There can’t be many people left who doubt that Neil deGrasse Tyson is science’s greatest celebrity. His day job as director of New York’s spectacular Hayden Planetarium made him prominent enough, but he’s parlayed that position into frequent appearances on the Colbert Report, the Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher and plenty of other high-profile programs. He hosted NOVA Science Now on PBS for half a decade. He has 1.67 million followers on Twitter. He attracts crowds wherever he goes: tickets for a talk he’ll be giving in Toronto later this month reportedly sold out in well under a minute.
Tyson is so well known, in fact, that he’s routinely compared with Carl Sagan, the great astronomer-communicator of the previous generation. And now, Tyson is actually turning into Sagan—albeit a hipper, less geeky version. This coming Sunday, he debuts on Fox and the National Geographic Channel as the host of the 13-part Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, co-produced by Fox and National Geographic. It’s a re-imagining of the 1980’s series that made the original Sagan famous. “I can’t imitate Carl,” says Tyson. “I would fail. But I’m a really good version of myself. I have myself down perfectly.”
Despite the name, Cosmos is about far more than astronomy. “One of the hallmarks of the original series,” says Tyson, “is that Carl drew no lines between sciences that are traditionally separated.” The same goes this time around. “When you’re drinking in the entire universe, you realize that the boundaries we create are a little artificial. I talk about chemistry, biology, evolution, physics—it’s all there.”
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One crucial difference between the old and the new, of course, is that the science has come a long way in three decades. Carl Sagan couldn’t tell us about dark energy, or the discovery of exoplanets, or the sequencing of the human genome or string theory or the discovery of the Higgs boson because they hadn’t happened yet. If you want to experience the greatest hits of 21st century science, this is the place.
What made the original series so compelling wasn’t the science alone, however. Sagan, along with his wife, Ann Druyan and their collaborator, astrophysicist Steven Soter, also helped viewers gain a perspective on humanity’s place in the universe, in both space and time—something Tyson does as well.
The new version puts an especially big emphasis on storytelling, using a graphic-novel style of animation to introduce viewers to some of the most important scientists you’ve probably never heard of. “We talk about the normal cast of characters,” says Tyson. “You know, Newton, Einstein, Galileo. But the people we profile are ones who have been overlooked.”
There’s Giordano Bruno, for example, a contemporary of Galileo’s who was burned at the stake, in part because he insisted the universe is full of habitable planets. There’s C.C. Patterson, the 20th century chemists whose experiments on determining the age of the Earth led ultimately to the banning of leaded gasoline (you’ll have to watch to find out how). “There’s science,” says Tyson, “and then there’s why science matters.” The latter is a big part of what Tyson sought to achieve with this reboot of the series—as did Druyan and Soter, who served as Tyson’s collaborators just as they did as Sagan’s. The animations in some of these sections seemed a bit cheesy, but the alternative, Tyson says, “was to recreate historical scenes using actors with British accents and glued-on muttonchops.”
It’s hard to argue with his reasoning on that score, although Tyson’s own commanding yet quirky personality could have carried Cosmos almost on its own. At one point, he takes us via some sort of magic spaceship to witness the Big Bang, the moment when our entire universe was born in an unimaginably bright burst of energy. Just before it happens, he coolly slips on a pair of shades.
No way Carl Sagan could have been that suave. In another scene in Sunday’s opening episode, though, Tyson tells a story that makes it clear just how extraordinary the late Cornell astrophysicist actually was. While still in high school, a young Neil Tyson wrote to Sagan, telling of his ambition to study the universe. Sagan invited him up to Cornell. “He met me at the bus stop,” Tyson recalls, “and showed me his laboratory.” They spent the day together and when it was time to leave, Sagan was worried about the snow that was falling. “If the bus can’t get through,” he told the teenager, “call me. You can spend the night at my house, with my family.”
Before they parted, Sagan gave him a copy of one of his books, inscribing it “For Neil, a future astronomer. Carl.” For all Tyson knows, Sagan did that sort of thing for lots of young people. “Nonetheless,” he says, “I’ve emerged as someone who finds myself in some of the same public platforms as he did. I feel like there’s a kind of genetic link.”
Take a look at Cosmos this weekend, and you’ll see that it’s true. Sagan’s Cosmos was hugely popular in its time, thanks largely to its low-keyed host’s genius for communication. Tyson isn’t exactly low-key—but one way or another, he’s inherited Sagan’s genius.