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.
Fact: The book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 laid out his blueprint for the “marvelous symmetry of the universe,” was not banned outright by the Catholic Church, but rather listed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1616 as “suspended until corrected” – and remained there for more than 200 years.
This was one of many fascinating tidbits that Dava Sobel discussed last night at Politics & Prose here in Washington, where she gave an inspiring reading of her new book A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Although nobody brought it up directly, the parallels between Inquisition-era censorship of science and today’s politicized anti-scientific rhetoric are impossible to ignore. I wonder how long An Inconvenient Truth would linger on the Index.
Sobel’s book began as a play, an exercise the theater-history-major-turned-journalist found to be “one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done – all this making things up!” Her publisher suggested that she add on a nonfiction narrative to provide context and all the delicious background nuggets that can bog down the action on stage. The result is a play within a book, an unusual construct that could so easily fall flat but instead holds its own and allows the reader to get inside the head of the great man in a way that his skimpy trove of personal correspondence – only 17 letters survive — does not.
When asked by an audience member what she would ask Copernicus is she could meet him, Sobel had a ready answer: “What made you do it?” Meaning, while it’s easy to see why he kept his theory a secret for 30 years (fear of being burned at the stake), nobody really knows what led him to take that leap and posit that the Sun, rather than the Earth, is the hub of the cosmos. Was it that he was bugged by having to fudge calculations to account for the accumulating inaccuracy of the Julian calendar? Or did he happen to notice that if you lined up the order of the planets, the fastest ones were closer to the sun?
We can never truly know, and the closest Sobel came was when she went to Poland and was permitted a brief, thrilling glimpse of the original manuscript of the Revolutions. A gloved curator removed the priceless magnum opus from a vault and turned the pages. Suddenly, Sobel saw something that made Copernicus come alive for her. There, in the center of the actual diagram where the master himself had planted his compass and spun it to draw his heliocentric universe, was … a small hole.