He’s made science more accessible and cool for everyone, intersecting it with pop culture and celebrity guests — the self-proclaimed “geek club” — on his podcast and TV show StarTalk.
Now, Neil deGrasse Tyson is back for a second season on the National Geographic Channel, with a star-packed guest list that includes former President Bill Clinton, Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, comedian Larry Wilmore, musician David Byrne and actress Susan Sarandon.
We talked with Tyson on the phone about his new season of his Emmy-nominated show. Tyson is just as affable as he is on his show, full of candor and quick to laugh. Read on for his fascinating views on how Hollywood is finally getting it right, especially with The Martian, his dream of having Bill Gates and Charlie Sheen on the show, and why everyone doesn’t need college.
How did Bill Clinton come to the show?
Neil deGrasse Tyson: I met him while he was president, and we’ve known of each other for that long. I’ve known that he’s always had an interest in science, so we put in a request. He knows who I am, because at one time he asked me to give presentation at the White House…I figured he owed me one [laughs].
Back in 2000, I was officially invited by Hillary to give a science presentation for her and Bill and their assembled guests, like the head of the National Science Foundation, NIH, and I gave that presentation. In the world of politics, people don’t forget when you do something for them.
I knew and he knew that we’d be talking about science and how much it meant to him and how it’s manifesting now with his business initiatives, like the Clinton Global Initiative, which is trying to solve social problems but in sustainable business ways that often require innovative scientific solutions. This is how that unfolds, because we are looking for science in the livelihood of the guest. There is no other common denominator required.
You also have Seth McFarlane and talk about how science is used in The Family Guy. Where else do you see pop culture and science brilliantly merging these days?
Tyson: First, I’ll give the obvious case that our culture is now spending millions to attract marquee lead actors to play in scientifically informed science-fiction films: The Martian, Gravity and Interstellar, and getting pre-eminent directors to do them. They are no longer just fringy, indie films — these are very real intersections of entertainment that are informed and infused by scientific and technological realities.
The Martian, what I tweeted about it, was maybe the first time ever that science and technology are themselves characters in the movie. You care about the science and care about the technology in same way you’d care about a person, each involving an understanding that to save their life, they must grow food, launch a craft, minimize energy consumption.
The @MartianMovie — where the protagonist survives not on Wit, Prayer, or Hope. but by “Sciencing the Shit" out of everything
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 2, 2015
Think about it: The now-required scene when someone in the spaceship is touching the screen and talking with their spouse and kid, the most touching scene, this movie was like, “Could you hurry up with that? I want to see if that experiment would work.” My emotions were all invested in the capacity to solve problems. That’s an extraordinary shift in storytelling.
Speaking of tweets and Seattle…
Today's @Bengals winning OT field goal was likely enabled by a 1/3-in deflection to the right, caused by Earth’s Rotation.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 11, 2015
Tyson: [Laughs] Oh, yeah, the Bengals-Seahawks game. I only tuned in during overtime. So I’m watching the kick and I think, “Wait a minute, that hit the post and a fraction of an inch either way and it would’ve bounced forward.” I’ve actually calculated this before, so I knew that a 50-yard field goal would deflect with half an inch either way, so I thought, “Holy shit, the Bengals won this on the rotation of the Earth.”
With Twitter, the craft is not what I come up with, it’s taking scientific information and cross-pollinating it with a pop culture event. You don’t need any prepping to receive the science because it’s already standing on the tilled soil of pop culture.
Back to Seattle-based things, have you ever invited Bill Gates to be on the show?
Tyson: Yes, we have, he’s your local dude. I’ve actually yet to meet him, but he and his wife had me participate in their annual letter that’s a video letter that describes some hopeful future. We know of each other. He also knows of me, and one day I’d love to have him as a guest.
Our best guests are not necessarily geeky people. The best guests are those who you don’t know are geeky. Seth McFarlane is an example, you wouldn’t know how into science he is, but then, oh my God, there’s Stewie the baby creating a time machine and they travel back in time to the Big Bang.
Seth and I had a lunch, and he had like 20 questions for me about science, and at the end of that episode, it says “science consultant Neil deGrasse Tyson.” You don’t do that unless you have secret geek underside.
Who are some other secretly geeky guests you’d like to get?
Tyson: One guest I wanna get on is Charlie Sheen. I’ll tell you why. I come to my office [at the American Museum of Natural History in New York], and there’s a couple and a young girl over to side, and the man has on one of those celebrity hats where you can’t see their face, and he’s accompanied by our VIP services rep. So he’s like, “Oh Neil, I want to introduce you to Charlie Sheen.”
It was the first time I met him, and his ex-wife, Denise Richards, was next to him, and they have their daughter in tow, and we chatted briefly, and I invited them to come to my office. So we go up to office, and he spends 20 minutes asking me questions about the universe, like if there could have been an event before the Big Bang that channeled itself into that, and about stars being made of gas, and one day they’ll run out of gas, and that all stars must die, and I’m thinking, “Is this the ho-chaser, drug-abuser Charlie Sheen?”
Who knows this about him? Nobody knows this about him. This guy reads and thinks about cosmic questions. I gotta bring him back on StarTalk one day.
Barack Obama would also be nice to have as a guest.
You ask every interviewee about his or her experiences with science. Who so far has really stood out as your favorite “getting inspired by science” story?
Tyson: What I actually ask them is, “What are their experiences with sciences, good or bad?” I don’t presume they are interested in science. It could be a bad experience, and I want to tease that out of them.
For example, Hope Solo, the goalie for the women’s national soccer team, I asked her, “Do you have any experiences as a kid?” And she said that in the third grade, “I was supposed to launch a rocket out of the school’s backyard and mine imploded and melted, and they just said, ‘Next rocket.’ ” And she was devastated by this because everyone else’s rocket flew and hers didn’t. Those negative experiences are also interesting stories to tell about relationships with science.
You say in your show that you like talking to anyone exhibiting “futuristic creativity,” and that there are some who are just honed to do certain things.
Tyson: The fact is that most of the truly innovative, creative people are not on purpose turned out this way. They are either college dropouts or people who never went to college at all.
In fact, a surprising number of our guests have not graduated college. Biz Stone co-founded Twitter and he’s a college dropout, and many others from this new season. The list is impressive, and how impressive is it that these people have done incredible things despite not having attended college? It leaves me wondering whether we need to shift our priorities in our country to allow someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit to not feel that there’s nothing wrong with them if they don’t go to college. We live in world where you are valued intellectually only if you go to college.
It’s a tradition, and I’m an academic, so why am I telling you not to go to college? I can tell you that there are certain ways of thinking that college does not promote, and many of those ways of thinking can invest in new ways of tomorrow.
StarTalk’s second season premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, Oct. 25, at 11 p.m. PT.