The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist

by Neil deGrasse Tyson


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From the author of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry and the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,a memoir about growing up and a young man's budding scientific curiosity.

This is the absorbing story of Neil deGrasse Tyson's lifelong fascination with the night sky, a restless wonder that began some thirty years ago on the roof of his Bronx apartment building and eventually led him to become the director of the Hayden Planetarium. A unique chronicle of a young man who at one time was both nerd and jock, Tyson's memoir could well inspire other similarly curious youngsters to pursue their dreams.

Like many athletic kids he played baseball, won medals in track and swimming, and was captain of his high school wrestling team. But at the same time he was setting up a telescope on winter nights, taking an advanced astronomy course at the Hayden Planetarium, and spending a summer vacation at an astronomy camp in the Mojave Desert.

Eventually, his scientific curiosity prevailed, and he went on to graduate in physics from Harvard and to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia. There followed postdoctoral research at Princeton. In 1996, he became the director of the Hayden Planetarium, where some twenty-five years earlier he had been awed by the spectacular vista in the sky theater.

Tyson pays tribute to the key teachers and mentors who recognized his precocious interests and abilities, and helped him succeed. He intersperses personal reminiscences with thoughts on scientific literacy, careful science vs. media hype, the possibility that a meteor could someday hit the Earth, dealing with society's racial stereotypes, what science can and cannot say about the existence of God, and many other interesting insights about science, society, and the nature of the universe.

Now available in paperback with a new preface and other additions, this engaging memoir will enlighten and inspire an appreciation of astronomy and the wonders of our universe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591021889
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 04/28/2004
Pages: 203
Sales rank: 264,132
Product dimensions: 6.11(w) x 8.98(h) x 0.46(d)

About the Author

Neil deGrasse Tyson, an American astrophysicist, author, and science communicator, is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space and a research associate in the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History. The host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on FOX—an update to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage television series—he previously hosted NOVA ScienceNow on PBS and has been a frequent guest on The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Jeopardy! He is the author of Death by Black Hole and Space Chronicles, among other works.

Read an Excerpt

Night Vision

Building a Relationship With the Sky


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.


Exclusive Author Essay

At my high school's 20-year reunion, during the obligatory assessments of how well time had treated us all, I won the "coolest job" contest in a straw poll of those attending. As an astrophysicist and director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium, I get to spend my days decoding the nature of the universe and creating journeys through the cosmos for the public to see.

Almost before I could pronounce "astrophysicist," I knew I wanted to be one. For my original inspiration I had simply looked up to the sky with binoculars and small telescopes. But to further my education I looked to books. I started my own neighborhood dog-walking service to support my book-buying habit. I first began snapping up Isaac Asimov's nonfiction works on the universe. I had met Asimov as a teenager on board the SS Canberra, which had been converted to a floating science lab where all manner of astrophysical experiments were conducted. The trip's mission was to record one of the longest eclipses on record back in 1973. The prolific Dr. Asimov gave a thoroughly entertaining and informative lecture (steeped in his inimitable Brooklyn accent) on the history of eclipses. I went home and immediately bought as many of his books as I could lay my hands on. Books such as Asimov's Chronology of Science & Discovery and Isaac Asimov's Guide to Earth and Space made me look beyond my own world into places I had only begun to imagine. Happily enough, 15 years later, I would remind Dr. Asimov of this eclipse cruise in a letter, humbly requesting that he write a jacket blurb for my first book, a Q&A on the cosmos, Merlin's Tour of the Universe. Asimov agreed, and thus my own writing career was born.

In my early teens, because my dog-walking business was a success, I continued to add to my library. George Gamow's One, Two, Three...Infinity remains the most influential science book I have ever read, with Edward Kasner and James R. Newman's Mathematics and the Imagination coming in a close second. Both are terrific books by authors who could equally enlighten and entertain the reader.

Later, as a scientist thinking about reaching out to the public, I was drawn to the popular works of Carl Sagan. He could communicate complex scientific ideas and issues using simple poetic imagery. My contemporary Sagan collection includes his memoir, Billions & Billions, as well as his acclaimed Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark and Broca's Brain. My favorite of the recent biographies is William Poundstone's Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. Sagan wrote his books out of a deep love for astronomy and an even deeper love for teaching it to others.

I have tried hard with my own books to create the feeling of accessibility and oneness with the universe. I have tried to bring down to earth the knowledge that we are at home in the cosmos.

Neil de Grasse Tyson is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and a visiting research scientist in astrophysics at Princeton University. Since 1995, Tyson has written the popular monthly essay "Universe" for Natural History magazine. A graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Tyson earned a B.A. in physics from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia University.

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The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
bugeyemonster More than 1 year ago
Neil is a man of great vision. This book is inspiring. I plan to make my daughter read it next.
IslandDave on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having seen and enjoyed Neil deGrasse Tyson on PBS's NOVA program and various other television spots, I finally got around to reading his short biographical book The Sky is Not the Limit. Essentially a collection of six or so essays centered around Tyson's experiences, the book is fast paced and, with the minor exception of about ten pages, easily approachable for a non-scientific reader. Tyson was driven early to become an astrophysicist, and his excitement for his craft comes through strongly in his writing. In the first half of the essays, he talks of his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood as he developed an intense passion for astronomy and math. In one chapter, Tyson relays his experiences climbing the ranks as a black astrophysicist. Later in the book he jumps into his passion with discussions of Pluto, science in society, math's role in physics, the ultimate fate of the earth (and universe), and ends the book with an introspective response to the inevitable questions about his own views on God and science.Throughout, I loved Tyson's passion for his subject matter, and he is tremendously effective at conveying his points through a simple, direct narrative and occasional dry wit. He mentions at one point that he had to develop a strong backbone to get through the difficult situations he often faced in the academic world. His advocacy for the things he cares about in this book shows it to be true. He makes strong arguments for the laziness and ennui of society with respect to science and fact. He argues for increased science education and funding, for better use of the scientific method, and for Hollywood, among others, to care as much about scientific details as they do about period costumes.I would feel utterly honored to one day sit in this man's classroom, attend a seminar where he appears, or just have a beer with him and pick his brilliant brain. This book is a quick read and light science biography fun. Four stars.
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Hugh 4x4 USED BOOK sticker covered book title, subtitle and author name. This spoiled the appearance of a very nice cover. I tried to peel it off, but only made it worse. Another sticker was on the back. Other wise book in very good condition and very inexpensive. If you do not care how the cover looks it  was a good buy, but I would not get another book from this dealer.