Backtalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Over the years, Neil deGrasse Tyson has become perhaps the most recognized scientist in the country. As the host of PBS’s NOVA scienceNOW, and a regular guest on popular shows such as Jeopardy!, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report, the 53-year-old astrophysicist continues to bring his own brand of scientific enlightenment to the masses. Black Enterprise spoke with Tyson, the Frederick P. Rose director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, to discuss African Americans in the sciences.

Why is it important to have a knowledge base in the sciences?
We should all embrace and value—at a minimum—that people [should be] scientifically literate so that, as an electorate, you can make informed decisions about issues that rise up; your knowledge of science impacts how you might vote on an issue or on important decisions related to the future of society, its economy, the environment. All of these, at their core, involve scientific literacy. And I don’t expect everyone to want to be a scientist.

How can parents and educators nourish their children’s interest in science?
It’s all about access to opportunity. All I can do is be visible in my activities. I no longer do Black History Month talks. If that’s when you think of inviting me to talk, then clearly if I never show up in your thoughts the other 11 months I’m not as visible a scientist as I should be. The next step would be to provide an environment that doesn’t interfere with what might be seeds of curiosity that could lead to someone being a scientist.

Is there something business media or leaders in the sciences can do to let people know that there are opportunities?
If you go to college on the premise that the point is to get a good job, then you’re not talking about academia but a trade school. The original point of college was to train you how to think. If you choose a subject that interests you, without a reference to a job at the end of the line, chances are you’ll be really good at that. The marketplace could change in four years. That’s the problem with picking something based on a job waiting for you on the other end, as opposed to, “Let me embrace all there is to know, and learn and gain insight during my years in college.”

Let’s say I’m a young man growing up in the inner city. How best can I become another Dr. Tyson?
I’m flattered by that question. There’s no one person I wanted to become growing up. If I required a black person who became a scientist who grew up in the Bronx to have come before me, I would have never become what I am. I found someone who had total mastery of physics and asked that person, “What schools did you go to, how did you study?” I found a person who folded a sense of humor into their work. I found people who had a sense of integrity, who were hard workers. I cobbled all this together, and that’s the person I wanted to become.

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