July 1, 2005
Whenever the universe flinches, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson fields a barrage of calls from national media for comment. It’s just part of the territory for the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York.
When Tyson, 46, earned his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Columbia in 1991 he was only the seventh black astrophysicist in the United States with a doctorate. “Now the number is in the mid-30s,” Tyson says, “a small percentage gain considering the total number of astrophysicists has tripled since then.”
At 13, Tyson received his first telescope and took astronomy courses at the Hayden Planetarium, which offered a completion certificate signed by Mark Chartrand III, Tyson’s first academic mentor. Today, Tyson signs those certificates with “an overpriced, fancy fountain pen,” one of nearly100 writing instruments in his collection, which includes an assortment of feather pens.
Boredom in school led Tyson to practice his penmanship. “I would trace the gothic typeface of The New York Times banner head, [and] practice the copperplate script that adorns wedding invitations with felt markers and ballpoint pens,” he recalls. Tyson’s interest in fountain pens intensified after his wife gave him one for a birthday present.
Many are in designs related to his field. He has three in honor of Sir Isaac Newton, one of which displays symbols from Newton’s famous law of gravity. Though Tyson never focuses solely on looks, he offers advice on quality and performance.
Nibs: “The pen’s nib must be able to make a line that has personality,” he says. Plus, it provides at least half of the pen’s value. Tyson prefers italics, stubs, obliques, and flexible nibs. The best ones use 18 karat gold or platinum with an iridium tip.
Materials: Titanium, carbon fiber, resin, cellulose, brass, and wood are all used in the barrel of quality pens. You will also find chrome, silver, gold, and occasionally precious stones, according to Tyson.
Inks: “Some have better flow characteristics than others,” he says. Washable ink is the only type used in fountain pens, and India ink is best for open nibs that are dipped for use.
Tyson’s collection of three dozen fountain pens (many by Waterman) includes three vintage pens from the 1940s and made in England, a Japanese pen by Namiki called Emperor Nightline, a Pelikan 1000, and a Galileo by Omas. His pens start at about $100 for a German-made Rotring 800 with a 14 karat gold broad nib, which he machined to give it a calligraphic tip. Most are worth $300 to $600. His Namiki — no longer produced, is now worth more than $10,000
Reading: Tyson suggests reading catalogs, books and Pen World magazine.
Care: “Never walk with an uncapped pen in your hand,” Tyson says. “If you drop a fountain pen, nib down, onto a hard surface, damage to the delicate parts will forever compromise the pen’s performance. If a pen has ink in it and is not being used, clean it out with tepid water, dry it thoroughly, and store in a dry, soft place. There’s nothing worse than