There’s no love lost between Neil deGrasse Tyson and the UT physics department — they’re still dissing each other four decades after the Longhorn poobahs filleted his dissertation. When The Alcalde, the alumni magazine for The University of Texas at Austin, put the director of the Hayden Planetarium on this month’s cover, I was chagrined that I never knew that Tyson had walked the Forty Acres during the same time as I, in the early 1980s. Then I read the story and had to chuckle. UT can’t really claim this celebrity astrophysicist as its own because his professors failed to appreciate the brainiac’s potential, and basically flunked him. He then transferred to Columbia, where he went on to distinguished himself.
As much as I love my alma mater, I can see how someone like Tyson—a brash, African-American Yankee–would have flummoxed the status quo. On his first day, a faculty member quipped, “You must join the department basketball team!” Wince.
I’m sorry I didn’t take Intro to Astronomy so I could have caught TA Tyson’s moonwalking performance. Maybe I would have realized sooner that science can be fun. Instead, in my freshman year, I had the misfortune to take an honors tutorial called “Physics and the Modern World.” Although billed as being “for non-science majors,” the class was a disaster for me and most of my fellow liberal arts majors trying to broaden our horizons. Our big-name prof held us in contempt, a bunch of scientifically illiterate products of 1970s public education. I can’t say I blame him; most of us had never even heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I think our ignorance brought him close to tears a couple of times. By midterm, we were all flunking (except for some Poindexter – there’s always one), so Dr. Nonlinear Plasma Theory was reduced to drilling us in basic physics. I managed to pass the final by parroting his party line that nuclear energy had gotten a bad rap by knee-jerk liberals who didn’t understand that reactors were built to withstand earthquakes, airplane crashes, and even idiots at the helm. (I guess they didn’t get the memo at Fukushima.)
Reading about Tyson’s miserable time at UT, I am somewhat reassured that it wasn’t just me. And I’m grateful that he found his way “North Toward Home,” (to reference another under-appreciated UT hero, Willie Morris) and that I can read his books to catch up on all that I missed.