Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Smartest Man on TV

How 'Star Talk' host is using his show to change the world — and why he can wait to see the new 'Star Wars'

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the podcast, radio show and National Geographic Channel series 'StarTalk.' Credit: Dennis Van Tine/AP

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a slogan for his StarTalk TV show that he isn't allowed to use. "It's 'Learn something for a change,'" he says with a laugh. "Our marketing people think it's offensive. But I still think: 'Learn something for a change!'"

As an astrophysicist, author, lecturer, and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tyson has spent a career trying to turn the rest of the country into fellow science geeks. As America's go-go spaceman, he's hosted his StarTalk podcast, radio show and now TV series, along with Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, the recent update of Carl Sagan's iconic series. Along the way, the 56-year-old, New York-born Tyson has become a regular target for conservative media. The National Review dubbed him "the fetish and totem of the extraordinarily puffed-up 'nerd' culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States." ("White liberal nerds love this guy so much, he could defecate on them…and they would dance in the streets," opined one Fox News commentator.) "I'm not really who they're after," Tyson says, waving off the "smarter than thou" tag applied to him. "They've tried to create an easy target. But at the end of the day, I'm not the person they want to apply those comments to."

Indeed, Tyson remains his own, always opinionated and sometimes unpredictable self. "Resist the Hype," he Tweeted about the recent "Blood Moon" eclipse. "The size of today's 'Super' moon is to next month's full moon as a 16.07 inch pizza is to a 16.00 inch pizza." On October 25th, StarTalk returns for a second season on the National Geographic Channel, and again Tyson has recruited everyone from Bill Clinton to David Byrne, David Crosby and Seth MacFarlane to lure in the science-averse among us.

Since we're talking about a TV show: As a child of the Sixties, you must have grown up watching Star Trek and Lost in Space.
Yes. But with Lost in Space, I could never get around the fact that they're in a flying saucer that's spinning, but they can stand in it and look out the window and see everything. I said, "No, I'm not buying this — the scene should be spinning by!" So that was not one of my favorites. I was a mild Star Trek fan, but my favorite show then and now is The Twilight Zone. Especially the episode called "The Invaders."

Given the number of political candidates who still deny the existence of climate change, do you feel the message of StarTalk is more urgent than it was when you launched the radio show in 2009?
What's happened in the last several years is that you have people in society who are part of some kind of group — it could be a cultural or religious or political group, and they've organized themselves in ways where their beliefs have cherrypicked science in whatever way serves those beliefs. And if that's the kind of country we want to have, you are undermining the foundation of an informed democracy. You can deny climate change and find the one or two research papers that come close to what your worldview is, then reject everything else that does not align with your belief system. And that's okay if you're just a citizen. But if you are a person tasked with creating legislation that affects everyone? That is a recipe for disaster.

So when a candidate says, "I'm not a scientist" when it comes to climate change, do you roll your eyes?
No, because they're not scientists. Good leaders know what they know and don't know, but they also know there are gaps in their expertise. That's why you have advisors. For a candidate to say "I'm not a scientist" — fine, but get one and understand what science is and how it works. That's the minimum I'd want in someone who wants to be the leader of the free world.

What's the criteria for picking an entertainment-world guest for StarTalk?
The overall goal is to stimulate interest in science for people who never knew they had an interest in it. Or even better, the people who know they're not interested in science. This is a huge demographic in the United States. With StarTalk you're tuning in because guests are people in pop culture. The highest criteria is: Does that person have a following that might not otherwise be thinking of science? If so, I'm going to put them on the show.

Seth is a good example. We focused on the science of Family Guy, which tends to focus on the interventions of Stewie, but we also talked about the time machine. Seth is a serious science geek. It wasn't an accident that he took an interest in Cosmos and brought it to Fox. Before David Crosby gave a rat's ass about music, he was, by his own admission, the world's biggest science-fiction fan. He was a consumer of sci-fi storytelling and still thinks about it. We didn't get him to strum some chords.

Given its interstellar origins, would you consider booking a Scientologist on the show?

The hypothetical one would be Tom Cruise, and it would be hard not to bring up Scientology. But I don't criticize. In a free country you can believe whatever the hell you want. Tom Cruise is not a member of Congress. I wouldn't be there to fight Tom about it. He might tell me the role aliens play — and by the way, is that weirder than a man in a robe uttering Latin words and converting a wafer into the literal body of Jesus? All religions have beliefs and they're protected under the law, so fine.

"For a candidate to say "I'm not a scientist" — fine, but get one and understand how science works. That's the minimum I'd want in someone who wants to be the leader of the free world."

What do you think of Obama's track record so far on science?
In one of his speeches, the State of the Union, he spoke of a "Sputnik" moment. He gave a list of things he would compel Congress to do; two of them were high-speed Internet and high-speed light rail. I was listening and thinking, "No, you got this wrong. The list you just gave is stuff that should have been going on anyway." This is not an excuse to do what you should have already done — it's the excuse to do what is slightly beyond all our reach that stimulates innovation and rising above yourself. Make it a real Sputnik moment, a completely transformative goal we can all rally around...not something every civilized country should have had anyway.

I was at his speech in 2009 when he mentioned a mission to asteroids and sending humans to Mars. It was, "Over the next few decades we'll put investments in place to put a man on Mars in the 2030s." And I thought: "Is he going to be president in 2030? So what's his investment in this speech?" That's based on a budget not yet established, to be led by someone not yet elected. John Kennedy's speech was "let's go to the moon before he end of the decade," which would have been near the end of his second term if he hadn't been assassinated. He was committing his political capital to that result. So I don't know what it means for a president to promise something under another president. We need the electorate to completely want this.

Obama did recently increase NASA's budget.
It's half a billion on top of 20 billion dollars or whatever. It's the inflation rate. NASA has been pretty flat over the years. It shouldn't be that the agency goes hat in hand annually. The government should say, "Here's what we're going to do — we're going to have the ability to go anywhere we want in the solar system. We will learn to deflect asteroids or look for life on the surface of Mars. We will have tourist joyrides in and out of earth's orbit, and let's create launch vehicles for that." You budget that out and make it happen. Then you're mission-driven, and once you do that, big things happen.

The idea of finding a new Earth-like planet, like the recent discovery of one 1,400 light years away, seems to have captivated people. Does that tie in with the spate of apocalyptic and dystopian movies, books and TV series?
No. People have been apocalyptic from the very beginning. Maybe starting with the novel Frankenstein. That was science gone bad. Before that no one thought about it that way. Then you had Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and you get to the 1950s, Godzilla and Them — which had a female scientist, by the way. And then of course you had the modern disaster movies, Armageddon, Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow. So the idea that the earth might end is a popular storytelling topic. I don't see it has any unique relationship to today's discussion than it would have ever had over the decades.

Will we be seeing a second season of Cosmos?
There's talk of getting the band back together [laughs]. Our show followed the original by 35 years. So we'd like people to digest it a little and work its way into the culture. It's not The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad. There are deep ideas that go on in there. So we're in conversation but nothing is green-lit yet. It's likely, but I couldn't tell you when.

You recently tweeted a photo of the Death Star. Does that mean you're eagerly waiting the new Star Wars?

I'm Star Wars fluent, but I'm a bigger Trek fan. There's a promise of actual science going on in Star Trek — but not so much in Star Wars. I won't be first in line to see the new Star Wars. I can wait until it's on video! But I applaud the fact that it has people thinking about space.