Looking out at billions of color-blind stars

The Sky Is Not the Limit By Neil de Grasse Tyson Doubleday 208 pp., $23.95

Neil de Grasse Tyson's Bronx High School of Science classmates once voted him the alumnus with "the coolest job." It's easy to see why. As director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York, he presides over its reopening Feb. 19 in an eye-popping 21st-century reincarnation. Here the magic of electronics can whisk you to the farthest galaxy, thrill you with a front-row seat at the big bang creation of our universe, and sweep you through the ensuing evolution that ends with our appearance on Earth.

It's a facility to match the enthusiasm and vision of this astronomer-cum-amateur wrestler who honors the Carl Sagan tradition of conveying cosmic grandeur to the public with consummate skill. This virtue graces his new memoir. It's as much a captivating biography of the universe and an insight into how scientists think as it is a chronicle of his career.

It's also tempered with the cold reality of the struggle black scientists face in pursuing their careers in a racially stereotyped society.

The story begins with a precocious youth captivated by the wonder of the sky as seen from a Bronx rooftop and revealed in public courses at the planetarium he one day will manage. Supportive family and friends and facilitating mentors steer him along the academic route leading to a PhD, a budding research career, and on to his present appointment. It would have been tough for any bright aspiring astronomers with only the ordinary academic challenges. But late-20th-century American society threw extraordinary obstacles in the path of minority aspirants. Tyson tells this part of his story with a legitimate touch of anger, but without bitterness.

Besides the indignities blacks generally endure, Tyson doesn't fit anyone's stereotype. If he were a lawyer, businessman, or civil- rights activist, both black and white communities would be comfortable. They don't know what to make of a black astrophysicist. Well meaning colleagues would suggest he try a more standard career, that he owed it to the black community to be more socially active.

This reminded me of an interview decades ago with a prominent astronomer. I asked how he would explain to disadvantaged people why he was devoting his time and public money to the cosmos. He in turn asked if the world would be better off if Bach had devoted himself to the social problems of 17th-century Leipzig rather than writing his music.

Tyson had a similar realization watching the broadcast of a taped TV interview where he was asked to explain some unusual activity on the sun.

He saw that he had been invited, not because he was black, but simply because he was a fellow citizen with valued information. What higher role model for the black community, what better outreach to society at large could he provide?

Tyson is respectful and plain spoken in dealing with another sensitive issue. He's often asked about the reality behind the many stories of scientists "finding God." He punctures the hype by noting that, in a society where 90 percent of the population considers itself "religious," only 40 percent of scientists identify themselves that way - a statistic unchanged over the last century. He then adds perceptively: "Successful researchers do not get their science from religious doctrines. But the methods of science have little or nothing to contribute to ethics, inspiration, morals, beauty, love, hate, or social mores. These are vital elements to civilized life, about which God in nearly every religion has much to say. What it all means is that for many scientists there is no conflict of interest."

As for humanity's sense of self, Tyson suggests this perspective: "We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say life has been empowered by the universe to figure itself out." What more is there to say? The "coolest job" is held by the coolest guy.

*Robert C. Cowen writes about science for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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