Neil deGrasse Tyson on Star Talk, folding science into pop culture, and his Batman v Superman voice-over

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Apr 20, 2015

Neil deGrasse Tyson is talking to the stars -- but not the heavenly bodies made of plasma. Instead, the celebrity scientist who most recently brought Carl Sagan's Cosmos back to television is adapting his podcast Star Talk to a late-night talk show on National Geographic Channel.

Premiering tonight at 11 p.m. ET, Star Talk combines science conversation with comedy and pop culture. In the first episode, he chats with George Takei of Star Trek fame, with Interstellar director Christopher Nolan and Arianna Huffington to follow in future installments.

To call Tyson an astrophysicist and cosmologist would be technically accurate but would neglect the rockstar scientist status he has achieved. With due deference to his friend and Star Talk colleague Billy Nye, Tyson is the voice of science education at the moment. He is also a sci-fi geek and fan of Doctor Who, and since 2009 he has merged science, pop culture and comedy with his radio program Star Talk.

In an extended, exclusive interview, Dr. Tyson joined me to discuss his work on the new show, as well as provide insight about his thought processes going into the role of host/chief educator. Along the way, he reveals his thoughts on who makes a good guest (and doesn't), as well as sharing what he has learned from those who have popped in and who from history he'd like to have on the show. The director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, he also briefly talks below about his role in the new Batman v Superman, and how he chooses to become involved in such a project. 

Read ahead for Dr. Tyson's thoughts, then tune in to Star Talk on National Geographic Channel Mondays at 11 p.m. ET for new episodes.

What might Carl Sagan say to you as you embark on Star Talk?

I can't channel him in that way. The way I think of him when I wonder what he'd be doing today? I wonder what kind of things he'd be putting in his Twitter stream or on his Facebook page. That's what I wonder. I can tell you this: When he first appeared on Johnny Carson, colleagues thought that was a bad idea: "You're a scientist and you're going to go, not just on TV, but a comedic talk show?" The rest is history. I think he made 30 appearances or so on Carson, and he brought the universe to the public -- doing something that, at the time, was looked down upon by colleagues but embraced by the public. At the end of the day, the tide waters rose for the public appreciation for science. So Star Talk is in that spirit, I can say without hesitation. 

Do you find it to be a challenge to convey scientific ideas in a shorter format such as a talk show or even Twitter?

That question presumes that I have some syllabus or lesson plan, and somehow have to squeeze it into 140-character soundbites. No. What's happening is I have 140 characters, and then I comb the universe to find out what can fit. That's what I put in 140 characters, and I'm not going to give you an exam on what you learn. An ideal tweet or soundbite stimulates curiosity in a subject, and it's that curiosity that you take to further things -- you might view a video or read more books. I see it not as "Come to me to learn science," it's "Come to me to stimulate your curiosity and wonder about the natural world." That doesn't require a lesson plan, because it's all fun. Star Talk is the blend of comedy, pop culture and science, and those three are the show.

Why is pop culture a good addition to the blend?

We're unapologetic about reaching for the pop culture. I will have guests who have nothing to do with science. People will say, "Why did you have Dan Savage on Star Talk? He's a relationship columnist." They're assuming Star Talk is about discussing science topics. No, there's plenty of programs that discuss science topics: Science Friday on NPR, for example. But that's jumping to be seized for late-night television. It never has. Why? Maybe it needs a dose of pop culture. That's what late-night talk shows do. That's their stock in trade. What we've done is take that same stock in trade, blend with comedy, and now you still get your dose of pop culture and see how prevalent science is. There's science everywhere, and that manifests in the conversation I'm going to have with the person you're a fan of. The guests we have have huge fanbases. They will follow them to the show and hear a conversation about science, pivoting on the life and livelihood of the guest.

You are an educator, and others have learned from you. But what are you, in turn, learning from your guests?

My favorite Star Talk episode is one where I hardly have to talk at all! [laughs] I learn and am just a kid in the candy shop asking questions about something I don't know anything about. That's my ideal Star Talk. The more I have to talk, the less it's about the guest. Before we jumped to television, I had Josh Groban as a guest. He sells out concert halls and primarily women go to see him. I asked him what percentage of your audience are female, and he said 104 percent. The fact he answered the question that way meant there is some geek in him. I later learned in that conversation he designed a science fair project in high school where he attached mirrors to the cone of a speaker and shined lasers on the speakers. When he played music, the reflected light would dance on the ceiling. I said, "Whoa!" There he is, merging his art with science. You would not have known that otherwise if you were only interviewing him about his music. 

What did you learn from George Takei in tonight's premiere?

This was the first time I met him, but we became fast friends (Maybe he's just really friendly and I think there is something special between him and me! [laughs]). Nonetheless, what I appreciated about him was his candor. There is soulfulness to him; when you speak to him, you know it's from his heart, and you know he cares. We used his reflections of his time as Sulu on Star Trek as pivot points to talk about the science of the future, the organization of society, anthropology of aliens. So I just learned about him and what kind of person he is. I learned some things about the American internment of Japanese citizens, which he lived in when he was a child.

Is there anyone you'd like to have as a guest that might be more controversial?

Then I'm not an educator. I'm trying to teach people what is true about the world, and how to think about what is true about the world -- how to judge whether someone is telling the truth, how to judge whether data are accurate or not, how to judge what role a scientific result might play in events in society. That's how I approach that. To bring on controversial people and have debates? You have never seen me debate anyone. Ever. Comb all the YouTube videos. I do not debate people. That implies whoever wins the debate is telling the truth. No! What is true is true regardless of your charisma in the act of defending it or the opposite. That's one of my quotes from Bill Maher [in 2011]: The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it. So it's not in my interest as an educator to display debates of people arguing over a point. In science, we argue all the time, but there is an explicit expectation that we're arguing because there is not enough data to decide whether I'm right, whether you are, or whether we're both wrong. There's a little latitude to argue, but there is a tacit admission that if more data arrives later, we will revise our understanding of the phenomenon to the point we totally converge and move on to the next problem.

Who are some people in all of history, living or dead, you'd like as a guest?

I would love to have Napoleon on the show. He read physics books heavily, so he knew where his cannonballs were going to drop. It wasn't simply that he was a tyrannical general/emperor. He understood the physics of warfare. I would want to have a conversation about how he learned all this, who his favorite writers were of physics at the time, how did he manifest this knowledge in his military empire. To me, that would be an interesting interview. Another one would be Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, he founded the National Academy of Sciences. I want to know what he was thinking about at the time, this turbulent, bloody year in American history, the year of the Gettysburg Address. I would want to understand his motivations of bringing science into government; that was the first time that happened in America. This sounds like I'm going down the list of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but I'd want to bring Joan of Arc forward. What is driving her, because so many people have no drive at all, but here she is leading armies and is martyred barely out of her teens. What is the motivating force that commits her to devote her life this way? I want to get to the bottom of that and find out what makes people tick. I would love to have a sitting head of state. Heads of state have to be thinking of science and technology, and what role they play in the future. I would want to know if they carried any geek credentials in high school or college.

It is pretty well known that Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein had a good sense of humor, but are there other scientists from the past you think would have been funny to be around?

I never thought about that. I would bet Edmond Halley would have had a good sense of humor. He was the one that convinced Isaac Newton to publish his great works, and he was the first calculate a recurring comet that would bear his name. He was Brit trained, which meant he was literate and could probably turn a phrase. I would enjoy some time with him. 

Is it difficult to disconnect your scientific process and enjoy pop culture such as Doctor Who?

It is trivial to do that. I get angry not when people get science wrong, I get angry when people get science wrong, and they think they got it right and create a plot around it. And had they gotten the science right, the plotline would have been even better. That pisses me off! [laughs] Or they think if they did it right, it would somehow constrain the storytelling.

I noticed a familiar voice in the Batman v Superman trailer. How do you choose which projects like this to get involved with? And are you playing a prominent role in this movie?

I will neither confirm nor deny that voice in the trailer! [laughs]

Oh, Dr. Tyson, come on!

[laughs] No, it's a great question. I'm solicited maybe a dozen times a month for a voiceover, or cameo, or a comedic bit in a sitcom. That number doubled since Cosmos. I do some of them if my schedule allows because the producer is reaching out to a scientist. My gosh! That happens to be me, but consider what that means. Someone is making a pop culture product -- a sitcom, blockbuster movie -- and want a scientist to be a part of it, however small. I have got to reward that in some way. That is the very spirit of Star Talk itself: Folding, blending, merging science into a pop culture vessel. I pick and choose.

What item from science fiction do you want in reality?

A transporter. And a warp drive. Is that too much? I'm not asking for much. In my interview with George Takei, he asks me a similar question. I replied I thought of a transporter while in traffic. Why was I in traffic? A truck was unloading goods into a grocery store, and it was blocking two lanes. I said a transporter will not be used to move people around; it will be used to move goods around so you can type on a keypad and a carton of milk beams into your refrigerator. That would remove all these trucks from the street, and half the traffic problems in New York City at any given time. So that was my unorthodox application of transporter technology.