A work­ing the­ory

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new TV show ‘StarTalk,’ posits that science can be­come part of the pop cul­ture fab­ric

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - ROBERT LLOYD tele­vi­sion critic >>>

As­tro­physi­cist Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Amer­i­can face of science, has a new talk show — or rather, he has an old talk show mov­ing from the In­ter­net to tele­vi­sion Mon­day. It’s called “StarTalk,” a sci­ence­and-com­edy rap ses­sion he has hosted since 2009, mainly as an au­dio pod­cast but also on video via the Nerdist net­work, which now be­comes a weekly late-night of­fer­ing of Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel.

This is news, even big news, even if Tyson is not ex­actly go­ing head to head with the daily “The Daily Show,” which like “StarTalk” airs at 11 p.m., or any net­work talk show. In light of the on­go­ing dis­cus­sion about di­ver­sity in late-night tele­vi­sion, it’s no­table that he adds an­other African Amer­i­can host to the mix.

But what’s per­haps most ex­cit­ing is that he’s bring­ing a sci­en­tist’s per­spec­tive into that mix — it’s an idea whose time has seem­ingly come and, in a time when many peo­ple with inf lu­ence be­lieve that es­tab­lished facts are things to be voted on, an idea that can’t come too soon.

“Pop cul­ture at face value views science as this other thing,” Tyson said re­cently by phone from New York City, where he lives and works. “Un­til you re­al­ize that science is ev­ery­where, it af­fects ev­ery­thing that you do, it af­fects how you com­mu­ni­cate, it af­fects your health, it af­fects your fu­ture, it af­fects your wealth. And ‘StarTalk’ is an ex­er­cise in high­light­ing for the public what role science ac­tu­ally plays in the sur­vival of so­ci­ety.”

As Tyson says in Mon­day’s open­ing episode — which fea­tures “Star Trek” nav­i­ga­tor and Twit­ter star Ge­orge Takei as its guest — he wants “to col­lide pop cul-

ture with science,” a meet­ing of worlds the host rep­re­sents in his own per­son. He has been a familiar fig­ure on talk shows and be­yond, mak­ing cameos on “The Big Bang The­ory” and “Star­gate At­lantis,” in a Su­per­man comic and on Red­dit.

Cur­rently the direc­tor of the Hay­den Plan­e­tar­ium at the Amer­i­can Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in New York, Tyson, 56, has been creep­ing into the na­tional con­scious­ness — a progress that reached a kind of crit­i­cal mass last year when he hosted “Cos­mos: A Space­time Odyssey,” a Seth Mac­Far­lane-pro­duced re­make of Carl Sa­gan’s “Cos­mos: A Per­sonal Voy­age.” The 13-episode se­ries aired si­mul­ta­ne­ously on Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel and Fox and spawned the lat­est of Tyson’s sev­eral books.

A friendly bear in a painted tie next to Sa­gan’s turtle­necked Zen pan­ther, if some highly non­sci­en­tific de­scrip­tions may be al­lowed, Tyson is science-ca­sual. He’s an aca­demic with a goof­ball streak, a big kid with a doc­tor­ate who says things like, “I just wanted to sort of chill with Ge­orge Takei and get his re­ac­tion to [‘Star Trek’] stuff that came true.”

Tyson to Takei: “The Kar­dashi­ans have been on longer than [the orig­i­nal] ‘Star Trek.’”

Takei: “But on ‘Star Trek’ we had the Car­das­sians.” If you laughed know­ingly at that, this is the show for you.

Part of his out­reach has been to ap­pear in night­clubs and at fes­ti­vals flanked by co­me­di­ans, of­ten in the com­pany of “Bob’s Burger’s” ac­tor and stand-up comic Eu­gene Mir­man.

“I’ve al­ways been a fan of co­me­di­ans,” Tyson said. “I think they’re mod­ern-day an­thro­pol­o­gists, as pre­servers of pre­vail­ing cul­tural and so­cial mores. We’ve known from the be­gin­ning that we wanted my co­hosts to be pro­fes­sional co­me­di­ans — not the kind who tell one-line jokes, ‘Did you hear the one about the,’ not that kind of co­me­dian, but the kind of co­me­dian who is an as­tute ob­server of our so­ci­ety, of life, of cul­ture.”

The TV ver­sion pre­serves the form and ex­cited tone of the pod­cast, with bet­ter pro­duc­tion val­ues and a big­ger stage — it’s recorded at the Nat­u­ral His­tory mu­seum, in the host’s of­fice and in “the Rose Cen­ter for Earth and Space, the Hall of the Uni­verse.”

Each week, Tyson pri­vately in­ter­views a big fig­ure from art or science or pol­i­tics — Christo­pher Nolan, Dan Sav­age, Richard Dawkins, Jimmy Carter, Ari­anna Huff­in­g­ton and Nor­man Lear are fea­tured in the show’s ini­tial episodes — then plays clips and riffs on them with a co­me­dian co­host (in­clud­ing Leighann Lord, Mir­man and pod­cast regular Chuck Nice) and a rel­e­vant ex­pert. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) ap­pears in brief filmed episodes.

The talk runs in frac­tal curlicues, from the shape of space to the hu­man propen­sity to dis­crim­i­nate and the his­tor­i­cal mu­ta­bil­ity of stereo­types, au­to­matic doors, chalk­boards, en­chi­ladas, putting wine in a blen­der and the “Star Trek” warp drive, which Tyson ad­mits, to the ap­par­ently gen­uine gasps of his in­ter­locu­tors, to have “in­cor­rectly de­scribed in my past.”

He thought it was a mat­ter of fold­ing space like a nap­kin. “That is so wrong,” he’s told. “You wrap the En­ter­prise in a subspace field and then you travel faster than light.”

There is a small, dimly heard au­di­ence, “but not such as what you might find on Jimmy Fal­lon,” said Tyson. “There are some chairs and cock­tail ta­bles, and those fill up rapidly with friends of friends and lo­cal folks; we’re not re­ally an au­di­ence-driven prod­uct, but there’s an au­di­ence-re­ac­tion sound­ing board.”

I men­tioned the rockstar re­cep­tion that evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Dawkins had re­ceived, be­fore a much larger au­di­ence on one of Tyson’s pod­casts and won­dered whether we might be see­ing a re­nais­sance of popular in­ter­est in sci­en­tific mat­ters.

“Yes,” he said, “but ‘re­nais­sance’ im­plies that it’s be­ing re­born. I think it’s a first rise, a science ap­petite be­ing re­vealed in the hearts and minds of the public. And among the var­i­ous points of ev­i­dence we point to, there is the wholly un­pre­dicted suc­cess of the TV sit­com ‘The Big Bang The­ory.’ I think if you had been a net­work ex­ec­u­tive and some­one walked up and said, ‘I have an idea — let’s have five sci­en­tists and an en­gi­neer and they’re all friends and they talk about their job, speak science flu­ently, and half the time you will not ex­plain what it is they’re say­ing — that’d be a great show, wouldn’t it?’ — you’d be out on the street five min­utes later.”

Would that show have been in­spi­ra­tional to him in his youth?

“Oh, I would have loved it. I loved ‘I Dream of Jean­nie’ be­cause the main char­ac­ter [an as­tro­naut] used a slide rule to fig­ure things out in his of­fice. I thought, ‘Hey, he’s an en­gi­neer, and he’s us­ing his brain.’ Oh, yeah, I would have been all over it.

“What this tells me is that this in­ter­est has been real, but it’s been un­der­cap­i­tal­ized be­cause we some­how as a cul­ture don’t think that science is fun or en­ter­tain­ing or a source of com­edy. There’s a bias. And I think the uni­verse is a hi­lar­i­ous place.” For in­stance? “I think it’s hi­lar­i­ous what hap­pens to you when you fall into a black hole,” said Tyson, with­out irony. “You get stretched and ripped apart — it’s not so much hi­lar­i­ous as en­ter­tain­ing. If I had to pick one way to die, that’s how I’d want to die. It’s far more in­ter­est­ing than get­ting hit by a bus.”

Richard Fore­man Jr. Fox


is ev­ery­where,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, per­haps the na­tion’s most vis­i­ble sci­en­tist. “It af­fects ev­ery­thing that you do.”

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