March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson faces the music of the spheres.


Stardom suits Neil deGrasse Tyson. The nation’s most famous astrophysicist, he is director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History revels in his high-profile role as unofficial U.S. ambassador to the infinite.

He’s host of PBS’s "Nova scienceNow" and a galvanizing public speaker, as local star lovers will learn Thursday at the Wharton Center.

Tyson is a celebrity second and a man of science first. He even tracks his own renown with the same rigor he applies to the center of the Milky Way.

“It’s been very gradual, very quantitative,” he said in an interview. “I remember when one stranger a week would stop me in the street. Then it went to two a week, then three a week, then one a day, then three a day, and now it’s about 20 or 30 a day.”

Tyson, 50, was born the week NASA was founded. He’s a product of the Bronx School of Science, and holder of advanced degrees from Harvard and Columbia. At 9, he was captivated by the Hayden Planetarium and was lecturing on astronomy at 15.

I asked Tyson if he ever fantasizes about walking downstairs from his office at the planetarium, slipping through a time warp, and showing his younger self how he turned out.

“That thought never came up because I’m leading the life I imagined I would back then,” he said. “So as a kid, I’d have said, ‘yeah, and your point is?’”

Charismatic as he is, Tyson is tough when it comes to embracing reality and trashing illusions. A minor but telling example: He led the recent push to take Pluto off the list of planets, mostly because it doesn’t look or behave like one. He took a lot of hate mail for it, mostly from young children.

Tyson’s talk at MSU will draw upon history for some harsh lessons in short-selling science.

“Nations rose and fell based on how they invested in their technological and scientific literacy,” Tyson said. “The stars in the night sky — two-thirds of those that have names have Arabic names,” Tyson said.

While Europeans were chasing angels with butterfly nets a thousand years ago, Arab cultures led the world in scientific learning — until fundamentalist leaders persuaded enough people that mathematics was the work of the devil.

“Fear basically halted what was one of the greatest intellectual movements in the history of culture,” Tyson said. “And the Islamic community has yet to recover from that.”

It never pays to abandon basic research, he says, singling out NASA’s push to the moon in the 1970s.

“It was driven by war with Russia, not because we were explorers or discoverers,” he said. “But it catalyzed an entire generation of people to go into science and engineering and technology fields, which then birthed the (Internet) revolution.”

Tyson worries that when it comes to transportation, energy, housing and other crucial matters, there will be too much temptation to fix the old stuff.

“Do you repair the levee, or do you invent a new system that doesn’t even use levees, and install that?” he asked.

It’s not hard to get Tyson wound up about frontiers of knowledge. Gravity, for example, is still a big mystery.

Only 15 percent of the gravity in the universe comes from matter.

What about the rest?

“Eighty-five percent traces to entities about which we know nothing,” he declared. Before I could catch my breath, Tyson tossed me another void: The universe is expanding faster and faster, and will keep on doing so, until everything sort of ranges out of sight of everything else.

“Nobody knows why,” he said.

Both problems are often plastered over with explanations like “dark matter” or “dark energy,” but Tyson called these concepts “place-holders.”

“Don’t be swayed by the terms we are using,” he said. “We are completely dumb-stupid about what it is. We could have called it Fred and Ethel.”

Another big gap: What happened before the Big Bang?

“That’s kind of a cool question,” he said.

Awe, if not stupefaction, is perfectly acceptable here, but Tyson cautions against resorting to the supernatural.

“Across the centuries, people have come up with those questions, but they were left to mythology to give answers to them,” he said. “For the first time — basically, the 20th century going into the 21st century — we actually have the methods and tools to answer those questions.”

Tyson knows that laws and equations strike some people as hollow. If people look for personalized service in a restaurant or a grocery store, it’s no wonder they gravitate to a cosmology in which they’re coddled by angels.

“Yes, the universe can be cold,” he said, warming to the topic. “What of the zebra that just got taken down by the cheetah? It’s not good for the zebra, but it’s all the cheetah knows. Can you get angry with the cheetah? The cheetah is not going to grow carrots.”

But to Tyson, that doesn’t mean the universe is impersonal or indifferent. You just have to know where to look for comfort.

“What we have is each other,” he declared. “I know it’s cold and heartless out there. All the more reason to treat each other like we’re brothers and sisters.”

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 22 Wharton Center Free but tickets must be obtained in advance at the Wharton Center Box Office.