Scientific American Presents: Neil deGrasse Tyson on StarTalk [Video]

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host of StarTalk, which is both a top-rated podcast and a television series on National Geographic Channel

Scientific American editor Lee Billings interviewed Neil deGrasse Tyson in his office at the American Museum of Natural History. The transcript is below.

[Tyson: I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I’m an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History right here in New York City. And you are in my office right now. Okay.]

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What is StarTalk?
StarTalk was a radio show—a successful radio show—that had been going for five years. And the first time it had jumped species was to podcast and [it] became a highly successful podcast. I can quantitate that because iTunes ranks podcasts by their popularity. And just a few weeks ago StarTalk was the number-one downloaded podcast. That fluctuates depending on when they make the measurement and what we post versus other podcasts, but for that moment we were the number-one downloaded out of all categories. And we were quite happy about that.

For me, my first thought wasn’t, “Oh, we’re happy about it.” It was, “Wow, there’s this huge appetite for science out there that wasn’t previously served. Why should a science show be number one?”

It gave me a certain level of confidence that the public is: A, underserved in science programming; and B, has an appetite that previously was never recognized.

So with its success as a podcast and a radio show, we were approached by National Geographic Channel. After Cosmos, they liked the success of Cosmos. And they came to me and said, “Let’s do some more TV.” And that was the wrong time to ask because I was exhausted after doing 13 episodes of Cosmos. But then I said, “You know, I am already doing this radio show, maybe you could film that!”

At a minimum they could just mount cameras on the wall and just do it in the sound studio. But perhaps it could be a little more fleshed out than that. That’s ultimately what came to pass.

So we’ve now filmed 10 episodes in The Hall of the Universe here. And National Geographic picked up another 10 episodes in the fall.

It is a talk show on the universe. I am the host.

And my guests are hardly ever scientists. They’re people hewn from pop culture. You’ve heard of them, typically. They could be a politician [Jimmy Carter on screen], a performer, a singer, an actor [Christopher Nolan on screen] and my conversation with them is about all the ways that science has impacted their lives, their livelihoods. And the viewer then gets to see how fundamentally blended science is to every walk of life. Because science is not some edifice that you can walk around or avoid and say, “I was never good at science but I’m good at this so let me lean this way instead of that.” You will learn that science threads through everything in our modern lives.

I have a co-host that is a professional stand-up comedian. And that brings some levity to the banter. Plus, I think the universe is a hilarious place anyway. And so it is the tapestry we weave in that hour of programming that is what the viewer receives.

There are going to be another 10 episodes in the fall. Can you give us any sneak previews, any hints who else you might be talking to?
So we’re compiling the list of who we’ll be interviewing for the fall. Uh, but no, we’re not settled on what that will be. We’ve got a couple in the can but no, I’ll save it for the fall.

I hear you have some dream guests.
Oh yeah. One of my dream guests is a head of state of any country. Because heads of state in the 21st century—heads of state, the plural goes in the “heads”—heads of state in the 21st century are going to have to care about science and technology in some way or another. And whether or not they are particularly fluent in it—they’ll have to know if they’re not fluent, how to reach to people who are. So in that regard any person running for high office would be an ideal guest. I’d love to have President Obama, just to see how heads of state think. Because you cannot sit in denial of what role science and technology will play in the health, wealth and security of the future of a nation and, in fact, the future of the world.

Late night’s a very competitive arena. You’re going up against all kinds of names—Stephen Colbert, David Letterman for awhile, all those other names. Do you?—By the way, when it was announced that we're appearing in the 11 o’clock slot, which is when Jon Stewart appears with The Daily Show, a few weeks later it was announced that he was stepping down. [laughs] I’m sure it’s coincidence but it was fun to joke about that fact. It’s competitive time slots; after the prime-time shows are done and the spate—the portfolio of talk shows—begins. We are definitely in that mix.

But in the era of DVRs, maybe that’s an irrelevant concern. We are a completely different species. Even though we occupy the same time slots, or the same category of time slots, we’re a different species. I have pop culture people, as do they. We’ll have comedy, as will they. So we have that. The difference is that our goal, at the end of the day, is for you to be joyfully educated. Whereas the goal of these other shows—not to speak for them—but I think I can say, is to be joyfully entertained. And so maybe at the end—literally at the end of the day—you’re picking: Do I want to be entertained or do I want to learn something? Or do I just want to be entertained? I think that’s the fork in the road that people decide on before they go to sleep at night.

So you wouldn’t be interested in cutting, like, a 30-second wrestling-style promo against Stephen Colbert, for instance? I’m coming for you, Stephen Colbert.
I don’t know if Stephen Colbert is coming on at 11 or 11:30.

I think he’s 11:30. I did get a phone call from his people. They might want me as an early guest on his show and this might come up.

Like I said, we live in modern times, and anyone who really wants to see it all, it just shows up on their multichannel recording DVR.