From the January 2005 issue

Interview: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Read an excerpt from Tyson's memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist.
By | Published: January 24, 2005
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Patrick Queen
While preparing the March “Interview,” Astronomy contributing editor William Schomaker asked Neil deGrasse Tyson — director of New York City’s Charles Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History — to talk about how other blacks criticized him for “wasting” his talents on science. Tyson responded with, “I cannot tell it better than how I wrote it for my memoir.” Due to space constraints, we were unable to include the question and response in the magazine.

The following excerpt describes a time when Tyson, as a college student, was condemned by a fellow Harvard student for pursuing a career in astrophysics. This passage can be found on pages 135–6 in Tyson’s memoir The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (Prometheus Books, 2004):

During the spring of my sophomore year at Harvard, I was well into the course work of my declared major, taking an (un)healthy dose of physics and math classes as well as the requisite other non-science courses that a full schedule requires. That year I was also on the university’s wrestling team, as second string to a more talented senior in my 190-pound-weight category. One day after practice, we were walking out of the athletic facility when he asked me what I had been up to lately. I replied, “My problem sets are taking nearly all of my time. And I barely have time to sleep or go to the bathroom.” Then he asked me what my academic major was. When I told him physics, with a special interest in astrophysics, he paused for a moment, waved his hand in front of my chest, and declared, “Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being spent on astrophysics.”

No wrestling move he had ever put on me was as devastating as those accusatory words. Never before had anyone so casually, yet so succinctly, indicted my life’s ambitions.

My wrestling buddy was an economics major and, a month earlier, had been awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where, upon graduation, he planned to study innovative economic solutions to assist impoverished urban communities. I knew in my mind that I was doing the right thing with my life (whatever the “right thing” meant), but I knew in my heart that he was right. And until I could resolve this inner conflict, I would forever carry a level of suppressed guilt for pursuing my esoteric interests in the universe.

During graduation week of my senior year of college, an article appearing in The New York Times broadly profiled the 131 black graduates of my Harvard class of 1,600 people. The Times made public for the first time that only 2 of the 131 graduates had plans to continue for advanced academic degrees. I was one of those two. The rest were slated for law school, medical school, business school, or self-employment. (The other “academic” was a friend of mine from the Bronx High School of Science who graduated college in four years with both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history.) Given these data I became further isolated from the brilliant good-deed doers of my generation.