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  • Writer's pictureArthur Ball

Harassing Neil deGrasse Tyson

There was a time when I met a wise man and this post is proof of that. I also have a physical letter. (You can see it farther down.) My relationship with Neal started off with some simple questions and some small request based off the answers to those questions. I sent this:

E-mail Snippet – 10/29/2007 Hello DR. Tyson, I feel you’re the most qualified person to assist me with my question. I have noticed that the moons of other planets have names such as Titan and Europa which I think orbit Jupiter. My question is “What is the name of our moon?” Everyone I’ve asked so far cannot answer me or ridicules me for asking a stupid question. I think it’s an extremely valid question. Our star is called the Sun isn’t it? Not Star. If it turns out the moon has no name how would I go about naming it? I’d like to name it Carolina with an accent on the “i”, so it doesn’t sound like the states. If it has no name I think I should be able to name it seeing how I’ve posed the question. (Carolína was my first Fiancé. She left me for a boat, a long story for another day.)

I finished with a lot of compliments and brown nosing, hoping to compel a response. (I also offered to bribe him with a portrait, but more on that later.) It must have worked. The very busy director of the Hayden Planetarium responded with this succinct e-mail:

Complete E-mail – 11/13/2007 Dear Mr. Ball, The Sun, Earth and Moon do in fact have names. They are Sol, Terra, and Luna. Sincerely, -NDTyson p.s. thanks for your comments about my TV appearances. I am glad you liked them.

Well I continued after that to try and get the Moon’s name changed for Carolína’s birthday, but Tyson wasn’t having it. All I wanted was a major astrological institution to recognize a significant name change of a heavenly body for a girls Birthday. Not a big deal, but some people are just stubborn. Instead Neil convinced me to buy one of his books and mail it to him so he could inscribe it for Carol. He did a good job and wrote some very poetic stuff about how far the earth has traveled since she was born. I wish I had a picture of the inscription. (I hope Carol still has it... on that boat.) Well carol and me broke up and the world kept spinning. I applied and was accepted to SCAD. (Savannah College of Art & Design) I also applied for a scholarship and I got that too, but it wasn’t enough. I was pretty poor and couldn’t afford to go, so I decided to appeal for more money! Just like a Canadian. (Someone will get this reference.) To appeal for more money I needed something big. I put together some more artwork for another portfolio and then I figured I’d ask Neil for a letter of recommendation.

Complete E-mail – 1/24/2009, 12:10 AM Hello, I was wondering if you could do me a little favor. Would you write me a recommendation for college. I know you don’t know me and I know this is an odd request, but you doing this simple act could help me get a scholarship that I really need. I figure you could say anything and it would at least leave the impression that “Wow!” Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium, who is one of the smartest men on earth and who debates the meanings, questions and functionality of the universe is actually vouching for Arthur Ball. I don’t know about you, but that combined with my portfolio (I’m really good) would make me, give me a scholarship. I’m broke though so I can’t give me a scholarship. Help me out O’ wise man of the world.

The Tyson responded thus:

Complete E-mail – 1/25/2009, 10:18 AM Dear Mr. Ball, (He is so respectful.) Thanks for your note, but If you have talent then you do not need me. People will see it immediately and make their own judgment. If you do not have talent then I have nothing to say. Good luck -Neil

At least he responded faster than I thought he would. I took that as a challenge.

Complete E-mail – 1/25/2009, 12:00 PM Neil, I do have talent. Lots of it. It will be noticed, but a guy could always use a little assist. Colby Bryant is great, but he doesn’t win the game on his own. Basketball is a team sport and so is me getting a scholarship. I want you on my team man! I promise if you help me out I will buy you lunch someday and take you to an art museum. There’s a lot of pretty stuff that’s not in the sky you know? Whatever you want to do. I’m not picky, just needy for your help. Neil, Help a guy out. Not all of us are astrophysicist you know? I’m attaching a portrait I did of you. I plan on dropping it off at your office next time I’m in New York, but until then this .jpg will have to do. (I’ll show you who has talent!)

What does a guy have to do? (Keep reading.)

Complete E-mail – 1/25/2009, 5:10 PM Dear Arthur, Kobe Bryant’s talent is manifest to anyone who sees him. That’s what talent searchers do. They do not rely on the opinion of others. In the fields of artistic and physical talent, the opinion of others is irrelevant to the person offering opportunity. Apart from this, I write letters of reference only rarely. And even then, it’s for people who have worked under me – whose work I directed. So your request has no place to land. That being said, no artist has it easy breaking in. Which separates those with talent & ambition from those with only talent. Good luck. -NDTyson p.s. And thanks for that thumbnail portrait.

Ok, I got him calling me by my first name, he’s responding a lot sooner and comparing me to Kobe Bryant. Plus he hasn’t said no. I’m like time, you can’t stop me and I’ll wear you down. I almost got him.

Complete E-mail – 1/25/2009, 6:12 PM O, Neil, Neil, Neil, It is my very artistic ambition that drives me, that pushes me to bother you for a recommendation. That plus a healthy sense of humor and a love for the TV show Nova and The Cosmos. (I miss Carl Sagan.) If you only write recommendations for those who have worked under you, give me a task to complete for you. I’m not above working for what I want. If you want to pay me, I’ll take it. It’s not required. Kobe is great but he needed that scout to say “Hey I saw this great player. We should recruit him.” Everybody needs someone to vouch for them. Then it’s up to that person to live up to the hype. It’s not what you know at first. It’s who you know. (Look at President Bush. It explains his election.) What do you know about me? I’m ambitious, determined, creative and somewhat annoyingly persistent. I almost got you to name the moon after my girlfriend last year Neil. (Almost.) (She broke up with me by the way. You may explain the universe, but WOMAN, that’s an unanswerable question.) I hope to hear your response soon. Thanks for not just ignoring me.

This is the money shot.

Complete E-mail – 1/25/2009, 6:38 PM What you can do is an illustration of me – e.g. an action image giving a lecture or something else of your own creation. Give it to me. then if I like it I will be happy to write a letter thanking you for it, and expressing my appreciation for your effort and your talent. This is a letter you can use for your own purposes, But I will not write a letter of recommendation as you have asked. -NDTyson


Tomato Tomáto, Potato Potáto it’s all the same to me. I did it! I made this illustration and along with the one I did earlier. (Go back up this post.) I brought them both to New York City. (I have family that worked for an airline and I could fly very cheaply.) I got to give Neil prints of his two digitally illustrated portraits in his swanky directors office on the fifth floor of the Hayden Planetarium. It was an Above Average moment in my life. He found a small bit of time to talk to me and take the lovely photo that’s at the top of this post. What did we talk about you ask? We talked about family guy and the Simpsons because THAT’S SCIENCE! I also got to ask a world famous astrophysicist a physics question…

Neil, let’s say I have a helicopter blade spinning at the speed of light. I know that’s impossible, but let us say hypothetically, would the outer blades be moving at a greater speed than the inner blade because it’s covering a greater circumference or would it just warp the blade?

This was my question and Neil answered it in such a way that a middle school freshman would understand it and be inspired to pursue a life of fulfillment through scientific exploration. It was beautifully worded and delivered in an almost poetic tone that resonated so well with Neils smooth and calming voice. I Forgot exactly what he said, but it was good. I promise. Although, I forgot the specifics. This is what I remember of his answer. It would warp the blades and then something to do with general relativity. I wish I could have recorded his answer. DAMN ME for living in the moment. If I ever meet him again I will ask if he’ll let me record him answering the question again. When our time was at an end he gave me this letter shown below. I made a copy of it. Sent it to SCAD along with my revised portfolio and a pleading letter for a more lucrative scholarship. I GOT IT! They Doubled what I had before which basically gave me a half full ride. That and private living expense loans, I will most likely have it all paid off the month before I die.

I want to REALLY thank Neil deGrasse Tyson for his patience with me. If at any time I seemed disrespectful, please know that I hold him in the highest regard. He truly helped me go to college and I will always owe him, BIG TIME! Not just for college, but for the wealth of knowledge and respect for the universe that he has instilled in me through his television shows, appearances, podcasts and so on.

Thanks for reading this totally true story. I hope you enjoyed it.

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