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Neil deGrasse Tyson on STARTALK’s New Season, COSMOS, and Secret Geeks

Neil deGrasse Tyson on STARTALK’s New Season, COSMOS, and Secret Geeks

The universe is always talking to us, we just have to listen. Of course, it’s much easier to listen when the universe is filtered through the silky tones of our personal astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson. On Sunday, a new season of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson (based on the immensely popular podcast of the same name) kicks off on National Geographic Channel with a fantastic interview with President Bill Clinton. Other guests this season will include Larry Wilmore, Seth MacFarlane, David Byrne, David Crosby, and Susan Sarandon.

Nerdist was lucky enough to talk with Dr. Tyson ahead of the season premiere, and we asked him about everything from podcasting to secret geek underbellies to another season of COSMOS. Our phone exchange is featured below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

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I was blown away by President Clinton’s nerdiness in the first episode. Did that surprise you?

I’ve known him since he was in the White House, so I knew he has an appetite for science. Where I didn’t end up taking the conversation, but I wanted to, was how does he weigh his interest in a subject [the Superconducting Super Collider was defunded under his watch] versus how much political capital that he can or should invest in it. That would have been an interesting political discussion — what is the actual political machinery that leads to things getting funded or not funded. In any event, I knew that he was a fan of science since way back. A big part of StarTalk is about revealing the geek underbelly in people who you wouldn’t otherwise know had one.

You have guests from Seth MacFarlane to David Byrne on this season, geniuses in their own right, but not in science. What can we learn about the universe from these very different voices?

There are people you know from their greatest contributions to pop culture. These people are icons. And then they come to StarTalk, and one of the objectives of StarTalk is to explore all the ways that science reveals itself in and around their livelihood and/or their lives. With David Crosby, for example, I learned for the first time that as a kid he was a huge science fiction buff; this was his vision of how he imagined tomorrow. This is long before he penned any notes as a musician.

If a person has been touched by science but is not themselves scientifically literate, that’s fine. In studio, we bring in an academic expert on that subject and a professional comedian. These are my two valves, if you will. The comedian is the levity valve and the academic is the gravity valve…I’m dialing them continually during the recording. I’d like to think that because of these valves, we hit a consistency and we can end up learning something while you smiled at some point during the conversation.

You still do the immensely popular podcast of the same name, what do you get from the visual medium that you don’t get in the podcasting medium?

We do about 50 shows a year. What happens is National Geographic will lift 10 shows up into television land from the guests that we have booked for the radio show.

All the interviews in your office are set up so that they could make it to TV?

Precisely. Nearly all the interviews are in my real office. If there’s a chance that NatGeo might want them, we film it. In the visual medium, I think I can get pretty animated when I communicate…you know my comedians will get animated, and the space is completely beautiful — the Rose Center for Earth and Space, Hall of the Universe. I think it puts the viewer in a mood with a connectivity to the content you wouldn’t otherwise get.

Before I let you go…I have to ask: Is there anything to know about another series of COSMOS?

There’s no secret information right now; we’re trying to get the band back together, we’ve had some meetings. But nothing is green-lit. What I think is going on is that FOX is still assessing how well the original one did, because that’s how much they would spend on a new series. I know NatGeo has been always quite positive about it. No, there’s no definitive answer yet, but I don’t see why we wouldn’t have a definitive answer in the very short term — weeks, possibly just a couple of months.

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The second season of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson airs this Sunday, October 25th at 11/10c.

IMAGE: National Geographic Channel

Who is the better captain, Kirk or Picard? I make Dr. Tyson answer the quintessential geek question below:

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