Over the past seven years, ever since the news media and documentary producers began to notice our newly built Rose Center for Earth and Space, I have monitored how often a complete stranger stops me in the street, having recognized me from television interviews or elsewhere.
I first took notice when the frequency reached about once per month, passing the average rate that I might bump into an old friend or acquaintance on the street. By 2002, the rate had grown to about once per week. Two years later: once per day. And now, the rate hovers around ten times per day—a factor of 300 larger than in the year 2000.
At what frequency do these encounters become an invasion of privacy? The answer is surely dependent on a celebrity’s character and temperament. But another factor matters too—the nature of the interaction itself. If you saw Brittany Spears, Denzel Washington, or Mick Jagger on the street and felt compelled to approach them, what would you say? In most such encounters, the fan seeks an autograph, and then compliments the artist’s work. But beyond that, there’s not much else to talk about, unless you are primarily driven by gossip and the search for secret information about the celebrity’s social life.
I am not yet annoyed by random public encounters. And I might never be. Why? Because my privacy is never invaded: Nobody asks me for my autograph, unless it’s to sign one of my books that they happen to be carrying. Nobody asks my favorite color. Or what car I drive.
Without exception, they instead bust forth with a battery of pent-up questions about the nature of the universe. I am not the target of their interest nor am I the object of their affection. The universe is. And they think of me primarily as their personal conduit to the cosmos. What more could an educator hope to be?
Contrary to the stereotype of the college-educated lifetime learner, most of them are laborers. And I am delighted to think of them all as blue-collar intellectuals, which, come to think of it, may be the first time those three words have ever appeared together in a sentence.