More than three decades after the debut of Carl Sagan’s groundbreaking and iconic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, host and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is exploring the infinite expanse of the universe in the new series Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey for an epic 13-episode run.
During this recent interview to promote the return of this epic series, executive producer/writer/director Ann Druyan and host Neil deGrasse Tyson talked about how the public appetite for science has changed since the original series aired, why it’s important for everybody to study science, what they did to make all of this information easier for people to understand, exploring the subject of intelligent life outside of our solar system, why knowing about science can be both profound and liberating, and how they’re telling the biggest story ever known in 13 episodes. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
Question: How do you feel the public appetite for science has changed, in the time since the original Cosmos series aired, over 30 years ago?
ANN DRUYAN: In the 1970s, I think that there was probably a higher degree of respect for science, of hope about the future, and the future-oriented vision. We had just had our greatest achievements under our belt, with the Apollo program. The Voyagers were being sent out into the furthest reaches of the solar system and beyond, to do this epical reconnaissance of the outer planets, and there was a high degree of confidence. Something which changed very dramatically, sometime perhaps around the year 2000, when suddenly there was a public hostility to science. You could see it in many different manifestations, with the sudden retreat on evolution and with the acceptance of other scientific facts. So, I think we began to turn inward, and our vision of the frontier was not as compelling as it once had been.
The good thing is that the pendulum is now swinging back our way, and we have these global meetings for becoming an interconnected organism. We have the internet. We have these coalescing communities of people who are interested, and that group is greater than it ever has been before. Of course, back in the day when Carl [Sagan] and I first presented the original Cosmos series, there were probably fewer than a dozen channels and none of these other platforms, with which to receive this kind of information. Right now, all of the knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. Just based on the ground roar that I’ve been feeling about Cosmos and the enduring love of the original series, I think that this is the perfect moment for Cosmos and perhaps a chance for a much bigger response than the original one. It has the largest television rollout in history, with 175 countries and, at last count, in 45 languages. There couldn’t be a better moment for us.
NEIL deGRASSE TYSON: I’d like to add that, if I look at the globally-connected world, at least those who have access to the internet, and that’s a growing number daily, that you can read signs that there is an unserved hunger and an unserved curiosity for the world around us that manifests itself, in several ways. I don’t even understand why I have 1.7 million Twitter followers. Every day, I want to remind them and say, “Do you realize I’m an astrophysicist? Do you know what you’re doing here?” I see responses with some insights about the universe and the relationship of science to everyday life that have such a warm and enthusiastic reception that it tells me that, for many people, this was something deep within them that they had lost since childhood, or maybe they never knew they had. I see Cosmos as a way to reignite these flames, or fan them if they had just simply gone dormant. It’s coming at quite a fertile time to make a difference, not only in the United States, but in the world, especially given the distribution that it will enjoy.
Why do you think it’s so important for the younger generation to study science now?
deGRASSE TYSON: I think it’s important for everybody, especially since adults run the world. I’m a little fatigued by adults saying, “We’ve got to worry about the kids,” and these are the same adults that don’t know science, and are running things and wielding resources and legislation. The message of Cosmos is for everyone. If you have a beating heart, that’s good enough. That’s the entry card to embrace what we do. I think it’s important for all ages because, in the 21st Century, there are just so many issues that will confront us that require a literacy, not only in science, but in technology, science’s close cousin. If you don’t have access to that because of some illiteracy that you carry, you are not a participant in the future of the world. I don’t want to beat you over the head to require it of you. Cosmos is an offering so that you can feel empowered and have this antidote for people who would presume that science doesn’t matter, going forward.
The subject of this show is something that a lot of people may not know anything about, at all. What did you do to try to make the information easier for everyone to understand?
DRUYAN: That’s a great question. I believe that we are a story-driven species and that we understand how things are put together, in the context of narrative. It’s a shame that science hasn’t been taught that way, in a long time. It’s usually the fact completely devoid of any human experience or any idea of how the scientist came to that conclusion. Carl Sagan always used to say that when he was trying to explain something to someone, he would go back to that time when he didn’t understand it, and then he would retrace his thought steps so that he could make it absolutely clear, and that’s one of the infinite number of things I learned from him. I found that it was easiest to convey the information in the context of the life of the scientist, or in the context of our own personal experience, and there was no idea that was too complicated that couldn’t be explained, clearly and directly. We tried to bring these ideas to life in a way that everyone in the audience would own those ideas, forevermore.
Will this series tackle the subject of intelligent life outside of our solar system?
DRUYAN: Yes, of course. That’s one of the most compelling subjects in science. We’ve only been going at this scientifically for about 70 years, so we’re still very new to this subject, as a species. Episode 11 is a meditation on immortality and the potential we have to link up with other civilizations. Everybody is fascinated by the question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe. We have a couple hundred billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, alone. The potential for worlds with life, and possibly intelligent life, seems very fertile, even though we have no direct evidence yet of their existence. We may be living at that moment, on the cusp, when we go from being a species that feels a loneliness in the cosmos to in the not too distant future being able to confirm the existence of other intelligent life.
deGRASSE TYSON: About 30 or 40 years ago, when people would mention the search for life, it almost was synonymous with the search for intelligent life, or aliens, and some people felt it was fringy to think that way. Others felt it was what we should be doing. But what has emerged out of that is an entire cottage industry of the search for life of any kind, without specific reference to whether it’s what we would call intelligent, so experiments were devised. The first time we landed on Mars, the Viking Lander had experiments to test for whether some kind of biological activity was going on, on the surface. Today, there’s a whole field, called astro-biology. Carl Sagan was one of its earliest pioneers, at a time when that wasn’t even really a word yet. I have many colleagues now, who are looking for bio-markers in the atmosphere of Exo-planets. The discovery of any kind of life at all would be a tremendous watershed moment in biology, as well as all of science. This series keeps us very open to all of these possibilities. It’s a reminder that we’ve hardly looked anywhere, so absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Aside from just watching Cosmos, what would your advice be, to help inspire young people to become more interested in science?
DRUYAN: Knowing a deep thing well, which is what science asks of its practitioners, is an empowerment that is very profound. It’s a liberation. We are living in a society that is totally dependent on science and high technology, and yet most of us are effectively alienated and excluded from its workings, from the values of science, the methods of science, and the language of science. A good place to start would be for as many of us as possible to begin to understand the decision-making and the basis for those decisions, and to act independently and not be manipulated into thinking one thing or another, but to learn how to think. That’s what science does. One of its greatest powers is that it teaches you how to know when you are being lied to. As a species, we tend to lie quite a bit – to ourselves and to each other. It’s a primate thing. So, a reason to go into a career in science and technology, or to learn more about these subjects, is to become a more powerful person. That’s what we hope Cosmos will be the jumping off point for.
deGRASSE TYSON: I would say that it’s capacity to influence adults who are in charge is no less important here. Adults outnumber children in the world, and they wield resources. I don’t know what it would mean, if we had a scientifically-literate population of children and scientifically-illiterate population of adults in charge. Cosmos’s target audience is everyone. The whole society has to recognize the importance of the value in embracing what science is going into the 21st Century. Otherwise, we might as well start packing and moving back into the cave right now, because that’s where we’ll end up.
Is there anything in the world of science that adults aren’t asking, but should be?
deGRASSE TYSON: That’s a really excellent question. I think it’s more subtle than that. It’s not that, “Oh, here’s something that should be on the table that isn’t.” It’s, “Look at what’s on the table now. How are you interpreting that?” Part of what it is to be scientifically-literate is how you think about information that’s presented in front of you. I think that’s the great challenge. You have people who believe they do know how to think about the information, but don’t, and they’re in the position of power and legislation. You can’t base a society on non-objectively verifiable truth. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy land and science is the pathway to those emerging truths that are hard-earned and that some have taken decades, if not centuries, to emerge from experiments all around the world. Cosmos is a celebration of that adventure and that enterprise.
How are you managing to tell the biggest story ever known is 13 episodes? Is there a possibility of more Cosmos after this?
DRUYAN: Well, anything is possible. I certainly have a lot more stories to tell, that we weren’t able to fit into Cosmos. The process of figuring out which stories we would tell began five or six years ago. The number of episodes grew from four to six to eight to 13. I’m sure there are things that we should’ve done, that we didn’t do. I take full responsibility for that. But what we wanted to do was really take the audience on an exciting a journey across space and time, so that at the end of those 13 episodes, as was accomplished with the original series, everyone seeing it would’ve been on this great wonderful ride and, in the process of that adventure, have learned something about each of the scientific disciplines and would have a better understanding of how we, as a species, found our coordinates in space and time. We’re still finding them. Science is never completed. That’s the revolutionary aspect of it. We’re still finding it. It’s a saga. It’s one adventure with many heroes.
Cosmos airs on Sunday nights on Fox and Monday nights on National Geographic Channel.