Talking Science and Entertainment with StarTalk

Neil deGrasse TysonAfter displaying The Royals for seven hours in a row, our DVR was showing signs of depression. To preserve this key piece of household equipment, I took the remote away from Mrs. TV Recaps and decided to perform an emergency viewing of something completely different. So, here goes my recap of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Hope you enjoy it.

What’s the best way to get Americans interested in science? Well, besides paying them all and perhaps taking away their cable, you might want to try and figure out a way to marry their love of pop culture with deep thoughts about science, technology and the human condition. You’ll want someone comfortable in his own skin, engaging, erudite, and yet able to sling the occasional expletive (preferably 4 minutes into the program). Impossible, you say? I say check out StarTalk which premiered on National Geographic last night.

A companion to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s very popular StarTalk Radio podcast, the show takes that format and makes itself TV friendly. For those of you that don’t speak geek, the astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City explains midway through the premiere: “It is our job to collide pop culture with science. If we don’t do that, we’re not doing our job.”George Takei on StarTalk

What better way to start that collision than with an examination of TV’s historic Star Trek, the show that inspired geek souls everywhere. The show centers on segments of a conversation Dr. Tyson had with George Takei, whose Hikaru Sulu was helmsman for the starship USS Enterprise.

Those segments get discussed with Tyson’s in-studio guests: comedienne Leighann Lord and astrophysicist and “all around smart guy” Charles Liu. Unlike most late night shows, no one is plugging a program, album, movie or appearance. Everyone seems to be here to push knowledge – never a bad thing. The tone is frequently light and though seated on a stool, Tyson is frequently a body in motion, with his hands and arms and head moving for emphasis. That’s not a criticism though, as some of us have been known to gesticulate a bit when enthused… Ahem.

Anyway, here are some things I took away from last night’s StarTalk.

  • StarTalk might have its head in the stars, but it’s got human roots:  The first several segments of the Takei interview focused on discussed matters of diversity and race, contrasting Star Trek bold multicultural/multi-species outlook with the painful past and present of America. George Takei movingly talks about the horrific moment his family was interred during World War II and the frightening aftermath when his family was dumped into L.A.’s Skid Row. The commentators point out how that period in U.S. history was the opposite of creator Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision.
  • Keep your communicator, and maybe your transporter, too. While chatting with George Takei about the technology that Star Trek predicted, the astrophycist points out that the while the Trek communicators were cutting-edge in the late ’60s, no one today would want a device that just lets you talk. Later, he adds that transporters would be cool to avoid traffic and move goods, but he wouldn’t want to be the first to travel via one. Tyson understands self-preservation. Leighann Lord also points out the scary thought of uninvited dates showing up at your home.
  • We could build an Enterprise-ish:  While chunks of the technology needed to build the Enterprise and cruise space don’t exist, there are equivalent technologies that could be pressed into service, Tyson says, citing a Gizmodo article. He adds that carving out a portion of the U.S. defense budget could fund such an endeavor. At this point he nearly jumps out of his seat with excitement. Inside that cool, grown science icon is a joyful geek child.
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson sometimes gets it wrong: In a great moment, the host describes how he had long screwed up his description of how the Enterprise’s warp drive would work using his astronomical patterned tie. Luckily, he was set straight in an alley by some Trek fans at a Comic-Con. Dr. Liu is displeased that his fellow astrophycist and sci-fi fan could get it so wrong and mocks him a bit.
  • I’m putting wine in a blender: The talk turns to food on the Enterprise and Dr. Tyson mentions an experiment done with putting wine in a blender to improve the taste and the molecular implications behind that. I’m not sure exactly how this works, I just know that it sounds cool and I’m giving it a try. Stand back.

The show closes out with Tyson’s science-bro Bill Nye in a filmed segment. Honestly, a my thoughts turn to the epic rap battle featuring Sir Issac Netwon, Nye and Tyson. But Nye nicely bookends the show’s premiere by explaining how Star Trek, unlike much of today’s SciFi, had an optimist view of the future and one worth keeping in mind.

As a low-level science geek, I’ll be a little more optimistic about the state of television and humanity if a show as smart and good natured as StarTalk finds a long-term home on TV.

David F.
When it comes to TV watching, DavidF is a sucker for classic comedies, anything mechanical with wheels, nature shows and things being built.

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