Along with Bill Nye (who, according to reports from news sources, is his best friend), Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a voice championing science educator. While Nye duked it out with Creation Museum founder Ken Ham in a creationism vs. evolution debate (blogged about over on Questia), Tyson has recently made his foray into Nye’s old territory: television. On March 9, Tyson, along with the National Geographic Channel, Fox, and executive producer Seth MacFarlane (of Family Guy fame) relaunched Cosmos, the television program that made Carl Sagan a household name and excited a generation of viewers about the possibilities of space exploration and the wonders of just how the universe was formed. But will the 13-episode reboot live up to the fame of the original?
The original Cosmos
The inspiration for the original Cosmos came out of Carl Sagan’s disappointment at the media’s coverage of the Viking Leader Imaging project at NASA in 1976. The project, which was surveying Mars with robots, capturing then completely new data about the Red Planet, made few waves with the American public. During that era, Entertainment Weekly contributor Jeff Jensen wrote in “‘Cosmos’ then and now: The ‘personal voyage’ of Carl Sagan, the Hollywood cool of Neil deGrasse Tyson,” Americans were more interested in stories about intelligent life in outer space, or news about planets where humans could develop colonies. Viking Leader supposedly didn’t have the glamour needed to capture the American imagination — but Sagan believed differently. He was interested in topics like the origin of life, the far reaches of the cosmos, and how humans connect to the universe. Surely, he wasn’t the only one!
In order to stoke the fires of that interest in American viewers, he hosted Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. The original program was Sagan’s meandering, educational look at the universe. Writing about the first episode, in which Sagan journeys out into the universe and back in a ship of imagination, Jensen summed up the final moment: “When Sagan reaches Earth, we see the planet, and ourselves, as he does: As an extraordinary yet infinitesimal part of the universe; as beings made of stardust, embedded with the secrets of creation. This re-orientation is both wondrous and terrifying. The word, actually, is awesome.”
Sagan’s political views came into play subtly: he suggested that if the brightest minds weren’t busy working on developing weapons for the then-ongoing Cold War, there were uncharted possibilities in science that could be reached.
Fast forward 34 years. NASA’s space shuttle program has been scrapped, and many Americans wonder how there’s relevance in what lies beyond Earth’s orbit. So why reintroduce Cosmos now? Seth MacFarlane explained in the Los Angeles Times that he was hoping to combat what he sees as a rise in “junk science” — particularly in the anti-vaccination movement and in schools taking evolution out of their science curriculum. “There are a number of areas where scientific illiteracy rears its head,” he told interviewer Meredith Blake in “Seth MacFarlane hopes ‘Cosmos’ counteracts ‘junk science,’ creationism” on March 7, 2014. MacFarlane also bemoaned the loss of the attitude of exploration, and the expectation that humans would be present in space. “In 1969, we all thought that we would have a permanent manned presence on the moon by the year 2000. And then in 2012 Newt Gingrich suggested we should have a moon base and everyone thought he was crazy. And I was thinking, I’m a liberal Democrat but I’m 100% with this guy. He’s exactly right. They thought this would happen 10 years ago and here he is making this suggestion and suddenly he’s a crackpot. I think that’s one reason to get back on track.”
Tyson has also expressed hopes that viewers will see how the scientific method is “central to all of our lives,” as he told Dan Vergano of National Geographic in “Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson unveils the cosmos,” March 9, 2014. But for Tyson, even more important is stressing how people are connected to the universe. In 1980, “People thought of the environment as a local thing. They didn’t think of the global environment and how we are all connected…. I want people to come away [from watching the show] compelled to recognize the cosmic perspective on their own lives. Once they recognize that the universe is bigger than we can imagine, it’s supremely humbling. But it really compels us to take better care of this tiny, pale blue dot that we live on.”
While Jensen felt that the new show had a ways to go to achieve that spirit of wonder and awe — and might need to dial back on its too-obvious criticism of people of faith — he praised the moment at the end where Tyson shared his personal story about Carl Sagan’s influence on his life. “The new Cosmos has smarts and spectacle,” Jensen concluded. “Now, more heart.”
Did you watch the new Cosmos? What did you think? Tell us in the comments.