia University PhD has since parlayed his passion for science into a media career spanning radio, television, and Twitter.
How do you balance your TV work with your day job, your academic work, and your family life?
Balance might be overrated. If your life is perfectly balanced—everything going smoothly—is it as dynamic as it could be? When life is out of balance, usually something is changing, and that’s not always a bad thing. It gives you a new perspective. New projects always send things out of balance. I embrace disruptions to circumstances I’ve grown complacent about.
Practically, though, how do you manage your time?
It’s a bit of the squeaky wheel philosophy. Some e-mails don’t get tended to for weeks. I also use all the interstitial time available. While I’m waiting for the subway, I’m doing e-mail. With a little more time, I’m composing book chapters or op-eds. How much of your life can you recover by using those slots? When you stitch them together, it’s a lot.
People tried to dissuade you from a career in science. What made you persevere?
When I first saw the universe on the Hayden Planetarium dome, I was struck by it. Starstruck. I think the universe chose me, because from that moment on, I wanted to commit my life to learning about it. You have no idea how deep my fuel tank was to resist a force in my way. This awesome view of the moon? Just added a gallon of fuel. Looking at Saturn for the first time, buying my first telescope—more fuel. So I could survive affronts to my ambitions. I’ve often reflected on the brilliant minds that didn’t make it because their fuel tanks didn’t go as deep as mine: underrepresented minorities, or women. Trying to enter a profession with some residual attitudes about who should or shouldn’t be in it—you need a lot of energy to get through that.