Thirty-five years ago, a science series called “Cosmos” premiered on PBS and captured the imagination of the nation while earning big ratings, accolades, and Emmy and Peabody awards. Hosted by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, it introduced a generation to space exploration and the history of Earth, our place in the universe, the origin of life — and the question of intelligent life existing elsewhere.
Three decades later, “Cosmos” is getting a new millennium update in a 13-part series premiering March 9 on Fox and March 10 on National Geographic Channel, airing on respective Sundays and Mondays thereafter. Subtitled “A Spacetime Odyssey,” it benefits spectacularly from CGI visuals and the impeccable pedigrees of the talent behind it: Sagan’s widow and collaborator, Ann Druyan, serves as writer, producer and director, while executive producer Seth MacFarlane supervised the animation elements, and renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is the host, guiding the viewer through our galaxy and beyond.
The new “Cosmos,” says Druyan, “is about opening the door to the widest possible audience, to entertain them, to uplift them, to make them feel the great, the awesome power of the scientific perspective. When Carl Sagan was alive, we weren't trying to preach to the converted. We wanted to evoke in people, who might have even had hostility to science, a sense of wonder … to excite people who thought that science was just too challenging to dream about the universe of space and time. We have to translate that in a way that is accessible to everyone, without cutting any corners on the science, without lying, without dumbing it down. We're telling the great story of nature and of life and of space, and that can be said in the plainest of words.”
Animation and comedy creator MacFarlane (“Family Guy,” “American Dad,” “Ted”) seems like an odd fit for a science documentary, but he was instrumental in bringing it to Fox. “I had always been a fan of ‘Cosmos.’ I had seen it as a child, and then, when I was in high school, saw it again and was able to process it in even more. I met Neil through an organization called the Science & Entertainment Exchange and found out he was working with Ann on doing a new ‘Cosmos.’ I asked if he wanted to have lunch, and astonishingly, he said yes."
Tyson’s connection to Sagan pre-dates “Cosmos.” They met when the high school senior was applying to colleges, and Sagan graciously invited him to his home and became his mentor, exerting a lifelong influence. Today, Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the astrophysicist version of a rock star, with an infectious enthusiasm and the ability to make complicated subjects fun and comprehensible for the average person.
“People view our challenge as ‘how do you make it interesting?’ My claim is that it’s inherently interesting; we’ve just failed at revealing that fact over all these previous decades,” Tyson opines. “We’ve sifted through the universe to find those elements that are inherently interesting and inherently deep so the words not only affect you intellectually but emotionally. There’s real science wit all the rigor that you might expect but presented in a way that I think my colleagues and I have failed to do in the past.”
He figures that his “persistent awareness and exposure to the public gives me some sensitivity to how people think and what they care about and why they care about it.” And his kid-in-a-candy store wonder and enthusiasm is contagious. “I think too many of us forgot how to be excited about what we love. You reach a point where you end up taking it for granted, and I never take anything for granted. I still look at my smartphone and say, ‘Damn, this is following me on the surface of the Earth communicating with satellites orbiting 500 miles up. That’s awesome!’ ”
While he was initially resistant to join the Twitter-verse, Tyson realized, “I have random fun thoughts every day that I would just keep to myself. Now I share them. My Twitter stream is the embodiment of my enthusiasm for everything that tickles me as I walk through the day.” His 1.66 million followers are paying attention — his opinions about physics errors in the movie “Gravity” made the national news. For instance, an un-tethered George Clooney wouldn’t have drifted away. “I think science, if you want to go there, ought to be held to the same standards that any other storytelling elements are held to when someone finally analyzes how good was that movie,” Tyson reasons.
Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow.
Back in 2006, he was blamed for the demotion of Pluto from ninth to “dwarf” planet, but says that brouhaha is bygone. “People who at the time were third-graders and are now in high school with other hormonal priorities, so they’re completely off my back. The next generation was born into the fact we have eight planets, not nine.”
Tyson is himself the father of two teenagers “who like science and are scientifically literate. That was the house rule. But my daughter is into Far Eastern languages and cultures. There’s no rule they have to be scientists,” he says.
Would Tyson, who is seen traveling through the “Cosmos” in a CGI space pod in the series, want to go into space for real? “Only if I can assure there’s budget to bring me back! Then I would consider it,” he quips, turning a bit more serious in speculating about the nature of life in outer space.
“The history of exploration is such that the culture with the more advanced technologies enslaves or slaughters or otherwise completely exploits the culture they encounter. If aliens are actually that much smarter than us, there’s no reason for me to think that they would care at all about what we think or how we behave, any more than when you walk down the street and see a worm, think, ‘Gee I wonder what that worm is thinking about?’ We might not even be as smart to them as dogs are compared to us. They might completely exploit us. In fact they might have already done so, and Earth is one of their terrariums or one of their zoos!”
As for the future of our own planet, “Earth will be here long after we’re extinct. Am I optimistic about the future of humans on Earth? Yes, only in the sense that dystopian storytelling presumes that things slide and there are no restoring forces at all and it hits rock bottom. But in the real world there tend to be restoring forces. People see how bad it is getting and correct for it, either politically, culturally, economically. I have some positive outlook. I remain hopeful.”
Tyson is similarly optimistic that “Cosmos” will educate, enlighten and entertain. “ ‘Cosmos’ is a story not simply of the moving frontier of science. It's primarily a story of why science matters and why this new understanding of the world continues to affect us deeply as an individual, as a nation, as a species. I want viewers to recognize that science is not some other thing that they can step around or step over or dig under. Science is a cherished activity of the human mind that has transformed who we are, how we live and what our place is in the universe. That’s the takeaway from ‘Cosmos.’ ”
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