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Derrick Pitts

Astronomer Derrick Pitts was born on January 22, 1955 in the Tioga-Nicetown section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a child, Pitts was fascinated by outer space and rockets. After graduating from Germantown Academy, he received his B.S. degree in geology from St. Lawrence University in 1978.

Pitts began working at The Franklin Institute as a young college student. He was hired as The Franklin Institute’s chief astronomer and planetarium director after completing his degree. In these roles, he developed and oversaw all of the Institute’s astronomy and space-related programs and exhibits, frequently hosted the live “Sky Tonight” planetarium show and interviewed John Glenn and Carl Sagan. Pitts also served as the original director of Tuttleman OMNIMAX Theater and as museum vice president. In 2002, he oversaw the renovation of The Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium and played an integral role in the design of the new astronomy exhibit, ‘Space Command.’ Pitts became the host of “SkyTalk” on WHYY Radio in 2008. One year later, he served as the United States spokesperson for the International Year of Astronomy. In 2011, Pitts was named a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Solar System Ambassador. He has appeared on many national television shows as a science expert including the Comedy Channel’s “Colbert Report” and “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson.” Pitts served as a regular contributor on Current TV’s Countdown with Keith Olberman as well as programs on CNN International and MSNBC.

Pitts has held numerous positions in academic and community organizations including serving as president of the Greater Philadelphia Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and on the Board of Trustees for his alma mater St. Lawrence University and Widener University. He is the recipient of numerous awards including the Mayor’s Liberty Bell, the St. Lawrence University Distinguished Alumni Award, the G. W. Carver Medal and Please Touch Museum’s “Great Friend To Kids” Award. Pitts was inducted into the Germantown Historical Society Hall of Fame and selected as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science” by Science Spectrum Magazine in 2004. He received the 2010 David Rittenhouse Award and an honorary Doctor of Science degree from LaSalle University in 2011. Pitts lives with his wife Linda in the Wynnefield Heights section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Derrick Pitts was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on May 23, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.119

Sex

Male

Interview Date

5/23/2012 |and| 3/25/2013

Last Name

Pitts

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Middle Name

H.

Schools

Cleveland Elementary School

Elizabeth Duane Gillespie Junior High School

Germantown Academy

St. Lawrence University

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Derrick

Birth City, State, Country

Philadelphia

HM ID

PIT29

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Pennsylvania

Favorite Vacation Destination

St. Lucia

Favorite Quote

Sure, Why Not.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Pennsylvania

Birth Date

1/22/1955

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Philadelphia

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Lamb Biryani

Short Description

Atmospheric scientist Derrick Pitts (1955 - ) was the chief astronomer and planetarium director for Philadelphia’s The Franklin Institute. As a noted scientist, he also appeared on national television programs.

Employment

Sackner Pharmacy

Sherwin Williams

Upholsters International Union

Franklin Institute

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts slates the interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about his mother's career ambitions

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts talks about his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about meeting his grandfather

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about his father's life and career

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about how his parents met

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his father's military experience

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about the similarities between him and his parents

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts talks about his childhood neighborhood

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about his early appreciation for science

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about what his father taught him about the moon

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his scientific philosophy

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts discusses how astronomical events excited him about science

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts talks about his relationship with his brother

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about the role of church in his life

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts discusses the conflict between religion and science

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about his experience at Gillespie Junior High School

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts describes how his neighborhood street helped him understand the sky

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about his childhood role model and favorite television show

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his junior high school mentors

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts describes one of his favorite science demonstrations

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts shares what inspires him to be a scientist and educator

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about his experience at Gillespie Junior High School

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about seeing the first moon landing

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts talks about his experience at Georgetown Academy

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about the schools that he and his brother attended

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his mentors in high school

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about his favorite music teacher and his experience in the choir

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts talks about the first African American teacher at Germantown Academy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about his academic struggles and social triumphs

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about his best friend from Germantown Academy

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about his experience at Germantown Academy

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts talks about his decision to go to St. Lawrence University

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about learning how to be a better student

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his experience at St. Lawrence University

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts reflects on his career ambitions prior to graduating

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts discusses why he never went to graduate school

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about his career

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about the effect he has on youth by being on TV

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Slating of Derrick Pitts interview, session 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts remembers his job offer at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about his first position at The Franklin Institute Science Museum observatory

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts describes the observatory at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts explains the difference between observatories and planetariums

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts remembers his early career options

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts recalls his early years at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts talks about his early roles at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Derrick Pitts remembers the leading directors at the Fels Planetarium

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts remembers the Fels Planetarium's early directors

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about Benjamin Franklin and his interest in science

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts describes his role as show producer at the Fels Planetarium at The Franklin Institute Science Museum, pt. 1

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts talks about the influence of the television show 'Cosmos: A Personal Voyage' and its host Carl Sagan

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts remembers Carl Sagan

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts describes his role as show producer at the Fels Planetarium at The Franklin Institute Science Museum, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts remembers the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts recalls his press conference following the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts reflects upon the impact of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about his interest in science and astronomy

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts describes the history of planetariums

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts explains the use of an observatory

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about the black community's reception to his career success

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about the impact of new technologies at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts describes his typical workday and how it's impacted his personal life

Tape: 9 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts remembers his promotions

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about African Americans at The Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts talks about African Americans in the field of astronomy

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about the impact of IMAX technology

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts describes the organizational restructuring at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts remembers developing the television program 'Neptune All Night'

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts describes the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI)

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about the impact of the internet on astronomy

Tape: 10 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts describes his work with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts remembers considering leaving The Franklin Institute Science Museum in the late 1990s

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts recalls his work on a cruise ship to view a total solar eclipse, pt. 1

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts recalls his work on a cruise ship to view a total solar eclipse, pt. 2

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts remembers the hiring of Dennis Wint at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts describes Dennis Wint

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts recalls his appearances on 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann'

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about the renovations of the Joel N. Bloom Observatory at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts talks about the developments at The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 12 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts talks about African American representation in the sciences

Tape: 12 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts describes his work with the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

Tape: 12 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts talks about his civic work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 12 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts remembers Major General Charles Bolden, Jr.

Tape: 12 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts recalls the star party at the White House

Tape: 12 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts talks about the future of The Franklin Institute Science Museum

Tape: 12 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts describes his work on national television programs as a science communicator

Tape: 12 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community, pt. 1

Tape: 13 Story: 1 - Derrick Pitts describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community, pt. 2

Tape: 13 Story: 2 - Derrick Pitts reflects upon his life

Tape: 13 Story: 3 - Derrick Pitts reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 13 Story: 4 - Derrick Pitts describes Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tape: 13 Story: 5 - Derrick Pitts talks about his family

Tape: 13 Story: 6 - Derrick Pitts reflects upon the state of STEM education

Tape: 13 Story: 7 - Derrick Pitts talks about developing children's interest in science

Tape: 13 Story: 8 - Derrick Pitts recalls the Chelyabinsk Event

Tape: 13 Story: 9 - Derrick Pitts describes how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$6

DAStory

8$3

DATitle
Derrick Pitts describes how his neighborhood street helped him understand the sky
Derrick Pitts reflects on his career ambitions prior to graduating
Transcript
Okay, and I think I read also that you, when you discovered, I mean the layout of the neighborhood helped you to look at the sky.$$Oh, yes. So there were a couple of things I realized about the street that I lived on. After I started to read about astronomy and then understand about the motions of the sun, moon and planets and the sky and the orientation that we have on the planet and our relationship as, you know, living on the surface, looking at the sky and those sorts of things, I began to understand something about the orientation of the street I lived on. And the 1700 block of 17th, 1700 block Pacific Street, runs East-West. On the Eastern end of the street is Roche (ph.) Farm Market where we'd go to buy eggs, scrapple, bacon, chicken, stuff like that. Over hear on the Western end is 18th Street, and then the 1800 block and going up to 20th Street and beyond. But I recognize that this is an East-West street. Now, across from us is this "T" intersection that's just about two houses over to the East from us. So there's a street that's now running North-South that intersects with this East-West street. And what I notice is that the sun rises down here over Roche's Farm Market, passes high overhead and sets down here on this end of the street. And I notice that on Bovere (ph.) Street in the summer, when the sun is high in the sky in the middle of the day, the entire street is illuminated. But in the morning, the Western side of the street is illuminated and the Eastern side isn't. It's in shadow because the sun hasn't come across. And as the sun passes, the reverse happens. The Western side of the street is in the shade. The Eastern side is illuminated. So I'm beginning to recognize that at high noon in the summer, this street is fully illuminated, no shadows at all. So I can now read the motion of whatever it is, the earth or the sun. I'm reading one of these, and so I'm starting to think about mechanics, planetary mechanics. So I realize that in the, in the room that I have, in my room growing up, the room I sleep in, I can look out a window that looks to the West. But since we're a row house, there's another house right across from my window, not fifteen feet away. Looking at the wall of that house, of course, is the matching window on the other side. But above that window is a course of bricks, coming down from the roof, down to the top of the window. In the morning, what I can do is I can look out, and I can see this course of bricks. And depending on how many of the courses of bricks are illuminated, I can determine what time it is because of the rising sun. So now, this becomes a celestial clock for me. It's like a sundial or any other kind of, you know, solar clock because I can use the divisions to mark time. And that's what I do with it. I use those divisions to mark time. And I can put this together with the illumination of the street and all this other sort of stuff and have a much better grip or understanding on the motions of the earth on its axis and its motion through space during the course of the year because of the changing angle of sunlight through the course of the year. So now what happens is the world becomes a big solar clock for me because now I look at any building or any fixed object and say, hah, I can look at the shadow and figure out direction from that. And so that's what I begin to do. And so, now in my mind, I carry with me an image of any of these areas that I've lived or worked in that are fully illuminated and I can compare views of what they look like at different parts of the day with where I am to figure out direction.$$Okay.$$Just a fun little thing to play with.$$Now, did you watch the science TV shows like 'Watch Mr. Wizard' and--$$I did 'Watch Mr. Wizard'. I saw Mr. Wizard, not all the time, but I did see Mr. Wizard. Any other science programs that were on, I watched. So in, by 1966, 'Star Trek' is now available. And I begin to watch 'Star Trek' as much as I can. There are other science programs on, but they're pretty cheesy. You know, there's the 'Time Machine', and there's 'Lost in Space', and you know, 'Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea' and these are all these, you know, sort of Irwin Allen, cheesy, you know, productions of all this stuff that happens. And I remember that there are two programs that I'm really enthralled with. One is 'Sea Hunt', starring Lloyd Bridges, Mike Nelson. He's a scuba diver. So, you know, I've also got this interest in scuba diving too because it's the undersea world. So I watch that all the time. And then once 'Star Trek' becomes available, I start to watch 'Star Trek' whenever I can. And 'Star Trek' really, now, begins to embody this fantasy about this future society that travels in space freely, has all the technological advantages that anybody would wanna have and is going around exploring the galaxy at warp speed. What could be better?$$Okay, we're gonna pause right here.$Okay, now, when you're on the verge of graduation, what are you thinking about the next step? Are you going to graduate school now?$$Well, on the verge of graduating I'm thinking, hum, I don't know what I wanna do in graduate school yet. So, let me take some time off and I'll, I'll get a job and do a little work and earn some money and figure out what I wanna do. So the catch here is that in the summer of 1976 and the summer of 1977, I'm back here in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]--well, 1976, I'm here for the whole summer. 1977, I'm here for part of the summer. So in 1976, I have a job, I've found a job. I apply to four places around Philadelphia. I can only remember two of them now. One of them is the Tasty Baking Company [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] that's in the neighborhood near where I live, and the other one is the Franklin Institute Science Museum [Philadelphia, Pennsylvania]. So I get a job. I'm hired at the Franklin Institute Science Museum. And I apply for a job as a, you know, I come in looking for a job as a science explainer. The head of security wants to make me a security guard because I'm a tall guy. And I explain to him, no, I'm not here for a security position. I'm here for a science explainer position. And he can't quite seem to get that through his head that I'm not here to do security. He automatically assumes that I'm gonna be a security guy. No, I'm not. So, I finally go to interview with the director of personnel for the museum at that time, a guy named Don Gates. And I say to Don, I'm here to be a science explainer. I'm not here to be a security guy. And he asked me about my education. And he says, yeah, you should be a science explainer. So I get a job in the summer of 1976 as a science explainer. And I worked the hours two to ten p.m. I come in at two o'clock in the afternoon. I work until ten o'clock at night. We're open that late because the expectation is that during the summer of 1976, there's gonna be a huge crowd of people coming to the Franklin Institute in the evening to celebrate the bicentennial. Hardly anybody comes. So I'm here with a great group of other college students who are also hired to be science explainers. And we all learn all kinds of skills from each other. This is where I learned how to juggle and all kinds of crazy things like that. But we also do incredible science demonstrations. The best I've ever seen were done during these times when I was here as a science explainer. And I also spend most of my time in the observatory working with two University of Pennsylvania graduate students in astronomy. Gopaul (ph.) Colaumbi (ph.) and Carol Ambrewster (ph.). They both graduated PhD from University of Pennsylvania. I do not know where Gopaul went to, but I do know that Carol Ambrewster ended up as a professor at Villanova [University, Villanova, Pennsylvania]. She's still there or has retired just recently. There was another PhD candidate called Tony Hull, who worked here. And I learned a tremendous amount from those three, just a tremendous amount from those three. And they really began to shape my career as a science explainer in astronomy. Tony Hull, I have heard from every now and then. He left the Franklin Institute, left Philadelphia, became an instrument designer for a group called 'Perkin-Elmer', an optical company. And I would hear from him every now and then; never heard from Gopaul Colaumbi ever again and occasionally heard from Carol Ambrewster now and then. So, I go back to school, finish out that year, come back to Philadelphia [Pennsylvania] in the summer, work for half a summer here at Franklin Institute and then go do geology field, my geology field studies for the rest of that summer; go back and finish my senior year. One geology course and two physics courses and astronomy, some environmental studies stuff and some humanities stuff. And in about April, March--no, it was actually, it was actually March of that year, I get a letter from the Director of Education, the Assistant Director of Education, Charles Penneman (ph.) offering me a job at the Franklin Institute, a full-time position when I graduate. So I leave school. I know what I'm gonna do. I have a job, and it's gonna pay me $7,000.00 a year. Wow, fantastic. So I come to the Franklin Institute and start work here. And my plan is I'm gonna work for a year or two and then I'm gonna go to graduate school. I'm either gonna go in geology or astronomy. I don't know which one. But I get to Franklin Institute and I have the most remarkable experience. I have this fantastic job, explaining science to people, helping people understand how science works, how the process of science works and what science really is. And I've now learned a ton about this from my work as a geology student at St. Lawrence University [Canton, New York] and as a physics student at St. Lawrence University. I also learn a bunch of chemistry stuff because I'm also doing environmental studies on the side. So I learn all this stuff about the process of science from all these guys at St. Lawrence University. There's a whole bunch of other people I haven't mentioned, but they were all in there. And I bring that to bear here at the work that I start doing at Franklin. So I'm here for a year or two, and they offer me a higher position, more challenging with more stuff to do. One of those jobs is, we want you to concentrate on working in the observatory. I say, wow, great. I'd love to do that. So I figure I'll spend a couple of years doing this, and I figure I'm gonna spend five years, and then I'm gonna make a decision and get out of here. The end of the fifth year, I get an offer to do the next higher level thing. And my career here at Franklin has been exactly that. Every five years I've been offered something better and greater to do. And every, and every one of those five years, it has been a tremendous experience of new and better and greater stuff. And so I've never been able to leave because I've always had these new, better experiences.