Neil deGrasse Tyson is without a doubt the most recognized modern day astrophysicist, thanks in part to his active role in pop culture and his outspoken Tweets (to over 4.38 million followers) on the science of Hollywood. The Emmy-nominated host is taking his popular “StarTalk” podcast to late night TV on National Geographic channel beginning Sunday, Oct. 25 at 11 PM ET.
With a lineup that includes former President Bill Clinton, Larry Wilmore, Seth MacFarlane, Susan Sarandon, David Byrne, Bas Lansdorp, Penn & Teller, David Crosby, Brian Cox, and Gina McCarthy; Tyson explains how the rise of “geek” culture has made science cool and helped launch this first-ever science late night talk show in this exclusive interview.
What role you feel “StarTalk” will play in getting the message of science out there to the mainstream public?
I try to divide the world up into three kinds of people: people who know they like science, people who don’t know that they like science, and people who know that they don’t like science. With “StarTalk” I try to invert the traditional journalistic model on what NPR Science Friday does because only people who already know they like science will listen to that show. I wanted to draw everybody in. So if I’m the host and I’m the scientist, and my guests are drawn from pop culture and they’re not themselves scientists, they’ll have a fan base that will follow them to a conversation that I’m having with them about all the ways science has influenced they’re livelihood. What’s happened in these moments is you get people who you wouldn’t otherwise think would have any sort of geek sympathy, and then you learn that they have an entire geek underbelly that comes out in the conversation. Then it becomes a celebration of the “geekiverse” and science literacy and what role it plays in our future. This is how these conversations tend to unfold, and they’re very different from any conversation this lineup of guests would have with any other talk show host. We were not aware of it at the time until we looked it up, but “StarTalk” is the very first science-based talk show ever on television. And so that alone is a statement of the appetite that was previously underserved, or not served at all that people have for this kind of content.
How do you feel “StarTalk” fits into the popularity of geek culture today, which I’m sure is much different than when you were growing up?
Yeah, in my day the geek, or the nerd, got slammed into the locker by the bully. I’m old enough to track this. I think that all changed when the bully realized that the nerd could fix his computer. So the valuation of the nerd set changed across maybe a ten year period. The first evidence of this manifesting was the movie Revenge of the Nerds, where you saw the nerds triumph with being clever, innovative, and using their intellect over the brawn of the people who were otherwise exploiting them. It’s been that way ever since. Bill Gates is the patron saint of geeks and he’s the richest man in the world today. Comic Con used to be just some fringe thing and now hundreds of thousands of people show up for it. “The Big Bang Theory” television sitcom is the number one show on television in any genre, so “StarTalk” is now on a landscape that is unfolding that is the mainstreaming of science.
How has television helped you get better guests for this season?
We’ve gotten some good guests, some A-listers before when we were only radio, but now that we’re radio plus television National Geographic Channel is taking the best 10 shows for the spring and the best 10 for the fall. So we’re getting good guests all along.
As the public face of science today, how much time do you spend doing actual science with all of these other projects?
I have this possibly delusional plan that I’m going to get this public stuff out of my system and then I’ll become a scientist again – rather than only play one on television. I want to make sure there’s enough others out there doing what I’m doing so that there’s a critical mass of public scientists doing that job, because if it requires me to sustain itself, then that’s just pulp building and that’s not what I’m after here. I’m an educator, so I want to make sure that the appetite is real, that the methods and tools and tactics are fertile, and that they have a bright future ahead of them. Then I’ll put some more time back in my life where I get back to the proverbial lab.
Ordinary people often learn about science through Hollywood. What do you feel a simple thing that filmmakers and TV producers can do to be more scientifically accurate?
I’ve been branded by people as someone who ruins a movie because of my nitpicky things that I mention on my Twitter stream. What they don’t know is I’m not actually nitpicking, because if I nitpicked I’d be annoying. I’m highlighting science that you might have missed and that you might appreciate if you notice it with science that they tried to get right and failed, so that you learn something deeper about how the physical universe works. My sense is that it enhances your appreciation of the film. If an actor in a Jane Austin movie stepped out of a carriage wearing tye-dyed bell bottom jeans, you would cry foul. So why should a scientist be denied that same level of attention given to detail. What gets me is when someone says I’m ignoring the science because it allows me to tell a better story. Well, that’s just intellectually lazy because more often than not, knowing the real science allows you to tell a better story than you would have ever invented yourself.
Was there a sci-fi movie that got it right?
With The Martian they took some science liberties, fine. They did their homework leading up to it, so that I grant them the science liberties because they’ve earned it. I’m a fan of what Mark Twain once wrote, “First get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure.” If you don’t get them straight then you’re floating in nowhere space.
What are you going to do about your tweets?
I think my Tweets are misunderstood and I don’t know how to get them un-misunderstood other than to just stop Tweeting because I want to communicate in ways where I have some understanding of how people react. And if they react in completely different ways than was my intent, then I’m not being a good communicator and I’m going to come up with something else.