Interview: StarTalker Neil deGrasse Tyson
by Luke Y. Thompson on November 1, 2012
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is like the science teacher you wish you’d had back in high school: the guy who not only knows the curriculum inside and out but knows how to make it relevant to you, and improve your own life on an immediate level – if he can get through to an in-character Stephen Colbert, he can get through to you. With his radio show StarTalk, he has cleverly utilized the celebrity interview format to enhance an understanding of how science affects a famous life; starting today, the new televised version will enhance yours on the Nerdist Channel. We had a chance to talk to Dr. Tyson shortly after the show was announced (and notably, as you’ll see, before Pathfinder landed on Mars); it certainly improved our day.
Nerdist: How did the Nerdist Channel TV show come about?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: Well, in the last year-and-a-half, we had our StarTalk radio show. We had Chris Hardwick as a guest on the show. We just hit it – I mean, he’s an easy guy to get along with, anyway. I didn’t feel like I was special. But nonetheless, we hit it off well. There was huge resonance in all that he cared about, in all that we cared about, not only as people or human beings or friends, but also as people with a shared mission statement, that we’re just trying to spread the love of what it is to be curious about the natural world, and what that curiosity can become in your life. It can transform your outlook. When we learned is that he was starting up the Nerdist Channel, it was a clear fit. It was a no-brainer, actually. Normally, you have to have conversations about it. “Well, can it fit? How do you have to trim it, or fit it or change it?” It was, like, “No, just slot the thing right in. We’re good to go.”
NDT: No, not really. That sort of came later. I had no such ambitions, and I still don’t, actually, [laughs] no matter what it otherwise looks like, I still don’t. I do it because I can, not because I seek it out. And it resonates with people. For what is a relatively small investment of my energy, many people derive great fulfillment from it. That’s what an educator wants, is to sit in front of an audience, and to have information that you’re sharing. You want them to not only embrace what you say, but like it, and perhaps feel compelled to share it with others. That’s a good day for an educator. The educator side of me embraces the consequences of this. By the way, if people weren’t learning, or if they weren’t enjoying it, I would just go home. I do it because I can, and because people receive it openly and warmly. So I continue to pursue it.
Q: What’s your experience with the Nerdist podcast, or Eugene Mirman, or audiences who are not as academically-minded as other audiences you speak to?
NDT: In StarTalk, the goal is to bring science to places or people or communities that have not considered that science would be an interesting or useful topic for them. When we have Eugene Mirman and others, he’s part of a stable of comedians that we cast. In almost all cases, I have a professional comedian co-host. And they’re there – and I borrow the term from sportscasting – they’re there for sort of color commentary. Our guest is somebody else. The guest is someone who is hewn from pop culture, and is not necessarily, and hardly ever is, in fact, a scientist. But there’s some way that science has influenced their lives, their livelihood, their ambitions. We bring that out in the conversation. What’s different about this, compared with, for example, your textbook NPR interview – in that kind of interview, it’s a journalist interviewing the scientist. In our case, it’s a scientist, me, interviewing people who are not scientists. And because I’m interviewing people who are not scientists, I get to explore ways that chemistry, biology, physics influences their lives, in ways that either they knew about or didn’t. In that way, the listener or viewer can see all the ways that science impacts pop culture or culture in general, or our lives, our country, our cities and our world. In that way, science becomes life. Science is not just some topic that you are forced to study in school. It’s all around us, and it’s inescapable.
N: In hindsight, that sort of show format seems like a no-brainer. Did it take a while to come up with that concept, then pitch it and get across?
NDT: Yeah. My two solo producers, the three of us who are the principals of the program, David Gamble and Helen Matsos, it’s sort of our collaborative thinking that assembled these parts in a way to achieve that goal. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious. Why didn’t anybody do this before? But no one had. Helen had seen me give talks and interact on panels, and host panels, and she noted to herself that I might be good in a situation just interacting with anybody, and discovering science within them. In a radio format, where the quality of the guest matters, then we can easily morph that concept into one where I’m interviewing someone who’s actually famous, for whatever other reasons that made them famous. That double-adds to the show: first, we do get to discuss the science, and if that person brings their fan-base to the show, that fan base may have not have otherwise tuned into a science program. That’s where our real objectives lie.
N: The stereotypical science nerd isn’t known for being extroverted or a great conversationalist. Have you always been this way, or was it something you learned?
NDT: [laughs] I had very extroverted parents. Growing up in that environment, I didn’t know anything different. They were always entertaining, and always had dinner parties. They were extroverted not in the “life of the party” sense, but just in the energy they had to socialize. That was kind of a natural for me. Neither of them were scientists. My father is, by training, a sociologist, but he’s worked for social causes all his life. My mother was a housewife until we were almost empty-nest. Then, she went back to school and studied gerontology. Professionally, she concerned herself with being supportive of the elderly. These are not astrophysicists. They’re very not. But because I went home to that every day, the idea that people matter, and that having a social energy to engage people is something natural, then it was not a foreign concept for me to carry on that way. Only later, what I’d see is I’d be immersed in communities of people where they either don’t value that investment in social energy, or don’t care, or just have other things to do in life. There are professions where, of course, being socially gregarious is irrelevant, and many of the scientists are just that. Those scientists, particularly that don’t involve interactions with, or common interactions with the public or with people in general. So in academia, for example, you find many people perfectly happy just sitting and staying in the office. They do good work. Not everybody is doing everything, right?
In my case, the real challenge was engaging my time in this way, yet not having it sort of count against me in a professional, academic community. There was a day when that was certainly the case. It would be looked down upon. In the early days of Carl Sagan’s overtures with the public, his work was not warmly received by his colleagues. It was conduct that you just didn’t do. I think half of it was just because it was an unfamiliar activity in the community, so they didn’t even know how to embrace it. But the other half might have been some jealousy. At least in my field, astrophysics, we’ve matured past that, at least as best as I can read in the community. Now, I can engage in these activities, and it doesn’t hurt my professional standing. Whether or not it accrues to it, it certainly doesn’t hurt it. A big part of it is sort of celebrating the work that others do, rather than sort of stepping in their way and being the focus of the public’s attention for someone else’s work. I try, at all turns, to make sure that I bring front-and-center the people who did the work, and then get them to talk. Then, later on, I’m happy to tie a bow on it, or offer some extra perspective. But the focus of the interest or energy is that person. This is how I’ve sort of set up my professional encounters with the public. That’s worked well, I think.
N: Did you interact much with Carl Sagan? I know he tried to recruit you.
NDT: No. People like to pair us in a deeper way than was actually the case. I was in his presence maybe four times in my life. Two of those were quite significant, I would say, and that was my first time and my last time. Those are the most significant times. The first time was when he invited me to Cornell to tour the campus as I was considering what college I would attend. That was a, you know, who was I? He had already been on The Tonight Show, and I was just a high school kid. He opened to me as someone who had already expressed interest in studying the universe. This is what he was cuing on. Ever since then, I have given time and attention to students, in ways that I always asserted I would after that one occasion where Carl Sagan had given his time and attention to me. I said to myself at the time, “If I’m ever remotely as famous as this guy, then how could I not do exactly what he’s doing? Because he’s got nothing invested in me, and yet he’s doing this.” I thought that gave me a profound sense of proper conduct for someone who is in a position to wield opportunity, or power or influence over someone’s career trajectory.
NDT: [laughs] Yeah, probably not. But now I think, who’s next? I think that. But there’s no reason he would’ve thought that way. I think he was just being a good educator.
N: You were in a couple of science commissions under the Bush administration. Do you think they got a bad rap for being anti-science?
NDT: [laughs] I learned how to stand in the middle. It’s an interesting place to be, and it’s hard to get there. I’m born and raised in New York City, and everyone here is left-of-liberal. Then, I’m invited to participate in a panel, in a commission, where the goal, in the first case, was “What’s wrong with the aerospace industry? Why did we just lose a half-million jobs? Is it competition from overseas? Is it a change in the engineering, or the physics? What’s going on? And the politics?” So I’m invited to participate in this panel, and I realize that the only way I can listen to people is if I step away from where I was, and go to a place where I had better hearing. And that was the center. And when I reach the center, you see where all the hot air is coming out of both extremes. It’s interesting, but you can also get to see where the truths are. I spent those years finding what truths transcend political division. Often when we speak of the center, we speak of compromising, so people will give up something so they can agree on anything. But, no! There’s another way to think about it. Yes, that’s an aspect of the center, but there’s a better way to think about the center. That is: you grab those things that anybody who is American would be an idiot for not agreeing with. All right? You find what that is. You dust it off of the left-wing interpretations and the right-wing interpretations, and you lift it up for everyone to see in its purest form, and everyone comes running to it. And you say, “Yes, that’s the country I want to live in.” There’s a lot of that. The problem is it gets shrouded with the lenses of partisanship that prevent the truth of what those ideas are from being realized by all who are assembled. There’s nothing partisan about the aerospace industry. It delivers our goods. It takes people in various places. It’s a fundamental part of our aviation security. It’s not a partisan thing. Let’s just solve this problem, and get on with life. That’s one element of it.
About Bush being labeled as anti-science, there’s even an entire book called The Republican War on Science. But here’s what happens when you dust off or part the curtains of that accusation: what you find is that it’s limited to two or three sort of platform issues. At the time, one of them was stem cells, which is kind of no longer an issue now that we found other ways to get stem cells rather than from embryos. But at the time, it was stem cells, and Bush’s record on the environment and a couple other things. A big deal was made of this, and it was generalized to be called a Republican War on Science. Yet, over the Bush administration, the budget for NASA went up. The budget for the National Science Foundation went up. In Washington, what matters is budget. Everything else is just window-dressing. If the budget goes up, then you’re in favor of that organization and what they’re about. Under the Clinton Administration, the spending power of NASA over those eight years dropped by 25%, but no one says there’s a Democrat War on Science. Right? Again, when you’re in the center, you get to see where people were just clouding the points, or tinting them in a way that only serve their own political agendas, when there’s a central point you can stand on that transcends it all. People say the Republicans are anti-environment. Of course, the Environmental Protection Agency was signed into law by President Nixon. Right? We forget this, right? We talk about Democrats, or liberals in general, being anti-war, right? Yet, almost the entire Vietnam War was fought under Democratic leadership, and the build-up was under Democratic rhetoric, under Kennedy and Johnson. The fact is: everybody’s doing everything, so let’s just, like I said, stand in the middle and find where the real solutions are. It’s not that the Republicans got a bad rap. It’s where the criticisms could be finely tuned and applied, yeah, it was bad. But to paint a broad brush? No. No. It’s false.
N: As a society, where do you think we stand as far as being “anti-science”?
NDT: I think a lot of people like hitting people over the head, saying, “You! How come you didn’t know about science?” I have a possibly rose-colored view of that. It’s an attitude towards how to solve it, a rose-colored attitude on how to solve it. I think in the ’60s, the people who were anti-science or anti-technology, they were still around, but they were given no place to stand, because we were on our way to the moon. What that meant, in terms of our progress and science and engineering, it was manifest, hand-written large on a daily headline. If you said, “I don’t believe in technology,” I’m like, “Go take a hike! Look: we got Neil Armstrong walking on the moon! I’m not even going to listen to you!” When you don’t have these big nationally inspired and nationally-driven projects garnering headlines, then it’s easy for people to take the fruits of science for granted, for them to become complacent about what science is and engineering and what it means to them.
I would claim that if America went back to Mars, and took on all of space as our backyard, and discoveries and patents and innovations were rolling off, or were available to be tapped from the NASA flywheel of innovation, then once again there’d be no place for those who are the Luddites of society. There’d be no place for them to stand; no place for them to hold court judging whether science or engineering is good for society or for the economy or for life, because it would be there and it would be writ-large. Rather than try to pick them off one-by-one, I would say you create the cultural imperative, the cultural directive, that makes it clear and manifest that it’s good to be scientifically literate. It’s good to invest in science and technology. It’s good for a nation to dream big as it once did. Then, those people, they fade away into the wallpaper of society, because no one will listen to them. That’s the kind of future I look forward to. I don’t know if we’re headed there. If we’re not, we might as well just move back to the cave now. I’ll pick my cave first. The rest of the world is passing us by.
N: What, if any, do you think is the biggest scientific misconception that people have?
NDT: I’m not worried about misconceptions. I have a slightly unorthodox, maybe strongly unorthodox view there. You speak to most educators, particularly professional science educators – I guess I’m that, too, but I’m fundamentally a scientist, and I dabble in education – there are people whose careers are devoted to studying the cognitive capacity and the cognitive difference between a sixth grader and a ninth grader and a twelfth grader. That’s why there’s a whole field of research given unto this. You get a professional educator and ask them, “What will you count as a scientifically literate person?” And they would give you a list of things they should know. What is evolution? What is the Big Bang? Throw in some fun things: How does a microwave oven work? What is an internal combustion engine car? What is photosynthesis? There’s a little mini-syllabus that you’d be expected to know. That’s an aspect of science literacy.
But for me, that’s not the most important aspect of it. What’s the important aspect of it is how your brain is wired for thought. How is your brain wired for inquiry? How is your brain wired for curiosity? It’s the curiosity about the operations of the natural world that, in its own way, inoculates you against charlatans. Someone comes up, and they want to sell you something of sort of suspicious merit, and it could be a cure for some ailment. It could be some device. You just start asking questions: Where did it come from? What’s it made of? Has it been tested? What has it been tested on? What are the results of that test? There’s some point when those questions continue, the person runs away in tears, because they’re not going to sell you their product, because they don’t have an answer to all your questions. To me, that’s what science literacy is: to know how to ask questions. By the way, kids are born with this ability. Somehow, they have it beat it out of them or lose it. That’s why I really focus on adults: they’re other problem cases in society.
N: It’s because we keep telling kids “Because I say so” as the answer.
NDT: Yeah. Well, yeah. Plus, it’s like, “Shut up and sit down,” you know? “I’m busy. I’m reading the paper.” Whatever. I think that’s a problem. Somewhere in middle school, it’s all lost.
N: Final question. This one comes from my editor. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the movie Necessary Roughness, but apparently Sinbad plays a character that is very similar to you.
NDT: That came out in the 1990s, and that’s well before I would’ve been known to anybody in this context. But since that movie has come out, and since my visibility has grown, people have mentioned that to me. I’ve compiled a list of all the movies where major or even incidental characters were portraying astronomers or astrophysicists. That’s in the list. There are others. For example, and not all these are memorable films: Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough. Quite a melodrama that it was, but there’s a character in that who’s a student studying to be an astrophysicist. In Roxanne, the Steve Martin version of Cyrano de Bergerac, who’s the woman in that?
N: Daryl Hannah.
NDT: Daryl Hannah. She was studying to be an astronomer. There’s this list of films that I think is just kind of cute. The producer just decided, because they could’ve been studying to be a lawyer. There were a number of professions they could’ve picked. I think it’s just cute they’re budding astronomers. By the way, the National Academy of Scientists has opened an office – that’s how you know it’s real – in Hollywood called The Science Entertainment Exchange, which is designed to promote and to serve a storytelling interest in scientific themes and characters. It’s not just, “Oh, did I get this fact right, or is this the right species of bird at this time of year? ” Yes, they can do that, but it’s primarily to serve writers and producers and gatekeepers of storylines, to tell them that scientists are people, too, and want you to portray some of them, rather than all these cop dramas that you keep trying to re-invent. I think one of the benchmarks of the possibility of that succeeding is in the show The Big Bang Theory. Of course, they’re caricatures of scientists, but I don’t think it has any aspirations to be anything different from that. In these caricatures of people, it’s a hilarious show, and you see them as people with their own needs and shortcomings. And they’re just as candid about the shortcomings as they are about their intellectual power as scientists, and as sort of card-carrying geeks. That’s a runaway hit. It’s in syndication. Who would have ever predicted that? I think I could’ve predicted it. But the normal gatekeepers couldn’t have, because I think the universe and science has some hilarious moments in it. It just took a couple of geek producers to figure that out and turn it into gold for them. And that’s what they’re doing, and I’m happy for them. And I had the honor of having a cameo!