Summary: In this insightful gem of a clip, Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, interviews world-renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and asks him to recount the greatest obstacle he has faced while pursuing his career. Tyson begins by mentioning that while his parents were generally supportive of his ambitions, he couldn't necessarily count on the same enthusiasm and support from his peers, who were concerned that he apply his impressive intellect toward a profession that would allow him to advance the cause of the African American community. Specifically, Tyson recounts the story of a black Rhodes scholar in economics, who upon hearing that Tyson's chosen major was physics, replied, "The black community cannot afford the luxury of someone with your intellect to spend it on that subject." Tyson carried this nagging judgement around with him, and then while a graduate student at Columbia University, he was interviewed on air by the local news station regarding a recent explosion on the surface of the sun. Tyson explains in this clip that as he watched himself on television that evening, he realized it was the first time he had ever seen an interview with a black person that had nothing to do with being black. The clip works well as a foray into a broader discussion about what Stuart Hall calls the politics of representation, which draws attention to fact that how one imagines a people to exist in the world—how they are represented in discourse—holds consequences for the power and resources those people are able to control and wield. Neil deGrasse Tyson's story underscores Hall's thinking on the issue. Namely, "events, relations, structures do have conditions of existence and real effects, outside the sphere of the discursive; but that it is only within the discursive...[that] they can be constructed with meaning...how things are represented and the 'machineries' and regimes of representation in a culture do play a constitutive, and not merely a reflexive, after-the-event, role" (444). Thus, Tyson's answer to the Rhode's scholar is that his visible position as a black astrophysicist constitutes an important intervention in the discourse that attempts to construct black men as unqualified for the role of scientific expert.
Submitted By: Lester Andrist