Neil deGrasse Tyson Takes on the ‘Cosmos’
The astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium talks about the continuation of a science television legacy as he takes the helm of “Cosmos,” the series first begun by Carl Sagan in the 1980s.
by Dennis Overbye
March 3, 2014
New York Times
A poignant moment occurs near the end of the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a rollicking 13-part tour of the universe to be broadcast on Fox starting on Sunday.
Sitting on a rock by the Pacific, Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the show and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, pulls out an old desk calendar that had belonged to Carl Sagan, the Cornell astronomer and author. On a date in 1975 he finds his own name. The most famous astronomer in the land had invited young Neil, then a high school student in the Bronx with a passion for astronomy, to spend a day in Ithaca.
Dr. Sagan kindly offered to put him up for the night if his bus didn’t come. As Dr. Tyson told the story, he already knew he wanted to be an astronomer, but that day, he said, “I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to be.”
The story serves as a fitting handoff between the cosmic generations. The young student could hardly have guessed that he would grow up not only to be like Dr. Sagan but in some sense to be him.
It was Dr. Sagan, of course, who invited us onto an imaginary spaceship to tour time, space and the human intellectual experience on the original “Cosmos,” which aired on PBS in 1980 and was arguably the most successful popularization of science since Albert Einstein roamed Princeton without his socks.
In 2012 the Library of Congress designated the book version of the show as one of 88books that shaped America (among the others were “Moby-Dick” and “The Joy of Cooking”). In a foreword to a new edition of that book, Dr. Tyson writes that the show revealed “a hidden hunger in us all to learn about our place in the universe and embrace why that matters intellectually, culturally and emotionally.”
Now, as he says in the opening of the new show, “It’s time to get moving again.”
After all, a lot has happened since Dr. Sagan set off on his imaginary spaceship. Robots are exploring Mars, though nobody has been back to the moon. The space shuttle was launched and retired. The expansion of the universe has been found to be accelerating and the temperature of the earth has been found to be warming. We’ve sequenced the genomes of humans and Neanderthals.
Time to get moving, indeed.
The new “Cosmos” might be called the Large Hadron Collider of pop science: expensive, splashy and ambitious. After a series of special showings this week, including one at the White House, it will be shown in 170 countries and 45 languages, on Fox and on the National Geographic Channel — the largest global opening ever for a television series, according to Ann Druyan, Dr. Sagan’s widow and his collaborator on the original “Cosmos,” who is an executive producer and a writer and director of the new series.
I’m not going to pretend to be neutral here. I hope it succeeds and that everyone watches it, not just because I have known Ms. Druyan and admired Dr. Tyson for years, but because we all need a unifying dose of curiosity and wonder.
“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” comes at a critical moment for a society that is increasingly fragmented.
If we are going to decide big issues, like eating genetically modified food, fracking for natural gas, responding to the prospect of drastic climate change, exploring space or engaging in ambitious science research, we are going to have to start from some common experience.
As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the longtime senator from New York, once said, everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. So where are we going to get them?
In science, as in other areas of our culture, there is no dearth of voices, but are we paying attention? In the new New Age, it’s all about which cable channels you watch or whom you follow on Twitter.
We could use a national conversation that is not about scandal or sports. If everybody watches the new “Cosmos,” we can talk about it the way we once argued about “The Sopranos” every Monday morning.
And perhaps that will happen. The early reviews of the series are glowing, and an adoring profile of Dr. Tyson recently appeared in The New Yorker. And we are not talking about tweedy PBS here; the show will be on Fox, home of “24” and “American Idol.”
It’s hard to imagine a better man to reboot the cosmos than Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Despite Dr. Sagan’s kindness, the young Mr. Tyson did not attend Cornell but went to Harvard and on to the University of Texas and to Columbia, emerging with a Ph.D. in astrophysics. Since 1996 he has been director of the Hayden.
There he has thrived as the public face of astronomy in the most diverse and brassiest city in the country, well known to late-night television viewers as gregarious about the cosmos.
Few men can get away with wearing a vest with a giant sunburst on it, but Dr. Tyson is one, a big man with a big personality who seems extremely comfortable in his own skin. He’s happy to be thought of as a nerd with street cred. He shines best in impromptu settings like talk shows or needling cosmologists at the annual Asimov debates at the American Museum of Natural History, about nothingness or alternate universes. As the cosmic Everyman in “Cosmos,” he proves a convincing and companionable sidekick and tour guide, adding a little shtick and a wink to let the audience in on the fun. Watch him slip on a pair of sunglasses as we approach the moment of the Big Bang, or cover his ears as he reminds us of a certain asteroid.
But Dr. Tyson is deadly serious about science.
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I'm embarrassingly giddy about this. I've been watching the original recently just to refresh. What are your memories or impressions from the original? How do you feel about the new host? I wonder how commercial interruptions will affect the pacing of the series. Alan Silvestri will do the score. Tell me your thoughts
Just for fun: