With three seasons of StarTalk and as many Emmy nominations behind him, host Neil Degrasse Tyson occupies a rarefied space in the world, as a scientist who is known by name the world over.
An ambassador for science describing himself as “your personal astrophysicist,” Tyson has found a way to balance humor, entertainment and education in such a way that science becomes exciting and accessible—to science buffs, to those who don’t know they like science, and “better yet,” to people who are quite sure they don’t like science.
Incorporating extended interviews with celebrities of all kinds, discussing the ways in which science has touched their lives, StarTalk also features panel conversations with comedians and scientific experts who give Tyson and his audience the chance to learn something new.
Speaking with Deadline, Tyson outlines the roots of StarTalk—which began as a radio show funded by a National Science Foundation Grant—a series that privileges curiosity above all else.
As a project, StarTalk spans a number of years and several formats. How did the program come to be?
It has very ambitious roots. We first came up with the idea that there are people who are not being exposed to science because they’re simply not interested in science. It’s a pretty simple concept. They’re not interested, so they don’t tune in to science programs.
Then we asked, “Well, why don’t they tune into science programs? What’s the format of traditional science programming?” There typically may be a journalist interviewing a scientist—you tune in and no matter who the scientist is, you get a good interview and you learn some science.
Then we thought, How do we attract people who don’t know they like science? Or better yet, people who are pretty sure that they don’t like science? What we did was invert the model and we made me, a scientist, the host. We made our guests people who are generally not scientists, hewn from pop culture, each one of whom has a following who will follow them to this conversation that I have with them.
The conversation I would then have would orbit everything they do professionally, or throughout their arc of life that landed them there, and I would tease out of that conversation all the science and technology that had touched their lives. That way, their fan base would hear their favorite person, whoever that might have been, have a conversation about science, and you would see that science is just a fundamental part of life, manifesting not only in the lab, but in all walks of the artistic landscape.
So we said, “Alright, we know there’s not going to be any sponsor of this because we have to demonstrate that it will work.” We applied for and won a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation. We said, “We are so confident that once we get on the landscape, we’ll get sponsors, that we can make this a phase-out grant, where the first year is fully funded, the next year is a little less, the next year even less, and all the while, we’re compensating the drop in grant with the rise in ad revenue.”
It took us five years instead of three years, but in the fifth year, we broke even, we got noticed—and by the way, we are terrestrial radio at this point. It was conceived as a radio show. Then we said, “There’s not reason why we can’t also post as podcast.” Podcast became an easy addition to this: We ended up listed on iTunes, one of the few science programs on iTunes, and we did very well. We were routinely in the top 10 of all podcasts, not just science podcasts.
That got us noticed. We ended up lifting to Sirius XM Radio, where we are now, and after several years of these weekly shows under our belt, there’s enough to actually air them daily.
Meanwhile, I end up doing Cosmos for Fox. Fox and NatGeo actually have had a very long relationship, which ultimately got consummated in the last year or two, where they’re now completely merged. Cosmos premieres on Fox and then goes internationally on the National Geographic Channel. So the National Geographic folks said, “We like what you’ve been doing. Do you want to do more TV with us?”
And I said, “No.” I just said, “No, I’m not a TV guy. If you want to do TV, film the radio show, because there’s already plenty of evidence of radio shows that are filmed that people watch. Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh—they’re just sitting there at a microphone, and there’s a parked camera in the corner of the room.”
I said, “At a minimum, we at least have interesting content. We should be competitive on that landscape,” and NatGeo said, “No, we can do even better than that.” They put up money to have the full retinue of cameras, and we film in the Hall of the Universe of the American Museum of Natural History, which is my home institution.
This is when it jumped species from purely audio to also video, and NatGeo now acquires 20 out of our 50 shows a year to put on television. Each of our three seasons, we’ve been nominated for an Emmy.
What does it mean for a series of this nature to be recognized in this way?
I was particularly charmed by the fact that somebody was paying attention to what we were doing. To me, it didn’t even matter that we won, it’s that here’s a new thing. It is the first time a science talk show has ever appeared on television, in the 70-year history of television.
So somebody’s paying attention. Someone cares. The product’s tightened over the last couple of years, but our guests are strong. The conversations are rich, and the viewing base has continued to grow. We’ve all just been delighted.
How have you managed to balance the educational aspects of your show with entertainment value, and why is that balance important?
In the experimenting we did over the three years of the grant—because when you have grant money, there are deliverables, there’s assessments—there’s what you wanted to accomplish, and did you actually accomplish it? Are you doing anything to promote science among girls in school? Minorities?
There’s a social responsibility as a part of the grant money that we had received, and what that did was sensitize us to a variety of ways that we could be most successful. One of them, which we learned early, was that if you’re laughing, you want more. It’s that simple. We realized, if you’re laughing with just a pure comedian, then you want to hear more jokes, but if you’re laughing and you’re learning about science, then the urge to want to laugh more is now conjoined with the learning of more science.
As host of the show, we have the celebrity in the main interview, and we’ll typically bring in an academic expert in studio, and a professional stand-up comedian who is my sustained co-host. There’s not a requirement that a lot comes out of the interview, only that there’s enough to trigger points in studio that we explore further.
Here’s how it works: I have a steering wheel, and I steer through the content that we’ve established can make sense, given the main interview. I have a levity knob, and that knob serves the comedian. And I have a gravity knob that serves the academic expert. I blend these two knobs as the host, controlling the flow of the show so that we hit a consistent combination of enlightenment, humor and a celebrity basking.
I think the reason why we jumped species and landed on television is because of the celebrities. When you watch late-night talk shows, you want to see the celebrities, so we got that! When you watch late-night talk shows, you want to laugh. We’ve got that!
But what we also have is that at the end of that hour, you’re going to come out and you would’ve learned something. A tag line I wanted to use—but our marketing people said, “No, it’s too obnoxious”— was, “Learn something for a change.” [laughs] We don’t use that, but I think that every time.
As an astrophysicist of great celebrity, you occupy a rarefied position in the world. What has the celebrity component of your experience been like for you?
My visibility is still really weird to me. I don’t know that I will ever grow accustomed to it. I’m rising through 9 million Twitter followers—everyday, I wake up, look at that number and say, “There’s something wrong here. Do these people know that I’m an astrophysicist? Should I remind them so that they can still pull out from the list?”
What I find resonates is that I don’t use Twitter to tell people where I’m going or what I’m doing. Many people do that. “Oh, I’m eating a hamburger now.” I’m an educator, so every Tweet, it’s got to have something where at the end of the Tweet, you’ve learned something, or become a little more enlightened.
I see this as an enormous responsibility that I gladly shoulder, but I don’t take it lightly because people are coming to me as possibly their only portal to someone who is thinking scientifically daily. Most people have never even met a scientist, much less one that they can talk to every day.
Though you’re an expert on so many subjects, you’re still willing to open up and learn from guests who might know more on a given topic. As a fundamentally curious person, do you consider that a privilege?
Obviously, if the topic is astronomically related, I certainly have expertise, but it’s always good to bring in a colleague of mine, because even though there’s a strong overlap in our mutual Venn diagram, usually there’s a little perspective that another can bring. But two-thirds of the time or more, it’s a subject I don’t have expertise in. It could be psychology, or neuroscience or engineering, and I’m delighted to bring in an academic expert to celebrate whatever topic got put on the table from the celebrity interview.
If there’s a day I don’t learn something, that’s a wasted day. But you’re right: We don’t say this explicitly, but [the show] is not so much a celebration of knowledge— it’s a celebration of curiosity, and if you can sustain curiosity into adulthood, then learning never ends. It becomes a source of enlightenment and enrichment to your life.
A clip of you speaking at a commencement ceremony has recently gone viral, in which you speak about the problem of “fuzzy thinking.” Do you see this problem as applying to our political climate, when it comes to science?
Interesting—that might have been a pretty old clip, at least 10 years old. I generally don’t talk about politicians, particularly elected politicians. They’re elected by an electorate, so you can beat the politician on the head all you want, but at the end of the day, there are people in a democratic process who put that person into power.
As an educator, my gripe—if I have one—is not with the politician, who is representing people who voted for them. My gripe is with the people who voted for them. f I see evidence of fuzzy thinking, or people think they fully understand something and act on it, but they don’t, and they could be empowered by learning how science works and what science is, then that’s what I’ll do.
My goal is to create an educational foundation that empowers people to then establish formed opinions about whatever politics they might have. That’s the strength of a democracy—it’s the contest of informed opinions, not a contest of ignorance. If people are fighting something that has already been established as objectively true, then you’re not actually having a political conversation, even if you think you are.
A big surprise to me was a tweet yesterday that went completely viral. I have 4000-plus Tweets—this is now like my second most retweeted Tweet. It’s crazy.
What did that Tweet concern?
There’s an eclipse coming up, right? The Tweet was saying, “We’re predicting an eclipse using the methods and tools of science, and it’s going to happen. We know, when the moon shadow is going to touch down, where you should be, how long the eclipse is going to last, and I don’t hear anybody in denial of that. Yet I use the same methods and tools of science and predict that there will be climate change for all the forces you know well, and somehow, people are in denial of that.”
The juxtaposition of the two was the point of that Tweet. That apparently is resonating with people.
So much of science fiction—a popular topic on StarTalk—is inherently nihilistic and frightening. Are you optimistic about the future of the human race?
The only answer I can give to you is to quote Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury was asked, “Why do you keep writing such dystopic stories in your science fiction? Is this the future you imagine we are going to confront?”
I’m paraphrasing here, but he said, “No, I write about those dystopic futures so that you know to avoid them.”