Science is a funny thing. There’s been this traditional stereotype about scientists rolling through life with pocket protectors and slide rules, cloaked in a lab coat and hunched over their microscopes. But over the last few years the subject has picked up a few more fans. TV shows like Through the Wormhole hosted by Morgan Freeman and great programming on Science Channel and other educational outlets have started to help pull science into the mainstream, by making it more accessible to everyday people. Even on the local level for me in Philadelphia I see big events like the Philadelphia Science Festival and can easily see the rise in interest this kind of accessibility can bring.
There’s a few scientists that specialize in just that – you have guys like Bill Nye (the Science Guy, and the guy that taught me the art of the bow tie) that have spent their lives making sure that science was accessible and fun for kids, starting from his eponymous show in the 90’s to his cemented place in today’s geek culture. In the same vein, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has done the same thing – in addition to running the show at the Hayden Planetarium he’s done the late night circuit many times, payed visits to Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, and even hangs out with Philadelphia’s morning radio DJ’s Preston and Steve on WMMR from time to time. Oh he writes books too.
And unless you’ve been living in a geek vacuum over the last few months, you’ll see he’s now part of a project far more ambitious than guesting on the late night tour. He’s the host of a new series on FOX called COSMOS, premiering this weekend. The show is a new take on Dr. Carl Sagan’s classic series of lectures from the early 1980’s. Dr. Tyson’s teamed up with some serious names – Brannon Braga, Mitchell Cannold, and Ann Druyan – to make an updated version of our favorite televised class on space and time.
The best part about it was that I got to talk to them about it.
See back in October (yeah I know it was a ways back) I got to meet the COSMOS crew at New York Comic Con, and talk to them about the vision and the motivation behind the series re-launch. The first round was with Cannold and Braga. Braga described the project as a huge undertaking, with every episode tackling “some sort of massive subject matter” with a varied palette of special effects, live action, and even animated sequences. While the show does feature original content, there will still be a number of homages to Carl Sagan’s original vision – for example fans of the original series will be happy to know that the Cosmic Calendar is still a mainstay in this new edition.
One of the more surprising topics discussed was the role of Seth MacFarlane (yes, the same Family Guy Seth MacFarlane) who is one of the driving forces behind the show. Cannold put the collaborative efforts best, and it might surprise those of you who classify MacFarlane with only animated comedy. “Don’t underestimate Seth MacFarlane – this man is a DaVinci. Among other things, he happens to be a brilliant science geek.” The team in fact turned down other studios first in favor of him as someone who could drive the process and execute while respecting the process. Cannold went on “he became our Godfather, champion, emissary at FOX and since then has made an enormous contribution.” These contributions included introducing Braga to the crew, who brings scores of experience having written and produced for the Star Trek franchise since The Next Generation as well as other hits like 24.
Next up was Ann Druyan and the man himself, Dr. Tyson. Druyan was the writer of the original COSMOS with Dr. Sagan (and wife of the good doctor as well). Tyson started off describing Carl Sagan’s shoes as “awesome shoes to fill,” and how if he tried to fill them he’d just fail, following it up with “But I could be a really good version of myself.” The series, according to him, isn’t just an “homage to Carl” but something people can follow him into the future by watching. Druyan talked about how special it was working with Tyson, having known him for so long with Carl. “It was not just that Neil has the science and the ability to connect, but it’s also true that Carl reached out to Neil when he was a 17 year old kid in the Bronx.” And it’s true – Dr. Sagan took Tyson under his wing from an early age and he became very close with his family. It was great hearing her speak about the project with such passion and love.
After talking about COSMOS I got to talk to Dr. Tyson about a bunch of random things like a scientific basis for astrology and science skewed by cognitive bias – he actually took the time well past the press event to shoot the breeze with me. He is 100% the awesome science rockstar we all see on television, with a huge personality to match that sciencey mind of his. While talking cognitive bias we got to the topic of dowsing rods – you know, using sticks to find water like I’m sure you’ve seen on TV. He says to me, “If you give anyone a dowsing rod and tell them to find water, they will, pretty much 100% of the time. And you know why?” At this point he leans in a little closer to me and continues – “Because there’s water fucking everywhere! It’s called the water table!” Comedy and science – an excellent combination.
Fast forward a few months back to New York City and I’m at the American Museum of Natural History at the world premiere event of the show, which lived up to every promise that was made about it (as you can see, the line to get in was crazy long and speaks to Dr. Tyson’s fanbase). The first episode introduced the cosmic calendar and the ship of the imagination, and let me tell you, Dr. Tyson is an absolute natural hosting and narrating this production. The content, varying between special effects to live action film of Dr. Tyson to an animated short about Giordiano Bruno all blend exceptionally well together and make for not only education and information accessible to the masses, but a truly enjoyable program that brings science to the people.
COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey premieres this Sunday night at 9pm on FOX.