Book Excerpt: The Sky is Not the Limit

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The following is an excerpt from The Sky is Not the Limit, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s memoir. In a recent interview, deGrasse Tyson spoke with Bill Moyers about the importance of science education and the television series he’s hosting called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a revival of the original PBS series Cosmos, with Carl Sagan.

Book cover, the sky is not the limit, neil degrasse tysonWhen I was in elementary school in the public schools of New York City, I distinctly remember that it was important for me to be athletic — in particular, to be able to run fast. I was encouraged by all around me. My reward was the respect and admiration of classmates and especially my streetmates.

In junior high school it was important for me, now that I was certified the “fastest on the block,” to slam-dunk a basketball. To do this you have to jump high and palm the basketball. On April 17, 1973, I was the first in my grade to slam-dunk a basketball. I then asked myself, “Is this all there is to it?” The answer is basically yes, yet one can imagine creative variations such as a 360-degree pirouette in midair preceding the dunk, but you still score only two points.

About the same time, I learned that light, traveling at 186,282 miles per second, moves too slowly to escape from the event horizon of a black hole. This was more astonishing to me than a 360-degree slam-dunk. I soon became scientifically curious and read everything I could find about the universe. I began to see myself as a future scientist — in particular, an astrophysicist. It became a deeply seated dream.

I shortly came to the shattering awareness that few parts of society were prepared to accept my dreams. I wanted to do with my life what people of my skin color were not supposed to do. As an athlete, I did not violate society’s expectations since there was adequate precedent for dark-skinned competitors in the Olympics and in professional sports. To be an astrophysicist, however, became a “path of most resistance.” I began to wonder whether I originally wanted to be an athlete more from society’s interest rather than my own. My brother, Stephen, today a professional artist, could run faster and jump higher than I could. He, too, felt these forces of society.

In high school, nobody probed further about how I became captain of the wrestling team. But when I became editor-in-chief of my school’s annual Physical Science Journal, my qualifications were constantly queried. And when I was accepted to the college of my choice, I was continually asked for my SAT scores and grade point average. Indeed, one fellow student, who worked in the office of the guidance counselor, threatened to find the file in the school records to read my scores himself, if I didn’t tell.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, high school student When I first entered graduate school, before transferring to Columbia, I was eager to pursue my dreams of research astrophysics. But the first comment directed to me in the first minute of the first day, by a faculty member whom I had just met was, “You must join our department basketball team.” As the months and years passed, faculty and fellow students, thinking that they were doing me a favor, would suggest alternative careers for me.

“Why don’t you become a computer salesman?”

“Why don’t you teach at a community college?”

“Why don’t you leave astrophysics and academia? You can make much money in industry.”

At no time was I perceived as a future colleague, although this privilege was enjoyed by others in graduate school.

When combined with the dozens of times I have been stopped and questioned by the police for going to and from my office after hours, and the hundreds of times I am followed by security guards in department stores, and the countless times people cross the street upon seeing me approach them on the sidewalk, I can summarize my life’s path by noting the following: in the perception of society, my athletic talents are genetic; I am a likely mugger-rapist; my academic failures are expected; and my academic successes are attributed to others.

To spend most of my life fighting these attitudes levies an emotional tax that constitutes a form of intellectual emasculation. My Columbia PhD, conferred in 1991, brought the national total of black astrophysicists from six to seven, out of four thousand nationwide. Given what I experienced, I am surprised that many survived.

My Columbia PhD, conferred in 1991, brought the national total of black astrophysicists from six to seven, out of four thousand nationwide. Given what I experienced, I am surprised that many survived.
I eventually learned that you can be ridden only if your back is bent. And, of course, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. When I had finally transferred my graduate program to Columbia University, where I was welcomed by the Department of Astronomy, I received a twice-renewed NASA research fellowship, published four research papers, attended four international conferences, had two popular-level books published, was quoted three times in The New York Times, appeared twice on network television and was appointed to a well-respected postdoctoral research position at Princeton University’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences.

There are no limits when you are surrounded by people who believe in you, or by people whose expectations are not set by the short-sighted attitudes of society, or by people who help to open doors of opportunity, not close them.

On my college application a questions asks, “What are your goals?” My response was simply, “A PhD in astrophysics,” a goal that had been planted within me from when I was nine years old. With the conferral of my Columbia PhD, I had lived and fulfilled my dream, yet I knew my life had just begun and that my struggle would continue.


Excerpted from Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Sky is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004). Copyright © 2004 by Neil deGrasse Tyson. All rights reserved. Used with permission of the publisher; www.prometheusbooks.com

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  • Anonymous

    Very good article.

  • Anonymous

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is an inspiration.

  • Anonymous

    This reminds me of my college roommate, a graduate student in aero-astro engineering at Stanford, reporting with rage and frustration that at a department social event, male students were introduced to visiting professors while she was introduced to a secretary who came from the same state she did.

  • SierraC

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is fascinating in so many ways. I’ll read this memoir! Until we as a society overcome our racist failings, we risk losing the brilliance of so many. Thank you, Neil deGrasse Tyson, for persevering!

  • Truthspew

    Yeah, I’m glad he made the struggle to reach what I consider a pretty cool position at the Hayden Planetarium. And I’m not being sarcastic, I’m also glad he’s a vociferous spokesman for science in general. And to me I couldn’t ask for much more.

  • Anonymous

    Love this man. And it’s earie how similar this account is to my own experience as a woman pursuing a computer science degree in the 80s.

  • Anonymous

    I am so glad you kept trying. I enjoy your shows and your very obvious love of science. I look forward to you and Cosmos’s premier. I know i will enjoy it. Keep bringing that love of science to us, you have a big fan here.
    Skip Moreland

  • Joseph O’Sullivan

    It is great to follow your love of science as a career. It’s hard for anybody to do because there are more PhDs then there are jobs for PhDs. I can’t even imagine the the added pressure of racism.

    I remember the stories that I heard from my friends who went to the local public high school which was in an entirely white neighborhood. There was a black student who had a container of milk poured on his head during the first lunch period only because he was black. This happened in the 1980′s, not the 1880′s.

  • Anonymous

    It’s wonderful to explore ideas that are pure ideas – that reflect a world independent of politics and rhetoric. Yet I’m also fascinated at the idea that time is a real thing, not a fourth dimension or some toy for H.G. Wells. And it would be even more powerful to get Neil deGrasse Tyson’s opinion of Time Reborn, by Lee Smolin. Just as we know 4% of this or 16% of dark whatever, we also know that we won’t know that same amount of that same reality in some not terribly distant future. And we’ll be “right” then, just as we are now, and were way, way before when the guys talking spoke to Plato.

    Relativism trumps all kinds of politics.

  • Barbara Blough

    I am always shocked at the unthinking, careless, and ignorant or knowing behavior of some people. And educators!! Well, they weren’t educators. I can’t bring myself to call them wolves in sheep’s clothing because wolves are so much better behaved.

  • Ed Ruthazer

    Interesting that the superior academic environment was also the most open-minded. Tells you something about successful researchers.

  • Eric Roseberry

    A great story… I believe its more universal than black and white though. Dare to dream, be prepared to here a lot more reasons why you can’t than why you can.

  • Anonymous

    As a 65 y/o black man I can relate 100% to everything he said. And like clock work the very FIRST comment on cue Eric Roseberry’s response was to play it off and say it wasn’t really a black-white thing. AND THERIN lies the problem. People like Eric. Pseudo Liberals who are still inveterate hard core “Liberal Racists” My hopes and dreams were constantly challenged and dismissed as just “silly dreams” from as young as I can remember. Eric it IS black and white. I was 7 the first time I was called “that word”, BY A FIVE YEAR OLD!!! Police stop me DWB and approach my car with hand on gun. Followed around in stores, stopped and searched by police. But all that was fine to a point. It got to be a game and a sort of badge of Honor to be hassled by the POlice. But what wasn’t OK was how my intelligence was dismissed and suspect. Like I was a cheater. The racists were OK. I knew where they stood, it was the Eric’s that caused the most damage. The faux Liberals. People like Eric always look for a proverbial “silver lining” like it wasn’t really bigotry, I must be thin skinned. “Oh but………” All I can say is screw losers like Eric, the most dangerous racist of all, The LIBERAL RACIST… Wait, I’m no Herman Cain, I despise him. I am a hard core Liberal Democrat. No Michael Steele here folks. No, there is that hidden liberal racist that say’s all the right things until he says something stupid like Eric. “I don’t see it as a black-white thing” SHUT UP ERIC!

  • Anonymous

    I know about this crap because I am a female Chahta. I lived near Hayden, Id., which is a white male paradise.

  • Anonymous

    Seems to me the word “racism” is being completely misused these days, in all kinds of ways. PARTICUARLY by our “white Liberal” friends, who spend more time trying to be “one of the good ones” than they do creating an equal standard for all.

  • Anonymous

    Had you have been a Black male, you might have been killed by the police just for walking on the campus. I understand you struggled but you still have a position of unearned skin privilege that is stubbornly not acknowledged.

  • Anonymous

    “Followed around in stores”… think this can be addressed with a properly implemented boycott? Why do we beg these people to take our money?

  • purgatoroid

    There are some typos in this excerpt — for example, “a questions asks.” Someone should go over it and edit it. Also, it’s not too clear what’s being said here: “My Columbia PhD, conferred in 1991, brought the national total of black astrophysicists from six to seven, out of four thousand nationwide. Given what I experienced, I am surprised that many survived.” I’m guessing it means there were 7 black astrophysicists out of a total of four thousand astrophysicists, but it’s just not very clearly worded.

  • Anonymous

    And shop online? Shop where?

    We need to be united and start to look at each person as our (big/little/peer) brother and sister.

    We need love in our hearts. Love was, is and always shall be the answer.

  • Drkmttr

    I think Ronn was responding to how Eric’s comment seems to universalize a problem that, while universal in the sense that we all struggle, is not universal in the sense that we do not all struggle against specific regimes of racial power. It’s the impulse that leads people to remember King’s “I have a dream,” but not the “promissory note” waiting to be fulfilled. That universalizing move can come off as dismissive, particularly when the very specific mechanisms of racial oppression are well-documented. This universalizing move also tends to let us off the hook for all the microagressions Mr. Tyson noted. Instead a man struggling against an American racism that is still alive and well, we risk reducing his story to a Franklinian American Dream narrative. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can have very different effects on a policy level.