When Neil deGrasse Tyson was 17, Carl Sagan, then the world's most famous astronomer, invited the teenager to spend a day in Ithaca. By Tyson's account, Sagan was a good host.
Sagan showed the aspiring scientist around his lab at Cornell, offered him a place to stay should he hit any travel trouble and sent him off with a book signed, "For Neil, a future astronomer."
A few years after that visit, Sagan would become America's gentle guide through the universe in his hugely popular series "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage" on PBS. Thirty-four more years later, Tyson, now an astrophysicist and science popularizer in his own right, stands at the helm of Sagan's Spaceship of the Imagination.
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," hosted by Tyson, premieres next weekend on Fox and the National Geographic Channel. In Tyson's view, every generation needs a "Cosmos." [Read Space.com's full Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson]
"There's gotta be at least one 'Cosmos' a generation, otherwise we're not doing justice to sharing with the public the role of science and bringing the universe down to Earth," Tyson told Space.com in an interview.
Reviving a beloved series
In the last three decades, researchers have discovered more than 1,000 planets outside of the Earth's solar system and an ocean under Jupiter's moon Europa. Robots have explored the surface of Mars, and the Hubble Space Telescope has beamed back humbling views of the deep universe. But Tyson says the science of "Cosmos" doesn't really need to be upgraded, because the show was never intended to be a bleeding-edge science documentary.
"What you remembered most about 'Cosmos' is how it affected you not only intellectually, but emotionally," Tyson said. By navigating broad questions about the history of Earth, the origin of life and the nature of the universe, Carl Sagan erased boundaries between evolutionary biology, geology and astrophysics, and he helped his audience realize science is everywhere, Tyson explained.
"When you realize that, and then you come to embrace it, your interaction with the storytelling is something completely different," Tyson told Space.com. "'Cosmos,' at its best, takes some element of science and shows you why it is way more relevant to your life than you ever previously imagined."
Tyson was emphatic that this core mission remains the same in the new iteration of the series. Still, the new show gives the retro graphics a CGI facelift, and ditches the historical re-enactors with pasted-on sideburns in favor of animated figures voiced by the likes of "Star Trek" franchise legend Patrick Stewart and executive producer Seth MacFarlane.
In the very first episode, MacFarlane, creator of "Family Guy," lends a spirited Italian accent to a Giordano Bruno, a philosopher who was burned at the stake in 1600 for (correctly) proposing that the sun was one of a countless number of stars throughout the universe.
MacFarlane was ultimately the broker who brought the "Cosmos" reboot to Fox, after two of the show's original creators, astrophysicist Steve Soter and writer Ann Druyan (who is Sagan's widow), had shopped around a new series for years, Tyson said.
Following in Sagan's footsteps
Tyson knew he wanted to be an astronomer long before "Cosmos" aired, but Sagan deeply influenced his commitment to science popularization.
"His influence on me was recognizing that there is an appetite for a scientist who would sit down on the couch next to you and talk about the universe. That's what he did when you saw him on television," Tyson said. [Carl Sagan's Astronomy Legacy in Pictures (Gallery)]
"The fact that that was possible, the fact that a scientist had talent to do that, the fact that people responded so warmly to it, told me that if I'm ever in the position to bring the universe down to Earth, that's a good place to start," Tyson said.
Now, Tyson is undaunted by the prospect of filling a role that Sagan so effortlessly occupied.
"If I were forced to wear the shoes of Carl Sagan, I think I would fail at that, because he's Carl Sagan, and I'm not Carl Sagan. But I can be a really awesome version of myself," Tyson said and laughed. "I can be myself exactly. And that's already sort of a tested entity, so I feel very comfortable in this role."
Tyson became the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Natural History Museum in New York in 1996, the same year that Sagan died. Since then, Tyson has risen to prominence as a public scientist who is unafraid to wield his pop culture cred. On Twitter, where he has more than 1.6 million followers, Tyson is just as likely to point out awkward arms in Rodin sculptures as he is to comment on the scientific flaws of the film "Gravity."
He also uses the medium to offer Sagan-style reminders of humanity's place in the universe. "If a football field were a timeline of cosmic history, cavemen to now spans the thickness of a blade of grass in the end zone," Tyson tweeted in November.
At a sold-out live recording of his show "StarTalk Radio" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February, Tyson was joined on stage by actors Paul Rudd and Mayim Bialik, comedians Michael Ian Black and Eugene Mirman, and Tyson's best friend, Bill Nye the Science Guy.
"We are sort of compatriots in this business, and so we're always comparing notes and seeing how we could improve," Tyson told Space.com of Nye. "We offer critiques, that sort of thing."
Nye made headlines last month when he engaged in a lengthy, livestreamed debate with a young-Earth creationist in Kentucky. Though scientists tend to avoid such showdowns (and worry that debating creationists only legitimizes their ideas), Nye had said he wanted to draw attention to the importance of science education in the United States.
A rousing debate might be one way to win hearts and minds, but "Cosmos" aims to move its audiences with Hollywood-grade production.
"'Cosmos' has the advantage of using a potent medium, television, combined with a portfolio of talent that has huge cinematic experience," Tyson said, adding that the result is something that "can influence the viewer not only intellectually, but ideally, if we succeed, emotionally and even spiritually — spiritually with a small 's.'"
"Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" premieres Sunday, March 9, on FOX and Monday, March 10, on the National Geographic Channel.
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