Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist who has found a second career as a passionate hype man for science and space exploration. You know him from when he has astutely reviewed your favorite blockbuster sci-fi film for scientific inaccuracies on Twitter (a practice he’s seemingly pulling away from), his stint as the host of Cosmos, and for his time as the host of StarTalk. Now entering its third season (and with a companion book on store shelves now) the NatGeo late night talk show illuminates its viewers’ understanding of scientific and other events while going deep with pop culture guests to find their (sometimes hidden) passion for science.
Recently, we had a chance to speak with Tyson about whether he can unplug and enjoy a movie, what he’s looking for in a StarTalk guest, and how we should all feel about the limitations of our lifespan and how we are destined to miss out on some of the exciting scientific advancements that science fiction teases us with.
What are you looking for in a guest? What kind of conversation are you hoping to have?
Well, it’s not that deep. So our goal is to get science to people that would not otherwise have access to science. That’s the goal. Alright. So now how might we attempt that? Well, people who either don’t have access to science or they don’t want access to science, because they don’t care or because they believe they don’t like it, how do we reach them? So you reach people like that by inverting the interview model. So it’s not a journalist interviewing scientists, it’s a scientist, me, interviewing people from pop culture. And when you do that, these pop culture icons, they each have followings. That’s what makes them a pop culture icon. And it follows them to StarTalk and then eavesdrop on my conversation with them that explores what role science plays in their lives. So they’ll come for their celebrity, but they stay for the science.
And so there is no … It’s not, “Well, I need this particular feature of a guest.” All the guests have to be is well-known. Either by name, as is the case with Whoopi Goldberg, or by title such as… We interviewed Ash Carter. Not so much a household name, but he is the Secretary of Defense of the United States. And so these are the criteria that we evoke. And then it’s my job to find the interesting science that may have touched their lives. Or it could be something about them. Some kind of soft pink underbelly that they might have that no other interview setup would reveal about them. So the ideal guest is someone who you never knew had an interest in science, but in fact, does.
By the way, an interest in science doesn’t require that they have expertise. Because in the studio, we cut the final show with someone who does have that expertise. We just need the celebrity to first have fun. It is an evening, late night talk show, and celebrities drive that entire industry of late night talk shows. We’re mindful of that, but at the end of the hour, we like to think they also learned something while you were enjoying the fun interview with the celebrity.
Can you talk about the value of science fiction as a great equalizer that can excite people about science facts. It’s obviously something that you were able to really expound upon with Goldberg with her experience on Star Trek. It really seems like a great conversation opener and kind of a way in with people.
Yeah, in fact, I’m surprised how many people who you would have never imagined has an interest or some fun science-y thing that they did that you just would have never guessed. So for example, we interviewed Jeremy Irons. He’s one of my favorite actors, but that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant is he portrayed a mathematician in an indie movie called The Man Who Knew Infinity, a profile of an Indian mathematician who helped make discoveries as a teenager that went beyond anyone’s knowledge or expectation, at the time. And he plays the Cambridge University professor of math who discovers him. So we had a whole conversation about this, and about his wife, how well did he do in math relative to acting, did he have good teachers, what was he thinking, what research did he do, what kind of training did he go for? And in the studio, we have an actual mathematician talking about this. So it’s just fun to see the ways that people can be touched by the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.
You’ve done so much work in terms of getting science out there. What was it about a talk show that seemed like the next logical step for you when you started this a couple of years ago?
We started as a radio show. Terrestrial radio, actually. Then it jumped species and went to satellite radio and a podcast, then it jumped species and went to television. We still produce the radio. And what happens is National Geographic cherry picks our guests, they pick the 20 that they want to put on TV, but all the same guests also appear on the radio version of the program. And of course, there’s a book. A companion book to the series that we’re quite proud of, actually, because we think it captures the soul of the show.
So the talk show, I mean who doesn’t like a good conversation about stuff you can learn? I think it’s a very natural medium, and it’s usually successful over the decades of the history of television. So we didn’t invent anything new in that regard, but what we were surprised to learn, delighted to learn, that we were actually saddened to learn, is that we were the very first science talk show on television. We didn’t create it to be that. It just turned out that way. And it became clear that it would have never been considered for an evening talk show if it did not have the strong celebrity component. But we knew in advance how useful that could be to bringing science to people who would never otherwise think about it.