Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has spent the past three decades making a name for himself as a science communicator, appearing everywhere from PBS to The Daily Show in an effort to educate the public. Now starring in the revival of Carl Sagan’s celebrated 1980 documentary series Cosmos, Tyson has committed to marrying his pop-culture persona and his pure=science interests. And where better to do that than at Comic-Con International in San Diego?
“The first was Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, this is Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, Tyson explained to reporters before his Comic-Con panel began. “It’s been 33 years since the last one aired. … We’re creating another 13 episodes, and we’re moving the story into the next millennium.”
Tyson was joined by executive producer Brannon Braga (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager), and co-writer of the original Cosmos (and Sagan’s widow) Ann Druyan.
One of the most successful science documentaries in American broadcast history, the original Cosmos used state-of-the-art visual effects to tackle everything from evolution to the possibility of alien life. Druyan said she and Braga had been talking for years about bringing back the series, and they approached others, like new Cosmos director Bill Pope and Tyson.
“I knew Neil, of course, because Carl had reached out to Neil when he was a kid and maintained contact with him,” Druyan said, adding that the two met when Tyson was 17 and Sagan tried to recruit him as an undergraduate student. “The beautiful, emotional, organic handoff from Carl to Neil ... actually is kind of typical of the way science works. It’s not for any one generation to see the whole picture, it just moves forward.”
Soon after, Tyson was approached by Seth MacFarlane at a science-outreach event in Hollywood. Telling Tyson he was a fan of his, and the science-outreach idea in general, the Family Guy creator asked how he could help.
“Neil was already part of our group so he said, ‘Well, you know Ann Druyan would like to do a new Cosmos, Druyan said. “I’m lucky that Seth was such a Cosmos fan, as he immediately made a series of ridiculous promises that were completely impossible: ‘I’m going to bring you to Fox.’ But he kept every single promise ... There’s no question in my mind this would have never happened on the scale this is happening without him.”
Funding and network secured, the group then had the daunting task of actually following up the first Cosmos.
“What distinguished Cosmos from all other documentaries of its era is that it wasn’t simply opening up textbooks and teaching pages from it,” Tyson explained. “It spent time exploring how to make science matter to you as a human being, as a citizen, as a species with the capacity to reflect upon its own existence. And to appear on Fox is huge! It’s not relegated to the science ghetto on some channel you don’t remember what the number is, and it’s not in your basic cable service.”
“When was the last time on a commercial broadcast network there was science programming of any kind?” Dryan asked. “It’s not within living memory, really. That’s the thrill of it: We get to do it, and we’re not preaching to the converted. We’re doing exactly what Carl Sagan would have done, which is go to the broadest possible audience and try to touch each and every one.”
Giving concrete examples of the differences between the original and the upcoming series, Druyan pointed to the “Cosmic Calendar” in the original series, “Which had cardboard dinosaurs on it!” she laughed. Retaining the idea, the group updated it to reflect technological and scientific advancements, turning it into a huge visual-effects calendar, with a small Tyson walking around to demonstrate the vast scale of cosmic events.
“We’re using Mars imagery that they took, but we’re also combining that with our own to do a sequence, to give an example, where Neil’s on Mars but from the point of view of the rover,” Braga said. They worked with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, among others, to bring those sequences to life.
“It’s worth noting, too, like the original series part of the story is how we came to know a lot of the things we know,” he continued. “The original did historical recreations using live action. In this incarnation of Cosmos, and largely thanks to Seth MacFarlane’s involvement, we’re doing them as animated sequences.”
Speaking about the science documentary’s cultural impact, Druyan and Tyson expressed their disappointment in the current state of science funding in the United States. Between the open denial of climate change by politicians and the recent testimony before the House of Representatives by former Lockheed Martin vice president Thomas Young that, with current spending, the country would “never” put a human on Mars, only one word could sum up Druyan’s feelings: “heartbroken.”
“I’m old enough to remember when we were in the vanguard of science,” she said. “A lot of things I didn’t like about my government and a lot of things I was willing to go to jail for, but I could be so proud of the fact that we were sending Voyagers out on an interstellar mission, that we were walking on the Moon, that we were going to Mars. With all our faults, at least you could say we were pioneers and explorers.
“It seems to me the space shuttle, all of that, was a kind of failure of nerve. We were like the toddler who scurried away from our mothers and made a little foray out into the world, got as far as the Moon and a few places and suddenly looked around and said, ‘Where is she?’ then ran back to her and stayed in Earth’s orbit for 30 years,” Druyan added, shaking her head.
Tyson acknowledged his belief that humanity needs to make manned missions to space a priority, a message he has pushed through his own podcasts, books and public appearances, although it won’t be the main focus of the show.
“We don’t directly address space exploration because that’s an activity, and the show is focused on science and how we’ve come to learn where we are in the universe,” he said. “Yes, it involves space missions and things but space mission is not the goal of our storytelling -- it’s our understanding of our place in the universe.”
With a small laugh, the astrophysicist continued, “I have certain unorthodox views about our future in space, I wrote a whole book on it. … The way I look at it is, How nearsighted is it to suggest we don’t have the luxury to go in space because we have to solve our problems on Earth here first? That presupposes that there are no solutions to your problems on Earth to be found in space -- and no moment in the history of exploration has that ever borne true! We’re fighting wars over fossil fuels that happen to sit beneath where he’s living versus where I’m living, yet the universe has unlimited sources of energy.”
Although the United States first entered space only because of its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, Tyson said that despite the political reasons, once there it opened humanity’s eyes to further exploration.
“One shouldn’t require a Cold War to go into space,” he said, “but the fact that a Cold War forced us to do it allowed us to then notice what impact it actually had on our ambitions and our exploration and our sense of life on earth. We went to the Moon to explore the Moon, and we looked back and discovered earth for the first time.
“The day someone says ‘Let’s stop exploring,’ we might as well move back into the cave -- because that’s where we’ll land,” Tyson added emphatically. However, the educator was quick to dismiss labeling what he hoped to stir up as a “movement.”
“I don’t like the word ‘movement’ ... because it implies you’re either with us or you’re against us,” Tyson said. “While the urge is strong to complain about politicians who are scientifically illiterate, in a democracy they represent a community. So if you have an issue with a politician, your real issue is with the electorate who elected the politician.”
He continued, “I, as an educator, take priority in educating the public so that they can make their own decisions. One of them might be they don’t want to do science. Well, if that’s the case then I’ll alert them to the consequences of that. I’m not going to hit them over the head, I would say, ‘If you don’t want to do this, here’s what can happen: you lose your economy, you lose you capacity to protect ourselves in the face of these moving technologies, you lose vision for where we’re heading, and just understand that, then vote for who you want.’”
“I’m not going to tell you who to vote for,” he said, “not in a democracy.”
Looking back on the original series, Tyson and Druyan expressed hope that their Cosmos will rekindle mainstream interest in science, or at least get viewers to start questioning our place in the universe -- and looking toward space -- once again.
“People are always talking about, ‘What’s the byproduct of the space program? It’s Tang,’” Dryan said. “No! It was a cultural impact that said we had a kind of momentum, so that’s one of our hopes for Cosmos is that it will torque the zeitgeist back in the direction of exploration, of the passion to know the universe. There’s been some great unmanned missions but it’s really time to get going again. That’s what Cosmos is about. It’s about a hopeful vision of the future, a future we could still have, it’s not too late!”
Looking at the individuals involved, Tyson added, “Yes, I have high expectations that it will change the mood of the country, so people come to value science. Like I said, I don’t want to call it a movement -- I want to call it an enlightenment.”
While there was no plan for a third Cosmos should the second series prove as popular as the first, Druyan has an optimistic outlook.
“In 33 years we’ll fire up the third!” she joked as Braga laughed.
More seriously, she told reporters, “Who knows what will happen in the future, but after having spent several years with Brandon and Neil and Bill Pope and some of the other people involved, we would welcome the opportunity to go anywhere in the universe with these guys.”
“Carl would be thrilled, for sure,” Druyan concluded.
Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey premieres next spring on Fox.