Star Talk for 15Oct17. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Jane Goodall.

Last night on Star Talk, seen Sundays on the National Geographic channel, host Neil deGrasse Tyson had a very interesting and important interview with Jane Goodall, the noted anthropologist and one of the most influential scientists of the last fifty years. Doctor Goodall is of course best known for her intimate studies of Chimpanzee behaviour, studies that have taught us as much about ourselves as our closest relatives.

Neil began the interview by asking Dame Jane, she has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth, how she first got interested in science. Goodall’s answer was rather typical of many scientists. From her earliest days she remembers liking animals and when she was four she and her family visited a relative’s farm where she was given the job of collecting eggs.

After asking the adults where the hole was that the eggs came from, and being given an unsatisfactory answer, Jane proceeded to follow a hen into the henhouse and watched her for four hours. She was gone for so long that her family thought she was lost, the police were even called. Still, she found out where the eggs came from. The image below shows Neil with Jane Goodall.

Jane Goodall with Neil deGrasse Tyson (Credit: Star Talk, National Geographic Channel)

Every time I’ve seen Jane Goodall interviewed she never fails to mention her mentor the paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, the man whose discoveries at Olduvai Gorge in what is now the nation of Tanzania gave us the first evidence for the earliest tool using hominids.

In the early 1960s Leakey had learned much about the physiology and tool making abilities of those hominids but “behaviour doesn’t fossilize” and he realized that the best way to understand the behaviour of our ancestors would be to study our closest relatives the Chimpanzees.

Leakey reasoned that any common behaviour shared between ourselves and chimps would probably also be shared with our ancestors. The person he choose for the job was Jane Goodall, who didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree at the time, but she liked animals.

Goodall spent the next five years at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania revolutionizing the field of animal research by almost becoming a member of a group of Chimpanzees. Her biggest discovery in those years was the tool making ability of chimps, behaviour that at that times was believed only humans possessed. The image below shows the first photograph of a Chimpanzee using a tool it had made for catching termites from a mound.

First Photograph of a Chimpanzee using a Tool (Credit: Star Talk, National Geographic Channel)

Goodall then returned the UK to get her doctorate, her thesis was ‘The Behaviour of Free Living Chimpanzees’. After receiving her degree Goodall returned to Gombe and spent over thirty years studying the Chimpanzees there. She made many more discoveries, such as the fact that chimpanzees hunt; by cooperating they’re actually successful more often than lions are.

Goodall also saw the dark side of chimp behaviour, murder, rape and even war between different groups. Jane Goodall certainly fulfilled Louis Leakey’s desire to learn about the behaviours we share with the chimpanzees.

As always Neil deGrasse Tyson was joined by a couple of guests in the studio at the Hayden planetarium. One was the comic Chuck Nice, a frequent guest who always succeeds in bringing a few laughs to the discussion. The other guest was Anthropologist Jill Pruetz who had clearly been inspired by Jane Goodall in her early life. Doctor Pruetz, who is studying Chimpanzees in Senegal, discussed one aspect of chimp behaviour that even Doctor Goodall missed; Culture!

You see Doctor Goodall spent her career studying a single chimpanzee group in a small area. It wasn’t until other researchers like Doctor Pruetz studied chimps in other parts of Africa that Chimpanzee culture became evident. The evidence of different types of tool use, different styles of nest building and other behaviours, even differences in vocal calls (Language!!!) Show that chimps in different regions have differences that can only be described as cultural. Yet another way that chimpanzees resemble us.

Jane Goodall’s legacy lays in illustrating humanity’s true place in the World, in showing us how we are not as different as we’d like to think we are. The show Star Talk continues to be a place where scientists like Jane Goodall, and their discoveries can be discussed.



Season Premier of Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, where Science and Pop Culture Collide.

Sunday night, 1Oct17, the National Geographic Channel broadcast the fourth season premier of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk from the Hayden Planetarium in New York’s Museum of Natural History. The show included Neil’s interview with Lance Armstrong the bicyclist who won the Tour de France seven consecutive times only to have his titles taken away from him because of his use of performance enhancing drugs. The choice of Armstrong as the interview choice for the first show of the season was an unusual one but the show was both interesting and informative. The image below shows Neil with Lance Armstrong.

Neil deGrasse Tyson with Lance Armstrong (Credit: Star Talk, National Geographic Channel)

Now the interview with Armstrong was taped but Neil had two guests with him live at the Hayden Planetarium. One of the guests was Scott Adsit, a comedian who has appeared on the show several times now. Neil always has a comic as one of his guests to interject a few laughs into the more serious discussion. To provide the background on the science of bicycling the other guest was Max Ginskin, the author of the book Cycling Science.

The first half of the show dealt with the history and science of cycling discussing topics such as the history of the Tour de France along with the importance of aerodynamics in cycling. There was also a segment on the way the performance of a cyclist is measured using the ratio of the power his muscles can produce to his body mass in kilos. The image below shows one of the show’s regulars undergoing the sort of testing professional athletes use to measure their performance.

Athletic Training (Credit: Star Talk, National Geographic Channel)

The second half of the show dealt with the more controversial subject of Lance Armstrong’s admitted use of performance enhancing drugs or PDEs. For this segment Professor Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist from New York University joined Neil and his live discussion.

As I said, Armstrong has now admitted to using PDEs but maintains not only that everybody was using them but also that the drugs had become so powerful and pervasive that it was impossible to compete without them. Without absolving Armstrong, Professor Caplan agreed the governing body in cycling shared the responsibility for failing to address the problem with adequate testing and appropriate penalties.

To challenge Professor Caplan, Neil brought up the argument that, if everybody is using PDEs then the playing field is still level, the competition still fair so why not let the athletes use PDEs if they want. Professor Caplan replied with three points that I’d like to repeat.

  1. If everyone uses PDEs the competition is only longer between athletes but between drug companies negating the whole point of athletics.
  2. For those who love their sports part of the fun is comparing past performances to modern ones. Just this past season in Major League Baseball’s Juan Carlo Stanton hit 59 home runs leaving him just one short of a level of success that only two players in history have ever fairly attained! Like cycling the MLB has to confront its having turned a blind eye to drug use in the past.
  3. (And this is the most important point). These drugs are not safe. Even the use of cortisone for pain relief should be done cautiously. Steroids and other even more powerful drugs have numerous long term health risks. And even if you think adults should be allowed to take such risks if they choose to, what about the 16, 17 hey even 14 year old who dreams of a career in sports? For a teenager to use PDEs will certainly lead to severe health problems when they are in their 40s or 50s.

That’s the value of science, that it gives you the facts so you can make an ethical, reasonable judgment. And that’s the value of Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. If you’d like to learn more about the show ‘Star Talk’, find out where you can watch it, click on the link below to be taken to the Star Talk website.


Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last night we saw the third season premier of Star Talk on the National Geographic channel with host Neil deGrasse Tyson the director of Hayden Planetarium. Basically a talk show in format and billed as “Where Science and Pop Culture Collide” the show is actually broadcast from the Hayden Planetarium and featured Pop guests Whoopi Goldberg and comedian Chuck Nice along with Science guests astrophysicist Charles Liu and neuroscientist Staci Gruber.

Now I’ll be honest, I think the show has a little too much Pop and too little Science but of course the show is intended to make science more accessible to the general audience and nobody is better at that Dr. Tyson. Still, you didn’t get to hear anything about Dr. Liu’s work on the evolution of galaxies and Chuck Nice, who was funny, interrupted the other guests a bit too often.

The first half of the program revolved around Whoopi’s starring on Star Trek the next generation and covered Star Trek and superheroes in general. The funniest moment came when Chuck Nice was doing some “nerd in the street” interviews and asked one gentleman “How does a nerd get revenge?” the answer was “You get your Ph.D. and you hire the people that bullied you!”

The second half talked about the uses of medical marijuana and consisted in Whoopi talking about how she used it and Dr. Gruber evaluating it versus the oxycontin and other opioids. Now, I’m not going to get involved in the argument about Marijuana so I’ll just say that Dr. Gruber did a good job of stating the case for reasonable use of ‘grass’ instead of many of the drugs now being overprescribed.

Personally I was a bit disappointed in the season premier of Star Talk but hopefully Dr. Tyson will soon move on to subjects more to my taste. Again, the biggest problem was simply that Dr. Liu had little to say aside from what a nerd he was and how much he liked Science Fiction. Maybe he’ll be back to talk to talk about the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS).

P.S. During the show there was also an ad for the new series (or miniseries) Mars that will premier on National Geographic channel on November 14. It looks good and I will certainly be watching and writing about it.