Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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Members of the solar system hang out at the Hayden Planetarium / Photo: Jenica MillerWhen it came time to look for universities, Tyson was given a personal tour of the lab at Cornell by one of his heroes, Carl Sagan, whom he often watched on The Tonight Show, sharing insights of the cosmos with Johnny Carson. Ithaca tugged, but in the end, Tyson chose Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics. He then entered the PhD program in astrophysics at the University of Texas, but, as Columbia astronomy department chair David Helfand says, “He wasn’t getting the intellectual support he needed. Joe Patterson came to me and said, ‘Look, I know this kid, I knew him as a high school student, he’s a remarkable person. He’s at Texas, and he’s struggling. Can we do something about this?’ So Neil and I met, and it was obvious he had certain talents.”

With Helfand’s assistance, Tyson transferred into the PhD program at Columbia in 1988. “The astrophysics group at Columbia had just been rejuvenated,” Tyson says. “There was an influx of money, and they were increasing the faculty and participating in telescope projects.” The telescope that Tyson used was located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, 7000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. It was there that Tyson conducted his doctoral research into the structure of the Milky Way. Back in the putative center of the universe, New York, Tyson’s fusion of scientific knowledge and personal dynamism came into alignment with opportunity: He received a NASA research fellowship, published four research papers and two popular-science books, attended four international conferences, appeared twice on network TV, and was appointed to a postdoctoral research position at Princeton.

On May 14, 1991, Tyson’s Columbia career was at its apex. That day, having been nominated for the honor by David Helfand, Tyson delivered the keynote address at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences PhD Convocation in St. Paul’s Chapel. He arrived at St. Paul’s after a long flight from the observatory in Chile. “My inspiration for this address,” he told the crowd, “actually came from a mountaintop.”

Tyson has called it the most important speech of his life. In it, he spoke of his early aspirations of becoming an astrophysicist and “the shattering awareness that there were few parts of society that were prepared to accept my dreams. I wanted to do with my life what people of my skin color were not supposed to do.”

He spoke of unprovoked police stops, of being followed by guards in department stores, of being seen by society as a likely criminal whose athletic skills were genetic and whose academic successes were unearned. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “to spend most of my life fighting these attitudes levies an emotional tax that is a form of intellectual emasculation. It is a tax that I would not wish upon my enemies. As of this afternoon, my PhD will bring the national total of black astrophysicists from six to seven. Given what I’ve experienced, I am surprised there are that many.”

He concluded by saying, “It is remarkable what can be accomplished when you are surrounded by people who believe in you; people whose expectations are not set by the shortsighted attitudes of society; people who help to open doors of opportunity, not close them. Thanks to Columbia’s interest in me, the love and support of my family, and the endorsement of the Department of Astronomy, I have truly lived and fulfilled a dream. Yet I know my life has just begun.”

Helfand recalls the reaction. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” he says. “Jonathan Cole was provost at the time, and after the speech, he leaned over to me and said, ‘When do we hire him back?’”

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