A passenger plane disappears mysteriously. The government is caught lying to us. Religious fanaticism dominates the airwaves. Anti-Western proclamations from Soviet stalwarts fill the newspapers. Russia invades a neighboring sovereign country. Approval ratings continue to plummet for the US president, a Democrat. Families across America gather on their sofas to watch the latest episode of Cosmos. This can only mean one thing: we have arrived in 1980!
Or maybe 2014. Starting a few weeks ago, Cosmos has been airing Sunday nights on FOX (and streaming online). This is not your parent’s dusty old Cosmos. This is a shiny new reboot hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Soft-focus skyscapes are replaced with crisp 3D asteroids, and dramatic cartoon sequences fill in for historical reenactments. But the biggest difference may be the politics. The original series packed a peaceful message of nuclear non-proliferation. Sagan brilliantly connected the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, of communicating with it and perhaps one day meeting it, to the necessity for nuclear disarmament. Couched in meditations on extra-terrestrial contact, Sagan’s simplifying, awe-inspiring description of the big picture helped make him an icon of an expanded cosmic view.
Fast forward to a new generation, a new existential crisis. For the last decade, action-packed edutainment like History Channel’s The Universe: End of Earth and Sex In Space have narrativized our dangerous and erotic existence. Tyson’s Cosmos struggles to find an identity separate from those tropes while still entertaining viewers. It’s hard for me to fairly compare the awe I felt watching the original series as a very young kid, and the near-permanent state of eye rolling I experienced during the first episode. The second episode was much better. But it left me wondering: Can Neil deGrasse Tyson be the Carl Sagan for our times?
Or maybe a better question is: Does anyone remember Carl Sagan? In case you don’t, here’s a quick run-down. Carl Sagan was an accomplished astronomer, and a professor at Cornell. He was also one of the greatest communicators of science in the modern era. Sagan pioneered the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence in a time when E.T. communication was a given; all we had to do was pick up the phone. His groundbreaking Cosmos series, which broadcast on PBS in 1980, explained to the rest of us just how big and crazy and small and hard to fathom everything really is.
Cosmos arrived at the start of the cynical Reagan years, but it was a product of the previous era. Scientific progress was sill in ascent, and a New Age zeitgeist permeated our culture. Carl Sagan lived in that era of progress, believing that government policy could be influenced by reason, and that the respectability of scientific fact knew no peer. In those days, the scientific community and much of the public rallied around the greatest threat to life on Earth: a nuclear winter.
Tyson’s world is more complicated. The nuclear winter scenario persists, but the likelihood is reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic globalization. Now we face multiple connected threats of more ambiguous culpability: industrialization, rising world populations, dwindling natural resources.
The political climate is likewise more complicated. As the New Yorker noted in a recent profile, Tyson served on a commission under George W. Bush, proposed the militarization of Mars, and occasionally buddies up with David Koch, just to keep the funding for exploration and research alive. These are people who have a reputation of being hostile to public funding for scientific research, and any scientific consensus counter to their economic interests. The New York Times recently reported that research funding is increasingly private, suggesting conflict of interest issues and favoring of projects designed to support economic goals, as opposed to traditional pursuits of knowledge that support public welfare. In other words, when Tyson’s outside his professional demeanor — on Twitter, for example — his left-leaning politics are no secret. But in the workplace, he knows who he’s talking to and where the money comes from.
Consequently, Tyson’s Cosmos reboot is less overtly political. For example, when climate change is addressed, Tyson skirts the issue of responsibility. With a sense of humor and self-awareness, Tyson is a great communicator in his own right. His lectures and writing are peppered with wit, exposing the inaccurate and skewering the absurd. That comfortable cleverness could be quite useful. He has the opportunity to convey a powerful message the way Sagan used space, and by doing so, to become the inspiring, iconic science communicator of our era. So, what could that message be?
Around the world, humans are burning coal, gasoline, and rainforest, polluting the atmosphere, raising temperature averages and generally making things inhospitable. We are pushing the world into a new geological epoch, and life, as we know it, is now at risk. Transitions from one epoch to another are often marked by mass extinctions, and signs indicate that may happen again. Can anything be done to stop this?
Many of the world’s citizens are calling out for greater leadership for this cause. This could be where Tyson steps in. By taking leadership on this issue, Tyson could reframe our experience from temporary to epochal, our existential crises from solitary to collective.
Throughout his career, Tyson has stood for the superiority of scientific inquiry, in which facts are observable and testable, over other kinds of knowledge. In our current era, science and facts have been hijacked, reframed as political positions in service to economic interests. This undermines the function of science in rational decision making. Toward the end of his 2007 book Death By Black Hole, Tyson speculates on scientific achievement as a national endeavor. He detects a sublime but mysterious force with “the power to drive an entire nation to focus its emotional, cultural, and intellectual capital on creating islands of excellence in that world. Those who live in such times often take for granted what they have created, on the blind assumption that things will continue forever as they are, leaving their achievements susceptible to abandonment by the very culture that created it.” This is happening now. Tyson can use his position on the national stage to push harder for the role of science in policy making, and to remind us that our amazing scientific achievements happen with public and civic support.
On our Ship of the Imagination, we travel through time just as we do through space. Our mission: to explore the future. To the north, land ho! On a distant shore rises a thriving metropolis. From the shoreside skyscrapers and bridges to the farmland and wilderness in the hills beyond, it is the monument of civilization, in harmony with the natural world. And to the east, a dark squall looms.