Neil deGrasse Tyson gets 200 speaking requests a month. He accepts about four.
Neil deGrasse Tyson has 7.3 million Twitter followers.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is Stephen Colbert’s favorite guest.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new book is a bestseller on Amazon, and it has “astrophysics” in the title.
In a recent email exchange, I asked the famous astrophysicist and director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium about his communication style and how he’s become one of the most admired science communicators. Tyson’s insights are valuable for any leader, teacher, scientist or educator.
Tyson laughs easily and often on stage and in interviews, but he doesn’t say he has a passion for communicating science. It runs much deeper. He calls science communication, The manifestation of curiosity.
Tyson manifests science brilliantly. In his new book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson grabs the reader in the first sentence:
“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”
Tyson describes this method as “an act of embedding the full idea in familiar ground, after which you cannot help but absorb the new concept.”
Tyson’s book is full of embedding ideas in familiar ground. For example,
“Earth’s mountains are puny compared with some other mountains in the solar system. The largest on Mars, Olympus Mons, is 65,000 feet tall and nearly 300 miles wide at its base. It makes Alaska’s Mount McKinley look like a molehill.”
“There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived.”
Tyson’s social media posts are also examples of grounding the complexity of science in the familiar. But Tyson takes it one step further, connecting science to familiar, pop-culture events. For example, Tyson is known on Twitter for his posts during big football games. As Super Bowl LI kicked off on February 5th, Tyson played off the controversy of whether Pluto should be reinstated to planethood:
@Neiltyson: If a football were the Sun at the 50-yard line, Earth would be at the 15-yard line. Pluto, a quarter-mile away. Get over it.
In 2015, Tyson made a comment that was re-tweeted thousands of times. He said a Cincinnati Bengals overtime victory was partly due to science:
@neiltyson Today’s @Bengals winning OT field goal was likely enabled by a 1/3-in deflection to the right, caused by Earth’s rotation.
Tyson says that Twitter has helped him become a better a communicator. “Each of my posted tweets is an attempt at humor, communication, learning, enlightenment, etc. The instant response of followers serves as a kind of neurosynaptic snapshot of the public’s response to my thoughts. This helps me tune in to what I say and how I say it for maximum effectiveness.”
Tyson says there are many topics he avoids. He “cherry picks the cool stuff” to make science accessible and fun and to hook the audience into wanting to learn more. “There are many of topics I don’t come near, because I have yet to find a way to make them fully (or even partially) accessible,” he says. For example, “Topics include spectroscopic analysis, interferometry, Einstein’s special theory of relativity. You can ask me about them. But after my attempt to explain it to you, if you look back at me confused, we will need to sit down with pen and paper.”
Tyson says the secret to communicating science (or other complex topics) is not to ‘translate,’ the content—which he says only serves to dumb it down—but to “explain with enthusiasm and, where and when necessary, link the concept to something embedded in pop culture, where we all have active receptors.”
Tyson’s books, presentations, lectures, radio shows, and television appearances on Cosmos and StarTalk earned him the Public Welfare Medal from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In awarding him the medal, the academy said it was for Tyson’s “extraordinary role in exciting the public about the wonders of science.”
The keyword, of course, is excitement. Tyson says exciting an audience is a critical skill for “anyone who knows anything that other people don’t know, but perhaps should know.”