Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos: Possible Worlds and the Future of Our Own
Cosmos: Possible Worlds debuts March 9th on National Geographic. The new 13-episode television series was created by Ann Druyan, who also co-created the original Cosmos with her late husband Carl Sagan. It covers the beginnings of the universe and life on Earth, with a brief refresher of the cosmic calendar that condenses all of this into one “year,” as seen in 2014’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. But then it quickly branches off into all-new material, including the latest discoveries of planets orbiting other stars and the wonders we might find one day if we ever made it to one. The show also tells poignant stories about the advances and setbacks scientists have faced throughout human history. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of the new show, spoke with us about Cosmos and the need for an understanding of science.
Thank you so much for doing the interview with ExtremeTech. Before we get started, when I was in New York, I used to go in the mid-2000s to the Hayden Planetarium to see the awesome “Frontiers” lectures you hosted.
Yeah, we still have them. Thanks for that support.
Oh, wonderful. I still remember after each guest lecturer finished, you used to step in and say, “host privilege” and ask the first question before we got to the audience questions.
[laughs] Yeah, my life got so busy, I don’t host most of them anymore. I cherish those memories where I’d just bust in and ask the first question.
That leads me to our own first question, which is watching these new shows, just like in 2014, I remember how you sounded at the Planetarium, and that’s exactly what you sound like in the shows.
Thank you for noticing that, because the part I’ve learned from others who are in show business is that people resonate with authenticity. If you know that that’s how I am and that’s what I’m doing, then it’s not an act. No, it’s really me. I really feel this way and I’m really wide-eyed when I talk about it and all that’s real, so thanks for noticing.
So that’s the idea, right? To take the viewer, not like with a cold science documentary, to instead take them on the ship with you.
Yeah, otherwise I’d just be lecturing. Right? That’s not communicating, so one of the taglines is, “come with me.”
We’re going to be there together. Here’s a little known fact, that back in 2014, where we were figuring out what I’d be wearing on the Ship of the Imagination, I made a suggestion. I said to Ann Druyan, who is the secret sauce throughout all of this, I said, why don’t I have a little emblem or something on the breast pocket or chevrons or something showing that I’m captain of this ship?
She said, no, she doesn’t want anything. I said, well, why? And she said, “because that puts distance between you and the audience.” I said, you’re absolutely right. Oh my gosh! Because then I’d be captain and you’re not, and I went to flight week school and you didn’t go. Did you go to the academy? No, but I did.
Whereas if you “come with me,” then we’d take this journey together and that is an important dimension of the show … right alongside, of course, the scripting and the visual effects and the music and the set design, is all a way to bring a comfort level to you so that it’s not just, you’re “here” and the science is “there.” It’s that you realize you are immersed in the science and you like it, and you might want to do something about your circumstances upon having been newly empowered by the show.
In the sixth episode, one of the sequences shows how years ago, different kinds of scientists like geologists, chemists, and physicists might have examined a meteorite in a backyard differently, and how biologists and astronomers of the time may well have walked right on by it. You show how we’ve learned to connect these things.
One of the DNA strands of Cosmos is how seamlessly it blends the brands of science that we otherwise think of as separate and distinct entities taking at different times of the day with different textbooks in different professors. Nature doesn’t think that way. We have biology thriving inside of rocks with chemical environments. This goes on and on and on, and we have to be nimble as we move across those fields. Otherwise, we’re stuck compartmentalizing knowledge that nature does not.
What was the goal of this new series? Obviously this time it’s about possible other worlds, but what else?
We need some hope given our current circumstances. This is the most hopeful of the three Cosmos. In fact, personally, I think it’s the best in every way. That sounds cliche because everybody always says that about their most recent project. I think if you watch enough of the episodes, I think you’ll agree. Just everyone brought their A-game. We’re talking about all the people who typically make high-budget cinema. We brought them on to lend their … Not lend, of course they were compensated, but to give of their talents. You combine the power of all of this, we are showing you not only worlds such as exoplanets, that’s the first and obvious interpretation of possible worlds from the subtitle, but also worlds within us. There’s the world of the mind, there’s the quantum, there’s the mycelium that’s a network of roots that communicates electrochemically between and among plant species…
And you say to yourself, whoa, that’s an internet that preceded our internet, but that’s a world. So, Cosmos opens people’s eyes to … or rather it broadens your concept of a cosmic perspective. What is your view of us now that you’ve been in space? What is your view of us now that you’ve learned that bees use mathematics to help each other locate the next destination for the hive? Or that plants use an internet? Or that … You just look around us and things that we had ignored so thoroughly because we are so narcissistic about human life and the tree of life, that we’ve lost track of or maybe never knew what role the rest of this life was playing in the biosphere.
The sequence with the bees is brilliant.
Isn’t it? I agree 100 percent.
How did these episodes come together this time? Was it any different than the last time with the way you worked with Ann?
Ann is the secret sauce of all three Cosmos: 1980, 2014, 2020. Her co-writer in 1980 was, of course, Carl Sagan, but also a guy named Steve Soder. Steve Soder reprised his co-authorship in 2014. For 2020, we have Brannon Braga who is one of the long-time writers, producers, and directors of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He knows television. He knows how to arc stories to fit between commercials. The original Cosmos didn’t have commercials because it was on PBS. Plus, he actually has a Hugo award for one of the science-fiction stories that he told for Star Talk, so he’s also a storyteller. These are all good people doing the right things in exactly the right places.
I’ll add, you didn’t ask, but I’ll add, while my expertise is astrophysics, there’s science in it that’s not my expertise. So, fortunately, we have committees, we have panels of scientists that have expertise in every place we went and that ensured that the story was stitched together, and that it would have an authentic foundation on what was true.
One might think the show is just about astronomy at first glance, or something about space exploration. Then the more you watch, the more you realize it’s about all kinds of science and how that reflects what is within us as well as externally something that we study.
Right and I think that’s one of the important fingerprints of Cosmos as a series.
Why is this so important, especially today, in 2020?
Because it matters what’s true. This series will be an exercise in seeing what’s true and how much power that can bring you to enact change that can help not only preserve who and what we are on Earth, but enable us to thrive on Earth. It’s a mission statement, if you will, of the show so that by the time you’re done, you can feel compelled to create a society that your descendants would be proud of rather than one that your descendants will be embarrassed by.
You’re actually answering some of the questions I was going to ask, but I was going to say, what do you want viewers to come away with? Would that be a good summary?
Yes. By the way, you can’t always tell someone they’re wrong if they have dogmatic beliefs, what they think is right, but what you can do is show them other examples of people who wanted an objective truth, but there were dogmatic forces operating against them. So, one of the mediums of the storytelling is animation.
The animated stories tend to be, the historical ones, where you join the plight of someone who struggled to get the government or the society or the people in charge, to struggle to get them to listen and to heed the warning or to follow the advice. We’re in the middle of that with the coronavirus. Are people going to listen to scientists or not? If you do, the virus might just sort of wash over in a very light way and never to return. If you don’t listen to scientists, then something else is going to happen. This is the cost of inaction, relative to the cost of action.
I think about the times where people didn’t listen to scientists throughout history. I think the obvious one is with Copernicus and Galileo, where people clung to the belief that the Earth was at the center of the universe. The story you tell about Vavilov is heartbreaking.
Exactly. The Vavilov, that’s the one, you went straight to it. I tear up every time I see that and I think that’s going to be … I think that episode [the fourth one] is going to be written about just as a force operating on our own understanding of a modern society and what we need to do to have a habitable Earth as we go forward.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity. Stay tuned for a separate interview Monday with Cosmos creator Ann Druyan.
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