David Clapp/Getty Images; Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic [edited]
Melanie Lieberman
October 05, 2017

On Sunday, Neil deGrasse Tyson’s science-themed talk show, "StarTalk," returned for a fourth season. While interviewing celebrities and pop culture icons such as basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, news anchor Katie Couric, and pop sensation Katy Perry, Tyson explores topics that range from celestial navigation to environmental ethics.

“I like to think of 'StarTalk' as a geek safe space,” Tyson told Travel + Leisure in advance of the season premiere. “So people can have these geek urgings, and they can share them with me and not be judged.”

During his interview with Abdul-Jabbar, for example, Tyson learned that the NBA player-turned actor had secretly always wanted to play the role of Chewbacca, from Star Wars. “The way he confided that in me,” Tyson said, “it was so tender…”

And after spending time in Los Angeles with Katy Perry, Tyson (who is also an astrophysicist and author of The New York Times bestseller Astrophysics for People in a Hurry) realized he had quite a lot in common with the Grammy-nominated entertainer.

“She asked me almost as many questions as I asked her,” Tyson said of the interview. “[Perry is] intensely curious about everything she doesn’t know. And that is what scientists are, as a community. If there’s something we don’t know, we’re drawn to it.”

“If science was one of those subjects where you didn’t do well, or you didn’t like your teacher, and then you sold your book back to the bookstore…what 'StarTalk' can do for you is reveal all the ways science touches our lives. My conversations with celebrities [are] all about how sciences touches their lives.”

While we eagerly waited for "StarTalk" to return to television, Tyson talked about the show’s purpose, the destination that surprised him most, and the wild form of futuristic travel that could transform the way we see the world (and navigate airports).

He says nowhere on Earth comes close to Iceland.

“Nothing comes close [to Iceland] — not that I’ve been everywhere in the world, maybe something else does come close and I don’t know it yet.”

“We filmed several episodes, and bits and pieces of  'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey' in Iceland….[because] it’s still geologically alive. So it was one stop shopping. It just had so many backdrops to tell a story that could excite your interest in places you’ve never been, in alien landscapes you may have only dreamed about.”

“Every Icelander speaks English almost perfectly…so it was a very friendly place to an American such as myself.”

He believes the future of travel is wormholes...

“So I was in the Charlotte airport [Charlotte Douglas International Airport], and I had to go from a big plane to a small plane, and I swear I walked three miles in the airport…and I finally get to my gate.”

“I thought I’d be clever, and I tweeted, ‘Can’t wait until we have wormholes, so that all gates can be adjacent to one another.’”

“So I come out of Gate 100 and I take three steps and I’m at Gate 2. Wormholes would enable that. I thought I was being clever or cute. And then someone tweeted back at me, ‘Dr. Tyson, if we had wormholes, you wouldn’t need airports.’ And I was like, ‘Woah! Busted.’”

...and not suborbital flights.

"Right now, it takes about six hours to fly to Europe, plus or minus. Let's say you have a new suborbital flight, and you get to Europe in 90 minutes. How many people would do that to save the four hours?"

"Well, consider that it took me an hour and a half in traffic to get to the airport, and another half an hour in security, and on the other end I have to wait for my luggage and go through customs and be in traffic on the other end — that's another hour."

"If you turn the trip into a 90-minute trip, but [still] have three hours of overhead...the shortness of the trip loses its significance to me." 

He encourages travelers to check out local grocery stores.

“While I like monuments and icons of cities, the real memories come from interacting with people who exist in a completely different culture. What the cultural mores are, and the customs — that’s what I find intriguing to compare and contrast. What we take for granted here, versus what they take for granted.”

“For example, I visited an Italian grocery store, and I walked across the aisles, and I said, ‘What is that?’ There was an entire aisle, floor to ceiling, of pasta.”

“I wonder if the Italians know this — really know this. Because our biggest grocery stores don’t have an aisle of pasta. It’s like a section in the bottom left of one part of an aisle. That’s where you get the pasta. In Italy, there are pastas you haven’t heard of, like Fusilli No. 3, and seven kinds of spaghetti thicknesses..."

“I asked my colleague, ‘Do you realize you have an entire aisle of pasta?’ And he said, ‘That’s just the pasta aisle, what’s your point?’”

“I asked, ‘Is there anything in the United States that we have that strikes you as odd?’ And these colleagues, who have visited many times, said, ‘Oh yes, in your grocery stores, you have an entire aisle of ready-to-eat cereal.’ And I said, ‘That’s just the cereal aisle. What are you talking about?’”

“…It’s these kinds of kinds of observations I like to make about the differences in cultures. It enables me to look at our own culture afresh — and you don’t get that just by taking pictures of monuments.”

He likes to travel with a carry-on only.

“I tend to travel light, in part because I don’t trust the airlines with my luggage. So I try to always be carry-on [only]. But also it’s a good excuse to travel light.”

“And I like spreading out in the [hotel] room, because I can’t really do that at home — I don’t have much spread-around space. So I try to do in the hotel room stuff like jump up and down on the bed. Things you’re not supposed to do as a grown-up.”

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