Not bad for an astrophysicist—he’s the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium—who has carved out a lucrative second career making sense of science for the average guy.
Having hosted Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and StarTalk, a radio show and podcast, Tyson launches the latter as a Monday night TV series starting tonight (National Geographic Channel, 11/10c), following the special Hubble’s Cosmic Journey, which he narrates. He told us about guests past and future—and how he’s handling life as a pop culture icon.
“If I never got another call I’d be happy doing my science research. Yes, I’m in bigger venues now but still speaking the way I have before. I’m still me, but the platform is bigger.”
Where did you get the idea for the show?
StarTalk exists as a thriving radio show and podcast right now, and in fact, it was selected by iTunes as one of the Top 10 podcasts of 2014. It’s a mixture of comedy, science and pop culture fully blended. I’m the host, yet I’m the scientist, and my guests are hardly ever scientists. They’re from pop culture. It could be entertainment. It could be sports. We’ve even interviewed journalists, people who have a following. We orchestrate a conversation around them that constantly detours into science and all the ways that science has influenced that person’s livelihood. And in this way, we bring science to people who didn’t know they liked science or maybe thought that they didn’t like science.
And the goal of StarTalk, when we started it five years ago, was to find the people who don’t know, believe, or understand that science is all around us. And by getting people from pop culture explaining how science plugs in to them, this alerts people how and why science matters in our lives. The interview comes first and we see how the science plays out and craft the show around that. We show these taped interviews and the panel discusses them. We’ll also have Bill Nye doing a one‑minute rant about some topic he will have a strong opinion on or he’s angry about.
Who’s on the guest list?
George Takei, Christopher Nolan, Jimmy Carter. Then there’s Richard Dawkins, an avid atheist and author, and we brought in a rather liberal Catholic priest to offer commentary. We’re not completely outside of having point/counterpoint, but the goal is for you to learn, not for you to watch a fight. I’m not attracted to conflict for conflict’s sake.
Who are some of your more memorable interviews?
On the radio/podcast we’ve had Whoopi Goldberg, who was in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a bartender. With Andy Serkis, we talked about primate evolution, the challenge of imitating great apes and other creatures with human musculoskeleture.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey was a big hit last year and won four Emmys. What was the highlight for you?
I’d say all the scenes on the Ship of the Imagination were fun to do. It’s all green screen so I’m just imagining what’s there. Of course I wanted one. We filmed it asynchronously so it was quite a challenge keeping my weight exactly the same.
Has your life changed since it aired?
Previously I’d given many talks in a year but now they’re major performance venues that want me, not just college campuses. I’m doing Foxwoods in Connecticut, a 4,000-seat arena. What’s cool is there’s that much appetite for science. Who would have thought?
You must be more in demand for other things. What’s on your to-do list?
I’m more passive than I seem to be. I have some books I still want to write that I put on hold when we did Cosmos—nothing reportable at this moment. I am still fundamentally an academic. I don’t have TV career ambitions. That’s the difference here. If I never got another call I’d be happy doing my science research. Yes, I’m in bigger venues now but still speaking the way I have before. I’m still me, but the platform is bigger.
Since Cosmos I’ve been getting requests for voiceovers, TV commercials. I don’t feel like a TV commercial guy. I did voice a smart pig in a Disney XD cartoon and was asked to play myself on Family Guy. I’d already been on The Big Bang Theory as myself—things I can do without compromising anything. That’s me reaching pop culture and it’s consistent with the Twitter stream and everything else.
You’re a scientist but also a pop culture figure yourself, a showbiz brand. Was that hard to get used to?
I don’t think much about it. Other people design the sets etc. It’s fun to think about but I’m not going to pretend I have any expertise. I’m happy to do my thing, and I’m enchanted that the public has this appetite and I’m happy to continue to feed it as long as it’s there. But I don’t start my day saying, ‘What can I do for the brand?’ It’s an organic thing.
Do you watch science fiction shows?
I love science fiction, and I love me a great high‑budget science fiction story on the big screen. My preference is the large budget that enables the bigger palette of cinema to tell the science fiction stories. On television, I tend to prefer more intelligent drama—then I’m less critical of how much they spent on special effects and other elements. The Big Bang Theory on CBS has convinced me that science is mainstreaming. That can only be good for the future of the country. We’re in an era now where I think science has been humanized in a way that I think is long overdue, and I’d like to think that StarTalk is in the center of that.
Photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Scott Gries