The series was nominated for an Emmy award, the first such recognition for a science-based talk show, which was “disturbingly flattering,” he jokes. “Why did it take so long?” But he’s appreciative of the nod: “The fact that we got noticed at all, we’re enchanted by that,” he says.
“StarTalk” is formed from a selected group of interviews from his weekly radio show — including recent guests like Katy Perry. “You can’t get higher pop culture currency than Katy Perry,” he says.
Perry was eager to take part, he reports. “I’ve been surprised to learn that many high brand name celebrities know of my work, or have come to care about the universe because of my work,” he says. “They jump at the occasion. They know I’ll be fair and we just want to have fun.”
Tyson welcomes the chance to chat with celebrities about “all the way science has touched their lives,” he says. With Perry, “Her latest album has a song where as far as I can tell, she wants to bone an alien. I’m pretty sure that’s what the lyrics are saying,” he explains. “I had to get to the bottom of that one.”
Another favorite recent guest was Andy Serkis, who has found success with his motion capture roles (“King Kong,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Lord of the Rings”). “‘Star Talk’ is a way to expose the fan of the guest to the fact that science is everywhere,” Tyson says. “You come for the celebrity, but you stay for the science.”
But he admits he’s hardly a binger when it comes to his own pop culture consumption, watching no more than 10 hours per week. “I pick a representative subset of what everyone is watching so I can have some fluency,” he says, pointing to “Stranger Things” and “Rick and Morty.” “People ask me about it so I gotta load up — not by bingeing, but by handpicking certain episodes,” he says.
Tyson has gained fame for his social media presence, where he weighs in on what’s happening on screen — and how accurate it is.
“I became misunderstood after a few of my tweets; people wanted to brand me a a buzzkill,” he says. “I just thought I was helping. I’ve done less of it because people got immediately pissed off in a way that I thought was unfair. If the costumes were the wrong period, you would pass judgment on those people and you would be praised for having done so. All I’m asking is the same latitude to offer comment on whether they got the science right. I try to do it constructively.”
Consider his tweet on “Game of Thrones,” where he weighed in on the relative heat of the ice dragon’s breath. “I’m having these thoughts anyway so if I don’t put them on Twitter, they evaporate into the ether,” he says. “If I share them, they’re there for posterity.”
He’s also spent some time on screen, including a recent cameo on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory.”
“I was never asked back,” he says. “I’m pretty sure it’s because I don’t know how to act. I can be myself with some effort, but don’t have me emote in front of the camera, because I will fail at that.”
Having hosted several past presidents on his show — including President Carter and President Clinton — Tyson says he would welcome the opportunity to interview President Trump.
“I don’t beat people over the head,” he says. “When I think someone doesn’t know something, I don’t get angry with them, I think of what might have gone wrong in their education path that needs to be adjusted.”
You can listen to this week’s podcast here: