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

Features Writer


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.

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