Is Neil deGrasse Tyson Lying About His Close Relationship to Carl Sagan?

Jan 4, 2015 by Charles C. Johnson  (Original)

Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan

Newly examined letters between pop science celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson and astronomer Carl Sagan show that Tyson may have been fibbing about being mentored by Sagan.

Tyson, the host of Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey (2014) has long led the public to believe that he had a close relationship with Sagan, the host of Cosmos (1980).  Producer Seth MacFarlane explicitly says in this National Geographic interview that Tyson is the "heir apparent" to Sagan.

"I like the torch analogy," Tyson says in the same interview, again drawing an explicit connection to Sagan, and arguing that the torch has been passed to him from Sagan.

Tyson claims to have met Sagan while Tyson was still in high school.  As Tyson tells it Sagan invited him to go visit Cornell, he went to Ithaca, met with Sagan, Sagan gave him a copy of his book, and Tyson went off to Harvard instead of Cornell.

(In fact Tyson wrote to Sagan first, according to Sagan’s 1975 letter.  Sagan did not write to Tyson unsolicited as Tyson has repeatedly claimed.)

The purpose of this origin story appears to cement Tyson’s relationship to Sagan.

Here are just two interviews where he mentions it again.

In fairness to Tyson he says he wasn’t exactly "drinking buddies" with Sagan but he’s let the public assume what it wants to about his ties to Sagan.

In the conclusion of the premiere of Cosmos: Space Time Odyssey Tyson even suggests that he is the heir to Sagan in educating the public about science.

Notice how he refers to Sagan by the first name, "Carl"?  The choice of where the scene is filmed also is an explicit Sagan connection.  (Update: Fox apparently doesn’t agree that there’s a 3 minute Fair Use doctrine)

Sagan is routinely described in the press as a "mentor" to a young Neil deGrasse Tyson. The Sunday Mail, The Boston Globe, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have all described Sagan as Tyson’s "mentor."

Neil deGrasse Tyson meets mentor Carl Sagan (Neil was 17, image employs some artistic license)

- Everwise (@geteverwise) September 10, 2014

Neil Tyson gave touching tribute to his mentor Carl Sagan at end of first "Cosmos" episode. Well worth watching online or On Demand.

— Jim Bessman (@JimBessman) March 17, 2014

Earlier Sagan-Tyson letters like the brief 1976 correspondence have been used by sites like Io9 to suggest that Tyson is the heir to Sagan.

But the rest of the letters shows us that Tyson didn’t communicate again with Sagan for another ten years and only then to get Sagan to give him advice on publishing a popular book on science.

Here’s that November 25, 1986 letter:

Tyson told Sagan he expected to get his Ph.D. in two months from the University of Texas but Tyson was either lying or mistaken.  Tyson failed to get a Ph.D. at the University of Texas and his dissertation committee was dissolved, essentially flunking him out.

We will turn to Tyson’s failed attempt to get a Ph.D. later but for now we have to ask why was Tyson misleading Sagan in the 1986 letter?  It’s hard to believe that Tyson was caught unaware about not being able to get his Ph.D. in two months.

Sagan didn’t reply until February 1987 and then only to forward on Tyson’s materials to an agent.

Tyson, in turn, in a subsequent letter, admits he published his book with Columbia University Press but left out that he was forced out at the University of Texas.

If Tyson really wanted to be connected to Sagan he could have gone to Cornell and studied under him instead he took a free book and went somewhere else.  That’s fine but it’s not exactly a mentor-protege relationship and Tyson as well as the producers of the latest version of Cosmos as well as Tyson’s fans should be honest about that relationship.