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First look: Cosmos rebooted with Neil deGrasse Tyson


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Taken from slightly left of center in the theater of the Hayden Planetarium.

The original Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, was a significant influence on me in my youth. I'd always had an interest in science, but it was scattershot. I loved fossils and dinosaurs, but I had no idea how the organisms of the Cambrian related to those of the Jurassic. I followed the Voyager probes' progress through the Solar System and stared into the night sky with wonder, but I didn't have any framework to fit any of it into.

And then my parents—neither of whom had any science background to speak of—sat me down to watch Cosmos. And night after night, things were put into context: the Big Bang, deep time, the evolution of life from microbes to modern humans—I don't remember many details (or even how much I really understood as a young teenager) but I do remember it as a giant dose of perspective. And I clearly wasn't alone; the airing of Cosmos was a major event, and Sagan made his way into popular culture, even ending up the target of gentle ribbing in the Bloom County comic strip.


An early Bloom County strip with Carl Sagan.

As brilliant as the original was, I agree with the writers and producers who felt that we were due for a new incarnation. Planets outside our Solar System, only a hypothetical at the time of the original show, have been found in amazing abundance. The Higgs boson exists, neutrinos have mass, and we've completed the human genome, along with those of hundreds of other organisms. Science has moved at an incredible pace, and I'm not about to let nostalgia cause me to view a revamped Cosmos as a form of sacrilege... provided the reboot is actually any good, at least. Last night, I got a chance to judge for myself at the Hayden Planetarium, the home institution of Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson. Although I've only seen the first episode, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about the new series.

Your host

Tyson may be the best communicator of science I have ever seen: animated, witty, and possessing both a rich voice and an enthusiasm for the Universe that can be felt viscerally. To a certain extent, having him in a scripted program is wasting his talent, which can only be fully appreciated when he's working a room with his spontaneity. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine a better choice, and he does an absolutely splendid job as host.

Episode one (of 13 total) faces an enormous challenge: how do you reintroduce a program that's a bit of a cultural icon while introducing a topic covering the origin of everything in existence? In an homage to the original, the episode is flanked with scenes from Sagan's version, and Tyson pays tribute to the original host at the end. It's touching to hear Tyson relay how, as a teenager obsessed with astronomy, Sagan hosted him for a day at Cornell and displayed such generosity that Tyson says he didn't only learn about science, "I learned what kind of person I wanted to be."

In between those bookends, however, it's all the new Cosmos, and it's all pretty good. The show will use what it's calling the "ship of the imagination" to journey between scenes and provide visual cues for when you're looking at the Universe as it is now and when you're exploring its past. The computer-generated graphics are superb; staring down into Jupiter's Great Red Spot was hypnotizing. I would have been happy with a half-hour of that alone.

Even more importantly, the script is good—which shouldn't be a shock considering that Ann Druyan, one of the writers of the original Cosmos (and Sagan's wife), is back for round two. The first episode initially tackles scale, starting with a tour of the Solar System and moving out through galaxies and the observable Universe to the possibility of a multiverse. After an interlude, the episode handles deep time, showing the 13.8-billion-year history of the Universe as a single year and placing key events at various dates. Combined, the two should provide a framework for placing the topics covered in the remaining dozen episodes.

The interlude also serves a purpose. The series is being run on a combination of 10 channels, some run by National Geographic, which makes sense, and some run by Fox, which makes a bit less (Druyan referred to Fox's enthusiasm when they pitched the program as a "bit of a head snap moment"). The obvious worry is that some of the spirit of Fox News' approach to science might infect the new Cosmos. But various things that would make many Fox News viewers (not to mention Ken Ham) go all twitchy—billions of years, the Big Bang, and the greenhouse effect—all get prominent mentions in the first episode.

If there's any doubt about the program's affinities, the interlude puts them to rest by telling the story of Giordano Bruno, a monk who, as Tyson notes, got the basic structure of the Universe right purely by accident. But as with everyone else of his time, Bruno didn't distinguish matters of theology from those of the natural world, so he ended up being burned at the stake for heresy about a decade before Galileo built his telescope. Tyson uses the tale to drive home the importance of having a healthy separation of church and state.

Should you tune in?

Was all this good enough to make me want to watch more? I've now spent a number of years immersing myself in science in a way that has given me a far more sophisticated perspective on our Universe than my teenage self could have ever extracted from the original Cosmos.

So I'm not shocked that the middle-aged me didn't learn anything new in the first episode, at least not in terms of science. But the people involved in the show include some of the best in the business of communicating science, and I expect I will learn enough about the craft to make tuning in for more worthwhile. I also think it's guaranteed that there will be many more awesome moments like the dive into Jupiter's Great Red Spot to enjoy.

If you're less familiar with science, I expect there will be a lot to gain from watching Cosmos. Even if you're involved with science, the show will probably have something for you. Biologists will get a healthy perspective on how much of the Universe's history has passed without any biology, while promo clips make it clear that astronomers can expect a few biology lessons. And the awesome bits will be awesome for everyone.

Cosmos, a Spacetime Odyssey will start airing on a variety of National Geographic and Fox channels this Sunday. We'll also have a review from someone who didn't see the original coming up shortly.


Edited by F3dupsk1Nup
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