Brandon Royal’s photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anna Deavere Smith.
Brandon Royal’s photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anna Deavere Smith.

Art and Science for Change, with Anna Deavere Smith

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About This Episode

How do you create art for change? How do you use science in your art? How do art and science intersect to create a cultural or societal shift? On this episode of StarTalk Radio, Neil deGrasse Tyson sits down with acclaimed actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, known for her roles on The West Wing, Nurse Jackie, and her award-winning work as a pioneer of “documentary theatre.” Neil is joined in-studio by comic co-host Eugene Mirman, contemporary scholar Dorothy Roberts, primatologist Natalia Reagan, and linguist Renée Blake. 

You’ll hear about Anna’s scientific inspirations for her work. She reflects on playing Thomas Edison’s mother when she was very young. We discuss her play Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities which explores the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn, NY. Anna tells us why she chose to include a physicist as a main character and how she used stargazing and telescope science to metaphorically explain race relations. 

We get details on Anna’s play Notes from the Field and how Anna’s interviews with scientists “opened up her mind” and were included in the play. Natalia sheds light on why anthropologists and evolutionary biologists provide important research when we look back on the social and cultural behaviors of the past. Then, we dive into the history of language. How did language begin? Do we know? Renée leads a discussion in why language can serve as a cultural identifier. 

Anna tells us her inspiration for putting on A Rap on Race which revived a conversation between celebrated author James Baldwin and anthropologist Margaret Mead. We answer fan-submitted questions about Isaac Newton and his famous apple incident, and whether the story of Adam and Eve could be used as a metaphor for when chemistry became biology. Lastly, Bill Nye the Science guy stops by to give us a history lesson on one of the most iconic pieces of art in Los Angeles, the Watts Towers. All that, plus, Neil shares his cosmic perspective on why science as no meaning without art.

Thanks to this week’s fans for supporting us at
Erica Thoits, Edward Mann, Dan Cowden, John Yonosh, Peter Kronenberg, and Jane Tanner.

In This Episode

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