Sunday marks the Season 4 premiere of “StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Nat Geo’s late-night, science/celebrity hybrid talk show hosted by the world-renowned astrophysicist, author and director of the Hayden Planetarium.
This season, Tyson welcomes a diverse array of guests, including Lance Armstrong (the season opener), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, filmmaker Kevin Smith and pop superstar Katy Perry.
Tyson, who turns 59 on Oct. 5, took some time out of his extremely busy schedule to chat about science, “StarTalk” and his celebrity guests.
Science can be so intimidating. Does “StarTalk” aim to make it more accessible?
Four years ago, when [“StarTalk”] jumped species to include television [it started as a podcast], our goal was to was to attract people who didn’t know they liked science, or better yet to attract people who were sure they didn’t like science. There was no programming for them; why not create a show that actually has roots in pop culture and clad this scaffold with science that matters to that pop culture? In that way it’s not a struggle for you to absorb it because we’re plugging into things you already care about. What “StarTalk” does is to bring in somebody or some subject you care about and attach all the science we can find to that. I like to think of the show as a “Geek Safe Space,” and often there’s a celebrity that’s got some geek inner passion we learn more about.
Your first guest this season is Lance Armstrong. Did you talk about his steroid scandal?
I’ll tell you what we did do. I wanted Lance to tell me about the history of bicycle technology — what’s accepted and what’s not — and can you invent something that’s really innovative and still have it used in a tournament? How does energy get converted to the mechanics of a bicycle? We had a whole physics conversation about energy and bicycle performance. I’m not going to dust the whole [doping] scandal under the rug, so we talked about doping and had a whole conversation about the chemistry of doping — what it does to the body, how it works. I’m not Oprah saying, “Are you going to apologize to your fans? Are you contrite?” I don’t care. Other people will ask him about that. We’re going to bring the science out of this. He did talk about [the scandal] and he was contrite. But that’s not what I cared about in the interview — just so you know we’re not trying to hide it.
Tell me about your Katy Perry interview.
I don’t choose guests based on how much science they know — it’s way more crass than that. It’s based on how popular they are … and then they bring their following to that show. What did we talk about? We learn that [Katy] is deeply curious; she has a childhood curiosity on a level that most adults have lost. That was important. She stopped going to school at 15 and got a GED and has been performing ever since, so she has gaps in her academic background. But people fill in gaps with what they want be true; she has these gaps and says, “I don’t know if it’s true, can you help me?” Half of that interview was probing Katy’s paths of scientific curiosity. It was a fun, playful exchange and turned out to be a very warm and insightful show. And she wrote a whole song [“E.T.”] about a romance with an alien, so I had to ask her about that: is she having interspecies fantasies?
And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?
He said he actually wanted to be an actor and not just do cameos [in movies]. He was in the very last of Bruce Lee’s films [“Game of Death”] because he studied martial arts. I’m thinking, “Dude, you’re 10 feet tall.” And he said, “I always wanted to play Chewbacca” [in “Star Wars”]. Of course! That should’ve been his role from the beginning. That’s a little geek side of him.
Do you watch science-fiction shows or do you get tired of this stuff and need a break?
I’ve been busy, but I watched Seth MacFarlane’s “The Orville,” still trying to figure that out. There are times when I do get fatigued, when I think, do we really need another “Transformers” movie? Another superhero movie? Or are they excuses for not being creative and coming up with a new kind of movie. Sometimes I worry that it’s too easy to stick with a franchise you know is successful. But I think it’s celebrating people’s interest in science so at the end of the day I can’t complain about that when it’s space-based or sci-fi-based. Look at the number of people who attend Comic-Con; these are people who are science fiction fans — there’s a very strong geek force operating within them. They know the difference between science fiction and science fact.
“StarTalk” 11 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic
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