Blue Collar Intellectuals: The Janitor

by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Planetary Society

Part of Appetite for the Cosmos, a five-part series on The Planetary Society's blog.

New York's American Museum of Natural History employs a large support staff that keeps the facility running smoothly. Among the workers are janitors, seen largely after (or before) hours. One janitor, in particular, had worked at the Museum's Rose Center for Earth and Space, for at least a year, but he and I had never formally met. Cordial nods on passing one another, but never a conversation. He was a large and tall fellow, perhaps in his low 40s, who wielded his mop with dignity and pride. But I never saw him speak—to anyone—ever.

For low paying jobs, one never knows the dramas that each person's life carries. We all like reading and hearing about the challenges navigated by people who became successful in life, but in my experience, none of those stories comes close to what can be told by adults in entry-level positions—challenges that draw from mental or physical disabilities, family disruptions, educational derailments, encounters with the justice system, or simple bad luck.

One morning, wholly unprovoked, the speechless janitor paused from his mop routine as I walked by and asked to have a moment of my time. I was stunned. All of my usual thoughts about the universe just stopped in my head, and I further paused my morning reflections on the overscheduled day that lay before me. And I replied, "Of course!" I naively and stereotypically presumed he had a question about employee benefits or some other job-related issue. But no. In what is now the first conversation I had ever seen him conduct, this is what he said:

"Dr. Tyson, I was thinking. I see all those pictures of gas clouds taken by the Hubble telescope. And I also learned that stars are made of gas. So could it be that the stars are made within those gas clouds?"

My eyes got misty—then, while listening to his question, and even now, in my re-telling of this encounter.

I replied loudly and boldly "Y E S". After which I confirmed his name from his nametag, ran up to my office, grabbed every book I had ever written, and then some, signed them all to the fellow, put them in a canvas Museum tote bag, ran back downstairs, and handed it over to him.

Afterwards, I could not help wondering, what uncounted numbers among us harbor deep cosmic curiosities, but for want of a stimulus or a catalyst, lay forever undiscovered, hibernating in cold recesses of our minds.