Arguably the world's most recognizable astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson was our guide to the universe in the Emmy-winning "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey." Beginning April 20, he'll return to TV as the host of the weekly National Geographic Channel series "StarTalk," based on his radio podcast of the same name.
A fusion of science and pop culture, each hour-long program features a one-on-one interview with the likes of director Christopher Nolan, former President Jimmy Carter and George Takei of "Star Trek" fame. Then, in a panel discussion taped at the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City — where Tyson serves as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium — a guest comedian and experts join him to explore a related topic.
Moving the successful audio format — the podcast is Top Ten on iTunes —to TV, Tyson intends to preserve its eclectic mix of guests and topics. "Our goal for every 'StarTalk' is by the time you're done watching you've learned something. Learning something while you laugh. I have high confidence in that formula," says Tyson.
From the start, his intention was to make a science show that non-scientists could appreciate. "On a show like 'Science Friday' on NPR, a journalist interviews scientists every week. Who tunes into that kind of show? People who already like science. How would I reach people that don't know they like science? Or people who know they don't like science? By having guests from pop culture who could bring in people who would never listen to a conversation about science," Tyson explains.
"My guests are hardly ever scientists," he continues. "We orchestrate a conversation around them that constantly detours into science and all the ways that science has influenced that person's livelihood. By getting people from pop culture explaining how science plugs in to them, it alerts people how and why science matters in our lives."
There are discussions of how Hollywood creations "Star Trek" and "Interstellar" relate to the real world, but also discourses on modern love, the information age, epidemics, Twitter and the question whether science and religion can co-exist. "I'm not attracted to conflict for conflict's sake. Then people are just enjoying the conflict rather than learning," notes Tyson. But he used an interview with atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as fuel for a lively conversation. "We just thought we should bring in somebody who would have something else to say, so 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."
Another component is a end-of-show spot featuring Bill "The Science Guy" Nye, doing "a one-minute rant. There will be some topic he will have a strong opinion on, or he's angry about something. It's kind of like you remember in '60 Minutes' — you'd have Andy Rooney coming in reflecting on the day's news or something that irked him."
Immediately preceding the premiere of "Star Talk" is the special "Hubble's Cosmic Journey," marking the 25th anniversary of Hubble Space Telescope's launch. Tyson narrates the program, and contributed to the editing. "It's a chronology, the life and times of Hubble — the original idea, the problems with it, quotes and interviews with members of Congress, scientists," he says.
As for other projects, there may be another "Cosmos" in Tyson's future. "We're in conversation," he confirms. "Almost immediately after it aired, people asked about Season 2, and that's flattering. The original 'Cosmos' was 35 years ago, so to come at us while the painting is still wet took us by surprise. The way you make a good soup or sauce is to let it simmer," he believes. "But enthusiasm remains high, so we got together for a dinner to talk about the possibility. We don't want to just jump in, because it's a major undertaking."
Related on MNN:
- Meet 6 rock star scientists
- 12 exceptionally bright Hollywood stars
- 5 books that explore our humanity