To borrow a rule of physics, Neil deGrasse Tyson seems perpetually a body in motion. It’s almost impossible to imagine him as a body at rest.
Discussing the theme for his appearances this week at the Saenger, “The Search for Life in the Universe,” Tyson happily blew past his scheduled 15 minutes of interview time in warp speed, so eager was he to discuss the delightful intersection of science and pop culture for which he happily serves as traffic cop.
“Yeah, we’ve come a long way since H.G. Wells was wondering whether there’s life on Mars and then imagines they come to Earth and kill us all in ‘War of the Worlds,’” Tyson said, rapid-fire. “It’s going to be sort of a celebration of what we know. It’s also possible to celebrate what we don’t yet know.
“That’s always fun.”
More so than perhaps any other figure in recent memory, Tyson has made science fun. As an astrophysicist, he might be the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City (part of the American Museum of Natural History), but most everyone else knows him more popularly for his late-night talk-show appearances and the two PBS shows he hosts, including a reboot of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”
His current show allows him to flip the script and serve as host. “StarTalk,” which began as a radio show and podcast, opened its second season as a TV show, on the National Geographic channel.
On the show, Tyson welcomes a guest — often from the entertainment field — and together they talk about anything that strikes their fancy. Recent guests have included Seth McFarlane, comedian and creator of TV’s “Family Guy” — which Tyson, in the interview, confessed to having critiqued in real time to his 4.5 million Twitter followers (habit of his).
“This is a way science reaches people that would not otherwise have come near it in the course of a day,” Tyson said. “We use the celebrity as an excuse to talk about the science that had mattered in their life,” he continued. “We use the celebrity as a pivot point on all the science that came up in the conversation.”
And he keeps it loose and often funny, much in the same way he continually was able to parry and thrust as a guest of, say, Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” just this past week.
“I personally happen to find the universe to be a hilarious place,” he said. “These two valves … I have a levity valve and a gravity valve, and I turn them to assure that ‘StarTalk hits a consistent point for every single episode.”
Tyson’s willingness to engage in almost every possible media forum to discuss issues (and the use of) science is boundless.
He’s passionate about the need for science education, and is happy to defend its importance in the face of what he sees as poor teaching.
“I think it’s because, in the school system, science is taught like any other course is taught. There’s a syllabus, there’s a body of knowledge, and you pour it into your brain, and then you’re tested on it and then you move on,” he said. “That’s an aspect of any field, clearly, but science in particular requires another dimension of learning that I don’t see happening, and it’s to recognize that science is a way of thinking about the world, a way of querying nature.
“It’s a filter that you’ve earned that enables you to see what is real and what is not real in this universe. For someone to become a politician, and cherry-pick the science, tells me that they never really understood how and why science works in the first place. I see it as a failure of our educational system long before you become (an) adult.”