The New Cosmos: A Watershed Moment for Science

I don’t know about you, but I was biting my tongue watching the introduction to Cosmos tonight, as an audio clip from the original Cosmos sounded, “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Come with me.”

I wondered, I admit, if Seth MacFarlane and Neil deGrasse Tyson would do the original justice. Granted, they had the help of Carl Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who is a writer and executive producer on the show, but it was no small task nonetheless.

I am happy to report that I worried over nothing. Neil deGrasse Tyson is as enticing a storyteller as ever, Alan Silvestri’s music is even more beautiful than it was in Contact, and the whole show feels more like a blockbuster feature presentation (in a good way) than a run-of-the-mill science or history documentary. All of the same messages are there, too: As anyone who has watched the original series knows, Cosmos is as much a lesson in humility and perspective as it is one in science and history.

Many lives were changed by the original, and many will be changed by this one.

(It’s hard to believe I was watching it in primetime on FOX, and that it was airing on many other channels including FOX Sports(!), but I’m glad.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson knows he has some pretty big shoes to fill, but he does it well. Peppered throughout the first episode are references to the original that come together as a beautiful tribute to Carl. I won’t spoil it for anyone who has yet to watch it—just go do so!

Lawrence M. Krauss, the man behind one of my favorite quotes, wrote this about the premiere:

The new reboot of the classic Carl Sagan series, now starring Neil deGrasse Tyson, needs our support—seeing more science on mainstream TV may depend on it.

Then there is the shadow of Carl Sagan. The original series was as permeated through and through by Sagan, not just on the air, but off as well. His particular genius for explanation, his grand vision of the cosmos, and his own personal likes and dislikes were everywhere to be seen. And, while some of his colleagues might have derided Sagan’s scientific contributions, perhaps jealous of his success at popularization, he carried with him the gravitas associated with a successful research scientist with over 600 publications, and one who had played a key role in space and planetary exploration, directing the Laboratory for Planetary Studies as a Professor at Cornell University.

Let’s return to the incredible opportunity this moment provides. Seth MacFarlane has correctly recognized that this is a big chance for science in the public arena. While researchers have bemoaned the lack of science on a major network, after this week that particular complaint will be passé.

In that sense, every one of us should root for the success of this program. I certainly am. If it is successful, perhaps the dummies who determine what we see on television will rethink their mantra. If it makes money, maybe we will see more science series on mainstream TV (advertisement: I have a few ideas by the way!), and science will become better integrated into our culture.

For years we have heard the constant refrain that science isn’t marketable, nor isn’t ready for prime time. Yet at my own institute every science program we put on fills up a 3,000-person auditorium with paying members of the public. When the Higgs particle was discovered, everywhere I went I heard people wondering about its significance. A radio program like Science Friday already has more than 2 million listeners each week.

If this Cosmos instills just half as much public passion for scientific discovery as the original did, the future will be very exciting.