To be clear, Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t really want to be a television star.
“Any morning I wake up, I’m hoping the phone does not ring, so I can stay home and play with my kids or whatever,” he told IndieWire earlier this year.
So how did he become one of pop culture’s most prominent scientists? “When I’m called, I feel a sense of duty,” he said. When asked to lend his voice to the cause of science, Tyson will oblige, which has led to an insane roster of on-screen appearances over the last 10-plus years.
That includes hosting Fox’s rebooted “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” cameos in countless films and TV shows and providing the voice for a hyper-intelligent pig in an episode of Disney’s “Gravity Falls.”
Tyson is currently a three-time Emmy nominee, with his talk show “StarTalk” in the mix this year for Outstanding Informational Special or Series. He also remains fully committed to his work as a scientist, currently serving as the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. And he has a good sense of humor about everything that comes from being one of our planet’s favorite scientific authorities.
Upcoming “StarTalk” guests include Whoopi Goldberg, Buzz Aldrin, Mayim Bialik and Terry Crews. Below, Tyson reveals the TV show he thinks really changed the way we look at scientists, why he likes exploring the crossover between pop culture and science on Twitter and why he’ll play a talking pig, but might not play other roles.
When you first started off your career in science, is this ever something you anticipated being a part of your life?
No, no. In fact, it still isn’t [laughs]. It’s still kind of gravy. All of this are things that have gurgled up simply because the people have called upon me to do one thing or another. So, they call on me for a documentary interview, say. And I so, “Okay, what’s the topic and how long and how long do you want my answers to be?” So I would do some research to be the best I can be for them and what I found is that most people don’t invest that kind of energy in it. They’ll just answer a question and not think about the audience.
They just want the soundbite.
Yeah, they just need the soundbite. So what I’ve found is that they kept coming back to me, other documentarians and then the evening news. Then I realized that they were enjoying what I was handing them and then they came back for more and more and more. I’m enchanted when the public has that kind of appetite. I don’t want to deny the fulfillment of this appetite. So to the extent that I can serve that appetite, I’m delighted to do so.
I don’t wake up in the morning saying, “How can I serve the public today?” Any morning I wake up, I’m hoping the phone does not ring [laughs] and I could stay home and play with my kids or whatever. But when I’m called, I feel a sense of duty. That’s why the Emmys and the show and the fact that NatGeo was interested in having my radio show “jump species” and become a TV show. I’m enchanted by it all, that there are people who care enough about the science. Because I don’t have the power to make those decisions. All I do is talk about the universe.
At what point does the leap come from giving an interview in a documentary to doing the voice of a cartoon pig?
[laughs] So, I will never claim to be an actor. I’ve spoken to actors about how they trained, how much time they’ve invested, what they do and I’ve done none of that. So, there are no illusions here. If I’m ever asked to do a cameo, I’m thriving on the fact that you the viewer know it’s a cameo and you have a certain accommodation of that fact [laughs]. You allow for some stiffness.
But that’s kind of what makes it a little more fun. How will he do in this situation? So, if an artist calls me, artist, in this case, with a capital A — it can be a producer or writer of a TV program or a screenplay — if they want to put a little bit of science in their program, I’m not going to stop them. I will help them in anyway I can. And so, if someone says, “We have this idea for you to show up, either as a cartoon character, or as a voice or as the authority of the science voice, for this one little bit where we want some real science or some science authenticity in this otherwise absurd construct,” I jump on it.
Because I like it, because they didn’t have to. They didn’t have to step out of their comfort zone and reach into the world of science and put a science bit in their story. They don’t have to. Nobody’s done it for decades, but they’re doing it now. So, when I was asked if I would be the voice of a pig that had become super-intelligent overnight, and it’s a Disney animated series for middle-schoolers, and they’re adventurous kids and they explore and they do experiments, I’ve got to tip my hat to that. And so to offer my voice as a really smart pig [laughs], fine, I’m cool with pigs, I’ve got nothing against pigs.
They’re the cleanest animals.
That’s true. That doesn’t mean I don’t eat them, but that’s true.
It sounds like it always comes back to the science for you. Like you wouldn’t take a role that didn’t have some science in it.
In one case, I was asked if I would be a police chief for a police precinct for one episode of a show and I said, “No, I can’t justify my time on that.” But I can be a pig [laughs]. This pig, overnight, it invented a new particle accelerator — it was a brief moment where the pig got really, really smart and I just thought, “Let’s do this.” So, if it can fit into my calendar, I’m happy to be a servant of that curiosity and that interest.
You mentioned something about how it’s kind of a relatively new thing, that science has become more integrated with pop culture.
Yes. There’s been popular science in the past, but you still have to come to it. You had to say what’s popular about it, “Oh look! We might find aliens,” or, “We’re searching for life,” or, “Look at this moon rock.” You had to be brought to a place where you can see that that’s interesting from a scientific point of view.
But the moment science infuses pop culture, you require no prep to embrace what you just saw or experienced because it’s already existing on a landscape that you’re already fluent in. You’re fluent in the pop culture landscape.
I’ll give an example. I tweeted a few months ago, I was between two shows on television, I had a half hour. I was just being a guy channel surfing and I came across a football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Seattle Seahawks. It had just finished all four quarters with a tie score, so now they go into overtime. That’s a perfect unit of time for my half hour break. So I watched the overtime. It’s won on a field goal kick by the Cincinnati Bengals and I looked at the kick, it was a very long kick. The ball tumbles and it hits the left upright and then kareems in-between the thing [goalposts] for the winning score. I said, “Wait a minute.” I did some fast calculations and then I tweeted:
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
People lost their minds and it was picked up by the evening news and all the sportscasters and everything. But, if you think about that tweet, I didn’t have to explain what football is. I didn’t have to explain what a field goal is or that it’s worth three points or that their game was happening at all. I didn’t have to remind you what these teams are. There’s a large enough pop culture sector that cares so much about football that if you learn that the rotation of the earth influenced a football, you are all over that piece of information.
For any foreign subject, you can’t just dive into it. You need to have some sort of context.
Exactly. And while not everyone is a football fan, football fans totally got into it. This is the kind of intersection between science and pop culture that I found to be quite potent and the “StarTalk” radio show, now also television show, is designed to do just that. It’s not an accidental product of something we’re otherwise doing. It is designed and we refer to it as a collision of pop culture and science, but the way we do it, I think it’s more tapestry where there’re the fibers going this way and the fibers going that way. Together, they make a beautiful pattern that you didn’t even think was possible.
Today, we seem to be living in a culture that seems to be really excited by science in a new way. What do you think has gotten us to that point?
I think a lot of things are happening simultaneously. We have a generation of people age 35 and under that I think have a level of science literacy such as no generation before them. These are people who took science in college, maybe did well. Didn’t have to major in science, but science felt good to them and they didn’t sell back their science textbook. It’s still on their shelves and they track science discovery. They get excited to learn that four new elements were just discovered on the periodic table, for example.
Who are these 35-year-olds? Well, they were in elementary school, if I did my math right, when Bill Nye the Science Guy’s show was piped into schools. That’s a very different way to learn science with an enthusiasm and an excitement and a kind of childlike energy just to explore. So you have that.
Then you have, for example, the influence of “CSI.” That’s a TV show, in all of its incarnations, that has portrayed scientists as young attractive actors who have fully fleshed out personality profiles. They fall in love. They have girlfriends, boyfriends, children, parent problems, whatever. They’re full characters and they’re solving problems. Not in the Sherlock Holmesian sort of way where, “Oh does this footprint match the footprint in the garden,” or, “the door was jarred so it must’ve meant they entered before.” No, no. We’re talking about people who are checking DNA, who know the rate at which a body decomposes after it dies, who knows the forces on the body that is felt when falling out of window, who knows the rate at which water enters your lungs if you’re drowning, whatever. This is science. It is forensics.
“CSI,” I think above all else, showed that science can be sexy and empowering. The scientist is not the weird one behind the slab with the wire hair and the lab coat where you don’t care anything about them when the main characters are the beautiful people. Now, the beautiful people are the scientists. and that has manifested in recent film.
In the movie “Interstellar,” as perhaps the best example, the lead five actors are each marquee actors in their own right and have starred in their own films in their own way and they came together for “Interstellar” and all five of them played either a scientist or an engineer. Again, not weird scientists or engineers. They’re just people who are also scientists or engineers. That is a phase shift in the portrayal of scientists in cinema. And that was not an obscure movie, it was a major blockbuster movie. So this is further evidence that science is trending.
I don’t talk to a lot of people that we would technically classify as personalities, and I’m wondering, for you, what is that like? What is it like to have that as a part of your life in addition to the science?
It’s weird. It’s very weird and the weird part is not that I’m doing it, but the weird part is the consequence of me doing it. The consequence is I get noticed and get recognized by about three hundred people a day who stop me — strangers, no matter where I go. “Hey, aren’t you…?”
Here’s the difference though —as an educator, of the times I’m stopped by a stranger, they say, “Tell me more about black holes or about the Big Bang because I saw your show and it was great and I want to learn more.” They see me not as the object of their affection, but as a servant of their cosmic curiosity. As an educator, that’s where you want to be. You don’t want them coming to you because you matter, you want them coming to you because you showed them something else that mattered and you’re a source for them to continue this appetite.
That may make it different from fans who might approach an actor, because what’s the conversation going to be? You might talk about their recent movie, okay, but are you going to have a conversation about politics or what? Probably not. You just want to get their autograph or get your selfie and then you have this sort of fame-proximity effect. With me, I’m happy to say that in at least half of the cases, people want to learn more and that’s a good sign.
If there was one word you wanted to use to describe you, would you want to go with educator or would you go with scientist?
Lately, I’ve been more of an educator, but I’m a scientist and I’m a servant of the public’s appetite for curiosity. A servant. Like I said, I don’t chase you down. If you want to be served, I’m here to serve you. As a scientist, that’s how my brain is wired. A scientist is a state of mind. It’s “what does the world look to you?” That’s kind of what I’m sharing with people on Twitter and that accounts for a lot of their reaction, because if you’re trained as artist or as a construction worker or as something that’s very different than science, there are things about life that you might be missing everyday that I see everyday and that I might even be taking for granted.
By the way, any one of us has that about a profession. If you are a construction worker, there might be something about a building that you don’t notice, but any construction worker notices. I would want to know that. If somebody was doing what I was doing for astrophysics in all these other fields, I would follow them in a heartbeat. If you’re a nurse, I would want to know what you’re doing that I’m taking for granted or am missing. But part of what enables that in me is because I’m also an educator. I’m here to open minds.