In the midst of the Cold War, on September 28, 1980, PBS debuted a program called “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” For thirteen episodes, a scientist with a comb-over in a turtleneck named Carl Sagan presented the wonders of the universe and the mysteries of science. Each week Sagan took the fictional Ship of the Imagination to investigate everything from RNA to Einstein’s theory of relativity. The show was an unparalleled success. It reached 750 million viewers across 60 countries, becoming the most viewed show on PBS until Ken Burns’s “The Civil War” overtook it a decade later.
Sagan’s hard science achievements never brought him the same clout among his colleagues as celebrity scientist did with mainstream America. He worked on NASA robotic missions, groomed the next generation of astronomers at Cornell University, edited the scientific journal Icarus, and penned multiple books, but the National Academy of Sciences never admitted him. The public, on the other hand, was entranced with “Cosmos,” and Sagan’s twenty-six appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In the March issue of Smithsonian Magazine, Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan remembers a porter at Union Station In Washington, D.C. who refused to let Sagan tip him for helping with luggage. “You gave me the universe,” the porter said. Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy,” recalls Sagan’s verve on camera in the March issue of Reader’s Digest. “I saw a Brooklyn-born researcher pull back the curtain on a world of seemingly dense scientific concepts, which, with the flair of P.T. Barnum, he managed to present in ways that made them accessible to those of us lacking a degree in mathematics and physics.”
Now Macfarlane is helping to bring the universe to a new generation. On March 9, Fox will debut the follow-up to Sagan’s landmark series with “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.” Hosted by go-to science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Druyan and MacFarlane, the miniseries will follow the same format as the original but explore new advancements and discoveries, like exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) and the Higgs boson.
Tyson is a present day Sagan-esque science superhero—part pure astrophysicist, part figurehead to the masses. Rebecca Mead describes his unique talent in The New Yorker as follows. “Being able to pivot comfortably between the general public and the political plutocracy is a skill no less complex than being able to analyze data from the Hubble telescope; being able to do both is very unusual.”
Tyson’s day job is director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York. He moonlights as a science ambassador to laymen, frequently appearing on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” and hosting a popular podcast called “StarTalk”; never turning down an opportunity to translate esoteric nomenclature into the vernacular.
To promote “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” Tyson has given interviews in a number of science publications. Here are a few noteworthy quotes.
“If you go back 40 years, (the thinking about) the environment was ‘don’t pollute the lake because then you’ll kill the fish, and it will mess up our little water hole.’ No one was thinking that what they did locally would affect everybody else globally. The local-global connection has emerged in the last couple of decades.” – mental_floss
“Like, Venus is 900 degrees. I could tell you it melts lead. But that’s not as fun as saying, ‘You can cook a pizza on the windowsill in nine seconds.’ And next time my fans eat pizza, they’re thinking of Venus.” – GQ
“The idea that science is just some luxury that you’ll get around to if you can afford it is regressive to any future a country might dream for itself. Innovations in science and technology are the engines of the 21st-century economy; if you care about the wealth and health of your nation tomorrow, then you’d better rethink how you allocate taxes to fund science. The federal budget needs recognize this.” – WIRED
“If I put on my pure scientist hat, you wouldn’t send humans into space. You have to feed them and keep them warm. A robot couldn’t care less. We can design robots to do what humans can do and better.” – Popular Science
To read more about Neil deGrasse Tyson and “Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” click the links below.
“Neil deGrasse Tyson Is the Master of the Universe,” by Drew Toal - mental_floss, March/April