Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson has become a staple of mainstream pop culture. Everywhere you look, he seems to be explaining in laymen’s terms the complex physics of the world. Based on this popularity, a number of TV, radio and web shows feature his antics. One of these, called Playing With Science, is a spinoff of the popular StarTalk series and where the physics of sport is explored in a humorous way. Recent guests on the show have included athletes ranging from auto racing legend Mario Andretti, to boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, to figure skater Sasha Cohen, to cyclist Lance Armstrong.
Playing With Science is co-hosted by Gary O’Reilly and Chuck Nice. O’Reilly, not surprisingly is a former professional athlete himself – a soccer player – from Great Britain. We thought it would be fun to learn more about him and the show. Below are edited excerpts from a longer conversation.
Jim Clash: What is Playing With Science all about, and how does it relate back to Neil DeGrasse Tyson?
Gary O’Reilly: Playing with Science [PWS] is a spinoff of the multiple Emmy-nominated TV show StarTalk with host Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which brings science and pop culture together with a healthy serving of celebrity and humor. On PWS, we take the same route, only we filter the science through the lens of sports. Be it elite or otherwise, science touches every aspect of sport – including physics, neuroscience, biomechanics, technology or aerodynamics – it’s all there. We unpack it, lay it on the table and have our in-studio experts and athletes show us how it all fits together. You could say it is where geeks and jocks collide, and where every day is a school day. Neil drops by regularly and we pick his brain, as we do with all of our science experts. We can be talking doping with Lance Armstrong one day and baseball shoe design with Mike Trout the next, or even how the brain works under the pressure of a penalty kick in a soccer World Cup match through the eyes of neuroscientists like Dr. Heather Berlin.
Clash: How did you get the gig as co-host?
O’Reilly: Long story short, I met the executive producer of StarTalk many years ago and we stayed in touch. She had always been interested in my sporting background and the global reach of my broadcasting – its variety and my ability to bring the subject matter to life and energize an audience. The StarTalk Radio Show had become a huge success, and the template for the show was seen as easily portable through other genres, whilst retaining all of its key elements. Sport was an obvious to go on the list of possibilities, and once the decision had been taken to launch Playing With Science, comedian Chuck Nice, my co-host, and I were considered the ideal guys to drive it forward. So having met someone on a train, led to me to then meeting Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Professor Charles Liu, Chuck Nice, astronaut Mike Massimino and the whole cast and crew of StarTalk, and ultimately to hosting Playing With Science.
Clash: What is Chuck Nice like to work with?
O’Reilly: I will say that I feel truly blessed to work alongside Chuck. The fact that he is a stand-up comedian means you might expect he’s a nonstop gag-fest, but it’s not like that. Yes, of course, he will default to the humor he sees in things, but he is acutely mindful of when to strike the “funny bone” and when to step away. Chuck is such a sports nut, too, and quite often he sees things as a fan and gets caught up in the moment. However, his grasp of the high-end science, that leaves me bewildered on occasion, finds him reveling in his element, and this allows us to drill deeper into the science and reward our audience with even more of the knowledge they came in search of. The big thing is that after the first show everyone, Chuck and I included, realized that we have great chemistry together, which makes the show such a pleasure to be involved in.
Clash: You were a pro soccer player in England. How did you end up in the U.S. as a “science guy”?
O’Reilly: I like a new challenge and enjoy the thrill of a new project, so coming to the U.S. is a continuation of my life’s journey. Fourteen years as a professional soccer [football] player in England saw me move into broadcasting, hosting TV shows, including NFL in the U.K., national and international radio commentary for the BBC, TV match analysis for the English Premier League for the global audience, global TV host again for the English Premier League, and working in India to help launch its new professional soccer league for a couple of years. I have been very fortunate to have these opportunities and embrace different ways and different experiences. So coming to America – why not, the opportunity presented itself – for a different type of show in that it involves a lot of science, kind of ticked all the boxes. And now, some 25 years after I finished playing, here I am. But please don’t call me a “science guy” – Bill Nye would will have a fit!
Clash: What other projects are you working on now?
O’Reilly: We (PWS) partnered with Fox Sports during the summer to co-produce some mini-features for its World Cup soccer programming that went down incredibly well, and we are hoping to continue that relationship. Personally, I was involved in the ESPN TV commentary for the ICC soccer tournament this summer, and expect to be involved in some of the European internationals this fall. I also joined the team at Sirius/XM FC radio, hosting and guesting on a number of nationwide shows. It has been such a blast and something I hope to do a lot more of going forward, and allows me to wallow in my passion for soccer. We are working hard to bring Playing With Science to TV, and we’ve had a number of very positive conversations so far. There are one or two projects that have not been finalized yet, but will have the PWS fingerprints all over them. And, of course, I’m working hard recording our PWS shows up until the end of 2018. In five years time, I would expect that I have settled here in the U.S. and can happily call it my broadcast home.