Neil deGrasse Tyson’s office at the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, which he’s been the director of since 1996, is as eclectic as the man himself. After all, this is an astrophysicist who was a Complex cover star and has been in a genuine rap beef with B.o.B. with a legit diss track to boot. Along one wall is a set of bookcases with all the dusty, thick science books you’d expect a man like him to have, as well as an array of shiny awards. But there’s also an unopened box of universe themed Band-Aids, a black baseball cap with “BRONX” embroidered along the front in big white letters, and several bottles of red wine. Behind his desk is a large copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The lights are dimmed except for a set of twinkly lights wrapped around a floor lamp.
I am here to talk about StarTalk, deGrasse Tyson’s radio show turned podcast turned three-time Emmy nominated television late night talk show airing on the National Geographic channel; Season 4 premieres on October 1. Think of it as a mashup between The Daily Show and the best science class you ever had: deGrasse Tyson interviews celebrities of all kinds about how their life has touched science. He’s the kind of friendly interviewer who easily finds pockets of cross-sectional knowledge, like the physics of Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s sky hook or if Katy Perry meant her song “E.T.” literally, so his interviews explore little known aspects of a particular celebrity’s life. Bits of the interview are broken up and discussed by deGrasse Tyson and two guests, often another scientist and a comedian, in front of a live studio audience.
StarTalk is, in a sense, a perfect representation of deGrasse Tyson’s public persona. Yes, he’s our official Science Dad, nerdy and goofy all at once, but he’s also able to use his unique pop culture presence to service his ultimate goal: education. I asked him about how StarTalk’s celebrity guests fits into this vision, whether he even wants to be a pop culture icon, and how he’d school Trump on climate change.
StarTalk has been around for eight years, and you’ve had all kinds of guests on the show, from Bill Clinton to Larry Wilmore. How do you pick them?
It’s not some deep formula. Are you famous? Do you have a following? You’re a StarTalk guest. This is the recipe for growing the public’s access to science: the more popular and rabid the fanbase of a guest is, the more that fanbase will follow them wherever they go. So now they’ve come to a science talk show. It’s a fun place, because they tell me about school teachers, any good memories, bad memories. I like to think StarTalk is a geek safe space for people who don’t otherwise have geek as a fundamental part of their identity. When we explore the way science has touched their lives, then the viewer sees: science is everywhere.
In a way, that’s what you do as a pop culture icon, bring science to places it isn’t normally.
I’m way more passive about all of this than anyone might think. The majority of my interviews are summoned because the universe flinched. People ask me: I see you everywhere! Who’s your agent? I say: my agent is the universe itself. I’m sitting at home minding my own freaking business and the phone rings because someone wants to know about a planet that was just discovered or a probe that just orbited or a black hole that is burping up gasses. So, I’m a servant of that curiosity. I invest some energy trying to figure out how to best deliver the information. And to do this requires some maintenance of my awareness of pop culture.
But there’s also a way that you’re able to speak and people understand without feeling talked down to.
I’ll give you the anatomy of it. You come to this spot with a scaffold of pop culture awareness. You know who Kim Kardashian is, whether or not you’ve seen her shows. You know who the Pope is, you know there’s a President Donald Trump, you know what Saturday Night Live is. I will find ways to clad your scaffold with science, so I won’t need to explain as much. Here’s a perfect example. I’m channel surfing and I hit a football game in ovrtime. Sure enough, it got to the point of a field goal. So the guy kicks it, everyone’s not breathing… then it hits off the left upright and careens in for the win. I look at it and I said… wait a minute. I got a Google map satellite image, found the orientation of the stadium, did a fast calculation, and I said: that field goal was aided, it was deflected one third of an inch to the right from the rotation of the Earth. And I tweeted that.
Everyone’s like: mind blown! It turns out, if you have a round pole that’s hit by a round ball, fractions of an inch make a difference. Here’s why that works at all. You know what football is. You know what overtime is. I took the knowledge you brought to the table and I simply added to it. I’m delighted to be in that position, but I didn’t ask for this. I’m thinking this because I’m an educator, I’m a scientist and I either tweet it or I don’t. For example: I’ve stopped tweeting about movies.
Yes, when you tweet about scientific inaccuracies in movies like Gravity and Star Wars, you get insane backlash. Why do you think people get so angry?
I got branded as someone who nitpicks. I took private offense at that. Here’s why: If you’re watching a Jane Austen period piece, and people come up to an English countryside home in a horse drawn carriage and somebody gets out of the carriage with tie dye bell bottoms, you would cry foul. You would say the costume designer had their head up their ass. You’d be praised for making that observation. But all of a sudden I’m a buzzkill.
But there have also been some recent sci-fi movies, like Arrival and The Martian, that seem to be more accurate.
Yes, they are. And that’s part of a movement. CSI began this in the 90s, showing real scientists who are young, good looking, and fully fleshed out people. Completely unlike what you would have seen in movies 30, 40 years ago. And they were not crime-solving scientists the way Sherlock Holmes was… no, it’s here’s DNA analysis and I have applied this model for the decaying of the body based on biophysics and biochemistry.
But CSI is often not very accurate either.
“If you really care about science, you’re not gonna get your science from a TV show!”
Accuracy is not what matters here. Exposure is what matters. If you really care about science, you’re not gonna get your science from a TV show! But you’re gonna get your enthusiasm from a TV show or sci-fi story, and enthusiasm is an undervalued commodity among people who are trying to find themselves. There’s the fact that The Big Bang Theory is the number one show on television, in any genre. It has scientists, though they be caricatures—it’s a sitcom—and it had some criticism early-on about portrayals, but I would say its weathered those criticisms and remains the public’s most comedically candid exposure to the life of geeky scientists. We have first run films that have a level of science authenticity that is without precedent in the history of cinema. Let me be specific: The Martian had multiple marquee actors who have each starred in their own movies that are together in this story written by an engineer, directed by a marquee director [Ridley Scott], with a marquee budget.
It’s like science is trendy now. But we are also in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the U.S. is not in the Paris Climate Accord, and officials in the White House are not allowed to mention climate change. How do those two things exist on the same timeline?
The universe brims with mysteries. [laughs] This is an interesting dichotomy of modern American culture.
I know you’ve been asked this before, and you say it’s not the fault of the politicians but rather of the educators who created people who vote for these politicians.
Yeah, there’s something missing in the educational arc.
But are you hopeful?
Yes, I am, because young kids come to my lecture and ask, “Well, if you fall into a black hole, in what way does the gravity do this to your body?” The grown up asks, “I read my horoscope, and is this a good day because Mercury is in retrograde?” [laughs] And that’s the gap. Kids and millennials who did not transition into a digital life have an awareness of what role science and technology plays because science and technology enables their social life, it enables their connection to the world on which they so heavily depend. I haven’t seen issues with them. I know very few millennials who are anti-science of climate change.
If you had Trump on StarTalk, how would your conversation with him go?
“I don’t know how much [Trump] knows the role science plays in the sustenance and generation of wealth in a nation, ever since the industrial revolution.”
I would tell him all the ways science has touched his life, and all the ways science generates wealth. I don’t know how much he knows the role science plays in the sustenance and generation of wealth in a nation, ever since the industrial revolution. If I were to use the more aggressive word, I would school him on this. He’s fundamentally a businessman, so I would expect he would be responsive to business arguments. Like if you invest in science, technology, engineering and math, it will return dividends on the “U.S.A Corporation” in 5, 10, 15, 20 years and I’d give examples of how that happens.
Do you ever think about stepping back, just being an academic and chilling out?
Yes, all the time! Tomorrow, I’ll do it.
Why don’t you?
Because I’d be irresponsible. Here’s my secret desire: there are enough others rising up and filling this field of science education, popularization in book writing, TV that I can just slowly walk backwards and no one will notice. Then I go to the Bahamas, recover, and go back to the lab and become a scientist again, and no one will miss me, and that will be just fine. I don’t need a legacy. I’m a servant of the curiosity of the public and I’m happy that the public has resonated as much as they have.