As host of the new TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson is following in the footsteps of the late Carl Sagan, the renowned scientist who starred in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the classic 1980 program that powerfully influenced many people’s view of science and the universe. Oddly, Tyson, who was in graduate school at the time, recalls that he only had time to catch a few episodes of the original Cosmos when it originally aired. All the same, Sagan still managed to exert a profound personal influence upon his future Cosmos successor, thanks to a meeting between the two that occurred when Tyson was a teenager.
It happened back in December 1975, when Tyson, a senior from at the Bronx High School of Science who dreamed of becoming an astrophysicist, applied to Cornell University, and his application was forwarded to Sagan, a faculty member. To Tyson’s surprise, he soon received a personal reply. “It was completely surreal,” recalls Tyson. “I’m just a 17-year-old kid, and here’s the most famous scientist in the world—he’d been on Johnny Carson—inviting me to come visit him at his lab.” When Tyson took a bus from New York City to the Cornell campus in Ithaca, N.Y., and walked to the building where Sagan worked, he was even more startled to find the scientist waiting outside for him. After giving Tyson a tour of the lab, autographing one of his books and discussing the Viking Mars lander with him, Sagan gave Tyson a ride back to the bus station. “It had started snowing,” Tyson recalls. “He wrote his home phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to me, saying, ‘If the bus can’t get through, call me, and we’ll put you up for the night.’”
Though Sagan didn’t succeed in convincing Tyson to attend Cornell—he eventually chose Harvard instead—the elder scientist’s altruism and willingness to reach out to others left a lasting mark. “Here we had a scientist who had a fireside chat manner, who was successful at communicating his passion and his knowledge of the universe to others,” Tyson explains. “I thought to myself, if I’m ever in a position to communicate with the public, that’s a fertile way to approach the challenge.”
After earning his doctorate in astrophysics at Columbia University, Tyson went on to become Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and has investigated areas ranging from star formation and exploding stars, to dwarf galaxies and the structure of the Milky Way. He served on two Presidential commissions to study the future of the aerospace industry and space exploration. But in emulation of his mentor Sagan, Tyson also has seized the opportunity to reach out to ordinary people, authoring or co-authoring 10 popular books on subjects such ranging from black holes to whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet. He hosts a weekly radio show, and has appeared on programs such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Tyson’s efforts to encourage public interest in the universe inspired the International Astronomical Union to name an asteroid, 13123 Tyson, in his honor. The scientist humbly points out that the name means that 13,122 such objects were named after other people before they got around to him, and that the club to which he belongs is “not that exclusive.” Even so, he admits, “I didn't think I would be singularly enthusiastic about it. But when it came in, I was like, ’whaaa-hoo!’”
Tyson, who co-signed a letter to Congress back in 2003 about the necessity of finding measures to protect the Earth against asteroid collisions, remains particularly strident about that subject. Despite warnings from him and other scientists, he says, government officials “haven’t gone anywhere. They’ve made small advances. They should have made big advances.” He cites the February 2013 explosion of an asteroid over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk as yet another wake-up call. “You don’t want to be the one who said, I told you so, but I told you so,” Tyson explains. “This is real, and it happens. Be thankful, that this only resulted in Band-Aids having to be administered because of broken glass. Had this asteroid been larger, or had it exploded deeper in the atmosphere, it would have leveled every single building in the city. And you would have had fatalities approaching the total population. Yes, it's the survival of the species. “
But even though he devotes much of his time to teaching the public about the universe, Tyson retains his own curiosity about the cosmos. He wants to see an explanation of the still-mysterious nature of dark matter and dark energy, and he Is eager to know how organic molecules actually led to self-replicating life forms. “That’s just an awesome transition,” he explains. “I would have loved to have witnessed that.” Another item on Tyson’s list is finding out whether there is life elsewhere in our solar system—such as Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa--that has a different origin from life on Earth.
Tyson’s involvement in the revival of Cosmos stem from his appointment in 1997 to the board of the Planetary Society, an organization co-founded by Sagan in 1980 to encourage the public to become more involved in space exploration. Eventually, that led to conversations with people such as Sagan’s widow, writer Ann Druyan, producer Seth MacFarlane, who were interested in creating a sequel to the orginal Cosmos. When it came to finding a host, Tyson explains, “I offered myself, thinking that I could perform this role uniquely because of my teenage first encounter with Carl, and because of my growing ability as a science educator.”
Tyson says the new Cosmos will retain some of the most effective narrative devices from the original program, such as a cosmic calendar that presents the history of the universe as if it occurred in a single year, from January to December. “On that calendar, the cave men drawing on their walls occurred 15 seconds ago,” Tyson explains with a laugh. “It’s an extraordinarily powerful tool for showing the scale of time.”
Tyson adds: “What the original Cosmos did and what we do, is find stories about science, about scientists, and about culture, that represent the search for truth, no matter what the consequences.” But in its efforts to educate, Tyson says the new Cosmos may have a greater sense of urgency, at a time when issues such as climate change and the risk of asteroid collisions with Earth increasingly concern scientists. “Science literacy is the key to our future survival on Earth,” he explains. “So Cosmos will show why science matters.”