Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos, Comedians and His Live Show

Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Photograph by Delvinhair Productions

What will audience members experience at "An Evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson" at the Buell this weekend that they wouldn't get from Tyson in another medium? "There's so much of me that's out there, one could wonder, what are you going to get seeing me in person?" he acknowledges. We recently caught up with the science guy to learn more about the mysteries of the cosmos -- and Cosmos.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson: I don't know that I can speak for a fan experience, or an interested person's experience, but what I do know is that when I'm there, it's almost like we're one-on-one. There are many people in the audience, but I like looking at people's faces. I don't get to do that so much because I don't teach at a university anymore.

When I was teaching, I saw people's faces all the time and could interact with them. A public lecture is the proxy for that, and when I'm there live, I feel it's a personal thing. It's almost a private exchange, like a communion between us, you, the person who's attending and me, the person in front of the room. I'm there and I'm talking about the universe, of course, from a cosmic perspective, and why science matters, but I'm bringing my life experience, having served as an advisor to the government and to NASA. There's all this life experience that I fold in, and I link it to other things I'm doing.

It's a night out, it's a celebration of science, of exploration and discovery. And to do that live is different from looking at a YouTube video. You could buy music of someone, but if they play live, do you ask someone who buys a ticket, "Why would you watch them live?" The live experience is different, it has an energy and an emotion, it has a sense of the now that no other way of consuming that content can deliver.

It's a relationship, it's a communion between me and the audience. And that energy that I feed off of, the energy that is in the room and how people react to what I say, it matters to me, and I think it matters to the audience. That becomes the experience people remember. I was in a town once where I was scheduled to appear in a theater, and the organizers said, "Why don't we put in another event?" Because it sold out. And I said sure, I can do it, but some percentage of people who went the first night also went the second night, and I felt the pressure of that. People coming two consecutive nights!

I spoke with some of them afterwards and asked if they were bored the second night, and they said "No, no, no." And they said even on two consecutive nights, it's not the same performance, it's a little bit different, and different enough to be enjoyable to people who enjoy in basking in cosmic discovery.

Westword: You've done assorted projects on television, you've tackled podcasts, you're doing this live show and you have an active Twitter following. Are there any mediums (social or otherwise) that you have yet to tap into but that interest you?

That implies that I'm actively seeking out media, and I'm much more passive than that. Everyone said I should have a Twitter stream and I said, "Why? Isn't that a waste of time? What's going on?" And then finally I said okay and got a Twitter account, and I tweeted what everyone else was tweeting. "Eating a hamburger now, going to the movies now, crossing the street."

Then I said, I'm an educator, not a scientist, there's got to be something I can do with these mediums. I have these thoughts about what the world looks like every day as an educator; why don't I share them in this medium? I started doing that, and the following gravitated to it, and it just grew and grew and grew.

My Twitter stream is hardly ever where I am or what I'm doing, much to the frustration of the promoters of these talks. I have a Twitter following around the world, I'm not going to waste your eyeballs reading about what I'm doing in some town when you live miles away in London. I've been using the Twitter stream as a way of sharing what the world looks like to me. It's not like I sought a way to do that, that kind of came upon me once you realize that Twitter is there. It's a little bit more passive than the question implied.

I have a television show planned with National Geographic; it'll be their very first talk show ever. I didn't say to them, "Gee, I want a talk show, let's do that." It was, "I'm already doing this radio show, there are people who film these shows and do it as television." They don't even look at the camera, they're doing their radio thing and the camera is eavesdropping on them. There's Imus in the Morning, Howard Stern -- so these people actually have television shows of their radio show. So I said, as a minimum, if all they did was set up a camera while I'm studio with my standup comedian and guest, I could do it at least as well as these other shows, and if we dolled it up a little bit to make it look more TV-like, well, it's already a successful podcast, how could we lose? It's a low-risk bet that National Geographic is taking, but it's not like I started the day saying, "How can I do this for television?"

It's an organic thing: Does it work, does it fit, and is it natural for what's going on, as my random thoughts were? I know I have some animated guests who come in and would make good TV, but I don't want to start my day thinking up something that would work on television. The passivity is not out of disinterest, I'm more reacting to what works rather than thinking up something new that would work.

If there was anything active that I want to do, it'd be to stay home and write more books. It's quite the Rubik's Cube of life -- as one project rotates into view, another project rotates out of view and gets disassembled partly. It's quite a puzzle challenge to do all these things and do them well.

You're known for commenting on popular culture on occasion and give the public a scientist's view of pop culture that's lighthearted but scientifically accurate. Why do you think it's important to bring a scientific perspective to popular culture?

Thank you for noticing. Some people will take a piece of what I do and miss the total picture. People like to smile and like to laugh, and to the extent that I can frame actual content in that way, I'll do it, because I'm a big fan of what comedians do and they play a big role in our society. When I fold that in to an offering to learn, it's a more potent offering than it would otherwise be.

Is there anything else you'd like to add about your live appearance or about anything else you're working on? Anything I should have asked you that I didn't?

I don't presume to know what a journalist might want to ask, so I'm kind of passive that way, I don't presume that I know something you should have asked and didn't. What seems to have been on everybody's mind is, will there be another Cosmos? I think we tweeted that we're in conversation, but when we finished Cosmos this past year, we were all hoping to digest what happened and have a little break. The last Cosmos was 35 years ago, so the notion that we'd just jump out of our skin and start another one took us by surprise, but the universe is vast enough to fill another thirteen episodes. We're still exploring what it would mean, look like and feel like, and when would be the right time to do that. We just don't know what it will look like yet.

Hear Neil deGrasse Tyson on Thursday, January 29, or Friday, January 30 at the Buell. Learn more about the event at neildegrassetysonlive.com.


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