Editor's note: In addition to authoring several popular science books, including his recent, Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, Neil deGRasse Tyson, interviewed here, serves as Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and was recently named People Magazine’s 'Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive.' He may be most known for his numerous appearances on the Comedy Channel's The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. Learn more about Star Talk Radio here. Listen to the audi version of this interview here.
PA: Could you talk a little about the format of StarTalk Radio and the inspiration for this new kind of science show.
NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: I am the host of StarTalk. I’m an astrophysicist, and I have a co-host, Lynne Koplitz, who is a professional standup comedienne. I had seen her work and saw how creative and progressive she was in her commentary about life, politics, social mores, and the like, and was curious whether the mix between science content and her take on science content would make interesting listening for the radio listener. So we got together. I also have two collaborators in this who were sort of the creators of it. One is a guy named David Gamble and the other is Helen Matsos – so it was the three of us recognizing that this might work as a radio setup. The way it works is we’re there in the studio and there is a topic of the day. I talk about the topic, and then Lynne riffs on it. That’s basically what happens. The goal is to convince people that science is all around us, and science that doesn’t have to be as though you’re taking medicine, that you can have fun with it. And that’s what we do for an hour on StarTalk.
PA: Science seems to be a really serious and dry subject. What’s it like to work with a comedian, who isn’t an expert on science?
TYSON: Well, she is smart! She’s smart enough to know how to ask me interesting questions, first of all. Second, the paradigm that science is dry comes about because the scientific community is not rewarded for whether or not they make it interesting to the public. There are no rewards for that. So they just proceed on the frontiers of research. But there are a lot of humorous things out there. I’ll give you an example: What would happen to you if you fell into a black hole? Well, the gravity would stretch you head-to-toe and rip apart your molecules, and you would fall into the center of the black hole as a stream of atoms. That’s kind of interesting to know about. Not only that – there are a lot of sort of disaster scenarios that are interesting to reflect on. For example, there is an asteroid called Apophis that is headed our way. Why is it called Apophis? Because Apophis is the Egyptian god of death and darkness. Why was it named that? Because we calculated the orbit and found out that it is headed towards earth, so you don’t name that one Bambi or Jennifer, you name it Apophis. So there are places to explore in the moving frontier of research that have interesting sidelights to them or just interesting tidbits of information, and this is what we seek out – this is how we explore the medium. Here’s another example: We were talking recently about communicating with beings on other planets and the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Project. So what does the modern-day search look like? Well, we send out electromagnetic waves of different wave lengths. So Lynne asks, “What are electromagnetic waves?”, and I say “It’s just light. Some light you can see, most light you can’t see. Like radio waves, you can’t see radio waves. You can’t see microwaves. You can’t see x-rays.” And so she says, “X-rays? You mean we can send my mammogram into space?” So there are these funny little twists in the show’s content that take us to places that a normal radio talk show would not go.
PA: Your specialty is astrophysics. Are there other areas of science, besides space and space exploration, that you will be working on?
TYSON: There is breadth on StarTalk that is enabled just by my own breadth of interests. We are going to have a whole show on global warming, for example. But we will always take a cosmic view of it, because there is global warming on Venus, as well. So I will spend more time talking about the global warming on Venus and other planets than about ice-core samples in Greenland, just because that’s is the angle we are approaching the subject from. But space and the universe is a huge swath. It includes not only the space missions that are going on. We have a whole riff on GPS and the voice that is used in cars that will tell you where you are going. Lynne says, “Do we have something like GPS if we’re looking for asteroids?” And she puts on the voice: “There is an asteroid about to collide in 100 yards.” So there are cute places that the banter can go and does go. There’s not only space exploration, but Rovers on Mars, the shuttle, the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. We’re going to have a special show on just that. There is debate about the value of space exploration in everyday life that many people like to have over beer, and so we’ll be talking about that as well. We talk about space tourism and space spin-off products. We have a whole show dedicated just to time travel in Einstein’s universe – the way relativity allows you to travel through time.
And we can loosen it up a bit. For example, a show we haven’t done yet but we plan to is one on the influence of space on artists. We have an interview already in the can with Peter Max, who reflects on the fact that when he was 10 years old he wanted to be an astronomer. He ended up becoming an artist, but his interest in the universe influenced his artwork. So to this day practically everything he has ever illustrated has a Saturn in it or a crescent moon, or stars or something cosmic in it. So there is a whole show on the role of space as it influences the creativity of artists.
I also have an interview with Stephen Colbert, which we are going to slot in. We have pre-taped interviews that are slotted into the banter between me and Lynne Koplitz, since we cannot always get a guest who is available for the live broadcast. Stephen Colbert has had more scientists on his show than almost any other talk show host has. I wanted to interview him to understand what his personal mission statement was. He feels very strongly about the value of science in society. One of the best ways he knows how to bring science to the public is to have scientists as guests. I have been a guest on his show six times, and I would get big-headed about that were it not for the fact that he has scientific guests all the time. Every week there is somebody from some branch of science.
PA: Do you think there is a growing popular interest in science related to the President’s strong emphasis and strong endorsement of science, an emphasis that differs from the recent past? What is your take on the political dimension of science, now that President Obama has put it at the forefront of a lot of his administration’s policies?
TYSON: There is no question that the President has influence over public discourse in ways that go beyond legislation that gets written or passed. If a President mentions science, as Obama did in his inaugural speech, that becomes something that people talk about, simply because the President talked about it.
The influence and the force that exists within the executive branch is huge in this regard. You have all these talk shows, radio talk shows, as well as television talk shows that have to fill 24/7, and if the President starts talking about science, then they’re going to start talking about science, and they are going to have to get a science expert, and they are going to have to bring in somebody to make science part of the daily parlance. Then somebody is going to write an op-ed, and the access that people have to science as an enterprise grows.
That can only be a good thing for the nation, because innovations in science and technology are the foundations of the growth of tomorrow’s economy. That has been true ever since the Industrial Revolution, and we have long known that those countries which have embraced science and technology have become economic power houses in the world. So to the extent that we move away from investments in science, we will simply fade on the world scale of power and influence.
PA: Lastly, what is your personal goal in trying to make science interesting, funny and popular, and to kind of spread the knowledge?
TYSON: I think there are people who might not have the patience to watch an entire hour of a documentary, or who are not quite in the demographics of NPR. But there are many people out there who have retained an interest in learning and even an interest in science who might not even have gone to college. I call them blue-collar intellectuals. I have statistics on this, personal statistics. Of the 30 people a day who ID me on the street, people who say “Aren’t you the guy who I saw on TV” – of those 30 a day, about two dozen of them are working class people. It’s the meter maid, it’s the cop, it’s the construction worker, the sanitation worker, the taxi driver; it’s the person at the checkout line.
None of these are people – I know because I asked – who know me from the books I have written. They know me because of the appearances I have made on TV programs that are not even your traditional outlets. They are Discovery Channel junkies and they still want to learn. For whatever reason, they didn’t end up going to college, either because it wasn’t a family tradition or there was no family expectation of it, or they had to get married, or whatever. They didn’t go to college, but they have remained intellectually curious.
So I see this as science for the common man, science for people who never imagined they would have liked science at all, but realize that, in fact, it is really interesting to know and to learn about. In this new radio format, which is still baking by the way, because we have starter money from the National Science Foundation to explore the formula, our goal is to try to get people to think about science who have never had the occasion to do so. And these people are voters, they are people who matter in the electorate, people who are part of this nation that we call America. America’s self-image is as a technological and scientific leader, and that leadership is eroding right now, because the rest of the world understands its value, and they are investing in their future through their science and technological creativity.
PA: How are we going to be able to hear StarTalk, other than on the radio. Is the show going to be online?
TYSON: The show broadcasts live in Los Angeles from KTLK at noon, and it has a delayed broadcast a week later in Washington, DC, but it is streamed live on StarTalkRadio.Net, and an archive of the shows is available there to download. And very shortly, the shows will be podcastable through a partnership we have created with Discover Magazine. They have a podcast portal that we will be tapping for this purpose.
PA: Great. We’ll be listening.
TYSON: Thank you for your interest. That was a good question you asked about the politics, because if the President puts up a science umbrella and everyone can speak about science with that kind of endorsement, it changes the landscape completely.