Neil deGrasse Tyson On ‘StarTalk’, Climate Change, And Curiosity As A Unifier


Neil deGrasse Tyson expends a good deal of energy arguing in favor of technological advancement and combating climate change, but he also blends his decades of experience as an astrophysicist with pop culture savvy — even taking the time to discuss whether or not the Enterprise is better than the Millennium Falcon.

StarTalk, which starts its fourth season on National Geographic on Sunday, is the perfect showcase for the persona that Tyson has built. But there’s an added value for his audience. By exposing how deeply ingrained science is into the mechanics of sports, music, and even celebrity, Tyson shows us all that the discipline isn’t restricted to the classroom or lab. His show is a reminder that science isn’t something to be afraid of, but something that should be embraced by all.

Tyson was kind enough to talk to Uproxx about the upcoming season, the eclipse, and the importance of fostering curiosity.

I wanted to start off by addressing the interview that you gave on CNN, where you said that it might be too late to counter-effect the effects of climate change at this point. If people aren’t waking up by now, when we’re getting pummeled by hurricanes and earthquakes, what do you think it will take?

A couple of things. That phrase, which was heavily re-quoted and written about, I expressed that almost in an emotional state. Let me offer a more precise statement than that.

Please do.

The ocean has the capacity to uptake carbon dioxide and serve as a reservoir of heat energy, so as you heat the earth, not all of that heat goes into the atmosphere. Some of it, and in fact depending on the conditions, most of it goes into the ocean. So if you stopped all carbon burning tomorrow, it will still get worse before it gets better, because the ocean will just pump out the carbon dioxide that had been dissolved in there, and it will release that heat that the earth had given it over the past decades. So it’s too late to arrest the problem. It will get worse before it gets better. But if you don’t do anything tomorrow, then it will get worse and keep getting worse than that.

That’s the more fleshed out, nuanced account of me saying it might be too late.

Gotcha. We’re looking ahead to the fourth season of StarTalk. I’ve seen the first couple episodes, and you’ve got a really incredible slate of guests this season — Janelle Monae and Jane Goodall to name a few — from all sorts of fields. What is your criteria for settling on the right people to interview?

That’s a great question because you couldn’t come up with that just looking at that list. It’s a pretty hodgepodge list. Our formula, if you want to call it that, is very simple. Is the person famous? Okay, then they can be a StarTalk guest. And so it’s not a matter of picking someone from a field or from a thing. I have other people saying, “Here’s a person who would make a good interview. They know about …” I say, “You don’t understand. Here’s what we’re doing here.” By the way, there’s a reason for this. This is not just crassness. We were started on a grant from the National Science Foundation, and our proposal to them was we were going to use this format, interviewing a celebrity as a means to grow how many people will think and care about science. The celebrity will draw their fan base to the show, and then their hero, their person, will be in a conversation with me about science.

There’s no requirement that they know any science. They don’t have to. They just have to be good at what they did to become a celebrity. The secret is that science touches everybody at all times, and I just find the way that that works, the way that has happened with my particular guest. So it has nothing to do with them telling me a story that I’m looking for them to tell. I interview them, typically in my office or on location sometimes, and we just talk about their lives. Did they have a memorable schoolteacher? Did they have a science fair project? Did they hate science or love science? Do they have any geek underbelly that we could rub?

That’s what happened with Kareem Jabbar. We talk about the physics of a basketball shot, and I’m telling him how some of that works, and he’s feeding back to me why his shots were so effective to become the leading scorer ever in the NBA. And then we talk about his acting career. He was in a few movies, some we remember, others we don’t. And he said he really wanted to be a longer career, and I said, “But dude, you’re 10 feet tall, what are you saying? Who would you be?” And he said, “I want to be Chewbacca.” And I said, “Of course, Chewbacca.” Chewbacca’s like nine feet tall in Star Wars. It was a revelation for me that he’s thinking about science fiction, science fantasy, in his acting career. So that was a little bit of his geek underbelly manifested.

The point is that if the person has a huge following, then that following is treated to a conversation of science. So you come for the celebrity, and you stay for the science. That is the criterion. That’s how we can get Katy Perry, Lance Armstrong, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jane Goodall in the same series.

So ultimately the goal is to make science seem accessible because it is accessible.

Not only does it has to seem that way, because it actually is. It’s not a stretch to make that happen. The homework I have to do, just to get some of your sympathy, is as a scientist, we don’t generally spend much time thinking about pop culture. It doesn’t fit into our time allocations. But if I’m going to speak to someone who is influenced by pop culture, who does watch 30 hours a week of television, nowadays on four different devices, then I need some fluency there if I’m going to have any hope of communicating.

Now, I could just give a lecture, then you’ve got to follow me to the chalkboard, or I come to you. I don’t have a problem coming to you, but it means, yeah, I’ve got to watch Game Of Thrones and the Kardashians and read what the Pope said and know what people think of Donald Trump, and I’ve got to sort of connect to pop culture. In that way, I’ve stoked my utility belt of methods and tools when I’m communicating with you. So I walk into the room with a pop culture scaffold, and I say “Oh, you know that and you’ve got this, let me add this over here.” And now I add something to something you care about and I’ve enhanced it, because now the science has deepened your understanding and appreciation of something that you thought was just an idle pop culture thing.

One thing I really like about StarTalk is the format with the round table with the comedians and academics. I think it works because it keeps things light while also maintaining that air of authority. How did you settle on that format?

We had three years to research what would work and what wouldn’t in the grant from the National Science Foundation. This is now five years since the grant ended. So we’ve been at this for about eight years, and the StarTalk on NatGeo is entering its fourth year. And NatGeo lifts 20 out of the 50 shows we make a year and puts those on television. Our roots are in radio, where we aired daily on SiriusXM, on Channel 121. It’s called the Insight Channel. They actually reach into our archive and fill out the other six days of the week, but it airs seven days a week. We’re proud of this, that we have this archive and that it works fundamentally in radio, and that National Geographic cherry picks the coolest guests and puts them on TV. I don’t have a problem with that.

What we knew was the comedian’s there to bring some levity, and if the topic is outside of my expertise, we’ve got to find another expert to bring to the table, and we delightfully do so. Even if it is in my expertise, I’ll find another astrophysicist, and Charles Liu is a go-to person that we have for that. You might have seen him in one or two episodes. So the academic is a valve of gravity if you will, and the comedian is a valve of levity, and I’m in control of both of those valves. I will turn them such that we maintain a consistent delivery of fun, entertaining, enlightening information.

It’s a good hook for sure. Do you think there would be value in having a climate change denier politician or a pundit on the show as a way to sort of see how that mindset of scientific mistrust is formed, or do you think that would be counterintuitive?

What we don’t do is that we don’t have debates, because that implies that whoever debates better wins. In science, that’s just not the case. Scientific truth is true no matter how you want to debate it. I don’t want to promote the notion that truth is arrived at by people arguing with one another, nor is it my way to debunk anti-scientific thinking. I would rather enlighten the viewer, so that the viewer can now see when something is in need of debunking. In that way, the electorate becomes equipped. It’s a kind of inoculation. Science literacy is an inoculation against people who would otherwise mislead you about how the natural world works. Or maybe they’ve misled themselves.

Right. So you would not have President Trump on the show?

I would! I would definitely have Trump on the show. I don’t know that he has any strong feelings about anything scientifically, so if I had Trump on the show — we’d be delighted to have him — I would talk about the role that science has played in the success of economies. Because he’s fundamentally a businessman, so he ought to have receptors for what would happen if the government invests heavily in science, technology, engineering, and math. It would repay mightily in our health, our wealth, and in particular our security. The difference is the return on that investment is longer than an election cycle, so you need to have the vision and foresight to put things into play that will not be realized under your watch.

But if you set it up, people will remember that you put it into play under your watch, like the Apollo landings. We associate that with John Kennedy even though he was dead long before Apollo was even a thing. He died in ’63. We still had Mercury and Gemini back then.

But he planted the seed, so he gets remembered for that.

Exactly, he’s remembered for that. If Trump is worried or thinks about his legacy, it could be one where he invests heavily in just the thing that will stoke tomorrow’s economy in this country.

I definitely agree. To shift a little bit away from that, I have to ask you about your eclipse watching experience. I was in the line of totality, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I thought it was just absolutely amazing. So what did you do to celebrate that huge moment?

My location was a state secret. I wanted to force the media to find other people, local news to find local community college professors and astronomy clubs, of which there are many all across the country. Now I can tell you where I was, I was 7,000 feet up at Deadwood Lookout in the mountains of Idaho. That’s where I was. And the day before the eclipse, I get a text from a media person here in New York from ABC News, and they say, “Oh, hi. We know you’re probably swamped with eclipse requests, but we’d like to send a camera to you. We’ll send it to wherever you are.” So I took a picture of my surroundings and sent it. I was on the fringe of cell phone reception, and my picture never went out. I’m going to have to hand deliver it to them and say, “Sorry. I was unavailable.” I was with the in-laws at a family reunion.

I love events like that, because it really unites people who are often so divided, but with something as undeniable as just looking up into the sky like that, it was really a beautiful thing.

Yeah, and I tweeted that. Rather than say “in these divided states of America,” what I said was “in these divided United States of America.” I kept both words there. “Tomorrow we will all view nature’s greatest spectacle together, at the same time.” And reminding us that science may be the great unifying … whatever, I said something schmaltzy after that. I agree with you, and by the way, anything that happens in the sky no country can take ownership of it, so it’s inherently an international communal experience anytime that occurs.

Yeah, definitely. How do we strive to acknowledge and build that universal curiosity, using science as the unifier instead of a battleground as it’s kind of become lately?

I think, not to backpedal on this, but maybe we don’t need the word “science.” Let’s just call it curiosity. Curiosity in children is considered natural, and not enough of it is promoted I think within the school classrooms, the curiosity. It tends to be beaten out of us, but if you retain curiosity into adulthood, that person is a scientist. That’s all we are. We ask questions just like kids, except we just have more expensive tools to answer them, to answer those questions. If you stimulate curiosity in a culture, oh my gosh, discovery follows. Patents follow. You start inventing a tomorrow.

StarTalk premieres Sunday October 1 at 11:00 p.m. EST on National Geographic.