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.
Your takedowns on Twitter of science fiction films when their accuracy wanes has garnered some attention. Are you able to go into a sci-fi film, like a popcorn sci-fi movie, and just kind of unplug and enjoy it, or are you always picking out those moments where there’s just something that they got just a little bit wrong?
See, I think I’m misunderstood with my movie tweets. My goal has always been, “Wouldn’t you want to know if they got something wrong, that if they got it right, it would make an even better story?” “Wouldn’t you want to know that?” I thought to myself. Perhaps for many, that’s true, but I don’t know if it’s for everyone. And I got branded as a buzzkill, and I must be the worst person to go to the movies with. Since I don’t think that’s true about me, and it was not my intent to be a buzzkill.
The disconnect is, I think I’m helping you, but many people think I’m ruining it. So I think I’ll pull back from it. I don’t need to do it, I just thought people would be interested. People just kind of went ballistic about it. Don’t you want to know if Sandra Bullock’s bangs would still hang straight on her forehead or would they float up in the air? They made everything else float, the clothes, the pencils, everything else is floating. How about her hair? They missed that. Isn’t that kind of interesting, that it’s something they missed? If you don’t think it’s interesting, I don’t need to waste your time. I don’t need to go there. So, of course, I can enjoy a film. I enjoy them deeply.
I’m a fan of Mark Twain’s edict, which is, “First, get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.” If you didn’t put in enough homework to get your basic facts right, then you should be called out on it. If you’re watching a Jane Austen period piece, and the carriage drives up to the country home, and somebody steps out of the carriage in tie-dye bell bottoms, you would cry “Foul!” You would say, “This is so taking me out of the moment. Fire that costume designer. They did not get it right. It was the wrong period.” And you would be praised for criticizing that error. Yet, somehow, people don’t want a scientist to criticize a movie for getting its science wrong.
By the way, the Jane Austen example’s a little strange. A better example would be, if you have a movie taking place in 1958 and someone put a 1962 Bel-Air car in the street. There are car experts that will call you out, and no one is going to go to those car experts and say, “Oh, you’re just a nerd. Why don’t you just enjoy the movie?” You’re somehow granted that level of critical analysis and critical viewing of the film. Which puts set designers on notice, as they should be. You want to make the best film you can. If you didn’t have an advisor in a field that you are portraying in the film, you’re not doing your homework.
All I was asking for is the same level of access to film commentary that anyone else would have in other expertises. But many people were refusing to grant me that. It’s their prerogative, and I don’t need to waste their time. So you haven’t seen me really get on a film too much lately.
Is your enthusiasm for space exploration and technological advancement ever undercut by the realization that we may not see the fruits of some of these things with our own eyes? Because obviously, we’re not going to Mars. At least it’s safe to say, you and I aren’t. But in another generation or two, maybe that’s possible. Is it frustrating to know that we’re born a little bit too early?
Well, we were born just in the right time to see the advances that are sitting in our laps today. In our lifetime, we will see self-driving cars. In our lifetime, we carry around this device that is thinner than a pencil and that can tell you where to make a left turn to go to Grandma’s house. Which is fucking amazing, right?
But it’s never enough, though, isn’t it?
Well no, but let me give you other examples. You take a cross-country airplane, flying at 31,000 feet at 500 miles an hour with an internet connection on your computer. You crawl out on the other side and say, “Oh, they didn’t have ice for my drink. Last time I use that airline.” What a compliment that is of technology. That all these other things can happen, and that is not what you’re complaining about. So saying we’re missing something is just false. You have become complacent with the things that are so extraordinary, they would be discounted as magic even 10 years ago. So don’t ever think you’re missing something, we are on an exponential rise of science and technological discovery.
This is true. But — and not that it’s a bad thing — science fiction has given us so many things to dream about that we’re just going to just miss out on, and sometimes it’s just a little bit frustrating. But I get what you’re saying. I’m on a phone with no wire connected to it, right now. There’s magic all around us, maybe I should just stop and appreciate what I have instead of wanting to have a jet pack, I guess.
Yes. And you should be concerned if we weren’t still moving forward. That’s what we should really be concerned about. Not that there aren’t things that we aren’t completely celebrating and enjoying today. To add to this, just a couple of other things. By the way, everyone 30 and younger, they may take some of it for granted, but they know it involves innovations in science and technology. So I see that generation as leading tomorrow’s valuation of investments we might make to create an even more improved tomorrow. So yeah, you and I are going to miss humans landing on Mars. Sure, and my great regret on my death bed will be, I’d want to live another 100 years and see discoveries that we’re only dreaming of today.
The converse to that is, I’d make sure to take pause, weekly, if not daily on the technologies that grace us today. The fact that I can have a half-inch thick, 60-inch flat-panel television and have content on-demand. I’m old enough to remember that if a movie you hadn’t seen came on television, you organized your whole life to sit in front of a TV and watch it.
I remember that too.
Okay! So I remind myself all the time. That way, I can celebrate things rather than ever take them for granted.
Season 3 of StarTalk premieres on Monday, September 19 at 11 p.m. ET on Nat Geo with special guest Whoopi Goldberg. StarTalk: Everything You Ever Need To Know About Space Travel, Sci-Fi, The Human Race, The Universe, And Beyond is available now where fine books are sold.