Ellen DeGeneres among recent Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees

15123032_10154778555078281_3903710774946231520_oEllen DeGeneres, the greater New Orleans native who evolved from a stand-up comic to TV sitcom star but also a pioneer for LGBTQ rights, was among the many honorees for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it was announced Wednesday (Nov. 16).

“In her work and in her life, she has been a passionate advocate for equality and fairness,”  the White House said.

Other honorees include Academy Award winners Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and Robert De Niro, musician Bruce Springsteen, NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and “Saturday Night Life” creator Lorne Michaels.

DeGeneres was one of the most popular stand-up comics of the 1990s when she landed her own sitcom, “Ellen,” in 1994. She caused a major stir when in 1997 she came out as a lesbian, and as she incorporated this into her storyline, ratings for the show dwindled and “Ellen” was canceled in 1998. A subsequent sitcom also failed, but DeGeneres regained her footing with her wildly popular daytime talk show, “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” which has been on air since 2003. She has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights throughout the course of her career, and in 2008 married her partner, actress Portia de Rossi, in 2008. DeGeneres also has hosted the Emmy and Academy Awards ceremonies. Her brother, Vance, also is active in the entertainment business.

DeGeneres also offered words of support for the nation in the aftermath of the recent presidential election.

People have been very passionate about this race. And I think it’s because we all love our country, we just have different ideas about what’s best for it, which is part of what makes America great. And I believe we can all come together because if you take away the labels, you realize we’re far more alike than we are different.”

Though she is often referred to a New Orleans native, she technically was born in Metairie. She initially attended Grace King High School before moving away to Texas, where she graduated from high school, and returned to New Orleans and spent a semester at the University of New Orleans before working a range of jobs in the area and getting into the local comedy club scene in the early 1980s. While her show has limited her film work, she is perhaps best known for her voice work in “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory.”

The rest of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honorees: actresses Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross, retired Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, polymath physicist Richard Garwin, Bill Gates and wife Melinda Gates, architect Frank Gehry, mathematician and computer scientist Margaret H. Hamilton, artist Maya Lin, attorney Newt Minow and President of Miami Dade College Eduardo Padrón. There will be two posthumous honorees: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, known as “Amazing Grace” and “the first lady of software,” and Blackfeet Tribal community leader Elouise Cobell.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Interviewing the science guy, with a little help from my friends

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Thanks to all those who answered my query on Facebook to supply questions for Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson in advance of his two-night stand at the Saenger Theatre (Nov. 10-11). As you can tell from my feature in the New Orleans Advocate, as well as the “bonus content” of excerpts from the interview I posted earlier, he’s not a dull guy to interview.

So I thought it would also be fun to slap some of the “crowd-sourced” questions up as a podcast interview. As much as the more formal questions, these give the listener a window into the way he thinks — specifically, respectively, on ideas such as mentorship, the concept of time, and being one of the more popular subjects of memes on the Internet today.

Neil deGrasse Tyson interview: Bonus content edition

As I noted from the outset in my piece in Tuesday’s (Nov. 10) New Orleans Advocate feature, Neil deGrasse Tyson basically speaks (and thinks) at warp speed. In an interview that went double over our allotted time of 15 minutes, Tyson touched on a number of topics, and even fielded some crowd-sourced questions I’d solicited on Facebook. (More on that later.) But when not typing furiously (yes, this one needed to be recorded), it was fun to mentally to just sit back and listen to Tyson go.

We discussed his seamless blending of science and popular culture, in particular how it’s applied on his National Geographic show, StarTalk,” which recently kicked off its second season:

“This is a way science reaches people that would not otherwise have come near it in the course of a day,” Tyson said. “We use the celebrity as an excuse to talk about the science that had mattered in their life,” he continued. “We use the celebrity as a pivot point on all the science that came up in the conversation.”

We also discussed his views on the way science is being taught in the classroom and how that might play out in the political arena (something he’s never shied away from discussing. But we also covered so much more. Here are some block comments that didn’t make the Advocate piece:

On the importance of liquid water as such a key piece to the puzzle of life on Mars: “There are two reasons. One is all life that we know on Earth requires liquid water for its survival. If we search the universe with that understandable bias, then we would be looking for liquid water as a key ingredient in life as we know it. L-A-W-K- … “LAWKI” it’s sometimes called. LAWKI, life as we know it. That’s one. Two, it may be required because for your body, for a vessel such as your body to communicate information from one place to another, nutrients, nourishments, energy, it needs some kind of fluid in order to do that, to accomplish it, and water is a very common fluid in the universe and it has interesting properties that enable it to do what it does very well. First it’s a bias, but second there are two other reasons that we think are cogent for why we might expect life elsewhere to have liquid water as one of its most important ingredients.”

On how crazy it is for an astrophysicist to be so popular: “It’s crazy. It’s completely crazy. Completely. I wake up every morning saying, “What the … ?” Every morning. No, I’m serious. I go to my Twitter stream … My Twitter’s at how many? Four and a half million? What? Don’t they know I’m an astrophysicist? There’s still time to back out if I can warn them of this. Did they do it by accident?” For me, it’s not just the Twitter stream or the TV show. I think what’s most stunning to me is the fact that I can go two nights in a major performance space. That I think is the biggest statement of the public’s appetite for the universe. Because to come to the theater, you’ve got to get off your ass and you have to travel to it and you have to pay money. Then you have to sit there, and you might be in the middle of a row and then you can’t go pee. There’s an overhead to coming to a theater that you don’t have if you’re sitting at home with your remote control or if you are reading a book or watching a documentary. On the occasions where I fill the house of thousands of people, because I forgot the capacity of this theater, but it’s a performance theater … I remember the transition. There was a transition from lecture halls, possibly be invited to a college campus, to city performance theaters. There’s a jump in attendance level, in audience level, between those two venues. Then, you don’t really find two thousand-seat lecture halls on university campuses. You can have several hundred, maybe a thousand, at most fifteen hundred, but it tops out there, really. The fact that there could be this many people that are that interested, times two, two nights in a row, I’m deeply enchanted by this fact. It redoubles my sense of duty in the service of the public’s curiosity and appetite for learning about our place in the universe.”

On why it’s important not to dumb down science while making it so accessible: “First, thanks for you noticing that, because I don’t make a big deal of saying that about it. It just is. I think it’s part of the empowerment of a listener that they see and hear the science as nature intended you to see and hear it, and so therefore you’re not left with some lesser version or lesser explanation than what is necessary to really understand what’s going on. That’s good, but also I personally happen to find the universe to be a hilarious place, so to the extent that I can share that enjoyment with the audience, that’s a plus. I’m also picky about what I’m sharing with you. There’s stuff that’s really, really boring. Why waste both of our times talking about it? I’m not curriculum-driven when I do the talk. There are some topics way more interesting than other topics. I’m going to pick the way more interesting topics that in my judgment are more interesting. Then I share it with you, the audience member. Yeah, it’s a remarkable fact, and I think it’s a sign that science is trending, an unmistakable sign that science is trending in the country and possibly the world.”

On whether he follows science-related issues as they might pertain to Louisiana, especially coastal erosion: “Not specifically Louisiana, but there’s … By the way, you can have erosion even if nothing else is changing in the world. The shape of coastlines, of beaches, is an ongoing sculpted phenomenon on Earth. The real challenge is, as you start losing ice sheets and then the water level rises, then it’s not so much erosion. Yes, it will erode, but you just simply lose your … Your coastline changes. The coastline moves inland. Is that erosion? No. You just lost your damn coastline. Erosion is, “Let me rub away at it so that it’s not there anymore.” That’s different from “Let me raise the sea level so that now everything that used to be your coastline is now under water.” Yeah, coastline is a major issue as the sea levels rise, because what used to be your coastline is no longer your coastline, will no longer be your coastline, and major cities that are on the water’s edge, be they a river’s edge or a lake edge or a gulf or the ocean, major cities in the history of our civilization that were forged, that were created on waterways for the purpose of commerce … In fact, it’s the opposite. There was commerce, and then they said, ‘Oh, this is a good place to put a city because all the commerce is happening here on the water’s edge.’ That is what will completely possibly take us by surprise as we are taken by storm.”

On the greatest value he gets out of interviewing such a diverse range of guests on “StarTalk”: “I like interviewing people where I don’t know anything about their expertise. Then I learn. I love learning stuff I don’t know every day. I think I’ve tweeted if a day goes by we don’t learn something, it’s a wasted day, in my humble opinion. You don’t have that many days alive, so why not make every day count, intellectually at least? Because then you get to keep it. You can go to the gym and have a sculpted body, but when you’re seventy or eighty are you still doing it? No. You hoped you would still have your mind by then, and you can still be a productive member of society.

“There are these science programs that we know work and we know have a following, but for ‘StarTalk,’ I and my fellow producers kept thinking there’s got to be a community of people who don’t know that they like science. They’re not going to tune into Science Friday because you tune in there knowing you like science. On top of this, there are people who know that they don’t like science. How do we reach them? Then it occurred to us, the way we do it is I become the host and my guest is just someone hewn from pop culture. That’s the only prerequisite, visibly and knowingly hewn from pop culture. My conversation with that person orbits all the ways science has mattered in that person’s life.”

Hopefully I’ll have one last little treat from the interview. Stay tuned.