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Neil deGrasse Tyson: science superstar, humble ‘servant’

Like Carl Sagan before him, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star of science. The “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” host, podcaster, author, Twitter provocateur and star of his own forthcoming program on the National Geographic Channel comes to Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre Jan. 27 for “an evening of engaging conversation on science, exploration, and the world as we know it.” He spoke with the Sun-Times shortly before his visit.

Q: Your Auditorium Theatre show is sold out or close to sold out at this point, right?

A: Or so I’ve been told. I’m just astonished every day I’m informed of this kind of fact. It’s not as though I’ve never given talks before; I give talks routinely. But in the day, they were at smaller venues or on campuses. And science has seemed to sort of leap from traditional small lecture venues into major performance spaces. And every morning I wake up, I say, “Have we told people that I’m a scientist?” [laughs]

AN EVENING WITH NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 27

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $55-$102.50 (plus fees/taxes)

Info: Ticketmaster.com

Q: You’re certainly riding this wave. Are you having a good time, or does the pressure get to you?

A: It’s not pressure, it’s just being alive. Do I enjoy it? I don’t think about it that way. I think about, “Am I serving an interest?” I don’t say to myself, “Oh, I’m having a good time” or “This is great; let me do more because it’s great.” I’m a servant of the public appetite for the universe and for science, and I’m happy to be in that role. But at the beginning of the day, if I’m given the options, “Do you want to stay home and play with your kids or do you want to go on the road and talk to the world about the universe?” I’m staying home and playing with my kids. [Note: His two kids are actually in high school and college].

Q: It was great to see you singing with Stephen Colbert on his last show in December.

A: [Laughs] What a motley assortment. I’m standing there between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Christie [Cyndi] Lauper.

Q: Did you have to keep it secret?

A: I got the invite and they said, “Hold the date.” But no one knew what was being planned. They said, “He’s inviting a few of his favorite guests back.” It was as diverse a set of people as has ever been collected under one roof, I think, in the history of the world.

Q: Come on, you can admit it: Kareem was really off-key, wasn’t he?

A: He was near me, but all I could hear was the piano with Randy Newman.

Q: How does jealousy reveal itself among your science colleagues because you’re famous and making money?

A: We, at least in my field, have been down this path before with Carl Sagan. And what we noticed at the time — I’m talking about people who preceded me who I’ve spoken to — was that whatever jealousy or animosity colleagues may have had, at the end of the day they noticed that people in their electoral districts started approaching them, saying, “You do this work on the universe? Is that like what Carl Sagan does?” “Why, yes!” “Oh, wow! I’m going to tell my senator or congressman.” And so tide waters began to rise for science funding because of this exposure. For me, I’ve added some elements to this. For example, I won’t talk about a recent discovery to the press unless they have assured me they’ve spoken to the person who made the discovery. If the answer is no, I’ll say, “Talk to them first and come back to me later. Then I’ll be happy to tie a bow on that story. I’ll be happy to offer a cosmic perspective on that story.” So the press, I think, has learned to use me in that capacity. And in that way, I am not replacing my colleagues’ day in the sun. I’m not supplanting it; I’m supplementing it. In that context, it helps their discoveries reach a wider audience. So I think, unless I’m delusional, I continue to be embraced by my colleagues in this capacity.

Q: Are you an avowed atheist?

A: No. I don’t attach myself to any label that someone would invoke lazily to presume that they already know what I’m thinking. The only label I’ll embrace is that of a scientist. But people try to label me philosophically — Are you a this? Are you a that? — and I say, “Why are you even asking? Is it so that you don’t have to then have a conversation with me to find out what I’m really thinking? There’s a portfolio of ideas that come along with that word that you want to layer onto me.” And so I reject all labels entirely. Ask me questions, and if [the answers] fit your label, then go ahead and do it. But don’t start off trying to think you know how I think. Because my guess is that you actually don’t.

Q: Especially when you started going on “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show,” you began getting many more fans and demands on your time were greater. There must be benefits and disadvantages to this high-profile life you now lead.

A: Again, I don’t think of it in that way. I think of myself as a servant. And in the capacity of a servant, in doing the servant duties, I get recognized. So it’s a little clumsier trying to walk the street now. This is actually a quantifiable measure of fame. There’s how many mentions you get in the newspaper and whatever else. But there’s this other one that’s undeniable: At what rate do people I.D. you in the street? And I remember when it was about once a month and then it was about once a week and then a few times a week. I’m talking about random people in random places, no matter the city or what time of day. So this was a sort of linear growth in these numbers. And then it went to two or three a day. Right now it’s about 300 a day.

Q: Do you have to wear shades and pretend to be on your cellphone to keep them at bay?

A: It’s almost unsustainable to function. You can’t go to the grocery store much anymore. But people are very respectful. They want to say hi. And these days the selfie replaces “Can I get your autograph?” But you can wear a hat, and I put on glasses. Even if I do that, there are people who will say, “I know that voice,” and then they turn around and see me. So then I try to just not ever say anything [laughs].

Q: What are science groupies like?

A: There are people who are just generally interested and then there are fans. Then there’s the groupies. The groupies are people who will put tattoos of quotes of mine on their arm. That’s full-out groupie right there. Or people who would create art inspired by things I’ve said, or iconography that I’ve represented. So those would be the groupies. If you look online, there’s a performing group called the Phenomenauts. And they perform a song called, “I’m With Neil.” It’s on YouTube. It’s crazy. And in this video are clips of me commenting on talk shows with them singing and dancing. And so those, I would say, are groupies. But my point here is that the manifestation of groupie energy in this modern time, to me, looks like they have an artistic energy that has been touched by science — or touched by my delivery of science. And it ends up being expressed in song and in music and in poetry. People send me poems every now and then. People will ask me if I would preside over their wedding. I say no, by the way. But I am honored and enchanted by this level of energy that people have invested in celebrating the science that I’m putting on the table. And I don’t criticize it. I don’t judge it. I let it run its natural course. Because the fact that science has become the artist’s muse, I think, is something to be celebrated at all times.

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