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Neil DeGrasse Tyson On Talking To Aliens, His Bill Nye Bromance, And "StarTalk"

The brilliant astrophysicist answers all of your burning questions.

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It's hard not to be totally transfixed by the brilliant astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and when he stopped by BuzzFeed in New York to chat all about his new show StarTalk, he pretty much, for lack of better words, blew our minds.

Tyson is turning his popular radio show StarTalk into the National Geographic Channel's first-ever late-night talk show, and we sat down with the famous scientist as he talked all about the new series and answered some very important questions from the BuzzFeed Community. Here's what we learned.

What’s going to be new and different about the talk show, compared with the podcast?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Nothing. I just have to be a little better groomed — normally not necessary when you do radio. When someone says you have a face for radio, they're insulting you. So we're in a different set of course. We're in the Hall of the Universe of the American Museum of Natural History — gorgeous space. We're all delighted about how well that came out, but otherwise we're conducting the show in exactly the same way we've done it for radio and podcasts.

What part of the show are you most excited about?

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NGT: StarTalk features people drawn from pop culture, and people you probably have heard of in many cases, and my conversation with them is about all the ways that science has impacted their lives. So they bring a fan base to the show, and then their fan base then hears their person have a conversation about science — where they learn, we hope and we expect, that science is infused in everything that we do in this world. It's not just some enterprise that you can step around, or climb over, or dig under. Or saying, "That's science, but I'm not into science, I'm into art." You learn how much science there is in the art you do.

So it's a way to mainstream what people maybe have previously thought was only for science geeks. In one example, I have [former] President Carter as a guest. I didn't ask him about the Middle East, even though he has a Nobel Prize for having negotiated peace there. I talked to him about his engineering background. So we got into a whole other aspect of his life that wouldn't really come out necessarily in other interviews. We had a StarTalk-ian conversation.

When did your (spectacular and sassy) bromance with Bill Nye begin, and what sparked it? (via Anniqueg)

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NGT: (Laughs) My spectacular bromance? So, we were on the board of The Planetary Society, an organization co-founded by Carl Sagan, and that's when I first met him. He had just finished up on The Science Guy show — we clearly had overlapping professional interests, so we started comparing notes. I think we fed off of one another in our exploration of what works with the public, what doesn't work, what do they want, what do they not want; and his background is in engineering, mine is in science, and so they were complementary but also supplementary to one another. So I think it worked quite well, and we slowly became better and better friends, and a year ago he moved to New York City. So now I see him quite often — he comes to events, I feature him on the radio program. So that's it! And he taught me how to tie a bow tie. I'm still an amateur at it, but I was taught by the master, so.

What would your advice be for a female high school senior who is discouraged from pursuing astronomy because she is constantly told it’s impractical and that she won’t get a job? (via PR)

NGT: If you walk the streets of any big city, you will find street artists, street performers, street musicians — there are no street scientists. There are no street engineers. There are no street mathematicians. Ever wonder why? Because they're all employed! But in general, that's just a fact. Don't shoot the messenger. Now, I'm an academic and I value people pursuing their interests. So one should major in college in a subject that interests them without reference to what they think is the employability within that subject, for several reasons. One, the world changes faster than the time you're in college. So what is employable now may be less employable later. Maybe some other thing will come up that will interest you that is unseeable right now. All of these forces are at play.

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But regardless, if you do what you love the most, you may just become the best in the world at it. If you're the best in the world, it will beat a path to your door. And even if you do not draw the salary that others earn, you'll be far happier than they ever will be, if they're in professions foisted upon them by their parents or by social pressures of their friends.

What led you to having such a drive and passion for science? Is there a specific reason or is it just something you’ve always loved? (via jessyk49766b262)

NGT: I think the universe found me, it was not I who found it. I was 9 years old [during] my visit to my local planetarium — the Hayden Planetarium here in New York City, where I now serve as director. And normally that plays pretty well, that's a small-town story. You know: Hometown kid does good, comes back, runs the thing. No one cares in New York. I tell people in New York [and they're like], "Yeah, your point is?" So at age 9 I looked up at the night sky — a night sky I had never seen before having grown up in the Bronx, where maybe a dozen stars are visible. The lights dim, the stars come out in the dome, and I have been hooked ever since.

By age 11, I knew what I wanted to do professionally. At age 9 you just do it because it feels good. At age 11, I had an answer to the annoying question that adults ask children: What do you wanna be when you grow up? And my answer was an astrophysicist. At that point, that pretty much shut them up. Because there's no comeback on that. And I've been on that track ever since.

If there are any other life sources out there, what would you say to them? (via emilyc4cebcbb78 )

NGT: Aliens? Did the person just not want to use the word aliens?

I guess so!

NGT: Well, it presumes that they and I have the capacity to communicate with one another. The fact is, there's life all over earth with DNA that we share in common with them, yet we have never had a meaningful conversation with any of them — even the life form closest to us, chimps. No one has ever [said], "Oh, how are you feeling today? You wanna go for a walk?" Something as simple as that! Not, "Could you solve this equation for me?" The simplest thoughts are not transferrable between species.

Maybe we are as stupid or as unintelligent compared to them as chimps are compared to us, or dogs are compared to us. And if that's the case, there is no conversation low enough that they could dream up that could possibly sync to the highest levels of conversations that humans have ever conceived. That's a daunting reality. I'm just saying.

How did you, as a young person, become an astrophysicist? What struggles did you face? Is it worth it? (via DylanJamesNemeth )

NGT: Astrophysics was hard. So, do you do something that's easy and fun? Or do you do something that's hard and fun? Many people steer away from things that are hard or that they're not good at, on the premise that they'll never be good at it. I wonder how many discoveries are lost into the ether because someone was discouraged from doing something they enjoyed because they found it to be hard, and then gave up on it rather than stuck with it. And how long does it take someone to judge that it's hard and then give up? One semester, typically. "I wasn't good at it, I got a low grade and therefore I'm giving up on it."

My grades weren't stellar — they were OK. They weren't high enough for any teacher to say, "Hey, he'll go far!" Now they'll say that if you go back to them. But at the time, none of them would say it. They will correct their retrospective memory of me in this regard, but at the time, none of them were saying this. So it was hard. But I wanted to know it. I remember distinctly opening the calculus textbook in high school and seeing this page of formulas, squiggly lines, Greek letters, and I said, I will never, ever understand this. But month by month in the course, it was as though a fog were dissipating — I know what that is! Hey, I can put that together with that. And calculus rose up out of the depths of my ignorance into a potent tool to calculate the behavior of the universe, empowering me to realize my dreams.

So if you encounter something hard, that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It means you should redouble your efforts to gain command of it. Because then you add it to your utility belt of methods and tools for solving problems when others can't.

If you had the opportunity to explore space but never come back to Earth, would you? (via Slytherin394 )

NGT: Oh, of course! (Laughs) By all means! Bring the family, get a good Netflix account. You know, sure!

What’s your favorite movie about space? (via mango8fish)

NGT: I have several, but near the top of the list would be Contact, and Deep Impact — it's lost in the shadow of the film Armageddon where Bruce Willis saves the world. But Deep Impact was a similarly themed film where an astroid came and struck Earth. Except the asteroid in Armageddon had good aim. Pieces of it — one decapitated the Chrysler Building, another one I think hit the Eiffel Tower. It's like, what, they have LoJack on their aiming? What is that? That's directors believing that that's what they need to do to destroy a city. And in Deep Impact it hit the ocean, and then you get a tsunami to destroy the city. They did it right, and they still got to destroy a city. But Deep Impact got a lot of physics right, the acting was great, and the story was sincere. So Deep Impact and Contact — both appearing like a year or two from one another — for me are very high on my list.

Watch StarTalk Mondays at 11 p.m. ET/10 CT on the National Geographic Channel.

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