Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk returns to the National Geographic Channel next Sunday, October 25. We caught up with Dr. Tyson to discuss the premiere, the scientific ubiquity of Seth MacFarlane and NASA’s plans for Matt Damon.
Star Talk began as a radio show/internet podcast and has now expanded to television for its second season. Tell us a bit about the evolution of the show from podcast to TV.
We didn’t realize until after it was already established and ready to air that it is in fact the very first science-based talk show ever. That’s a long time in coming given how long we’ve had television and talk shows. We didn’t take this responsibility lightly. We wanted to make sure when it jumped species from radio show/podcast to television that it retained the soul of the radio show. We didn’t want to turn it into a whole TV thing because (despite what it may look like) I don’t have TV ambitions. In any event National Geographic took an interest and of the fifty shows we do in a year, they took ten and put them up in the Spring and ten and put them up in the Fall.
You have a very interesting lineup of guests. In addition to Bill Clinton, you have interviews with Larry Wilmore, Susan Sarandon, Penn & Teller, David Byrne and other celebrities. Can you tell us how you see the relationship between popular media and science education?
I don’t think of it as science education. I think that’s an understandable misconception. Star Talk is not science education in the traditional sense that we use the word education. Star Talk is a mechanism by which the public can get their interest in science stimulated. It’s a mechanism by which we can promote curiosity within you. This isn’t doesn’t really come under the category education, where we could give you a test or an exam to see how well you’ve learned the material. That’s not what’s going on here. What’s going on here is a celebration of science literacy that allows the audience to recognize that science is ubiquitous and trending.
Star Talk has a unique format. Rather than showing your complete interview with the weekly celebrity guest then turning to the panel for further commentary, you start with the panel and cut away to segments of the celebrity interview as a way to drive the conversation. I don’t think I’ve seen that anywhere else.
There’s a reason why we do that: because, with occasional exceptions, my guests are not themselves scientists. My guest is just somebody who has a following: a politician, performer, magician, singer, actor, actress or whatever, and I don’t know in advance where that conversation is going to go because it’s not a Q&A interview, it’s a conversation.
For example, with Susan Sarandon, we talked about whether the creativity of the human mind is enhanced or diminished after being under the influence of psychedelic drugs. If you take drugs, are you more connected to the universe or less? That became a question of psychology and psychopharmacology for our expert to tackle. So if Susan Sarandon says “oh, cannabis does this,” my in-studio guest will be an expert in altered mental states who can speak with expert commentary about what she just said in the conversation.
This way, we get the benefit of celebrity, the benefit of academic expertise and if it gets a little heavy we bring in levity from my cohost, who is a stand up comedian. The comedian and the academic guest are valves who ensure there’s a consistent level of fun, humor and learning from show to show. And if a guest happens to be particularly scientific I can dial back the in-studio guest and bring in someone who might not be an academic professional, like a journalist.
Speaking of stand up comedians, one of your cohosts is Chuck Nice. Very funny guy.
Gotta love some Chuck Nice. He’s got good timing, he’s hilarious, he’s smart, and he knows what we’re trying to do. He knows he’s serving this larger purpose of the program, acting as a valve on the flow of information.
I’m a big fan of stand-up comedians, as are others on the staff of Star Talk such as my co-executive producer Helen Matsos. We both cruise comedy clubs, look to see who is up and coming, who has good wit, who is smart, and we always have two or three in rotation along with a core four, including Chuck, that we return to persistently.
Another one of your comedic guests is Seth MacFarlane, who not only produces Family Guy but also executive produced Cosmos. How does Mr. MacFarlane’s participation help communicate the ubiquity of science?
It’s not that we’re communicating that science is ubiquitous, it’s that the conversations we’re having manifest that fact without having to say it.
So there we are with Seth Macfarlane and we have a big detour through Stewy and his inventions: his time machine, his weather machine, his laser gun, etc. I actually become the science advisor on one episode of Family Guy because Seth and I had lunch and he asked me twenty questions about the Big Bang. So I’ve known from the beginning that he has an extraordinary scientific appetite, as well as a geek center within him. Look at all the parodies he’s done of Star Wars, Star Trek and these recurring ComiCon tropes, he runs rampant with them in Family Guy.
One of the recent episodes of the Star Talk podcast covered a topic near and dear to my heart: human colonization of Mars. With NASA announcing a new program this week to send humans to Mars by the 2030s and The Martian currently in theaters, do you think humanity will ever achieve our long-term goal of sending Matt Damon to another planet?
Ha ha! He’s now been on two planets in two years, Interstellar and The Martian. To the extent that we are not ready to go to Mars, I am very happy to send our most celebrated actors there on the silver screen, and that’s basically what’s happened with Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian and other hundred-million dollar movies with high profile directors like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott.
And the rest of us? When will we be able to visit the Red Planet? Or will it always be robots?
Robots are great if we’re after science, but no one gives ticker tape parades for robots. The largest portion of NASA’s budget is the manned program.
But I think we need an economic reason to go. Wanting to go is not enough. If we find oil on Mars, we’ll be there in 9 months. What I’d like to do is whisper in the head of China’s ear that they should leak a memo about building military bases on Mars. That ought to speed things up a little.
Season 2 of Star Talk premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, October 25th at 11/10c.