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Cosmos Q-and-A

March 17, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson

When astronomer Carl Sagan’s series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” first aired, it instilled a love of science in people like Dave Goldberg, PhD, a professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Physics. Last week, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson introduced an updated version of “Cosmos.” DrexelNow asked Goldberg, who specializes in theoretical cosmology and astrophysics, about the new show.

So you watched the premiere. What did you think?

There's a lot to admire. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for one, is one of the best evangelists for science we have right now. He's incredibly knowledgeable, personable and passionate, and a dedicated public educator. That said, while the science in the show was generally very accurate, I do have a fear that there is an element of "preaching to the choir." Much is made in the introduction about the rigors of science, and yet there's no discussion of how the science is done. Dedicated fans of science will already know much of what is presented, and those who doubt the scientific method, evolution or the Big Bang model of cosmology are unlikely to be persuaded.  

Instead, there's a clear effort to overwhelm the audience with special effects. To a certain sort of fan — science groupies (which, yes, are absolutely a thing) — Tyson's authoritative intonation of the scale of the cosmos in the first episode will genuinely evoke excitement. It is also potentially a great entryway for kids just learning about science for the first time. Sagan's original packed a wallop in large part because people like me were kids at the time. It evoked curiosity and an excitement about science. There is the very real hope that Tyson's version will do the same.

Given the responsibility of the show, it’s important that the reboot not lie, implicitly or explicitly, and the premiere skirted dangerously close to this territory. For instance, as Tyson flies through the asteroid belt in his "Ship of the Imagination," the animators make the typical science fiction mistake of drawing the asteroid field as so crowded that Tyson is barely able to squeeze through. In reality, the typical distance between asteroids is about a million miles, roughly four times the distance to the moon. While a realistic asteroid field would look dull, I feel the show missed a number of opportunities to realistically portray the true scope and emptiness of space.

Why do you think that now is the time for a reboot of “Cosmos?”

It's not only a good time for a reboot, but I'd say that it's overdue. There's a great deal of mistrust and misunderstanding of science. One need only look at the public views of evolution, global warming and the anti-vaccination community to be aware of the backlash against science — real science, as opposed to "geek culture" like in “The Big Bang Theory.” This is why it is so important that “Cosmos” not only get the next generation excited, but also explain what we know and how we know it.

During an appearance on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Neil DeGrasse Tyson said that science has "got to be mainstreamed in some way. Otherwise, people will view it as something to ignore or to step around."

I absolutely agree. It's been noted by the Obama administration and many others that the strength of our economy relies upon a much greater pool of students educated in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Programs like “Cosmos” are certainly a step in the right direction, especially in making basic science exciting to young people. There's definitely a secondary motivation as well. Much of basic science is publicly funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies. It is incumbent on the scientific community to give the public a taste of what those research dollars have produced.

Can you give a few examples of the ways the science on "Cosmos" has been updated?

As of the first episode, most of the updates (apart from the host) are cosmetic. Certainly, we know the timescale of the universe a bit better than we did in 1980, but the biggest changes center around using computer graphics to project the earth into the future, or to draw Tyson's spaceship. Some of these effects border on the cheesy. But there is also some excellent footage from modern spacecraft that is integrated seamlessly into the narrative, especially of Mars. 

The most significantly new discussion centers on Giordano Bruno, a Franciscan friar who was ultimately killed as a heretic for proposing the possibility of many worlds (and thus, many aliens, each with their own savior). Bruno is a somewhat more complicated figure than “Cosmos” makes out, but it was refreshing to see a usually overlooked thinker included in the discussion.