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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

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 9, 2014 at 2:53PM

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.
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'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey'
Daniel Smith/Fox 'Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey'

But at some point you'll have to arrive at the 20th century, and deal with thorny issues like the education of evolution in schools, and you won't have the same workaround.

What do you mean by a workaround?

A certain conservative subset of this country could feel that their religious values are under attack by a show that negates their perspective with empirical evidence.

Right, so I don't see anything as a boundary. I see science and what it tells us is true about the world. We are presenting those stories. The fact is, of the 13 episodes, there's a person or a group of people profiled in each one. The Bruno story was slightly longer than others just because his story is foundational for so much of the series. But three or four of them were deeply religious people -- as was Bruno.

Cosmos 10

My favorite line of his is, "Your god is too much. My god is the god of the entire universe," where there could be other forms of life. That was a philosophical sparring point that ended in death for him. But he was no less religious than anyone else. He just wasn't dogmatic.

Michael Faraday is in one of the episodes. He's a fundamentalist Christian. We have someone who's Islamic that we profile from 100 years ago. So what matters here isn't whether you're religious. What matters is, are you curious about how the world works? Do you have the energy to sustain your pursuit of the truth in the face of forces that might close it down for you?

Of course, in the case of "Cosmos," you also have technology on your side. The show looks spectacular.

Well, because we can do it. We have the resources, the funding, the access to the talent that knows how to do that. People who blow stuff up in movies now get to blow up something real -- the universe, the Big Bang, stars. So we would be remiss were we not to avail of ourselves of this talent.

Did you realize how good it was going to look?

Cosmos 11

No. I knew it would be good. I didn't know it would be stunning, just stunning. It's in hyper-HD, or whatever they call it. Plus, our director of photography worked on "The Matrix" trilogy, so he knew what to do with a camera. He's done some interesting things with cameras.

It's that kind of access we had -- people bringing their formidable talents to us. We just tell the stories that will connect you to how science works. I've concluded that the people who are at war with science simply don't know how science works. This is a way for them to understand how science works. We're not beating anyone on the head.

Obviously you're playing a crucial role in the popularization of curiosity about the universe. But there are very recent signs of resistance against treating scientific progress as major events. Why wasn't it front page news when NASA landed a probe on Titan and took a picture? Why does the media downplay these stories?

I think it's changing, because when Voyager left the solar system, that was on the front page of the New York Times. When the Higgs Boson particle was discovered, that was a banner headline on the New York Times. I see it as a phase shift. The media attention we are getting for "Cosmos" knows no bounds.

There's an article in The New Yorker, two in the New York Times, it's in USA Today, in GQ, in Time magazine, in People magazine... it goes on and on. It's not just the usual suspects, like Mental Floss or the geekosphere. That, for me, is evidence of the mainstreaming of science. So I don't agree that it's not being covered in major ways. In the new world, in the last couple of years, they definitely are.

And next year the New Horizons probe is supposed to arrive at Pluto.

Exactly. And that will rock.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Neil deGrasse Tyson, FOX Broadcasting, COSMOS: A SpaceTime Odyssey, South By Southwest Film Conference and Festival (SXSW), SXSW 2014





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