Q&A: ‘StarTalk’s’ Neil deGrasse Tyson on ‘patriotic’ Edward Snowden, finding the geek within

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a pop culture ambassador for the sciences.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Maybe it’s because he knows a thing or two about the space-time continuum that the rest of us civilians don’t, but it sometimes seems as if Neil deGrasse Tyson is everywhere at once.

A trained astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Tyson has also become an ubiquitous media presence in recent years -- a pop culture ambassador for the sciences who has amassed a huge following on social media, hosted last year’s “Cosmos” reboot on Fox and now has his own talk show, “StarTalk,” which returns to National Geographic for a second season Sunday night. (You can stream the episode, featuring former President Bill Clinton, now.

SIGN UP for the free Indie Focus movies newsletter >>

Tyson recently spoke with the Los Angeles Times about his desire to get back into the lab, his method for “laying bare the geek underbelly” in celebrities and being parodied by “Key and Peele." 


Before “Cosmos” premiered last year, you said you were eager to get back to being a scientist. How is that working out for you? 

Badly. I still have this fantasy that I wake up and the phone does not ring from any journalist and I can go to my lab and actually probe the mysteries of the universe. It hasn’t happened recently. The flip side of that is what a remarkable fact that science in general, and I suppose astrophysics in particular, can garner the attention of so many people. Not only because the gatekeepers in journalism like the subject, but so does Hollywood, with “The Martian” and “Gravity.” These are major, hundred-million dollar movies all based on content developed and discovered in my field. To the extent that I can serve that curiosity, I will. 

Are there any highlights from the season of “StarTalk” ahead?

My conversation with Susan Sarandon took an interesting turn. She’s a fan of recreational drug use. She posed me the question -- which I didn’t really have an answer for but made for an interesting philosophical starting point -- “Is there a drug you could or would take, a mind-altering drug where the act of altering your mind makes you closer and more acutely aware of how the universe works than would otherwise be the case? Or does every drug that enters your mind alter it to a state that is completely detached from objective reality?”


If all mind-altering drugs put you further away from objective reality, then it would not be in the interest of a scientist to do science under the influence of drugs, whether or not you did it recreationally. 

The conversation went there, I didn’t expect it to go there but that’s where it went. ... I like it when there’s someone where you think you know what you need to know about them and then they come on “Star Talk” and in the conversation, they lay bare their geek underbelly. 

There seems to be a lot of them out there.

I think so. I think people have geek underbellies even if they don’t know they have a geek underbelly.

You just have to find it.

It turns out to be easier than you might think because they realize they’re not on my show to be the scientist, because I’m the scientist. Really they just have to be themselves and we wrap science around their livelihood, and they end up learning something, we end up learning about what it is to be that successful in that livelihood and everybody walks away just a little more enlightened than when they walked in.

You recently interviewed Edward Snowden. How did that come about? You seemed excited to speak with him. 

Why wouldn’t anyone be?  We learned he was a fan of my work and watched “Cosmos.” So that always makes a good starting point because that means they have a comfort level I don’t have to earn. They know I’m not there to stump ‘em, this is not some kind of investigative, journalistic interview. We’re here to get our geek on. In my conversation with him, yes, we talked about the Bill of Rights and security and the right to privacy, the usual things you’d expect, but quickly we got on the topic of can an alien embed signals within the radio waves that permeate the universe and hide them in the cosmic radio waves so that you can send a signal that no one would know about. We talked about cosmic encryption. That’s him getting on his geek underbelly.


So you related to him as a fellow nerd and not necessarily as a hero or villain?

I was agnostic going on. I generally try to avoid having an opinion about someone that was shaped by journalists or anybody else’s account. Yes, there’s the duality, hero or traitor. I don’t use the word “hero” very often, I’m not going to use it in this case, but certainly “traitor” has been invoked for him.

What I would say is, after discussing his motives and what he did and why he did it, I can tell you without hesitation he is the most patriotic person I have ever met. He understands the Constitution better than most of the people who are criticizing him. He’s all for secrets, if you obtain them from people whom you have reason to expect could be against the security of the nation. That’s not what was happening. The NSA was collecting secrets on everybody and at that point he cried foul. He said, this is a violation of this amendment and I will not stand by this. This is not what the founding fathers had in mind, this is what the founding fathers tried to protect against. 

You’ve been outspoken about funding for scientific research and the space program. Are you hoping this becomes a campaign issue? 

A subtle point of detail: Even though it may look like I’m advocating things, I’m really not. What I do is, I offer if-then statements. If people are concerned about the economic future of our country, and provided you recognize that innovations in [science, technology, engineering and math] fields are the engines of our tomorrow’s economy, then we should look to see what forces stimulate people’s interest in STEM most potently. And I can say without hesitation that the greatest force of nature unto itself is when a nation undergoes a major investment in space exploration...

We’ve been looking up ever since we’ve been homo sapiens. The sky is where we’ve always put our gods. There is a certain potency to looking at the sky. When the person comes back, we build statues to the person. We throw ticker tape parades. These are human emissaries of our species.

So, I’m not telling people to spend more on this, I’m saying if you want a future that assures our economic strength as well as our health and our security, here is a force of nature that is the most potent I know of to make that happen. If you have another idea, fine. If you have no ideas, get out of the way.


Would you be up for another season of “Cosmos”?

I suppose so if it can fit into my schedule in a pleasant way, in a non-completely-disruptive way as it did the first time. But I don’t have to if some whipper-snapper comes up who’s got a good turn of phrase and a fun voice, let them do it. I don’t need to do it. But if I’m asked and I can. We should know very soon, like in weeks. 

What did you think of the “Key and Peele” sketch about you?

I didn’t know it was coming, but I knew about it very quickly after it aired. People asked if I liked it or didn’t like it. I don’t invest emotions in the creativity of artists. I just sort of celebrate the fact that it exists at all, that artists have selected science to be their muse, so that’s what I celebrate. But I thought it was hilarious. What they didn’t know is my wife actually has a PhD in mathematical physics, so she’s less accommodating of my “Cosmos"-ian answers. 

Twitter: @MeredithBlake

Get our daily Entertainment newsletter

Get the day's top stories on Hollywood, film, television, music, arts, culture and more.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.