Future Tense

Neil deGrasse Tyson Was Slate’s Personal Astrophysicist for a Day

It’s probably safe to assume that no astrophysicist has hosted as many TV shows as Neil deGrasse Tyson. There was NOVA: The Pluto Files in 2010 plus the continuation of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in 2014. And now, the director of the Hayden Planetarium is about to launch the second season of his science talk show StarTalk on National Geographic.

The late-night wars have been raging for a few years now, but science education feels so far removed from the drama that Tyson has been able to slip in unnoticed. The trick to what he’s doing on StarTalk (and his radio show of the same name) is that it isn’t so much science education as science entertainment. Leading researchers appear on the show alongside comedians and celebrity guests, and the interview tone is more Tonight Show, less college class.

In the first season of StarTalk, Tyson had science-focused guests like Chris Hadfield and Richard Dawkins but also guests talking about an even broader range of topics like Dan Savage and Arianna Huffington. Season 2 opens with Bill Clinton and also includes Penn and Teller and Larry Wilmore. The roster of guests shows that science entertainment can be mainstream, and is also a reminder of just how many popular figures are actually science ambassadors. Of course George Takei was StarTalk’s first guest.

Before Slate visited Tyson at his office, I had already heard that it was a sort of wonderland of astrophysics memorabilia. A New Yorker profile of Tyson promised an asteroid fragment in his desk drawer. I was not disappointed. The main StarTalk interviews are done in Tyson’s office, so you can spot a lot of his trinkets by watching the show. There’s space beer, an antique sextant, famous scientist action figures (including a “Tyson” figure who seems part Neil deGrasse, part Mike), and lots of model rockets. But it’s also just a normal office where Tyson oversees programming for the Hayden Planetarium and runs the American Museum of Natural History’s astrophysics department.

So what about that asteroid chunk? “Oh yeah, he just had it out this morning,” a publicist told me nonchalantly.