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‘StarTalk’ Launches Pop Culture Into the Cosmos

An evolutionary biologist, an astrophysicist, a Jesuit clergyman and a comedian walk into a room.

That’s not the opener for a joke.

It’s the lineup for one episode of what is billed as the only late-night talk show devoted to science, StarTalk on the National Geographic Channel (premiering April at 11 p.m. ET/PT). Neil deGrasse Tyson (he’s the astrophysicist), is hosting a TV version of his weekly podcast and radio show. Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History and the telegenic successor to Carl Sagan, host of the TV series Cosmos (and a mentor to Tyson), has become this planet’s infectiously curious and charming cryptographer of the mysteries of the universe.

StarTalk is a talk show, but unlike most it’s an odd mix of pop culture, comedy and science — emphasis on the science. For the TV version, Tyson has wrangled a wide variety of cultural luminaries such as President Jimmy Carter, Richard Dawkins, Norman Lear, George Takei, and others for an hour-long romp through topics such as the warp drive on Star Trek, whether religion and science can coexist, and TV and the evolution of culture. Each week, with a comedian there for levity, Tyson explores the ways that science has influenced his guests and calls on his friend Bill Nye the Science Guy to weigh in on the week’s theme. The idea: Make science entertaining.

Tyson talked with Multichannel News editorial director Mark Robichaux about what the new series means to him. The conversation went deep quickly.

MCN: Let’s start off with a couple of easy questions here — what is the meaning of life?

NDT: [Laughs.] So, I actually have an answer to that. What often happens is people search for meaning in life, and that has driven much of people’s life’s quest. But I have come to realize in my old age that looking for meaning in life implies that it’s behind a tree or under a rock or over the hill. And that somehow it’s there and then you have it — as opposed to creating meaning in life by your actions and by your deeds and by your thoughts.

So for me, I try every day to create meaning in life. And I do so by holding to a couple of personal principles. One, I try to learn something new everyday. I try to know something more about the world tomorrow that I know today than I knew yesterday. I think that’s just a healthy posture to have, particularly as an adult when you are no longer still in school. And I think I also try to everyday in however small the gesture is, I try to lessen the suffering of others, however small that gesture might be.

That guides my daily objectives and, for me, that creates meaning every day of my life. So I’m not one of those in search of it because we all have the power to make meaning and not enough of us know that that may be the actual way to get it accomplished.

MCN: Are we alone in the universe?

NDT: Anyone who has studied the problem arrives at the conclusion that we are not likely to be alone at all, that there is surely life elsewhere, possibly even in our own backyard — aquifers under the soils of Mars, in the liquid oceans of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. So we haven’t fully explored our own backyard for life, especially on the possibility that life elsewhere would require liquid water the way we do.

But on another level, you might broaden that further and say, maybe life doesn’t require liquid water, maybe it just requires a liquid. And then could there be a planet of liquid ammonia or liquid methane or some other liquid that is not what’s plentiful here on earth, the water?

If we were alone it would be an extraordinary fact. So it’s less extraordinary to suppose that the universe and our galaxy is teeming with life rather than to suspect that on this little speck called Earth orbiting an uninteresting star called the Sun, in an undistinguished suburb of the Milky Way Galaxy that somehow we are the only place in the galaxy or in the universe with life. That would be inexcusably egocentric.

MCN: In your new showStarTalk, you run far afield of pure astrophysics. For example, “What is love?” Isn’t that a little bit out of your expertise?

NDT: One, the shows are not based on topics. The shows are based on the guest. Normally, when people think of science they think, “Oh, what topic are you going to talk about today and what experts will you bring to address that topic?” No, we bring in guests who are hewn from pop culture, to explore the topics that relate to the guest.

Every StarTalk is a blend of science, pop culture and comedy, comedy manifest by my co-host, who will always be a professional standup comedian in that model that we’ve established for ourselves.

MCN: Doesn’t that levity dilute the nature of the “cosmic” lesson you’re trying to give?

NDT: In studio, I have with me an academic anthropologist who specializes in the neurochemistry of love. And so we go back and forth between the science and the human physiology of relationships, of orgasms, of love. This is a person who has studied brain scans of people in love, people who are in lust, people who transition from love to hate. She has studied this, and she is a retained expert for

We will lean cosmic in this, but any topic is fair game as long as it’s anchored in science or technology or the geek-o-sphere.

I don’t think of it as dilution, I think of it as, “I bet you didn’t know how much science there was in this pop-culture topic.” So, are we diluting the science or are we enhancing the pop-culture topic?

MCN: What is your goal for the show?

NDT: Our goal from the beginning was, how do we reach the people who don’t know that they like science or, better yet, are sure that they don’t like science? What excuse will they ever have for hearing a conversation about science? And what we learned is the way to make that happen is to bring people onto the show who have a following — and not because of science, but because of some other thing — and then my conversation with them is about science, and then an entire demographic hears their favorite person engage in a geeky conversation about how science impacts that person’s livelihood.

In that way, we grow the audience of people out there who would warm up to science, who might have had some ember that was growing dim.

Were it not for this fact about StarTalk, it would have never jumped species to television because it is the first talk show on science there ever was in the history of television.

So, I’d like to think that by the time you’ve seen an episode of StarTalk, you’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t know science was there.” I want people to realize that science is everywhere. StarTalk, while it will lean cosmic, all topics of science are fair game. Just so you know.

MCN: Will you have a late night band?

NDT: [Laughs.] No! No monologue, no late-night band. No. It’s only once a week, and they’re pre-recorded, so we’re not chasing the day’s headlines as is so common in the comedic monologues of the late-night talk shows. So the shows will have a certain evergreen aspect to them, which Nat Geo loves, ‘cause they get a lot of mileage from the programming that they air.

MCN: We have a box in some of our longer stories in the magazine called the “Takeaway.” What do you want people to take away from this series?

NDT: I want people to realize that you can be entertained for an hour and at the end of that hour still have learned something. And the learning was so blended with the laughter and your comfort with the pop culture that it doesn’t even register as learning, it just is the new state of mind that you acquire.