If you’re a regular reader of Pop Mythology then you likely already know that in our Hero Worship features we look at the life lessons learned from fictional characters, and Hero of the Month pieces find inspiration in stories of everyday people displaying heroic resolve while facing extraordinary obstacles. These are stories which inspire us, and hopefully our readers as well. Of course, these aren’t our only sources of inspiration, so when something particularly striking enters popular culture, we enjoy examining it.
If you’re reading Pop Mythology at all then you likely already know who Neil deGrasse Tyson is. If you don’t, look at your Facebook feed, he’s probably mentioned there, watch television shows such as The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, where he is a frequent guest, or check out his own show Cosmos airing as the non-cartoon, non-fictional part of Fox’s Sunday night line-up. He even explained to Superman how the last son of Kypton arrived on Earth. The man is nigh inescapable.
For those who still don’t know, Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist, and undoubtedly the most famous astrophysicist in the world (can you name another astrophysicist? No? That means he’s the most famous). He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s also hosted such shows as NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and the aforementioned revamp of Cosmos, originally hosted by Tyson’s former teacher Carl Sagan. It’s through this latter role of host that he has become possibly the most visible advocate of science in the world and one of the most important figures in all of popular culture.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s popularity belies just how much an anomaly he really is. He is a well-known scientist (itself a bit of a contradiction), famous for being intelligent (also often contradictory), and an open skeptic of religious belief (a stance which far too often leads to protests and death threats). What’s more, he is an African American man who has achieved a successful career in science, an occurrence which, even in the 21st century, remains unfortunately so rare that it becomes remarkable. Any one of these things on their own would make him a peculiarity among pop culture. Taken together, Neil deGrasse Tyson is like a class O celestial among a universe of pop, movie and media stars. Yet he’s been well known for long enough that we seldom appreciate just how exceptional and vital he really is.
As an African American male attending public school in the Bronx, Tyson experienced an epiphany during his first visit to the very same planetarium he now directs. In an event rather akin to Peter Parker’s brush with an irradiated spider, this one occurrence started Tyson on his own heroic path. While his parents, his father a sociologist active in the Civil Rights Movement and his mother a housewife and later gerontologist, were supportive, there were still any many obstacles along the way, as Tyson recalled when answering a question about “chicks and science.” Within a society which most often associates African American men as athletes, entertainers or criminals, the thought of someone in Tyson’s position growing up to be a scientist was baffling. And like any good hero, Tyson used that turbulence as propulsion. His passion for science was so great that it soaked through the pages of his Cornell University application, catching the attention of faculty member Carl Sagan. It was Sagan who then reached out to Tyson and taught him not only the science but also how to handle that science.
Tyson’s first credited television appearance came in 1996 on the PBS mini-series Breakthough: The Changing Face of American Science, which focused on twenty contemporary scientists of African American, Latino and Native American backgrounds. From this appearance, Neil Tyson, as he was called in the series, went on to appear in other science programs on television, picking up where Sagan left off after his death in the same year as Tyson’s Breakthrough.
It wasn’t until 2007, when Tyson first appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, that he first crossed over to mainstream media. Although not entirely fluid and clearly nervous on live shows, Tyson’s open and infectious enthusiasm, dry humor, knowledge of space (particularly his detailed descriptions of the effects of black holes and meteors) and his fearless criticism of popular depictions of space made him an enjoyable presence. It’s clear from this first appearance that Tyson has a knack for explaining complex concepts in a way that anyone can understand. In a sense, Tyson is a direct rebuttal to the typical image of the egg-headed, socially inept, cripplingly unhip science geek.
Tyson’s profile and cool rating is further raised by his status as go-to science guy for heroes of modern counter-culture, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. His placement as corrector of fictional depictions of science even earned him the title and corresponding Daily Show segment, Buzzkill of Science. Its first (and thus far only) installment was delightfully flawed and awkward, but again Tyson displays tremendous humor and charisma as he debunks ridiculous fears of zombie invasions and injects a little actual science into our mass entertainment.
Beyond his place as a media figure, what is important about Neil deGrasse Tyson is that he is, in all actuality, man of science, a real life astrophysicist. He isn’t an entertainer masquerading as a science expert or a pundit cherry-picking facts to further an agenda. He is a communicator of science fact among science fiction, a realist within reactionaries, an advocate of evidence in a world often overrun with speculation. And best of all, people love him for it.
The presence Neil Degrasse Tyson, or Carl Sagan before him, is essential in how it draws people to science. A show like Cosmos brings measured and verified evidence to the forefront of mass media in ways that most 24-hours networks don’t and PBS and specialized cable networks can’t. This is especially remarkable at a time when networks like Discovery are moving toward fictional dramas about megasharks, PBS is regarded by many as having an inherent liberal bias and Fox, which airs Cosmos, has a sister news network that is likely the leading purveyor of anti-science propaganda. Further, similar to groundbreakers like Tiger Woods and President Barrack Obama, Tyson’s success and visibility shows that one doesn’t have to be a geeky white guy to become a scientist. A scientist can be anyone with an interest and drive in the subject. They may not get to joke around with Bill Maher or host a series of television specials, but that doesn’t matter. Tyson puts science first. Everything else is just stuff to fill the space.
More so now than in perhaps any other time in American history science itself is becoming a culturally and politically divisive issue. Recent polls indicate that less than half of all Americans believe that human activities contribute to climate change, just under half don’t believe in evolution, and only one-third believe that human beings evolved without divine guidance. Over a dozen states have implemented or attempted to implement education standards which either add intelligent design to science curriculum or downplay the mass acceptance of evolution. Rather than any ethnic or religious differences, one’s stance toward these subjects is most accurately predicted by political affiliation, with the majority of people disbelieving science gravitating toward television networks which reinforce their views. This rise in anti-scientific rhetoric has even lead to an increase in previously negligible rates of childhood diseases like measles due to a growing number of people believing media claims that vaccinations cause autism, despite absolutely no evidence ever supporting that statement.
In a culture where celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Bill O’Reilly can openly expound anti-science rhetoric to loyal, daily audiences, Neil deGrasse Tyson is a prophet for reality. While it is still a major faux pas in America to ever doubt or criticize Christianity, Tyson is openly skeptical. He isn’t so in a combative way but in an honest and factual one that doesn’t ridicule the believer for believing, but invites them to augment their faith with something that exists whether they agree with it or not. In many ways, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s importance is in stopping us as a society and a culture from getting progressively dumber.
Just the fact that an astrophysicist can become a pop cultural figure gives me hope.
It’s debatable whether or not Neil deGrasse Tyson can be considered the “best” pure scientist in America, just as it’s debatable whetherIron Man is the “best” Marvel superhero or Wolf of Wall Street is the “best” Martin Scorsese movie. Yet in having achieved mainstream success, Tyson invites interested parties to examine the topic further. Seeing and hearing him on television, or on YouTube, or in quoted images on Facebook, spurs a curiosity in both children and adults to learn more about science, even if only in an attempt to disprove it. Much as Carl Sagan did years ago, with both his own television audience and Tyson himself, Tyson is a figure who encourages an interest in science. Real science; not in the way that Indiana Jones convinced us that archeology was all dodging traps and fighting Nazis, or Bruce Wayne made us think that anyone could be Batman with only a few billion dollars and dead parents. Tyson encourages study and questioning – examination, exploration, discovery – all those things which define our favorite adventurers, costumed or otherwise.
That’s what Neil deGrasse Tyson does for our popular culture. He brings us the universe.