Neil deGrasse Tyson — astrophysicist, irreverent tweeter, vanquisher of Pluto, frequent Stephen Colbert foil — is America’s “It” Nerd.
A lot of people have held that title before, acting as evangelists for science and discovery. Ben Franklin. Our buddy George Washington Carver. Stephen Jay Gould. Carl Sagan. Tyson’s the latest standard-bearer, and two weeks ago he presided over an hourlong meditation on the birth and scope of the universe that was being broadcast on several networks at once.
“[The Big Bang] is as far back as we can see in time,” he intoned on Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. He paused for effect. “For now.”
Cosmos is an update of the beloved 1980 PBS series of the same name hosted by Sagan. The new edition is full of allusions to the old one. “We are made of star stuff,” Tyson says in the first episode, repeating one of Sagan’s most famous lines. A lot has been made of the fact that decades ago, Sagan — once the “It” Nerd himself — tried unsuccessfully to recruit the teenage Tyson to Cornell University.
Tyson’s ascension to America’s foremost nerd is a testament to his undeniable charisma and ability to make complicated ideas accessible to laypeople. But some of that’s by default, because, really, who else might even be in contention for it? (Bill Nye, perhaps?)
But Tyson’s current stature is unlikely for another reason: He’s a black astrophysicist, as elusive a phenomenon as the Higgs boson.
“There are very, very few African-American astrophysics PhDs,” Tyson told Alcalde, an alumni magazine for the University of Texas, Austin, where he studied for a time during graduate school. “That’s for a reason. I was doing something people of my skin color were not supposed to do. So people who believed in me, like Sagan, were important.”