We Talk To Neil deGrasse Tyson About Mars One, Being A Geek, And How To Get People Excited About Science

The show returns October 25. NG Studios/Katy Andres

StarTalk is back. The Emmy-nominated series, hosted by none other than our favorite scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, was so awesome it was picked up for a second season before the premiere episode of the first season even aired. The science-infused late-night talk show – the first of its kind – invites scientists, comedians and celebrities who share roots in pop culture to explore a range of intriguing topics and discuss how science and technology have influenced their lives.

The 10-part series – a subset of the 50 episodes that will appear on the radio and as podcasts – premieres Sunday October 25 at 11:00 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel, kicking things off with President Bill Clinton. Barely able to contain our excitement, IFLScience caught up with Dr Tyson for a sneaky insight into what we can expect and to delve into the increasingly popular world of science communication.

So, Neil, how important do you think shows such as this are for communicating science to the public?

I think I take a slightly broader view of the phrase “communicating science.” A big part of that can and should be: What is your ability to simply get people excited about science? Getting them to embrace science in ways they never thought possible themselves, and that’s a shift in attitude towards science, so it becomes about more than what you have learned in the past hour. And when you do that, I think it can have a tremendous impact on society. Suddenly you become a self-learner and motivated to care about the topic, and when you see a science topic in the newspaper, you want to work on it and understand it more deeply.

Science hasn’t necessarily got more interesting or more sexy in recent years, but it’s certainly become more popular. How are you getting people so excited about science?

There is this age-old challenge, the perennial educators’ challenge, for difficult or obscure subject matter, and that is: How do you make it relevant to the student? I don’t have the resources or the ability to read minds well enough to know how to communicate with you versus the person next to you. People learn differently, but what I do know is that we are all participants in pop culture. Pop culture requires no tilling of the soil, because society does that for you. So what I’ve done is find ways that science anchors into, or pivots on, a pop culture subject. And it becomes a reminder for people that science is ubiquitous in society.

The best science lessons aren’t derived from a syllabus, but from however successful the educator is in showing you how and why science matters. That is most potent when the how and why gets embedded in what people care about.

I spy that you have Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and CEO of the heavily criticized Mars One mission, as one of your guests in the series…

We have him on because he wants to send people to Mars on a one-way trip, and people were lined up round the block to do this! He’s been criticized, sure, but I didn’t want to criticize him until I heard him speak for himself. That’s what happens in StarTalk. I log my skepticisms first. And I feel that he did well.

He got me thinking more positively about how this could work, or how he could make it work, and if he can move the needle a little, I think that’s a good thing.

Mars One hasn’t exactly received glowing publicity recently, do you think that’s deserved?

I value dreamers, even if they’re kind of floating above the ground, not really connected in the way the rest of us are. The dreamer moves the needle, even a little bit. To get to Mars in the way he describes you need innovations. So if it stimulates someone to innovate, even if they don’t successfully achieve that goal, then I think there is still value to it.

Do you think Mars One’s goals are realistic?

The way he described them to me, I can see how it could happen, perhaps not on the timescale that he recommended. But I can see it happening by virtue of how he described the staging of the plan, where you would send cargo out there first, with supplies, food, water, and at some later time the crew comes, so the crew doesn’t have to be launched in a vehicle that contains all the weight that traveling with everything you need would require. These are fundamental elements of what it is to explore. And without exploration I think we should all just move back to the cave!

Will we really get humans to Mars within the next 20 years?

I’ll give you two ways in which we will be at Mars in 10 months. One is if we find oil in Mars (*chuckles*). And I joke about the other one: suppose the Chinese decide they want to put a military base on Mars. It doesn’t have to be real, they just need to leak a memo suggesting that. We would go berserk and design, build and fund a new spaceship in a month and have it above Mars in 10 months.

Can you tell us a bit more about some of your other guests and topics?

We’ve got Brian Cox – the physicist, not the actor. We got into a little nerd fight about how the lightsabers work in Star Wars. The fight started on Twitter, and then it continued in my office.

We also have Seth MacFarlane. Many people may not know that he was a coexecutive producer on Cosmos, so he’s not just a cartoon comedian; he has got very serious science commitments. Then there is David Crosby the musician. We learn that he started life immensely interested in sci-fi, a huge consumer of sci-fi novels, long before he composed his first note for his first song.

In StarTalk we get to expose the geek underbelly of whoever it is that we are interviewing. And I think our guests are starting to feel comfortable in that very situation.

Do you think that everybody has a little bit of a geek side to them?

I think everybody has some geek in them. And I think if you don’t know you have geek, it’s because it needs to be ignited, perhaps for the first time. But for others, maybe it’s an ember that just needs to be fanned to reignite into flames. So yeah, I think there’s a little bit of it in us all.

What do you think the best way to do that is?

I like what IFLS does because you’re kind of your own search engine where you look around the world and assess whether something is cool or not that came out of some science laboratory. You assess that in ways that even the person who did the research doesn’t know how cool it is! So you’ll do it and you’ll package it and present it. All of this, I think, will bring everyone a little bit closer to the science literacy that the 21st century requires. 

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