6 Questions with Neil deGrasse Tyson
Explore the mind of world-famous astrophysicist and late-night talk show host Neil deGrasse Tyson. No stranger to answering tough questions on StarTalk, Neil is also the author of countless books that investigate unknowns in astrophysics, physical cosmology, and science communication.
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The night sky inspires wonder — not just in geeky guys, but in us all. Humans are born curious about the mysteries of nature, regardless of where we come from or what we grow up to be, popular astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson believes. So the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium created StarTalk — the first ever late-night talk show about science — to entertain anyone who is naturally curious about everything.
National Geographic Channel’s Emmy-nominated show is a brainy cocktail party mixing celebrities like Ben Stiller with scientists like Bill Nye. Between jokes, Tyson and his guests wonder about life on Mars, medical marijuana, prejudice against atheists and why there aren’t more superheroes with “natural big asses” like middle-aged women (credit guest Whoopi Goldberg with that thought).
When I started my conversation with Tyson about his latest brainchild to stir up science with pop culture and how he defines curiosity, he asked me quickly, in his friendly informal way, to just call him Neil.
What do you say to the purist who says presenting science in an entertaining way waters down science?
StarTalk is reaching millions of people, who may go on to watch documentaries, read books and learn more. We don’t think of our hour as “here is my lesson,” but rather, “Here is a topic you might not know about. We’ll stimulate your curiosity.” Education is not simply what you learn in a formal academic setting but your capacity to keep learning once the seed of curiosity is planted.
How about watering down science?
I’ve never been accused of watering down science. If I’m talking about science, I’m using the real language. Of course, I’m selective about what I share with you. But my guests are scientifically literate; they are chosen for that. The comedians are not there just to crack a joke, per se, but to make the material engaging. You learn better when you’re having fun.
You’ve been interested in science since age nine when you visited the Hayden Planetarium, which you direct now, and where StarTalk is filmed. How do parents maintain a sense of curiosity in their children?
First off, my biggest concern is not whether we’ve got curious kids. Kids are born curious. My biggest concern is the huge presence of scientifically illiterate adults who are in charge of things, in a millennium where fluency in science can make the difference between civilization surviving and going extinct. Adults outnumber kids five to one and are the majority of people watching StarTalk. My goal has always been to reach the people in charge — and those who vote for the people in charge. Regarding kids: What I always say is parents should get out of the way more than they currently do. You don’t have to make kids curious. You just have to get out of their way as they express that. Then I see no reason they won’t stay curious for the rest of their lives.
In 1959 physicist and novelist C.P. Snow wrote that people in the sciences and the humanities don’t speak the same language anymore. Do you find this still to be the case, as you move between pop culture and academia?
You don’t hear his comment spoken much anymore because you have artists, novelists, sculptors, screenplay writers who use scientific terms in their art. Gravity, The Martian, Interstellar. These are films you need a scientific literacy to write.
I think artists who are scientifically literate make the most influential people. Art speaks to the soul of your imagination. Science not only helps to anchor that in what is but helps the creative mind to imagine a future we might strive for.
We have this new kind of person in modern society. Take Brian May, the lead guitarist of Queen. After he starred in Queen, he went back for his Ph.D. in astrophysics. Now his art informs his science, and his science informs his art. Any time I hear from an artist thinking of adding a scientific element to their work, I am there for them. I like to see them start with science then open the gates to see where their imagination leads.
When scientists communicate to the public, they often fail to be engaging and understood. Are there lessons you’ve learned about how to avoid this?
Yes, I’ve learned a lot. How did I learn? By speaking to people who are asking me questions about the universe. While I answer, I watch their eyes and monitor their eyebrows: Are they interested, bored or confused? I’m checking word by word on what they are resonating with and what they are not. I’ve converted my lifetime of communicating about science into an instrument for gauging interest and am always calibrating it to open as wide as possible the conduits of communication.