From the Bronx to the Heavens: A Stargazer’s Rocketlike Ascent

The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist , by Neil de Grasse Tyson. Doubleday, 191 pages, $23.95.

Ever since the late 1950′s, when C.P. Snow lamented that the sciences and the humanities, once inseparable, had drifted apart, a number of people in both camps have tried to bridge the cultural chasm with their pens. Writers such as Walter Sullivan, John Noble Wilford and John McPhee have brought science and scientists to life for the rest of us; but there have been a number of scientists, too, who have explained their activities and their fields just as lucidly, with the advantage that as practitioners their essays are also memoirs. They write largely in the first person. Lewis Thomas in biology, Stephen Jay Gould in paleontology and Carl Sagan in astronomy come to mind. Many are, to one degree or another, New Yorkers.

The latest addition to this list of literary scientists is another New Yorker, Neil de Grasse Tyson, the director of the spectacular new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History, known before its $210 million reconstruction as the Hayden Planetarium. Although Mr. Tyson is not yet as well known for his research as some of his literary-scientist colleagues, he is every bit as much a writer. His essays appear back-to-back with Mr. Gould’s in Natural History magazine. Mr. Tyson’s new book, The Sky Is Not the Limit , is an easygoing blend of autobiography and commentary about astronomy and astrophysics.

The book is redolent both of the city and the skies. As with many New Yorkers, his awakening to the stars occurred at the Hayden Planetarium: During his first visit when he was 9, he thought the stars were a hoax because there were many more of them than he could see from his Bronx apartment building, the Skyview. When, in his early teens, he was at an astronomy camp in the Mojave Desert where the air was clear and the stars plentiful, the best comparison he could make was to the urban skies of the Hayden. Back in the city, he earned money by walking dogs–money to buy a Newtonian reflecting telescope with a six-inch mirror. Neighbors seeing him lug the telescope, with its gunlike barrel, across the Skyview’s roof, called the police. “I have yet to meet [a policeman] who was not impressed by the sight of the Moon, planets, or stars through a telescope,” Mr. Tyson writes. “Saturn alone bailed me out a half-dozen times.”

Clearly Mr. Tyson, like many young scientists, found his vocation early. And like many of them, he was what is called “gifted”–a term he doesn’t like. He credits his parents with sustaining his passion for astronomy. His father, a sociologist, was one of the first blacks to be a city commissioner (under Mayor John V. Lindsay), and his mother is a gerontologist. He attended the Bronx High School of Science and went on, in rocketlike ascent, to Harvard College for his B.A., to the University of Texas at Austin for his M.A., to Columbia University for his Ph.D. and to Princeton University as a postdoctoral research scientist. In 1996, at 37, he was named director of the Rose Center.

In The Sky Is Not the Limit , astrophysics and autobiography fortify each other. In a chapter called “Dark Matters,” he starts off with the fact that 90 percent of the gravity in the universe is caused by invisible matter. “Ordinary matter and dark matter feel each other’s gravity but otherwise do not respond to each other’s presence,” he writes. “Occasionally, I cannot help but personalize, even personify, dark matter’s place in the universe. Especially the part about matter and dark matter feeling each other’s gravity but not otherwise interacting.”

His ascent has not been easy. When he got his doctorate in 1991, his sheepskin brought the total number of black astrophysicists from six to seven, out of a national total of over 4,000. Like his father, he is a trailblazer. Given his own experiences, he is surprised that even a half-dozen black astrophysicists have made it. Part of the problem is stereotyping. Over and over again, society pushed him toward athletics–and not altogether unreasonably: Well over 6 feet and 190 pounds, he was captain of the wrestling team in high school and wrestled on the Harvard varsity team as well as in graduate school. When he arrived at Columbia for his Ph.D., he was instantly asked to join the department basketball team. “At no time was I perceived as a future colleague,” he writes. To this day, Mr. Tyson is still in good physical shape, which anyone can see by glancing at the photograph on the cover of his book (he’s wearing a flamboyant black vest imprinted with golden suns and moons). He has been asked to appear in a calendar of “Studmuffins of Science,” an invitation he turned down.

Even blacks have tried to stereotype him. When Mr. Tyson was a sophomore at Harvard, a senior on the wrestling team–a black man who had just won a Rhodes Scholarship and was headed toward economics with a special interest in inner-city problems–told him scathingly, “Blacks in America do not have the luxury of your intellectual talents being spent on astrophysics.” No wrestling move, Mr. Tyson tells us, could be as crushing as those words.

He didn’t fully overcome his own doubts until nine years later, toward the end of his research at Columbia, when his department received a call from Fox News. There were explosions on the sun–did the department have anyone who could talk about sunspots? It did. Mr. Tyson gave a videotaped interview. When he saw it later on the air, it struck him forcefully that the sunspot expert on the television was black. With the exception of entertainers or athletes, Mr. Tyson could not recall ever seeing on television a black person who was an expert on anything not having to do with being black. His guilt at being an astrophysicist fell away. He writes: “I realized as clear as the crystalline spheres of antiquity that one of the major barriers to successful relations between blacks and whites is the latent supposition that blacks as a group are just not as smart as whites.” He had found a mission. He has since given over 60 television interviews; with the death of Sagan, he has become perhaps the most visible spokesman for the stars. In particular, he wants to make astrophysics, or any scientific career, a viable alternative for black kids.

Anyone suffering from latent Shockleyitis–the stereotyping of blacks as having low intelligence–can recover by dipping anywhere into The Sky Is Not the Limit . The essays are written with an elegance, restraint and humor that set off occasional wry sound bites. (One forgives Mr. Tyson a certain immodesty, a trait which may help account for his rise against overwhelming odds.) Writing about the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, chunks of which a few years ago slammed into Jupiter, many with life-extinguishing force, he notes, “Whatever damage Jupiter sustained, one thing is for sure: It’s got no dinosaurs left.” He describes the hit as “A shot across spaceship Earth’s bow.”

Toward the end of his book, Mr. Tyson stakes out for himself a rather bold position, an extension of his Natural History co-columnist Mr. Gould’s advocacy of evolution over creationism. “Let there be no doubt that as they are currently practiced, science and religion enjoy no common ground,” Mr. Tyson writes, arguing–much as Mr. Gould has done–that “the claims of science rely on experimental verification, while the claims of religions rely on faith. These are irreconcilable approaches to knowing,” he declares. But he goes beyond even Mr. Gould in advocating science as providing unquestionably the best explanation for the natural world and its origins.

Astrophysicists have a more primordial view of creation than paleontologists; they take our roots back before tidal pools on the early Earth to the big bang at the beginning of the universe. Science, says Mr. Tyson, has a “greatest story ever told” of its own. He then presents as clear and literate an account as I have read of the origins of the universe and its history up to the molecular origins of life on earth.

In the course of this enticing journey through life on earth and in space, the eloquent chapter “Dark Matters” notwithstanding, the reader forgets that the author is black. And the reader might even forget that he or she is not a scientist. For the book succeeds not only in bringing whites closer to blacks but also scientists closer to humanists.