Rising Sun

03.09.14

The New 'Cosmos' Reboot Marks a Promising New Era for Science

The new reboot of the classic Carl Sagan series, now starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, needs our support—seeing more science on mainstream TV may depend on it.

First, a disclaimer. I haven’t seen the new Cosmos. Second, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the host, is a friend of mine. This is therefore not a review of the program or of Neil’s presentation in it.

Years ago I had talked to Ann Druyan about the possibility of redoing the Cosmos series, but it wasn’t clear that the circumstances associated with 1980’s remarkable $8.3-million sponsorship of the 13-part Carl Sagan-narrated show could ever be reproduced.

But that is precisely what makes Sunday’s premiere of the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey a potential watershed moment. Druyan teamed up with some of her former writers, and with producer Seth MacFarlane to convince Fox Television to, for the first time in over 30 years, to fund and air a new 13 part series in prime time on a major network.

To be sure, there are major differences between the old and the new. When Cosmos first appeared there were three major commercial networks and PBS. Now the major networks have given way to hundreds of cable stations, and cable is now giving way to the Internet, so the monopoly on viewers’ eyes has disappeared, and with it, perhaps, the opportunity for any single program to so dramatically impact upon or dominate the cultural landscape. So many images, so little time.

Then there is the shadow of Carl Sagan. The original series was as permeated through and through by Sagan, not just on the air, but off as well. His particular genius for explanation, his grand vision of the cosmos, and his own personal likes and dislikes were everywhere to be seen. And, while some of his colleagues might have derided Sagan’s scientific contributions, perhaps jealous of his success at popularization, he carried with him the gravitas associated with a successful research scientist with over 600 publications, and one who had played a key role in space and planetary exploration, directing the Laboratory for Planetary Studies as a Professor at Cornell University.

By comparison, the current series is a product of Seth and Ann’s efforts to reproduce the excitement of the original series in a modern context with vastly new technology. The host is Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is already a renowned scientist-celebrity and television star. Neil is one of the most charismatic and delightfully entertaining popularizers of science in this country, with a unique presence and a special capacity to capture the excitement of the scientific enterprise, combined with a savvy ability to tap into popular culture while doing it.

But following his Ph.D., Neil relatively quickly shifted from a brief research career to grow into one of the most successful expositors of science today. Director of the Hayden Planetarium since 1996, with a gig as host of Nova ScienceNow for several years, host of a successful radio program in New York, and regular appearances on various comedy and HBO network programs, he has progressively built up a huge following, with a big impact on the public’s appreciation of science.

Will the fact that Neil isn’t an active scientist, or the fact that the new Cosmos may not be seen so much as his personal creation as much as an homage to the creation of the man who motivated Neil and many of the rest of us to go into science, affect the impact? We’ll see. While it would be disingenuous to say that many of us aren’t envious of the opportunity Neil is being given to reach so many people, I think we are also relieved that we can avoid the inevitable comparisons to Sagan. (Though if anyone can power through that, it may be Neil.)

Finally there is the question of technology. Cosmos was the first scientific series to utilize special effects, in part because of its novel use of videotape, and that also affected its broad impact at the time. Today, on the other hand, we live in a world full of animation and computer-generated imagery everywhere we look.

I have heard that the graphics of the new series are splendid, and I would be disappointed if they weren’t. But every science program is now replete with them. In fact, again without casting any aspersions on those in the new Cosmos, I sometimes think there is far too much reliance today on fancy graphics in science programs, and not enough on the fascinating ideas of science. I find myself often reminiscing about Jacob Bronowski’s masterpiece The Ascent of Man, in which a single camera shot focused on a fascinating and brilliant man saying fascinating things was as mesmerizing as anything I have seen before or since.

OK, so much for the worries. Let’s return to the incredible opportunity this moment provides. Seth MacFarlane has correctly recognized that this is a big chance for science in the public arena. While researchers have bemoaned the lack of science on a major network, after this week that particular complaint will be passé.

In that sense, every one of us should root for the success of this program. I certainly am. If it is successful, perhaps the dummies who determine what we see on television will rethink their mantra. If it makes money, maybe we will see more science series on mainstream TV (advertisement: I have a few ideas by the way!), and science will become better integrated into our culture.

For years we have heard the constant refrain that science isn’t marketable, nor isn’t ready for prime time. Yet at my own institute every science program we put on fills up a 3,000-person auditorium with paying members of the public. When the Higgs particle was discovered, everywhere I went I heard people wondering about its significance. A radio program like Science Friday already has more than 2 million listeners each week.

Whenever the opportunity has arisen the public has thirsted for the excitement that scientific discovery engenders. What we need are more opportunities, and let’s hope that is what the new Cosmos will provide. Go get ‘em Ann, Seth, and Neil.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist and cosmologist, is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. His most recent book is A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing.