TheGrio’s 100: Derrick Pitts, a star among the stars

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In Philadelphia, a radio program called Skytalk features a weekly discussion led by astronomer Derrick Pitts, also the chief astronomer at the Franklin Institute of Astronomy. There you can hear Pitts ruminate about astronomical forecasts for 2010, the 400th anniversary of Galileo finding Jupiter’s moons with a telescope, and the discovery of new planets in the galaxy.

The image of Benjamin Franklin, for whom Pitts’ Institute is named, peering out into the universe through a telescope from Philadelphia may have been the prevailing icon of American astronomy since the 18th century, but today it’s a black man named Derrick. He’s been at the Institute since 1978 and through the years has become a top scientific consultant for entities like Lockheed Martin and NASA.

Last year, he was named the U.S. spokesperson for the International Year of Astronomy, a declaration that mostly celebrated the work of Galileo, although astronomical discovery was a legacy of the Egyptians thousands of years before.

Pitts brings a certain charisma to an otherwise dark, down-tempo discipline. His radio programs are lively and intriguing, and he held his own last year one-on-one with Stephen Colbert on his comedy news show. On the Craig Ferguson late-night talk show, Pitts kept a straight face as he joked about being the one who “keeps all of the stars perfectly in line and in place and all of the planets orbiting properly.” And then said with an even straighter face when asked by Ferguson if he would ever travel to Mars, “Absolutely. I’d go there in a second.”

Such a trip is far off for mankind, but a man can dream, and Pitts has the viewing software to at least see where the mind, a bit of ingenuity, and science might take us. He’s in charge of the Institute’s telescopes that peer out into space, including a replica of Galileo’s original. Pitts also creates all the programming and maintains the planetarium there. That he does this work in Philadelphia recalls the legacy of another black astronomer from the City of Brotherly Love: Benjamin Banneker.

Click here to check out the other Grio 100 history-makers in science.