On April 20, National Geographic debuted Neil deGrasse Tyson’s latest vehicle, Star Talk, a TV version of his long-running podcast of the same name. The show, like the podcast, mixes science, comedy and pop culture, with Tyson orchestrating a conversation with guests from all of those worlds. The first episode featured an in-depth discussion about life and Star Trek with George Takei, punctuated by banter between Tyson and his guests, comedian Leighann Lord and astrophysicist Charles Liu. Forthcoming episodes will feature guests from Richard Dawkins, astronaut Chris Hadfield and NASA’s Charles Bolden to Jimmy Carter, Biz Stone, and Dan Savage (watch Tyson interrogate monogamy with Savage on the show’s web previews).
Even with all of those diverse guests, Star Talk gets its dynamic pace and broad scope, of course, from Tyson, who has emerged not just as America’s best known Tweeting astrophysicist, but our society’s ambassador for Being Interested in Life. There are few media personalities who inspire the particular kind, and level, of public affection Tyson does, and practically no scientists who have become bona fide social media stars.
Tyson has eared his fans with his excitable erudition, his mellifluous delivery and enthusiasm for engaging in science-infused pop culture debates. But perhaps the main reason Tyson’s been so successful as a crossover artist is simply authenticity–his quotable exclamations are real; they come from his passion for science. He uses Twitter and the media fame to boost the science, not the other way around. (It should be noted that while team Fast Company was waiting in Tyson’s office at the Hayden Planetarium before our interview, Tyson could be heard in another room talking actual physics.)
When we sat down to talk to Tyson about Star Talk, naturally we couldn’t help veering into other areas, and that’s perfectly in keeping with Tyson’s M.O. Watch the videos below for his takes on curiosity, the credibility of the right brain / left brain construct, the unique talent of Jon Stewart, the nature of creativity, and the state of science in America.
Tyson seems preternaturally gifted at combining art–a flair for language and presentation–with science. But he’s been working at it since his youth. Caring about words, he says, goes back to an early job he had writing a science Q&A for Star Date magazine when he was in his twenties (so yes, he does write his own tweets, thanks). But he also talks about a lesson learned when he was a kid walking into a library and realizing that “A well stocked library has to have everything, essentially. Ever since then I’ve made that an analogy for life.”
“Not enough people reach out to everything around them,” he says. “The more you know, the more you are empowered to make connections that no one else thought to do… I think that’s the soul of creativity.”
Is the accepted notion of the right brain / left brain dichotomy scientifically sound? “I’m disappointed with some aspects of civilization,” answers Tyson. “One is our unending urge to bypass subtlety of character, thought, and expression and just categorize people … If you want to understand who and what a person is, have a conversation with him.”
There’s one label he’ll take he says: “I’m a scientist. It says a lot about how my brains is wired, how I think, my curiosity, my wonder… When I want to judge what it is I can accomplish, I look to, ‘What have human beings accomplished?’ That’s what I use as my reference for what I’m capable of as a human being. Don’t call me left brain / right brain. Call me human.”
Despite facts that much be disheartening to a scientist (42% of Americans don’t really believe in evolution), Tyson almost always presents as optimistic on the future of humanity, in his public appearances. “As an educator, I’d be remiss if i didn’t share with whoever will listen what the value is of being scientifically and technologically literate. I’d feel like I was failing in some duty as a citizen of the world if I didn’t share that enthusiasm with others … It’s that enthusiasm that empowers you to invent a better tomorrow.”
The format of Star Talk presents its host with a significant challenge–juggling topics and personalities from comedy to astrophysics, literally, and dialing the pop culture and hard science up or down as needed, depending on the flow and tone of conversation. “I think of them as threads that are stitched together into a quilt so by the end of the show you are warmed by this quilt we’ve made,” he says. And if he has a model from the world of talk show hosts, it’s Jon Stewart. “No matter who he is interviewing at no point do you say he is showcasing himself. He’s smart, clever, funny but the vector never goes back to him. Star Talk is not about me. It’s about science, smiling, and the pop culture being brought to the table by a guest. If it’s about me, I’ve failed.”