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The Path of Most Resistance

photo Neil Tyson's quest to look deep within the heart of the Milky Way started long before he drove up the steep, winding road through the Andean foothills to use the world-class telescope at Tololo in Chile. It began during his childhood in the Bronx when he peered at the moon through binoculars - in a time where African-American children like Tyson were expected to become athletes, not astrophysicists.

Like the road up the mountain, the journey wasn't easy, but it's led Tyson to a job doing what he loves, at one of the nation's top universities. His story, and that of three other astronomers and physicists of color, is told in The Path of Most Resistance.

photo Also profiled in The Path of Most Resistance is France Cordova. The eldest of 12 children, Cordova learned responsibility and discipline from her Mexican-American family. Although she majored in English at Stanford University, a growing interest in astronomy led to a stint as a high school science teacher, and she eventually returned to school to earn a Ph.D. in physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Today, Cordova is chief scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), where she plans new space science missions and testifies for public support of them in Congressional hearings. Her own research on pulsars - the dense, superhot cores of exploded stars - is adding new dimensions to our understanding of the universe.

The intrigue of space travel was what first piqued Jim Gates's interest in science. An African American, Gates is part of a small international group of theoretical physicists who are studying superstrings, a model that attempts to unify gravity and the other fundamental forces of nature.

In the documentary, viewers travel with Gates across Russia, where he meets with colleagues in Tomsk to present and discuss ideas. Superstrings may hold the answer to a puzzle that even baffled Albert Einstein.

Yet, as Gates points out, when you look at great scientists, you realize that you're a member of the same species, and "it's your common birthright as much as it is anyone else's" to make discoveries.

photo George Castro, a Latino and senior research scientist at IBM, doubted whether he should even become a scientist. But, he says, "When you're older, you realize that breaks come every day to someone. It's what you make of them."

Castro's "break" came when he was in junior high school. His family had just moved out of East Los Angeles to a rural community, forcing him to transfer to a new school. There, he studied algebra, which put him in a college-bound track. Otherwise, he says, he might have studied industrial arts, like most of his Chicano friends. Now, Castro is striving for a new type of breakthrough - designing a new type of x-ray microscope that can resolve images as tiny as single molecules. Ultimately, his success will improve future generations of computer hardware.

Each of these scientists faced resistance on their respective paths toward professional recognition. But, as Tyson reveals, the hurdles people of color encounter are not insurmountable, rather more like an "extra social tax. You just pay the tax and keep going."

It's a bit like how France Cordova explains one of her leisure time passions - rock climbing. Every move is like an intellectual problem, she says. "You're just trying to do it in a way that will conserve your strength and balance. If you don't, you're not going to make it all the way up."

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