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Astronomy and Physics Green Chair

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium and a researcher at Princeton University, carries the periodical table of elements in his Palm Pilot. He is prone to quirky moments of "nerd-dom," such as the time he calculated how many times around the world all the hamburgers McDonalds has served would wrap (13). But this Green Honors Chair for astronomy and physics also spoke frankly to Honors students about his love for the heavens and his second mission ╔ his role in erasing societal stereotypes.

Star struck

The following is an excerpt from DeGrasse's address to Honors students

I am a card-carrying nerd. But I am also a jock, so I am a nerd-jock.
In high school I wrestled, was captain of my wrestling team and was, in fact, undefeated.When I got to college that all changed.

I tell you this because when I was in college at Harvard there was a fellow wrestler who one day asked me what I'd been up to.

At the time I was majoring in physics, taking quantum mechanics and had very little time to do anything but work on my physics problem sets.

So I said to him just that, "I do problem sets every week." He asked, "What is your major again?"

Now this gentleman is black, and he had by that time (1978), become a Rhodes Scholar. As a major in economics and as part of his Rhodes scholarship, he had been to Oxford where he studied the effects of certain models of enterprise zones in urban centers.

Upon hearing that I'm devoting my life to astrophysics and barely have time to go to the bathroom, he said, "The black community does not have the luxury of having someone of your intelligence devoted to astrophysics."

I was devastated by that comment. There I was, at one of the finest institutions in the land, and, according to him, wasting away my intellectual energies on the universe. It was as though he dug a hole and put me in the hole and then walked away.

While intellectually I knew he was right, my soul and curiosity said there can't be something wrong with doing what I love the most, something I've wanted to do since I was 9 years old. But I could not argue why it was right.

It was not until 11 years after that incident that I climbed out of that hole. It happened when I was at Columbia, getting my PhD.

A phone call came in to the department from Fox News. They had heard there had been explosions on the sun and that a big plasma pie was headed our way. Should they be worried?

At the time, the sun was going through solar maxima. Every 11 years the sun becomes exceptionally turbulent on the surface. The sun-spot count rises, there are solar flares, and the sun becomes a really nasty place to visit. Anyway, I said,

"Oh, not to worry, the sun is just going through solar maxima. There are high energy particles coming our way, but we're shielded by our magnetic field. These particles will see the magnetic field and descend into our atmosphere harmlessly near the poles. As these descending particles collide with the atmosphere, it renders it aglow in what we call the Auroa Borealis, the northern lights. Take this opportunity to learn more and enjoy the show."

So I told them this just like that and they said, "Wow. Could you say this on camera?

By six, I'm home eating dinner when the interview comes on. And at that moment I had the closest thing I can imagine to an out-of-body experience. I'm watching this interview -- of me -- but I was me eating dinner. So I didn't see me, I saw somebody else, even though I knew it was me.

Okay, put a pin in that, I'll come back to that in a moment╔

I OFTEN LOOK around in society and ask, "What are the sources of stereotypes that interfere with people treating each other kindly and with equal respect?"

If you look back in history at what white people have said about black people, especially white anthropologists, it's actually quite amusing. They came up with theories such as black people sweat through their organs, therefore they smell bad. They said they were physically inferior to the bodies of whites. They said blacks were stupid.

Over the years, those stereotypes have been erased by people like Jesse Owens who set a whole generation in motion. But what other stereotypes might a person today have?

Many still say blacks are dumb. That's still there. So I thought, how do you fix that stereotype?

I didn't have an easy answer to that. But there I was, watching myself on television in 1989 and I realized for the first time in my life that I just saw a black person being interviewed on TV as an expert in something that had nothing to do with being black.

If black people only talk about black things, that is a closed box. There's no way society can say "I have a counter-stereotype to the one I'm holding that says all blacks are dumb."

So what are the professions that are normally held up as the things you do if you're smart? I think astrophysics is one of them.

If I present commentary and at no time is the color of my skin mentioned, at no time does the interviewer say, "Well, how does the rest of the black community feel about this? What does your church congregation say?" then this is a way to fight that last streoeptype.

Then the next time you see a black homeless person, you can't continue to say all blacks are dumb because in your brain is somebody you just saw who is an expert on something that requires scientific, mathematical expertise. On a subject that people say you have to be smart to do.

At that moment I recognized that if I or anyone else in my type of situation did that more often, I'd have a much greater, deeper, longer impact on race relations in society than my fellow wrestler would ever have working on enterprise zones in his specific location.

At that moment, I crawled out of that hole that I'd been in for 11 years. It's not that we can't afford the luxury of having me study astrophysics, we can't afford me NOT studying astophysics.

I don't have quick solutions about how to increase the numbers, but I do think I have the answer to that last major stereotype we need to overcome.

And when enough people do this, then we will see diversity flow like a river into our institutions.

To learn more about Neil DeGrasse Tyson, visit his homepage: