Internet Lord (and sure, astrophysicist or whatever) Neil deGrasse Tyson is taking his popular StarTalk podcast to National Geographic Channel starting April 20. The newly televised version of the show will follow the podcast’s existing format, with Tyson discussing different scientific topics with a variety of cohorts, usually stand-up comics or writers.
PEOPLE caught up with Tyson to talk about making the jump to television, whether science is under attack and if he’ll have a band on the show.
How did StarTalk get started?
There are places for people to go who already like science – Discovery Channel, Space.com, there’s Science Friday on NPR. But I asked myself, “Suppose you don’t know you like science? Or suppose you know that you don’t like science. How do you get science to those people?” And I figured the only way I could come up with – and this is in collaboration with the other two creators of the show, Helen Matsos and David Gamble – was, instead of having a journalist be the host and the guest be a scientist, we’d invert the tables, and the host is the scientist, and the guest is most of the time someone who’s not a scientist.
Everybody has been touched by science in some way in their lives. So the idea was to bring people hewn from pop culture and explore all the ways science has impacted that person’s livelihood. And those people have followings, who’ve now followed them to a science show, and a whole demographic of people who might not have otherwise taken the energy or time to invest in science, will come and listen to the show, and science is part of that conversation.
You’re in a good place for this – you have a following in both the scientific and pop-culture worlds.
That gives me a social currency that enables me to have these conversations in the first place.
Was that ever a goal for you?
Oh, no. My goal is to just sit on a beach somewhere. [Laughs.] I want, like, a palm tree with a wired Internet connection, and I’m good. Let’s not talk about “goals.”
Did you ever anticipate your career would take this turn?
I operate as a servant to the public’s appetite for science. I don’t twist anybody’s arm, I don’t make people follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Almost every clip of me on YouTube, somebody else posted. And I’m enchanted by this and honored by this, but what it all tells me is that there is an underserved underbelly of pop-culture fans that likes science and wants more of it.
National Geographic recently had a cover story called "The War on Science." Do you put any stock in that argument that science is under attack in the mainstream?
Cosmos aired on a major network. On prime time. On a Sunday night. And it was commercially successful. What’s the number-one show on TV? The Big Bang Theory. And yes, though they be caricatures, their banter is derived from fundamentally real science, and they have a Ph.D. physicist as an adviser to the show. And then you look at this year’s crop of films – Interstellar, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything – these all have major scientific themes.
The fact that Eddie Redmayne won an Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking? I know how scientists have been portrayed in media – they’re people you don’t care about, people in lab coats with wiry hair, and they’re a little crazy. You don’t care if they’re married or they have kids, do they love, do they hate? And that character isn’t in a position to be winning an Academy Award. But that’s changed.
And plus, I wake up in the morning and I say, “I have how many Twitter followers? How did that happen?” All of this is evidence that science is doing well.
“Science under attack,” I think, is the wrong headline. “We forgot how to teach our children” is the right one. The issue is how we teach people how to think. Whether or not we’re conscious of this, here’s what’s actually happening: We see students as these empty vessels, and then we pour knowledge into those empty vessels, and then we send them forth. And in there, no one is trained how to think about information or data or how to interpret or how to bring skepticism to an argument or how to know when someone is not speaking the truth. Science literacy is a kind of inoculation against charlatanism. It allows you to know when someone is full of s—. It empowers you to know when someone else is full of s—, and not everyone wants you to know that about them. So really, the fact that you have people denying science is an education problem.
With StarTalk, who are your talk-show inspirations?
Well, I take more from stand-up comics, really. I have a deep respect for stand-up comedians. For how they think, for how their brains are wired, the power they have to bring comment and criticism to things we all experience and make us laugh. So that’s why almost every episode has a comic as my co-host.
Which comics do you like? I know you’ve had Eugene Mirman on the podcast.
I like Jeff Foxworthy, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor. I’ve always liked Sinbad, especially his early work. I liked Elayne Boosler, I’m not sure what happened to her, she seemed to fall off the radar. I like Tig Notaro – that last album where she talked about her cancer diagnosis. And we love the comedians we bring in on the show – Eugene, Chuck Nice, Leanne Lord. The kind of comedy I like isn’t “Well, have you heard the one about ?” The kind of comedy I like is people observing cultural and social mores and reacting to them in a way that enlightens you.
Are you planning on keeping the Beastie Boys song?
[Laughs.] Thanks for asking! I love that beat, and we’re still gonna keep it for the radio show – the radio show’s going to continue, by the way – but we’re still in conversation about what the theme will be on TV.
Are you going to have a band?
[Laughs.] Nah, the whole “evening talk show” was a little overplayed with the press release. I’m not coming out with a band or a curtain or anything – we’re just doing the radio show with a little window dressing. But I’m pretty sure it’s the first science talk show on television, and it’s the first talk show for National Geographic. But, you know, the radio show has 3 million downloads a month. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just go back to the podcast! If this doesn’t work, we’re still cool! [Laughs.]
StarTalk premieres April 20 at 11 p.m. ET on National Geographic Channel.