New Star Rising
Some people gaze upon the stars in the hopes of making their dreams come true. Neil de Grasse Tyson looked up at the stars and found a career.
That career is poised to — if not literally, at least figuratively — blast into orbit with the unveiling of the newly remolded Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space/American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium. He is also a visiting research scientist in the astrophysics department at Princeton University.
Tyson’s memoir, The Sky Is Not The Limit: Adventures Of An Urban Astrophysicist — which chronicles his rise from the Bronx, where he attended the Bronx High School of Science; to Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s in physics; to the University of Texas, where he earned a master’s in astronomy; then back to New York where he completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Columbia University before eventually heading up the most ambitious astronomy education facility ever conceived — hits the bookstores this month.
Tyson’s star has been rising in the scientific world for some time. He published his first solo research paper in the Astrophyiscal Journal in 1988. Since then, he has gone on to lecture and publish regularly in journals and at scholarly conferences. His monthly column “Universe” is a regular fixture in Natural History magazine. Tyson also is the youngest member of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation board of directors, a post he has held since 1993.
“In the planetarium field, he is one of the big players,” says John Mosley, program director for the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. “[Tyson] is a very dynamic, positive guy, high energy … he is a leader and he’s doing good stuff.”
Studying the universe, researching it and sharing the fruits of that research with the public has always been one of Tyson’s life goals. It also was a unique path for a Black male to take and in his case, one devoid of the usual selection of supporters and admirers.
“In class, the teachers never said, ‘Hey, why don’t you join this after school academic club.’ It was always, ‘Join this track team,'” Tyson says. “The forces were always at work to send me into the directions that were not academic. Those forces were not my peer groups. They were adults with influence over my life — guidance counselors and teachers.”
There is no bitterness attached to these statements. Tyson is a scientist and as such does not get bogged down with emotional baggage or resentments. But he is a realist who deals bluntly with the facts.
“If you interviewed all my teachers in my life, none of them would have said of me, “He will go far” — none of them. It was just not in their minds.
“[Tyson’s experience] is the norm, I believe, for African Americans in engineering, mathematics, science or technology,” says Dr. Sylvester James Gates, physicist at the University of Maryland-College Park and a long-time acquaintance of Tyson. The only exception to this experience, he says, are Blacks who “received part of their education outside the colleges and universities that are known as the prominent producers of this nation’s engineering and scientific leadership class.”
“It’s interesting because it’s not as though my interest in the universe was not expressed at that time,” Tyson says. “I’ve had this interest since I was 9 years old, but what was [good] about having that interest since age 9 is that I had a fuel supply. I could draw on that fuel supply whenever I needed to overcome forces acting against me in society. But I wonder about the others who did not develop that kind of an interest early, and I wonder how many were lost.”
At the age of 9, Tyson visited the Hayden Planetarium and fell hard for the vision of the night sky. A year later, took the money he had earned walking dogs in his apartment building to purchase a telescope and camera equipment. There were more trips to the planetarium and he would take classes there too.
“A telescope was a window to another place — a whole other way of thinking about the world in which I lived. Some people get it by reading novels. I got that by looking up at the universe,” Tyson says.
While some of his teachers may not have supported Tyson’s passion for the stars, there were others whose support would prove to be more important. His parents encouraged his passion. His sixth grade homeroom and science teacher recommended that he enroll in a course being offered at the planetarium, “Astronomy for Young People.” The course was intended for junior high school teachers, but his teacher figured that Tyson’s interest in the subject would overcome any problems.
When it came time to decide what undergraduate college to attend, Harvard ultimately won out over Cornell, even though the latter was where his personal hero, Dr. Carl Sagan, was a professor. But Harvard, he says, had a higher ratio of scientists who had authored articles in Scientific American.
Tyson admits he was a ’70s version of the nerdy Steve Urkel character played by actor Jaleel White on TV’s Family Matters.
“I had a periodic table of elements in my wallet. In fact, I still carry one on me. It’s on my Palm Pilot,” he says, demonstrating his nerdiness with pride by pulling the hand-sized computer out of his pocket.
Yet even with his bona fide nerd status, at Harvard, Tyson encountered a how-did-that-guy-get-in-the-door attitude from his classmates. He recalls an episode one summer while he worked at the Center of Astrophysics at Harvard, someone at his dorm inquired, “What could you possibly be doing, cleaning lenses?”
Tyson says he was able to overcome those types of attitudes and other challenges by having a passion for something that he simply would not allow anyone to extinguish. He would face other challenges as well.
As a graduate student at the University of Texas, Tyson who excelled at athletics and was captain of his high school wrestling team, toyed with the idea of becoming a male stripper to help supplement his meager income. He later decided that becoming a math tutor was a more suitable way to earn money.
Tyson left Texas in 1987 to accept a one-year teaching post at the University of Maryland, after which he returned to New York to finish his graduate studies at Columbia.
Tyson earned both a master’s in philosophy and a doctorate in astrophysics from Columbia in 1991, at which point he became a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University. In 1994, he became a full-fledged member of Princeton’s research staff. The position included a joint appointment to the Hayden Planetarium. As a consequence, he has been in on the planning for the new facility’s reconstruction from the beginning.
Now, Tyson is focused on making the new planetarium an exciting place that will give others what the old planetarium gave to him — an unforgettable view of the stars. He has combined his research at Princeton with his job at the planetarium by hiring faculty members from the university to work there.
“We have created a research infrastructure in tandem with the education facility. In that way, the facility will never go stale because we have a constant flux of frontier research taking place within the building,” says Tyson.
“When you think of a World’s Fair Pavilion, they can really be flashy when they first open, but a year later they are tired looking because there’s no infusion of new concepts. When you part the curtains, there is no one there. We’ve got a really flashy facility here, but when you part the curtains we’ve got expertise in astrophysics.”
This emphasis on the substance and fun of science has facilitated the respect Tyson’s peers and the public show him.
“Neil has a forum never before achieved by a person of African descent,” Gates says. “The best comparison I can make is to the late Carl Sagan. In each of their cases, their potential is in the popularization of science, the ability to reach the general public and tell the stories, introduce the personalities and issues that are currently topical in the field of science.
“I think from Neil, this nation is learning that some Black folks also do science, mathematics and engineering. This is a message that is of great value to this society.”
— Cheryl D.Fields contributed to this story.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com