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How Neil DeGrasse Tyson nearly became an exotic dancer

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Your Last Meal with Rachel Belle. (KIRO Radio)

By the time astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was nine years old, he had already found his life’s passion.

“It was my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium,” he said. “It was an indelible encounter. I was star struck, physically and emotionally. It would take a couple years before I learned that you can make a career out of this. But I’d say by 11 I had an answer to that annoying question that adults always ask kids: what do you want to be when you grow up? The answer is astrophysicist.”

The coolest part of the story is he is now director of that very same planetarium in New York City. He’s also the host of StarTalk Radio, the television program Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and an author. His new book, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” is sort of a CliffsNotes specifically about astrophysics, but Dr. Tyson believes it’s important for everyone to stay informed about all kinds of science.

Defending science

I asked him how you can convert someone to science when they simply don’t believe in it.

“Who would have thought that we’d even be having that conversation?” he said. “Scientists marching for funding science smells a lot like some kind of special interest group. The special interest of science is interwoven with the fate of the nation and of civilization itself. The special interest of science is your health, the nation’s wealth and the nation’s security.”

“The cost is you will no longer be on the frontier of innovations in STEM field,” he said. “Frontier innovations in those fields will define who leads the world in the 21st century. Period. Show me a nation that is hostile to science and I’ll show you a population that is sick, that is poor and unsafe. As an educator I feel it’s my duty to at least alert you to the consequences of your actions or the consequences of your inaction. Then, in a free country, go vote how you want. But at least be as informed a voter as you possibly can.”

I interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson a few weeks ago, but it’s hard not to think about President Trump’s recent decision to remove the United States from the global Paris climate accord.

Dr. Tyson and his colleagues were the first to publicly announce that Pluto should be dethroned as a planet. Instead, it was redefined as a dwarf planet. He said he got a lot of hate mail from third graders.

“My favorite, I got a letter from someone who is 21,” Tyson said. “This letter is as deadpan as can be. It says, ‘Dear Dr. Tyson, Over the years I began to research your claim that Pluto should be a dwarf planet. I’ve come to agree, after evaluating the evidence, that you were right all along. I want to express my deepest apologies in a letter I wrote to you when I was eight years old in which I called you a ‘poo poo head.'”

How Neil deGrasse Tyson almost earned money

In my research of Dr. Tyson, I discovered an amazing fact: he briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an exotic dancer.

“It was very briefly because I was strapped for cash in graduate school,” he said. “I was a performing member of a dance troupe and some guys said, ‘Why don’t you come down and get some extra cash in your g-string.’ I was particularly flexible at the time. I could do a full split, just as an example. So I thought, yeah, I can probably do this! That’s when I noticed…no! I should tutor math!”

“When they came out dancing with their jock straps on fire to Jerry Lee Lewis’ ‘Great Balls of Fire’ — maybe it was the flames, just watching their genitals on fire. Maybe that’s what it took. But it shouldn’t have taken that, as far as I was concerned. Of course I can tutor mathematics. It’s reliable income and everybody needs a math tutor. So that’s what I ultimately did.”

To hear the rest of my conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson, listen to my podcast, Your Last Meal or text the word “space” to 98973 and we’ll text you back a link.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s radio feature on Neil deGrasse Tyson here.

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