Reach for Your Own Star

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I share the segments of my life’s paths that got me here, which, for

the most part, were upstream and against the winds of society.

As an astrophysicist and as the Director of New York

City’s celebrated Hayden Planetarium, I get to decode

the nature of the universe and create journeys through it for

all the public to see.

What was not apparent, however, was the somewhat peculiar

profile that I carried into the job. Although everyone’s

life is unique, certain categories of life experience can be generalized.

My tenure as a nerdy kid—complete with winnings

in the science fair, membership in the physics club, and high

scores in mathematics—greatly resembles all that you may

have stereotyped for the world’s community of nerds. My

time as an athlete—as captain of my high school’s wrestling

team and as a varsity competitor in college—was no different

from that of any other athlete. My interest in the universe—

carrying me to a PhD in astrophysics—led me down paths

shared by many of my colleagues. And my life as a black

male in America—getting stopped for no reason by the police

or being trailed by security guards in department stores—

is hardly different from that of other black males among my

contemporaries. But when you combine all ingredients, my

experiences offer a possibly unique portal through which to

view life, society, and the universe.

I want every generation of stargazers—whether they sit

atop a tenement roof or an Appalachian Mountain—to have a

Source: © Neil deGrasse Tyson 2004. Adapted from The Sky Is Not

the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (New York:

Prometheus Books, 2004).

fresh lens with which to see the universe and to reach for

their own star.

I was just nine years old and had just seen a space show

at the Hayden Planetarium, but I now had an answer for that

perennially annoying question all adults ask, “What do you

want to be when you grow up?” Although I could barely

pronounce the word, I would tell them, “I want to be an

astrophysicist.”

That was the night. The universe poured down from the

sky and flowed into my body. I had been called. The study of

the universe would be my career, and no force on earth would

stop me.

A precocious childhood friend of mine, who lived in my

neighborhood, taught me to play chess, poker, pinochle, Risk,

and Monopoly. He introduced me to brainteaser books. I loved

teasers that involved math. The more we played, the more

stretched and sharpened my eleven-year old brain became.

My friend’s most important contribution to my life’s path,

however, was when he introduced me to binoculars and encouraged

me to look up. He encouraged me to look beyond

the streetlights, beyond the buildings, beyond the clouds, and

out toward the moon and stars of the night sky. The moon

was no longer just a thing on the sky—it was another world

in the universe. I later learned that Galileo’s “observatory” was

his windowsill and his rooftop. So was mine, having grown up

on the eighth floor of the Skyview Apartments in the Bronx.

My sixth grade science teacher, aware of my growing interest

in the universe from my book reports, clipped a small

advertisement from the newspaper announcing that year’s

offering of astronomy courses at the Hayden Planetarium.

She probably also figured that if my excess social energy

were intelligently diverted outside of the school that I could

grow in ways unfettered by the formal limits of the classroom.

A student’s academic life experience can be constructed

from much more than what happens in a classroom. Good

teachers know this. The best teachers make sure it happens.

From then onward, the Hayden Planetarium became a

much broader and deeper resource to the growth of my life’s

interests. I had previously only known it to be a place with a

beautiful night sky—but the actual universe is much, much

bigger.

For my thirteenth birthday, I received my first telescope.

And I had a backyard where I could observe the heavens for

hours and hours without distractions of any kind since my

family temporarily moved for one year from the Bronx to

Lexington, Massachusetts.

When I was a student in elementary school and junior

high school in New York City, I eagerly attended monthly

public lectures given by visiting experts on various topics

on the universe at the Hayden Planetarium. The speakers

were so smart and knew so much that I wanted to be just like

them when I grew up. Fifteen years later, I returned to the

Planetarium to deliver an invited public lecture of the same

monthly series that I had attended as a student. Immediately

following my lecture, as if I had passed through a loop in the

space-time continuum, a 12-year-old student walked up to me

after my lecture and asked, “What should I do to be just like

you?” At that moment, I knew that I had helped to plant a

dream in someone else the way others before had planted

a dream in me.

Word of my cosmic interests spread among my extended

relatives and family friends. The family network helped in

many and varied ways to provide an intellectual buoyancy

to my pursuits. One of my mother’s cousins worked in the

Brooklyn Public Library and never failed to acquire and send

deaccessioned astronomy and math books my way. A close

friend of my parents had some expertise in photography and

back-and-white film processing. She served as a first mentor

in my early days of astrophotography. Another close friend of

the family, who happened to be professor of education at The

City College of New York, recommended me to one of her

colleagues, an instructor at CCNY’s Workshop Center for

Open Education—a program that offered continued education

programs for adults. The instructor, in turn, invited me to give

a talk to her fall classes on the cosmos. For me, talking about

the universe was like breathing. I suppose it was no different

from another kid talking about his treasured baseball card

collection or a film buff recalling scenes from a favorite

movie. I could not have been more comfortable sharing what

I knew.

At age 14, by summer’s end, my fate was set: I was a

card-carrying member of New York’s Amateur Astronomer’s

Association.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I applied to

five universities, including Harvard, MIT, and Cornell, which

were my top three choices. When it came to actually choosing

a college to attend, I devised a decision matrix that tallied

the number of physics and astronomy articles in Scientific

American written by scientists who had been undergraduates

at the schools that admitted me. I also tallied where these

same authors earned their Masters degrees, their PhDs, and

where they were currently on the faculty. Harvard won in

every category.

My parents never told me where to go or what to learn. In

retrospect, that was for the better—because they could not.

This ensured that the expression of my life’s interests were

as pure as space itself. To this day, my parents remain two of

the warmest and most caring parents I have known. Of all the

places I have been, the troubles I have seen, and the trials

I have endured, let there be no doubt that I continually felt

their guidance ahead of me, their support behind me, their

love beside me.