The inspiring story of Neil deGrasse Tyson's life-changing first encounter with Carl Sagan

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is well-known as an amazing science communicator and the director of the Hayden Planetarium. He has more than 4 million Twitter followers, hosted a hit science show called “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” and has a great podcast called StarTalk Radio

But a lot of people may not know that he got his start in astrophysics with a little help from the original science communicator: Carl Sagan. 

Sagan, who died in 1996, was an astronomer and astrophysicist as well as an avid and skilled science communicator. He taught at Cornell University, wrote the book “Contact” and many others, and published more than 600 scientific papers. Today, November 9, is the anniversary of his birthday.

He would have been 81 today.

At the end of the premiere episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” named after Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” deGrasse Tyson told a touching personal story of how the two first met. 

He whips out Sagan’s personal journal. On December 20, 1975 the entry says “Neil Tyson.”

At the time deGrasse Tyson was just a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx with dreams of being a scientist, but Sagan had invited him to spend a Saturday with him in Ithaca at Cornell University, after seeing his application to attend University there.

DeGrasse Tyson toured their labs, and Sagan gave him a book, “The Cosmic Connection.” He inscribed it “to a future astronomer”:

DeGrasse Tyson describes how this influenced his entire life:

At the end of the day, he drove me back to the bus station. The snow was falling harder. He wrote his phone number, his home phone number, on a scrap of paper. And he said, “If the bus can’t get through, call me. Spend the night at my home, with my family.”

I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.

DeGrasse Tyson eventually went to Harvard for undergrad, but says: “To this day I have this duty to respond to students who are inquiring about the universe as a career path, to respond to them in the way that Carl Sagan had responded to me.”

Here’s Neil deGrasse Tyson on a talk show, describing the life-changing meeting:

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