"When the universe flinches, I get a call," cracks Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who splits his time between serving as the director of the Hayden Planetarium, a staple of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and as the host of National Geographic's popular TV program StarTalk, a science-centric talk show. As we sit down in Tyson's office high above the Museum to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast, the 58-year-old husband and father of two reflects on what long has driven him outside of its confines. "While there are people who know they like science," he says, "what do you do about the people who don't know they like science or the people who know they don't like science? Who's feeding them?"
Tyson, a native New Yorker, first "became starstruck" at his "local planetarium" — the very one that he now runs — when he was just 9 years old. Looking skywards there piqued his "interest in the universe" and sparked many return visits to independently explore and take classes. As he progressed through school, he was neither nerd nor jock, but an unusual amalgam of both: strong but not outstanding student, physics club member, wrestling team captain, martial arts practitioner, dancer, troublemaker and all-around outlier. He ultimately applied to a number of top universities, and seriously considered attending Cornell, particularly after visiting the campus as a prospective student and spending a Saturday with professor Carl Sagan, a brilliant academic who also made science accessible to the masses in much the same way that Tyson subsequently has. Tyson ultimately opted to go to Harvard, but not before making himself a promise: "I said, 'If I'm ever as famous as Carl Sagan, I'm gonna be sensitive to the needs and requests and ambitions of the next generation of students, just as he was with me."
After graduating from Harvard, Tyson went to the University of Texas at Austin to do post-grad work (during which he briefly contemplated becoming a stripper on the side to supplement his stipend) and then transferred to Columbia to finish his PhD (he spoke candidly at his convocation about how hard it had been to pursue his path as a black man). He did his post-doc at Princeton, attracting some controversy in 2000 by declaring that Pluto isn't actually a planet six years before that became widely accepted. ("Hate mail started coming in from third graders," he recalls with a chuckle). And then, in 1996, he was hired as the director of the Hayden, which was being rebuilt into a $250 million state-of-the-art facility. It was in that capacity that he first began to be approached on a regular basis by the media for comment on stories about science. The way in which one early interview was edited for TV taught him a valuable lesson, he says: "They don't want my professorial reply; they want a soundbite. They want to come to me for something that fits in their universe. And so I said to myself, 'Let me work on the soundbite.'"
In addition to performing his duties at the Hayden, conducting academic research and writing books, Tyson became an increasingly sought-after "talking head" on TV shows broadcast nationwide. He was hired to host PBS’ Nova (2004-2010) and Nova ScienceNOW (2005-2011) educational programs and Fox’s 2014 reboot of Cosmos, the landmark science series that Sagan had hosted 34 years earlier. And, in 2009, Tyson created and began hosting StarTalk, a talk show about science which has existed since then as a radio show and/or a podcast and/or a TV show (it began airing on National Geographic in 2015), using celebrity guests to lure people to conversations about science. For Tyson, the common objective of all of these pursuits — and his colorful use of Twitter, on which he has more than seven million followers — has been to make science accessible and appealing to everyone. He has long believed that there is a massive number of "blue-collar intellectuals" who want to know more about the universe. And he has served their needs — so well, in fact, that he's now a four-time Emmy nominee. (He was nominated in 2014 for Cosmos, in the category of outstanding documentary or nonfiction series; in 2015 for Hubble's Cosmic Journey, in the category of outstanding narrator; and in 2015 and 2016 for StarTalk, in the category of outstanding informational series or special. He is widely tipped to land a fifth Emmy nom this summer, once again for StarTalk.)
While famously amiable and gregarious when discussing science, Tyson becomes a bit more guarded when discussing opinions. "My opinions should be irrelevant to you," he says when asked if it is incumbent upon scientists to set aside evenhandedness and speak up to rally the public against the anti-science attitudes of the Trump administration. "I will not tell you who to vote for," he continues. "But if you deny climate change, you are in denial of emergent scientific truths, period. I don't care what your political party is. You're in denial of science, okay?" He's also careful about the words he uses to describe the role of faith in his life. He confirms that he does not adhere to a religion, but does not accept the label 'atheist,' since he feels it has come to be used to describe things that do not apply to him. What is abundantly clear is that he places his greatest faith in the future. "Thirty [years of age] and under, from my view, is the most scientifically literate demographic there ever was," he says. "I can't wait 'til [they] take charge, because that's gonna be a new world."