Monday, November 10, 2008

Astrophysicists are friends with the night (& Suggs)

We get quite a few important, powerful and famous people through the doors of The St. Louis American, but none I've seen received quite the star treatment that Neil deGrasse Tyson got today.

Neil is an astrophysicist on staff at the American Museum of Natural History and a public intellectual (host of NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS, among other gigs). So why the rock star treatment?

Our publisher, Donald M. Suggs, has a thing for scientists, of any background, and he cherishes African Americans of high intellectual achievement, in any discipline. Add to that the sensitive fact that his own father had a passion for astrophysics, yet was not afforded the opportunity to attend school beyond the third grade, and you begin to understand the situation.

Because of this confluence of professional interest and personal backstory, I invited our publisher to conduct the interview with Neil. I would merely report it. We also set up a two-camera video shoot (KDHX Community Media is training our newsroom in video production) and had staff photojournalist Wiley Price on the scene. It was pretty Hollywood in that conference room.

I'll report the conversation on the front page of the paper this week. It will be a good story. Neil can really talk, and he has an intensity that is rare and beautiful. I'll add that our publisher - an oral surgeon by training - turns out to have good chops as an interviewer for a community newspaper. I sort of feared he would geek out and ask the great mind all of the intricate questions about astrophysics that his own dear, departed father would have asked had he been provided the opportunity, but he kept it real. I got only usable stuff.

As it was breaking up, I quickly busted out these two sketches and asked Neil to sign them, which he did with a graceful, flowing script (using his own very fancy ink pen). When Suggs saw his artful signature he said, "You could have been an artist!"

"An artist - and not an astrophysicist?" Neil said, with a wide smile.

One of their points of discussion had been the unfortunate American tendency to glorify entertainers and athletes, rather than scientists or intellectuals.

"An artist - and not an astrophysicist?" Neil said, again, nudging Suggs. "I got you! Didn't I? I got you!"

The two of them are having dinner right now. As Suggs' assistant said, after the interview, "Does Doc have a new BFF or what?"

P.S. Neil was the guest of The St. Louis Science Center.


Torchandtonic said...

Neil is quite a man. Him and Mr.Greene allow us common folk to relate a bit more easily to the cosmos.........

DNLee said...

Those are great sketches. If I had known about them (and your blog) at that point in time I would have bid, too.

Very shortly before our meeting (2-3 days in fact), I blogged about Dr. NdGTyson's visit.

Until later.