Cover image for The sky is not the limit : adventures of an urban astrophysicist
The sky is not the limit : adventures of an urban astrophysicist
Tyson, Neil deGrasse.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 2000.
Physical Description:
viii, 191 pages ; 25 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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Material Type
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Item Holds
QB460 .T97 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
QB460 .T97 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
QB460 .T97 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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As the youngest-ever Director of the Hayden Planetarium, Neil de Grasse Tyson is America's best-known astrophysicist, constantly called upon by the media to explain news-making scientific phenomena such as the discovery of water on Mars. How did an African American kid growing up in the Bronx, expected by everyone to become a star athlete, not an intellectual, become an extraordinarily successful scientist? This is the fascinating and moving account of Tyson's love affair with the night sky, beginning with the fateful day when he, as a small boy, happened to turn a pair of binoculars up toward the moon and was struck with wonder. Packed with gorgeous descriptions of the night sky,The Sky Is Not the Limitinvokes the grandeur of the cosmos as it tells Tyson's compelling personal story. In addition, it is a perceptive look at life and society as seen through the eyes of an astrophysicist, providing a valuable look into how scientists work in, and think about, the social, political, and physical world. From that eye-opening first glimpse of the moon, through his struggle to fulfill his dream of becoming an astrophysicist, to the triumphant opening of the new Hayden Planetarium, Tyson's story is remarkable.

Author Notes

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was born in New York City on October 5, 1958. Interested in astronomy since he was a child, Tyson gave lectures on the topic at the age of 15. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and was the editor-in-chief for its Physical Science Journal. After earning a B.A. in Physics from Harvard in 1980, Tyson received an M.A. in Astronomy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1983. He earned his Ph.D. in Astrophysics from Columbia in 1991.

Since 1996, Tyson has held the position of Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History. In 2001, he was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the Commission on the Future of the United States Aerospace Industry. In 2004, Tyson joined the President's Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. He has hosted PBS's television show NOVA scienceNOW since 2006. Tyson can also be seen frequently as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, and Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

Tyson has written many popular books on astronomy, and he began his "Universe" column for Natural History magazine in 1995. In 2009, he published the bestselling book The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet to describe the controversy over Pluto's demotion to dwarf planet.

Tyson was recognized in 2004 with the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, and Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2007.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Tyson (see One Universe, reviewed above) directs the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. His pleasant, digressive memoir explains how he got there, what it's like to be a famous astronomer and what he thinks of his work. At first it's a story about how science education can go right. We learn that Tyson, who is African-American, grew up among tall buildings in the Bronx--but his is not a story of triumph over grinding poverty. Young Tyson got a break from the city when his father found a one-year lectureship at Harvard, and as for the electricity required to run one of his first telescopes, "my dentist... happened to live on the nineteenth floor." Tyson's later chapters offer memories, anecdotes and musings on astrophysics, education, politics, popular culture and even wrestling, in which Tyson competed until grad school. Tyson explains how his wrestling skills and knowledge of physics helped him end an Italian traffic jam by lifting a parked car, and how he tried to buy a meteorite but lost an auction to Steven Spielberg. In one chapter, Hollywood's science mistakes raise Tyson's ire (the film Titanic got its night sky all wrong); in the next, he discusses getting stopped by police for "Driving While Black." With sentences like "The universe poured down from the sky and flowed into my body," Tyson may not be his discipline's best prose stylist; neither his essays nor his life match the unpredictable charm of Richard Feynman's. But he comes off very likably, and presents physics with ease and clarity. It's easy to imagine his memoir inspiring young future astrophysicists--and inspiring grownups to help them out. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Tyson, current director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, has written a personalized account of his career from his days at the Brooklyn High School of Science, his undergraduate years at Harvard University, his graduate work at both the University of Texas and Columbia University, and as a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton. Early in life he decided to become an astrophysicist, despite the fact that there were only a handful of black Americans in the field. His story, told in seven easy-to-read chapters, contains his teachers' assessments of and advice to him, comments about fellow physicists and recent happenings in the field of astronomy, his favorite puzzles, Jodie Foster's mathematical goof in the movie Contact (1997), his experiences on presidential commissions, and his personal thoughts on how he views the world and on the existence of God. He briefly remarks about the problems young African American scientists have experienced in their careers. He stresses the need for a scientifically literate public. There is little science here, but a fascinating story of a person who is dedicated to his chosen field. Contains 16 pages of black-and-white photographs; 11-page index. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower-division undergraduates; all who value reading about the social aspects of science. W. E. Howard III formerly, Universities Space Research Association



Night Vision Building a Relationship With the Sky THE EARLY YEARS It was a dark and starry night. The sixty-five-degree air was calm. I felt as though I could see forever. Too numerous to count, the stars of the autumn sky, and the constellations they trace, were rising slowly in the east while the waxing crescent moon was descending into the western horizon. Aloft in the northern sky were the Big and Little Dippers, just where they were described to be, just as they were described to appear. The planets Jupiter and Saturn were high in the sky. One of the stars--I don't remember which--seemed to fall toward the horizon. It was a meteor streaking through the atmosphere. I was told there would be no clouds that night, but I saw one. It was long and skinny and stretched across the sky from horizon to horizon. No, I was mistaken. It wasn't a cloud. It was the Milky Way--with its varying bright and dark patches giving the appearance of structure and the illusion of depth. I had never seen the sky of the Milky Way with such clarity and majesty as that night. Forty-five minutes of my suspended disbelief swiftly passed when the house lights came back on in the planetarium sky theater. That was the night. The night the universe poured down from the sky and flowed into my body. I had been called. The study of the universe would be my career, and no force on Earth would stop me. I was just nine years old, but I now had an answer for that perennially annoying question all adults ask: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Although I could barely pronounce the word, I would tell them, "I want to be an astrophysicist." From that moment onward, one question lingered within me: Was this majestic planetarium sky an accurate portrayal of the real celestial sphere? Or was it a hoax? Surely there were too many stars. I had proof because I had seen the night sky from the Bronx--from the rooftop of my apartment house. Built upon one of the highest hills of the borough, it was one of a set of three buildings that were prophetically known as the Skyview Apartments. In one of the other two Skyview buildings lived a close friend--a classmate in elementary school. My friend lived in a single-parent home with an older brother and sister, both of whom had active social agendas. The father, who retained custody of the three kids after the divorce, worked long hours and he was only rarely at home. My friend, instead, spent a lot of time over at my place, especially on the weekends. His father assumed that the stability of my two-parent up bringing would add some structure and discipline to his life. While this may have been true, I am certain that my friend's influence on me was far greater. He taught me to play chess, poker, pinochle, Risk, and Monopoly. He introduced me to brainteaser books, which, if you are unfamiliar with the genre, are books that resemble collections of those dreaded word problems from your high school math class. Well-written brainteasers, however, have clever O. Henry-like plot twists in their answers that trick you with their simplicity. My favorite was: Start with four ants, one on each corner of a square board that measures twelve inches on a side. Each ant decides to walk at the same speed directly toward the ant to its right. By the time all four ants meet in the middle of the table, how far has each one traveled? (Answer: twelve inches.) Or, start with a brand new, unshuffled deck of cards. The cards are sorted by suit and sequenced by number (typical of their configuration when first purchased). Cut the deck, just as one might do before a card game, but do it one hundred consecutive times. What are the chances that all fifty-two cards will still be sorted by suit and ordered by number? (Answer: 100 percent.) I loved teasers that involved math: Counting one number per second, how long would it take to reach a trillion? (Answer: 31,710 years.) And more entertaining problems like: How many people must you collect into a room before you have a better-than-even chance that two of them would have the same birthday? (Answer: twenty-four.) The more we played, the more stretched and sharpened my eleven-year-old brain became. My friend's most important contribution to my life's path, however, was introducing me to binoculars. I had used them before--primarily to view sporting events and to look into other people's windows. My friend instead encouraged me to look up. He encouraged me to look beyond the streetlights, beyond the buildings, beyond the clouds, and out toward the Moon and stars of the night sky. Nothing I can write will capture my acute cosmic imprinting when I first viewed the waxing crescent moon across the Hudson River and above the Palisades of New Jersey during a cloudless twilight evening. The Moon through those 7 x 35s was not just bigger, it was better. The coal-dark shadows sharply revealed its surface to be three-dimensional--a rich moonscape of mountains and valleys and craters and hills and plains. The Moon was no longer just a thing on the sky--it was another world in the universe. And if simple binoculars could transform the Moon, imagine what mountaintop telescopes could do with the rest of the universe. Galileo was the first person in the world to look up with a good enough telescope to see what no one before him had ever dreamed: structure on the lunar surface, revolving spots on the Sun, the phases of Venus (just like the Moon), Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its restless moons, and stars composing the faint glow of the Milky Way. When I too first saw these things I communed with Galileo across time and space. Galileo's "observatory" was his windowsill and his rooftop--so was mine. My discoveries, although old news for society, were no less astonishing for me than they must have been for Galileo in 1610. I would soon learn to feed this intellectual hunger. My sixth-grade homeroom and science teacher was Mrs. Susan Kreindler, who was a tall woman with a keen sense of academic discipline. She was probably also one of the smartest teachers in my elementary school, PS-81. For the third quarter of my sixth grade report card she wrote, in round-hand cursive, "Less social involvement and more academic diligence is in order!" Mrs. Kreindler also happens to be the teacher who, on her own time, clipped a small advertisement from the newspaper announcing that year's offering of astronomy courses at the Hayden Planetarium. One of them was called "Astronomy for Young People" and was for kids in junior high school and the first years of high school. Mrs. Kreindler knew of my growing interest in the universe, based on the proportion of astronomy-related book reports that I had been submitting. She concluded that the courses would probably not be out of my reach recommended that I explore them. She also figured that if my excess social energy were intelligently diverted outside the school, I could grow in ways unfettered by the formal limits of the classroom. Mrs. Kreindler packaged and redirected my "social involvement" that she had criticized. From then onward, the Hayden Planetarium became a much broader and deeper resource to the growth of my life's interests. I had previously known it only to be a place with a beautiful night sky--but I came to learn that the actual universe is much, much bigger. A student's academic life experience can be constructed from much more than what happens in a classroom. Good teachers know this. The best teachers make sure it happens. Excerpted from The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist by Neil De Grasse Tyson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. VII
Introductionp. 1
1 Night Vision: Building a relationship with the sky
The Early Yearsp. 3
The Middle Yearsp. 32
The Later Yearsp. 42
2 Scientific Adventures: The fun and frustrations of being a scientistp. 59
3 Dark Matters: A view from the dark side of spacep. 107
4 Romancing the Cosmos: For the love of the universep. 131
5 The End of the World: The science of catastrophep. 153
6 God and the Astronomers: A search for meaning in the cosmosp. 169
Appendix Space-Time Continuum: A chronicle of life's minutiaep. 185
Acknowledgmentsp. 193