Fox Is Bringing Metaphysics Back to the Masses With a Reboot of Cosmos

Neil deGrasse Tyson teams with Seth MacFarlane, of all people

It’s an early January afternoon on the Upper West Side, just days after the Earth began heaving itself along on yet another elliptical voyage around the sun, and a polar vortex has stupefied New York with an interstellar chill. With about two hours of daylight left, sinuses are rimed with hoarfrost, the bare pate of the guy manning the lone hot dog cart is steaming, and the exhaust from passing cars looks as substantial as batting wool. From outside the main entrance to the Rose Center for Earth and Space on Manhattan’s West 81st Street, the great sphere of the Hayden Planetarium looms in its glass case like a scale model of the ice planet Hoth.

Three stories above the northern celestial pole of the planetarium, in an office that practically twinkles with the light from thousands of man-made stars (even his vest is festooned with flickering suns), Neil deGrasse Tyson is launching into what comic books might refer to as his “origin story.” As it so happens, the astrophysicist and host of Fox’s upcoming revival of storied PBS documentary series Cosmos got his first taste of the universe under the dome of the original Hayden Planetarium’s Sky Theater. “When you’re a New Yorker, there is no night sky,” he says. “You’ll see the moon, maybe a planet or two, but there’s no relationship with the night sky. So, I saw my first night sky at age 9 at the Hayden Planetarium. And it was so compelling and so much of a kind of mental baptism that I thought it was a hoax. But that was it—that was the night the universe chose me to study it.”

Years in the making, Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey represents the kind of investment in science programming that hasn’t been a fixture of broadcast television since Carl Sagan brought metaphysics to the masses with the original Cosmos 34 years ago. Subtitled A Personal Journey, Sagan’s 13-part odyssey made abstruse concepts like black holes, wormholes and dark matter accessible to viewers who didn’t necessarily have an alphabet-soup jumble of academic abbreviations dangling from their surnames like so many comet tails.

That Tyson was tapped to present the new Cosmos series is particularly apt, given his peripheral association with Sagan. As a 17-year-old student at Bronx Science, a college-bound Tyson was invited to meet Sagan at his laboratory at Cornell University. The visit made quite an impression on the budding scientist, and while ultimately he chose Harvard over the Ithaca Ivy, Tyson says the courtesy extended to him by Sagan wasn’t something he took lightly.

“I said to myself that if I were ever as remotely influential as he was, I would treat students the way he treated me,” Tyson says. “With very high respect and regard for their ambitions.”

Cosmos co-executive producer Seth MacFarlane says Tyson is the perfect host for the new series, being “the rare communicator who has the ability to talk to both sides of the room.” A space enthusiast since childhood, the Family Guy creator met Tyson through the Science & Entertainment Exchange, an initiative designed to encourage the development of more accurate scientific content in TV and film. (Tyson is seriously hyper-vigilant when quarantining science fact from science fiction. He good-naturedly tweaked Jon Stewart at the end of a 2012 appearance on The Daily Show by informing him that his “Earth is spinning in the wrong direction” in the opening credits. More recently, he took to Twitter to pick apart some of the sloppier gaffes in Gravity, a film he otherwise quite enjoyed.)

Ann Druyan agrees with MacFarlane’s assessment, commenting that Tyson appears poised to continue the mission Sagan began so many years ago. A co-executive producer and writer of the new Cosmos, Druyan also wrote the PBS series with Sagan, her husband from 1981 until his death in 1996. (Astronomer Steven Soter was a co-writer on both versions of the show.) “When Carl died, no one really emerged to inhabit that niche,” Druyan says. “He was the person who you turned to when you wanted to understand the natural and ethical underpinnings of a given issue. … No one from the scientific community jumped right in and became that voice of reason. There’s been nobody to slow the retreat into magical thinking.

“I see in Neil that same joy in connecting that Carl had … and that was definitely one of the reasons that I chose him to do this.”

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