A 13 episode new Cosmos series, presented by Neil deGrasse Tyson, may prove a worthy vehicle for carrying on the legacy of astrophysicist, Carl Sagan. On Sunday, March 9, the premiere segment of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey aired on 220 channels in 181 countries and garnered Tyson 8.5 million viewers and 1.7 million Twitter followers.
The series was conceived by Tyson and Ann Druyan, Sagan’s widow, and Steven Soter, another astrophysicist who co-wrote the original series, as a sequel to Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Those 13 episodes aired on PBS beginning in 1980. Druyan, Tyson and Soter had wanted, after Sagan’s death in 1996, to create a sequel that would appeal to a wider audience that reached beyond those with a keen interest in science. But for years they were daunted by television networks that did not think a new Cosmos series would attract enough viewers.
The original series was considered a defining moment in science-themed television programming. As late as 2009, it was still the most popular viewed PBS series in the world. Sagan’s skill at presenting extremely complex topics like black holes, white dwarfs, and four-dimensional space with down-to-earth simplicity captivated millions.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey revisits many of the topics from the original series but also introduces some that were either not around, or just in their nascent stages during Sagan’s time, such as the concept of parallel universes. And Tyson’s deft ability to explain these complicated subjects in the new Cosmos series carries the Carl Sagan legacy forward.
But there are differences in the personalities of the two narrators. Sagan was outspoken. An opponent of government programs such as the militarization of outer space and the proliferation of nuclear missiles, he “would debate people on all manners of issues,” according to Tyson. In contrast, Tyson prefers to remain a teacher, to help other people understand the world in which they live and bring an appreciation for science into their lives.
A creationist group who call themselves Answers in Genesis criticized the show, saying that it promoted “blind faith in evolution” and “denial of the supernatural.” Whereas Carl Sagan might have gotten into an in-depth discussion about evolution versus creationism, much like Bill Nye, the Science Guy, who debated the topic at the Creation Museum, Tyson’s gentle response was simply that “science should be a part of everybody’s lives” and that his wish for Cosmos is to spark wonder so that people “recognize the cosmic perspective on their own lives.”
Tyson is an astrophysicist, author and science literacy advocate. “I see science literacy as a vaccine against charlatans who would try to exploit your ignorance,” says Tyson, who is a research associate at the department of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History and Fred P. Rose director at the Hayden planetarium.
Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey picks up where the original series, presented by Carl Sagan, left off; only 34 years later. But that’s just a small span of time in the eyes of the universe. If the popularity continues, the new Cosmos series may be destined to carry the Carl Sagan legacy into the stars.
By Robert Wisnewski