Whether you’re an astrophysicist like Neil DeGrasse Tyson or not, “Startalk” will pique your interest in science. Now in its third season on the National Geographic channel, the series makes science accessible to everyone, featuring a range of guests from every corner of pop culture. We got to chat with Dr. Tyson about the shows beginnings, the importance of science literacy in everyday life and even get an unexpected science lesson about global warming.
Before the TV show, “Startalk” was a podcast. What inspired the concept?
Part of it was that I wanted to educate people. I could have a radio show where I only interview scientists, but then it presupposes that you already like science. And, we have shows for that. There’s the very well done “Good Science Friday” on NPR. But suppose you don’t know that you like science or suppose you think you don’t like science. How do you ever reach those folks? So when my fellow executive producers and I created the show we said, “Why not have me as the host and then we interview people who are not scientists?” They don’t have to know any science [to be on the show] — it’s my job to reveal how science has touched their lives and their livelihood. Then the listening audience learns how ubiquitous science actually is in our culture.
This new season has been fantastic. I had no idea Whoopi Goldberg was such a "Star Trek" fan.
Well, that’s the thing: It’s a geek safe space. When in other interviews, the people might not come out [as a geek], but with me they almost confess. Like, “I memorized 30 digits of pi when I was in the 6th grade.”
So I read that you had an early start — even giving lectures at age 15.
Yeah, my first “professional lecture” where I was paid, I was 15 at a college in New York. I think it was one of their extension schools where adults go back and learn more. Every college has one of these but are called different things. So I gave a talk to adults and I did it. And then they sent me a check in the mail and I was like, “Whoa!” And I felt kind of cheap. It was like “Wait a minute — I didn’t sweat. I didn’t toil. I didn’t struggle. I was just describing the universe.” It’s like asking someone how many cushions are on the couch in their living room. [Pause] And it was $50 in case you wanted to know. But I had just turned 15, it was 1973 and it was an infinite amount of money.
After all these years of doing this, how do you stay inspired and excited?
I channel cosmic energy from the universe. [Laughs] No, but thanks for noticing that. It’s not as deep as it sounds. When I am tasked in touching the public in any way — television, radio or documentary — why not focus your energy into that moment? I mean just think about it. Think about all the things you spend energy on that really don’t even deserve it — like the video game you are trying to finish, or the energy we use to do nothing. I just take the energy that is available to me and focus it. Then afterwards, I go home and couch potato. It’s focused energy — that’s all it is.