Night Vision

updated 02/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/28/2000 01:00AM

In 1997, astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson was peering out of the airliner carrying him to a conference in California when he spotted the Hale-Bopp comet hovering on the darkening horizon. "I was bubbling, I couldn't contain myself," says Tyson, director of the famed Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History. He jotted down a few facts about the galactic visitor and passed them along to a flight attendant. "Sure enough, 10 minutes later the pilot comes on the PA system and reads out my whole note," says Tyson, 41. Passengers applauded, he recalls, and within moments Tyson, who had been sitting in coach, was holding court in first class, sipping champagne and eating ice cream.

Scholarship has its rewards. In a career that might fittingly be called meteoric, Tyson, who gave his first paid lecture at 15, has studied the Milky Way in observatories around the globe, published five books (including his recent memoir The Sky Is Not the Limit) and become a familiar face on TV news shows as an astronomical know-it-all who can penetrate the secrets of the spheres and bring them down to Earth. "The world around you is not a magical place where things happen without explanation," he says. "There is understanding to be had, and that excites me."

This month, Tyson gets a chance to share that excitement with the public when the Hayden Planetarium's long-awaited $210 million new home—described by one critic as "perhaps the purest piece of monumental architecture built in the United States since the Washington Monument"—opens with all-new exhibits, plus a star show narrated by Tom Hanks. "I don't think the Hayden could have hired a better person to direct this effort than Tyson," says Jack Horkheimer, 61, host of PBS's long-running series Star Gazer. "He's very good at what he does."

For Tyson the Hayden has the feel of a cosmic home. He grew up in The Bronx, the second of three children of Cyril de Grasse Tyson—once New York City's commissioner for human resources—and his gerontologist wife, Sunchita. As any urban kid knows, there are few places—let alone The Bronx—where stars can be seen beyond the glare of the city lights. But for him there was always the Hayden. "I couldn't tell you the number of times I came here," says Tyson, who does remember that his first visit was at age 9. "They turned out the lights and I was just out there under the night sky. They had everything but the crickets."

Encouraged by his family, Tyson started taking after-school classes at the Hayden and attended a summer camp for astronomy in the Mojave Desert in 1973. Already a bit of an eccentric with a taste for anachronism, "Neil arrived dressed in a big white shirt like a British explorer from the nineteenth century," recalls camp organizer Joe Patterson, 53, an astronomy professor at Columbia University. (Some things never change: Tyson still counts among his hobbies writing poetry by candlelight with homemade quill pens and reading, with the help of a Latin dictionary, his leather-bound 1706 edition of Sir Isaac Newton's Opticks. "That guy," he says of one of his all-time heroes, "was plugged in.")

Tyson passed up a chance to attend Cornell, even after the late Carl Sagan personally drove him across campus, and enrolled instead at Harvard. He wrestled on the varsity team, joined an Afro-Caribbean dance troupe and—at 6'2" and 190 lbs.—astounded members of both groups with his ability to wrap his legs behind his head.

During graduate school at the University of Texas, Tyson—who eventually earned his doctorate at Columbia—first saw his future wife, computer programmer Alice Mae Young, in a physics class. For her part, Young, now 43, says she didn't notice him until much later and attributes that to their dramatically different personalities. "He was a back-of-the-classroom kind of guy," she says, "and I was definitely front-row." They married in 1988 and named their only daughter, Miranda, 3, after one of Uranus's 18 known moons.

As one of the most visible African-American scientists in the U.S., Tyson takes pride in having confounded those in his past who tried to steer him toward a career in sports, not science. "I could have just squirreled away in my lab, and nobody would have known me from a smudge on the wall," says Tyson, who recently assembled a team of six astronomers to conduct research at the Hayden. "But to be both a research scientist and an educator, that mixture, to me, is potent."

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