Sunday, January 27, 2013

Podblast! StarTalk

I am convinced that, no matter where he is at any given time, Neil Degrasse Tyson (not to be confused with the TV show Degrassi) is probably one of the, if not the, smartest person in the room.

He is also the owner of the most awesome vest ever.

A brilliant astrophysicist, I initially found out about him through, of all places, The Daily Show.  Jon Stewart interviewed him about his book The Pluto Files, detailing the discovery, history, and reclassification of the planetoid Pluto.  Now, I'll admit I was upset when Pluto's classification was changed, but after hearing the logic and reasoning behind it, I've come to accept it.

After all, to refuse to change how we classify things when new data is presented pretty much goes against the very nature of "science" in any form.

I picked up his book, read it, and watched him appear a few more times on The Daily Show as a consultant: solving a Rubik's cube as he explained how the universe worked, while still having enough time to point out that the globe The Daily Show uses for its logo spins in the wrong direction.  I don't think I had ever laughed harder at that show.

Later, during episodes of The Universe, I found him again, this time breaking down complex puzzles of science, space, and how things worked on our own world into bits that I could easily digest, whether I was exercising at the gym or watching while curled up in bed.  

So, it seemed inevitable that, while searching for interviews of him on various podcasts, I discovered that he has his own, and it is epic.  Each episode of StarTalk is like a miniature science lesson, but not always about astrophysics.  Usually, Neil Degrasse Tyson- I'm just going to call him Dr. Tyson, since that's how Superman addresses him.

Each week, Dr. Tyson usually has two guests on; a person somehow connected to a specific scientific field, and a comedian/actor to bring some levity and humor to the proceedings.  Now, the comedian is sometimes hit or miss.  Several that have been on come across as "okay, enough intellectual talk, pay attention to ME now" or "yeah, whatever, so, here's my complaint about my life at this moment."  It's like sitting down in front of a warm slice of pie, but right as you're halfway through, someone plants their foot in their face to talk about toe fungus.  Fortunately, these specific comedians don't show up often.

His other guests can range anywhere from active NASA astronauts to actors like Wil Wheaton.  In a day of listening to older episodes, I heard interviews with Moby regarding the science of music, professor James Kakalios discussed superhero science, neuroscientist (and absolutely gorgeous woman way out of my pay grade) Cara Santa Maria discussed the make-up of the brain, and Wil Wheaton discussed the science of Star Trek

Obviously not Dr. Tyson, but she has a Carl Sagan tattoo, and that's just as awesome as the vest.  And more pleasant to look at in candlelight.
These are all brilliant, but there are several episodes that stand out.  His interviews with Michele Nichols made me re-appreciate the original Star Trek series, both for its advances in science fiction, but also for the amazing advances it had in how society viewed other people (that rumored story about Michele Nichols being talked into staying on the show by Martin Luthor King, Jr?  Totally true.)

There was a two-part series discussing salt, one of the most common chemical compounds on our planet, and how it's affected not just health, but the entire path of human history.  The conversations during this show really broke down that there is a great link between things that happen at a cosmic scale and things that happen on a micro scale.  

For one episode, Neil did a tribute to the events of 9/11, and I'll be honest, I couldn't listen to it completely in one hearing.  Hearing the details directly from Neil, no guests around, no jokes being made, just him telling his experience blocks away from where it happened was so haunting, it felt like I was in physical pain.  Not because it was unpleasant, but that this was someone I had such respect for talking about being in this condition, I felt that somehow all I've done in my life up to this point wasn't enough to help in the world.  That during that time, I had failed, as a person, to help somehow when people needed me.

Whether he's discussing what the fashion trends will be once we're in outer space or simply talking about why certain overhyped apocalypses are total bunk, you always get the sense that Neil Degrasse Tyson isn't just excited to know this information, but he's excited at the idea of everybody else knowing and understanding it as well.  The man wants nothing more than for people to educate themselves and ask questions.

Now, while there are some moments where there are a few knocks against some more commonly held belief systems, I don't think that Neil Degrasse Tyson insists people believe what he believes.  He never belittles his guests for having different faith than he does (last I've read, he states he's an agnostic).  He might attempt to decrease some one's reliance on religion to explain how the universe works, but that's only because he's so amazed by everything in the universe, he's actually incapable of believing it was "just made in six days."  With so much information in the universe, I'll admit I frequently agree that I can't just accept things are "as they are" when every day science brings us closer to explaining why.  Or if not explaining it, at least providing more questions to answer.

Or, as he puts it, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."

But if you aren't sure you want to listen to him, why not read some awesome Twitter quotes of his, or simply Google (this is an official verb now, right?) some of his appearances on television?  I think you'll find, like I have, that the man is charming and educational at a level that has not been seen by (occasional guest of his) Bill Nye.

Only with better fashion, naturally.

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