Colbert on Tyson

By Phil Plait | December 17, 2011 7:14 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson may be the most recognizable astronomer on Earth these days, in part due to his frequent appearances on The Colbert Report. Earlier this year In 2010, Colbert sat down with Neil at the Kimberley Academy in Montclair, New Jersey and chatted with him about life, the Universe, and everything. Colbert did this out of his TV character — well, mostly — and even though it’s over an hour, it’s well worth your time. The original video is on the Hayden Planetarium site, but it’s also all over the place, including YouTube. I’ve embedded it here for your enjoyment, too.

Neil and I agree on a wide variety of topics, and he’s doing a great job inspiring people to look beyond their own immediate surroundings.

Related posts:

Our Future in Space – panel at TAM 9
In which I disagree with cartoon Neil Tyson
SMBC on the brain
Neil Tyson and I talk time travel


Comments (31)

  1. When will you be on The Daily Show? That’s the burning question for BA fans.

  2. he’s doing a great job inspiring people to look beyond their own immediate surroundings.

    Actually, not so much. Tyson is a wonderfully adept and engaging popularizer of the Party line. He does not add anything borne of his own intellectual curiosity. Search him in arXiv, find a paper after 2007. This is not a bad thing, but keep it in perspective. Adding another epicycle is different from improving the model.

    The 40-year empirical failure of contemporary gravitation and particle theories suggests a not inconsiderable fraction of the RAH! RAH! SIS BOOM BAH! of cosmology is a cheerleader with a beard. Dark matter is a gout of drylabbed curve fitting. SUSY is grotesque, as are proton decay (IceCube!) and solar axions; the “see-saw” mechanism of neutrinos… superluminal or not.

    The Higgs is more wound than revelation. A colleague notes that all graphed data, including noise, are well above expected values. A non-parametric runs test should be performed. Look at an RMS means test. There is a sinusoidal variation in the data. This could be error or it could be significant. Whether the data don’t/do exceed +/- 1.5 sigma net above observed noise is almost irrelevant.

    Popularizing skyscrapers is good. Popularizing skyscrapers whose first floor is the third, hovering in mid-air, is less good.

  3. bjdcharlie

    This talk by Tyson best represents what I would tell people who need to hear it! If only I were so eloquent….one of my favorites.
    I love the last line which is something like “Questions….may not be questions at all. “

  4. tacitus

    @Uncle Al

    “he’s doing a great job inspiring people to look beyond their own immediate surroundings.”

    Actually, not so much. Tyson is a wonderfully adept and engaging popularizer of the Party line. He does not add anything borne of his own intellectual curiosity.

    For all the overwrought phraseology in the rest of your comment, this doesn’t make any sense. Just because Tyson no longer invests his time in empirical research, that doesn’t make him any less effective a communicator when it comes to inspiring others to “look beyond their own immediate surroundings.”

    If all he was doing was pushing his own pet theories and ideas, then perhaps you would have a point, but Tyson isn’t blowing his own trumpet, he’s a herald for the rest of the astronomical and cosmological community and the work they are doing toward understanding the Universe.

    There are so few Neil deGrasse Tysons in this world that it would be a crime to require him to be shut away in some dusty telescope control room for months on end just so that he can put his name on a few more research papers. We have plenty of other adept researchers who can do that — we have very few who can sell their work better than Neil deGrasse Tyson.

  5. Jim Saul

    Just as I finished watching this, I clicked on Reddit… Tyson in in the middle of doing an AMA right now!

  6. Phil

    The most recognisable astronomer on Earth? In the US maybe, but Tyson is pretty much unknown in the UK. Instead we have Patrick Moore :) Maybe Tyson should make an appearance on the Sky at Night!

  7. Sindragosa

    Does the Higgs boson have anything to do with gravitons?

  8. Navneeth

    Thanks for posting, Phil. Loved it.

  9. tacitus

    The most recognisable astronomer on Earth? In the US maybe, but Tyson is pretty much unknown in the UK.

    Well, Americans do tend to get “America” and “the world” mixed up sometimes. After all, the Cardinals are the World Series champions, and Mavericks the NBA World Champions, in spite of the fact that only one or two teams in those leagues are not actually located in the USA…

  10. John Nouveaux

    Not to get pedantic or anything, but this talk was recorded (according to the Hayden website) in January of 2010, no earlier this year.

    Just sayin’. 😉

    And it *is* a most wonderful interview!

  11. Paul

    He did an AMA on reddit today (and one last month). When will you do yours?

  12. hoot56

    Tyson is not an astrophysicist (as he claims). On the one hand, this might not be a problem for a “popularizer,” but the problem lies in the fact that he claims to be an astrophysicist. Perhaps this is not a big deal, as hopefully most aspiring student scientists would not know that he doesn’t have a real research record.

    By the way, the reason that we don’t have many “popularizers” is because most astrophysicists want to be astrophysicists. That’s why they went into it in the first place. Also, there are few such funded positions as “popularizers.”

  13. Blargh


    Tyson is not an astrophysicist (as he claims).

    He’s got a Ph. D. in astrophysics. That makes him an astrophysicist in my book.

    From the International Astronautical Federation’s web page:

    He began his graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned his M.A. in Astronomy in 1983. He earned a Ph.D. degree in astrophysics from Columbia University in 1991.

  14. Steve Metzler

    12. hoot56 Says:

    Tyson is not an astrophysicist (as he claims).

    What Blargh said. Geez hoot56, way to demonstrate how on the web today, everyone can have their own ‘opinion’, and send people off on tangents that are just not even worth bothering to investigate.

    A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. – Churchill, Twain, et. al.

    ETA: Montclair, NJ happens to be the town of my birth :-) And that reminds me of another one of my fav quotes:

    Tomorrow we enter the town of my birth. I want to be ready. Jim Morrison, Celebration of the Lizard, 1970

  15. MadScientist

    Did I hear correctly? The Master of Ceremonies referred to “Romeo and Juliet” as “American Literature”. I don’t recall annexing England …

  16. So Phil – when are you going to do an AMA on reddit? Don’t let Neil steal all the glory!

  17. Am I the only one that noticed that he got pi wrong? Around 23mins in,he said “…dividing a circle[‘s circumference] of any size by it’s radius is equal to those numbers [pi].” Sure the ratio he described is fixed but it isn’t pi. Confusing radius and diameter is a small slip up, but if I was there I would of screamed bloody murder.

    Other than that, I like the interview.

  18. Adrian Lopez


    “Tyson is not an astrophysicist.”

    You’re thinking of Mike Tyson. This one is Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist.

  19. Joseph G

    320p, we meet again! ಠ_ಠ

    Ahem… Sorry, do we not do that here? :)

  20. Takeru K

    Why does it matter if Tyson has a “real research record” or not? Astronomers and astrophysicists like us need educated people (e.g. PhD, and better yet, some research experience beyond that) to help educate others and help inspire others to study astronomy.

    People who do science education and science outreach are doing just as important work as people doing science research.

  21. Georg

    Its a real fun to listen to such educated and humorous people.

  22. I’m surprised nobody mentioned Dr. Tyson’s other career. He was a hoot on The Big Bang Theory.

  23. Defensive Al

    I’m a bit surprised at the negative posts. Seems to me that his message is that science is cool and people would be better off scientifically literate. As a longtime science teacher, he makes me proud. Most engaging and relevant interview I have ever seen. Watching it will become an assignment for my preservice teachers.

  24. Kevin

    love the interview but i have to point out…..Romeo and Juliet…American Litrature….really?

  25. pavium

    Did the Headmaster describe Romeo and Juliet as the two most famous ‘star-crossed lovers in all of American literature’ ?

    It’s a little more than that.

  26. thaneb

    The school is the Montclair Kimberley Academy or MKA. It comprises three part, lower, middle and upper schools subsequent to the merger of Montclair Academy (boys/now upper); the Kimberley School (girls/now middle) and the Brookside School (K-6) in 1974.

  27. JohnW

    Great. Thanks for posting. But E=MC^2 beautiful? Meh.
    Now e^(pi*i)=-1 now THAT’S beautiful.

  28. Abe

    Wasn’t it Leonard Susskind who theorized that information about what goes into a black hole is not lost?

  29. pat k

    Hey out of curiosity what was Carl Sagan’s record in research when was his last paper published? When was the last paper published before he died? Was he an astronomer? What about the nuclear physicist who builds bombs instead of doing research is he still a physicist I mean come on what else can we argue about…….lol

  30. To Julian

    π (sometimes written pi) is a mathematical constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. π is approximately equal to 3.14. Many formulae in mathematics, science, and engineering involve π, which makes it one of the most important mathematical constants.[1] For instance, the area of a circle is equal to π times the square of the radius of the circle. (copied from wiki;)

    He said “take a circle of any size and divide it by it’s own radius = PI”, (he never said circumference or diameter) I know he was talking about the circumference when referring to a circle being able to be any size though.

    I don’t play with protractors or care about circles LOL, but it seems to me you would need something to be dividing something into. I know a circumference is the length around one, the diameter is a straight line through one, and the radius is from it’s center out to the edge.
    Anyways, you cannot find pi from only using the radius and diameter (1inch divided by .5inch does not = pi LOL, meaning it’s circumference has to be used when finding pi.
    Therefore it’s the circumference and diameter that are used when finding pi as wiki says, so I guess he confused radius with diameter on accident I would hope. LOL.

    Now I can make a living from betting uninformed people that the diameter of any circle any size, divided by it’s circumference = pi (3.14) oh the joy. I find it strange that it’s true, however it probably makes perfect sense to the guy who first realized it. My question would be if you already know the answer, why ask the question? So when in school, when they told me here’s 100 circles divide the circumferences with their diameters, I would question what’s the point, they are all pi, then I would get an F for not showing work.

    Also; the circumference and diameter are directly related to each other which explains why it is always 3.14 on any sized circle. When one # changes so do the rest. Making it not so strange, but still amazing it works that precise. It’s certainly is not magic.


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