How Neil DeGrasse Tyson Champions Women & Geeks In 'StarTalk' Season 3
I've long been a self-described nerd, even if that wasn't always the "cool" thing to be growing up. So when I watched Neil deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk Season 3, which aired on Sept. 19, I felt like I had found new friends. Science — especially astrophysics, which is Tyson's expertise — can be a foreign field to many, particularly when you consider it has historically been a field dominated by white men. But StarTalk turns that stereotype on its head, as Tyson uses his show to champion science-savvy women and geeks without tokenizing them.
The first episode of this season's StarTalk featured actress Whoopi Goldberg who, if you don't know, is also a self-proclaimed nerd. Goldberg and Tyson discussed everything from superheroes (which they reimagined to include themselves) to the idea of what distinguishes nerds from geeks. Tyson tells Bustle how he differentiates the two: "I like thinking about what words have value in one time versus another, and how they rise and fall with usage. ... I see geek as an emergent word, gaining currency and stock value, so I think I’m both a nerd and geek."
This goes without saying, as Tyson later explains to me why he would choose reading minds as his superpower. (Namely, to gauge "if some love interest would have similar feelings because I wasn’t socially adept enough to determine that by other means," but also so he could fight crime through knowledge rather than relying on muscle power.)
Though Tyson's quirky personality and contagious laugh sets the tone for each episode of StarTalk, his diverse guests and experts (which range from Goldberg to The Big Bang Theory's Mayim Bialik to astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, among others) change the notion that science is only for old, white men.
While the concepts can be confusing to us non-science people, the discussions are genuinely inclusive of diverse voices and perspectives. Don't get me wrong: There are many men, numerous of them white, who join Tyson on stage at NYC's American Museum of Natural History. But despite this, watching StarTalk Season 3 was one of the few times in my life I wasn't immediately aware of the women and people of color contributing to these discussions that often exclude them. And this is something Tyson tells Bustle he's fully aware of:
We’re fortunate to live in New York City, where diversity is kind of built in to the modern life, so here’s an interesting challenge: we have these occasional requests for inquiries, like can we do a show on LGBT or can we do a show on women in STEM. I use my full energy to resist that because the absence of representation becomes the topic rather than the representation of an underserved group.
The tokenization of certain people, whether women or minorities, is something Tyson says he's noticed a lot in television sitcoms. "If there was a black person, there had to be some scripted reason for them being black." StarTalk directly combats that tokenization by relying on experts and their scientific expertise, rather than their gender or skin color. Tyson tells Bustle how he tries to achieve that:
I’d rather just have a transgender person in the studio commenting with his or her expertise. I don’t have to have a conversation [about it]; it’s there. It’s there because they achieved this [expertise]. The fact that I’m not asking them what it’s like to be transgender, it’s 'Tell me about what the black hole is doing at the center of the galaxy,' And that way it shifts [the discussion] completely.
It's no surprise that Tyson's StarTalk has achieved a seamless integration of diverse voices in its third season, as he's clearly someone who's long respected women and all types of geeks in his field. Tyson tells Bustle that Dava Sobel — the author of The Glass Universe, which explores the women in astrophysics who, at the turn of the century, discovered how stars work — is one of his highly regarded role models. "My field has very deep roots in not only the relationship between women and calculus discovery, but the evolution of the roles they would play over the decades," Tyson says. "Right now, we still want to improve the numbers, but we have very visible, powerful women in my field."
Because of this, Tyson says he likes to do things "by example rather than by preaching," and the range of guests on StarTalk Season 3 are a great example for women and geeks everywhere who maybe haven't fit the traditional "science geek" mold throughout history.