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by Eric Kohn
March 9, 2014 2:53 PM
25 Comments
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SXSW Interview: Neil DeGrasse Tyson Explains the Scientific Agenda Behind 'Cosmos' And Why He's Not Afraid of the Religious Right

Neil DeGrasse Tyson at SXSW Eric Kohn

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been a longtime warrior for the mission to popularize science. The astrophysicist's "StarTalks" podcast provides him with one regular outlet, but he just got a much bigger one: With "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," a flashy updated version of Carl Sagan's original 1980 series exploring the mysteries of the universe, Tyson is addressing a larger audience than ever before.

The Seth McFarlane-produced show, written by Sagan's widow Ann Druyan, features Tyson as host as he discusses mind-blowing aspects of the universe in addition to the history of those responsible for exploring its secrets. After premiering the first episode at SXSW, Tyson sat down with Indiewire to discuss his relationship to the show's legacy and why he isn't concerned about its potential to offend the religious right. "Cosmos" is set to premiere across 10 Fox networks Sunday night at 9pm.

Carl Sagan wasn't ostracized by the science world, but he was certainly seen in a different light by practitioners in the field than--

The consumers.

Exactly. So while you acknowledge in the pilot that you have a personal connection to Sagan's legacy by brandishing a signed copy of his book, I had to wonder if you wrestled with his appeal when you were younger.

Okay, there's a lot in that question. There was some resistance by his colleagues. Some aspect of it, I don't know what percent, was jealously. It's hard to admit you're jealous, but deep down, if you part the curtains, there was just some jealousy. He was getting public attention that no other scientist was getting. He had a way and a manner of communication that was embraced by the public. That was a talent that appealed to well-socialized people. The stereotype of the scientist was the opposite of that. It was an extraordinary fact in its day.

Much of that resistance evaporated when the scientific community recognized that their funding streams were sustained or even increased when members of the Congress would say, "Oh, you do this work on that thing? I saw Carl Sagan talk about that! I like that! Here's more money for your research!" So what began to happen was that all boats were rising in this tidal shift, because the public was supporting was the scientists were doing.

Before that, the scientists never talked to the public. If they did, it certainly wasn't on entertainment shows. Carl Sagan appeared on "The Tonight Show." That's not even a newscast or a documentary! He appeared on Carson. People viewed it skeptically and it broadened even more the public's interest and appreciation of the universe. So I and others exist in this cleared landscape -- and there's blood on the edges of that, because he came through here first -- but there's several of us: Michio Kaku, Phil Plate, Bill Nye, Brian Cox in the U.K., and others. We all exist in this landscape that Sagan cleared.

I'm explaining this after the fact, which is always easier than predicting something will happen, but I don't think it's an accident that the best known scientists are people who talk about the universe. Stephen Hawking is not known not for the physics he's done but for the astrophysics he's done. Michio Kaku has his biggest crowds when he's talking about the universe, more than when he's talking about the frontier of physics.

I think the universe is an extraordinarily fertile topic that triggers the interest in all of us in ways that perhaps other scientists don't -- they can, but they just don't. You know, we've all looked up and wondered what our place in the universe is. Where did we come from? Where are we going? Biology has some answers to that, but it's still localized to Earth. You need some chemistry in there. But biologists, chemists and especially geologists have this almost intractable vocabulary, this lexicon that they use to communicate with one another. Astrophysics has no such burden.

As much a sense of awe as these conversations inspire in some people, they also instill fear for many others. You touch on that in the pilot with the segment on Giordano Bruno, who was executed by the Catholic Church for his ideas about the universe. And yet here you have a show being distributed by Fox, the same company that employs your pal Bill O'Reilly. Navigating that world, where there may be conversations that are oppositional to your goals, is there a certain kind of diplomacy that's necessary?

That's an excellent question. Diplomacy implies there's something you really want to say but you don't, so you have to say it some other way, you have to spin it. You don't have to spin science. You shouldn't have to spin the science. We don't spin the science. I make it very clear on the show.

We talk about where all the coal in the Earth came from. There was a period of heavy tree growth, and the trees fell over and became a layer in the fossil record. That's the coal we burn today. So we say, "Here was a repository of coal." Three hundred million years later, we are burning this coal to power our civilization. Would someone say that's a diplomatic sentence? I don't think so; it's just the fact. So science, when presented clearly and plainly, is actually just science. "Cosmos" is an offering in how the methods and tools of science have decoded the emerging truths in the universe.

Right, but let's get real for a second: The Church itself doesn't come off so well in the first episode.

Well, so, it's the Inquisition of the Church that doesn't come off so well.

You're saying the historical context is your safety valve.

No, it's just the truth! [laughs] It's not a safety valve. We make it clear that they had a system of courts called the Inquisition whose goal was to weed out just these sorts of people. The Catholic Church no longer has these sorts of courts.

25 Comments

  • Keith Smith Jr | March 26, 2014 12:25 AMReply

    Right but no one is discussing The Venus Projrct. .
    We no that space is their i do realize that this show may be a cursor for potential growth for humanities solutions instead of wallowing or waiting for salvation from aliens or god the universe is surreal and awake even if we are not... But anyway i feel this is confusion mechanism sought out by the establishment in powere today and the entertainment world for merchant corp sales and technocratic operations against humanity not for ..... I measn seth mcfarlene the family guy ... Phsss enough said and tyson is anti matter

  • george | March 11, 2014 1:20 PMReply

    Great piece. I loved Sagan's Cosmos and I enjoyed the reincarnation last night

  • samuel | March 10, 2014 7:53 PMReply

    This is a great piece. The program last night was spectacular. The questions regarding science and the some of church's hierarchy early opposition is an important historical fact. But remember that some of the early research in many fields were carried out in the seminaries of the middle age.

  • Red | March 10, 2014 5:00 PMReply

    One nitpick, it's Phil Plait, not Plate. He's the Bad Astronomer over on Slate.

  • Desi | March 10, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giordano_Bruno

  • SDG | March 10, 2014 11:42 AMReply

    Giordano Bruno certainly was NOT "executed by the Catholic Church for his ideas about the universe." That is a tired canard that grew out of the simplistic 19th-century "conflict thesis" of the relationship between religion and science. Contemporary historical scholarship recognizes that the reality is more complex.

    The reality is that Bruno's cosmological ideas were a small part of his trial by the Roman Inquisition, which was primarily concerned with his pantheistic views and his consequent denials of the Trinity, the Incarnation and other central Catholic doctrines. (Also, for what it's worth, Bruno was not executed "by the Church," but by civil authorities, though to be fair that may be only the error of this article, not of "Cosmos.")

    It's a shame that "Cosmos" had to mar its admirable project of bringing scientific wonder and understanding to a popular audience with this polemical distortion of history.

  • Wayne | March 11, 2014 10:07 AM

    The "civil authorities" of the time did what the Church told them to do. Also, are you defending the actions of the church against a man who was just stating what he believed? If so, then who else deserves to be executed? No government, secular or sacred, has the right to execute a person for holding certain beliefs. How can anyone defend the Inquisition which probably set the human race back hundreds of years?

  • Walter | March 10, 2014 12:54 AMReply

    Just saw the show. Your interview provided a good framework. Thanks.

  • Fortune | March 9, 2014 9:22 PMReply

    Can't wait for tonight. Thanks for the advance

  • Hp | March 9, 2014 8:14 PMReply

    Good work Eric

  • Patrick Brennan | March 9, 2014 7:43 PMReply

    BTW Eric and Mike, if you do not watch Fox News you do not have a clue about what is really going on in this world. You are being brainwashed by NPR CBS ABC or NBC. Try finding information about Lois Lerner, Fast and Furious, Benghazi anywhere besides Fox. You can't!

  • Rupert madoff@ childblood4profit | March 26, 2014 12:34 AM

    Patrick is lost everyone Project mockingbird all news is corrupt and outdated even the infamous turks and RT. Fox just adhere's to to wealthy social body of the civillization.

  • Seigfried | March 9, 2014 7:35 PMReply

    Major interview. Thanks. I hope the show prospers in the ratings.

  • BlowtorchOfReason | March 10, 2014 1:04 PM

    Uhm, if memory serves me correctly, wasn't it CBS that did the original report of F&F? If you are only watching FoxNews, then you are being brainwashed by FoxNews. You must explore many different sources of news. If you don't then you become part of the echo chamber and never advance.

  • Sam | March 9, 2014 7:22 PMReply

    I remember Sagan,s Cosmos. It was very popular with the general public,but despised by many scientists. I found that the Cosmo show increased the interest in the political establishment for supporting research as NDT mentioned in your interview. Good work

  • Patrick Brennan | March 9, 2014 7:13 PMReply

    Ok Neil we know you are smart, is it necessary to pick on 15th century theologians and insignificant religious groups to prove it? You'd do much better to just to give us a good show rather than showing your weird prejudices.

  • squeesh | March 9, 2014 11:18 PM

    @Brennan

    The facts that early scientists were, in fact, persecuted for revealing knowledge that challenged the then social order is a part of scientific history. So why are you even whining about it? I swear, some people will always find something to pick on somebody no mater what good they're trying to do. Just shut up already.

  • Richard | March 9, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    Very savy Eric.

  • Theresa | March 9, 2014 6:27 PMReply

    Great interview !!!

  • Ernest | March 9, 2014 6:25 PMReply

    The question regarding the religious write is very much appropriate. NDT ha. Participated in several panels defending the scientific vs intelligent design of evolution and the birth of the universe.

  • Roman | March 9, 2014 6:21 PMReply

    Terrific interview. I am a big fan of NDT. Your interview sets up the stage for what can be A big popular program in science .

  • sendto | March 9, 2014 5:06 PMReply

    Some questions to ponder along with this tv show, for instance: which is the probability that within a galaxy like the milky way, from the dust of its exploded stars, the living being who uses a computer was formed - computer included? A favourable case among infinite unfavourable possibilities? Fifty-fifty? To be or not to be, is that the question? Are calculations simplified or made more complex when the subjective self of each one is the entity that is studied? Anyway , what is the relationship between life and immense numbers? Is life a folding process of infinity? Is it just something infinite that would have enough to allow a self, something isolated but of infinite claims? But, is infinity credible within something with a beginning, out of a Big Bang? And is it credible within something with an ending, with the inevitable death around the corner? Along these lines, there is a book, a preview in http://goo.gl/rfVqw6 Just another mind leisure suggestion, far away from dogmas or axioms.

  • Mike | March 9, 2014 3:50 PMReply

    Agree with Cole. Terrible interview. Reads like something you would find on FOX News. Surprised Kohn didn't accuse NDT of waging a War on Christmas.

  • Eric | March 9, 2014 5:26 PM

    Wow. I've been accused of all sorts of things in these parts before, but propagating right wing blather of the FOX News variety is a new one. I would hope some readers can distinguish between what it means to harbor certain views and ask someone to respond to them. If you want to hear NDT talk about mind-blowing cosmological phenomena, I recommend listening to his podcast or watching "COSMOS," which is fantastic. But there's no question that the visibility of this show around the country forces a secular vision of the universe into greater prominence than certain factions of this country would like, and it's a battle that NDT has fought before, so I don't think it's unreasonable to drag these issues into the conversation.

  • Cole | March 9, 2014 3:16 PMReply

    It's interesting (and by interesting I mean ridiculous) to me that IndieWire made the title of this piece about DeGrasse's "opposition" to the religious right. It seems to me he specifically avoided stating opposition to religion or the right despite Kohn's leading questions