One of Us: Derrick Pitts

On the eve of this month’s Philadelphia Science Festival, the Franklin Institute’s chief astronomer talks alien life, presidential politics and the best pasta in town.

Illustration by Andy Friedman.

Illustration by Andy Friedman.

My name is … Derrick Hartwell Pitts, Hartwell being my grandfather’s first name.

I grew up in … Nicetown, North Philadelphia. Back in those days, the neighborhood was definitely greener than it is now.

I live in … the Centennial District of Wynnefield Heights. Been there for 12 years. It’s so beautiful and feels like it’s far away from the city while it’s actually almost right downtown. Takes me 10 minutes to get to work.

I went to high school at … Germantown Academy, on scholarship. But I came from the Philadelphia School District: Cleveland Elementary and Gillespie Junior High.

The thing most people don’t get about astronomy is … the extraordinary scale of the universe itself physically and the incredible variety of phenomena that can happen in the universe. It’s not a simple picture.

My secret talent is … that I’m a pretty good a cappella singer. I sang barbershop quartet in high school and did madrigal singing in college.

Those people who say aliens built the pyramids … don’t understand how ingenious humans can be.

I started working at the Franklin Institute in … 1976, during the summer of the Bicentennial, as an exhibit explainer on the late shift.

The last book I read cover to cover was … We Could Not Fail, a history of the first African-Americans to work as engineers and scientists for NASA.

On Sunday mornings, you’ll usually find me … enjoying brunch and fine wine with my wife, Linda.

The planet I’d most like to visit is … Mars, because it’s the only one where I can actually go and stand on the surface without being instantly dead. I’d pack and be ready to go by next week.

If you’re buying me dinner, let’s go to … Radicchio in Northern Liberties. Everything is delicious, especially the squid ink pasta with seafood.

If I could change one thing about Philadelphia … I would make teachers’ salaries the highest priority after fire, police and rescue. And I’d actually make every citizen swear on a declaration to treat each other with brotherly love.

The future of NASA is … full of adventure and promise — if Congress will understand the extraordinary importance of what NASA does and fund it properly.

At this month’s Philadelphia Science Festival … I will be hosting the citywide astronomy night on Saturday, April 23rd, the largest public astronomy event of its kind in the nation.

One album I can listen to over and over again … is Robert Johnson’s The Complete Recordings. And Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. But my appreciation goes from Allman Brothers to Pete Townshend to Ravi Shankar and everything in between.

The most important Philadelphian of all time is … the Reverend Leon Sullivan, pastor of Zion Baptist Church at Broad and Venango. He was the founder of the Opportunities Industrialization Centers and the first African-American to sit on the board of GM. He was extremely instrumental, if not the seminal force, in pushing American industry to divest in South Africa in protest of apartheid.

The best movie about space is … Forbidden Planet.

The chances of us discovering intelligent life in outer space anytime soon … are much larger than our chance of discovering intelligent life in the presidential election.

Published as “One of Us” in the April 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.