Hot science on TV? Try Comedy Central
By Dan Vergano
Looking for science? Headed for Animal Planet or the Science Channel?
Think again, scientists say: All the cool kids want to sit across from Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
"Comedy Central is it, as far as science goes," says Caltech physicist Sean Carroll, who is scheduled for a "Colbert Report" visit in March to promote his book, "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time."
"I give tremendous credit to 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' for understanding that science is fascinating and fun, not off-putting and work," he said.
At one time, Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" regularly hosted astronomer Carl Sagan, anthropologist Margaret Mead and many other scientists. Now, the late-night network shows largely eschew researchers, says astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium in New York, who holds the "Colbert Report" guest record with six appearances and was set to make his fourth "Daily Show" visit on Monday. The two shows "are carrying the torch that Johnny Carson lit," Tyson says.
In recent years, Colbert has hosted string theorist Brian Greene, physicist Jana Levin and paleontologist Neil Shubin, among many other scientists, including Tyson in his show's first two weeks. Stewart devoted an "Evolution, Schmevolution" week in 2005 to biology in the midst of the federal Kitzmiller v. the Dover Area School District court case that found "intelligent design" — which explains evolution as being partly driven by intelligent intervention in animals — was just another species of creationism.
"I'll admit to being terrified before I went on ('The Colbert Report')" in 2008, says Shubin, one of the discoverers of the 375-million-year-old fishlike land creature called tiktaalik. "I'm really grateful for the way the show showcases ideas."
Tyson went on "The Daily Show" to promote the Nova documentary "The Pluto Files." As it looks at the debate over whether Pluto deserves to be called a planet, the documentary includes segments like "Who Does Neil Tyson Think He Is?" with Colbert, Stewart, NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Diane Sawyer.
Tyson, a TV-appearance pro, has visited Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" and "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," as well as "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon." But he says such visits are rare for other researchers. "Late Show With David Letterman" brought Obama administration science adviser John Holdren on last year to discuss climate change.
"Any access that real science gets to mass media is a good thing. Colbert and Stewart are very smart people. And they know the value and meaning of science," Tyson says.