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Can ‘Cosmos’ Save Science Television?

Can 'Cosmos' Save Science Television?

With his nondescript blazers and mild manner, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is an unlikely radical. But make no mistake: in an age of evolution skeptics and climate change deniers, the defense of science he levies as the host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is nothing short of revolutionary.

Of course, a similarly grand sense of purpose accompanied Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” when it premiered on PBS in 1980, eventually attracting 400 million viewers in 60 countries. That the iconic original resulted in no definitive triumph for factuality might lead the discerning critic to offer a more cautious assessment of the revamped “Cosmos,” but its very existence — in the midst of Sunday’s packed primetime landscape, no less — is a bold statement. We’re here, we’re peer-reviewed, get used to it!

Beyond public television’s old guard (“Nova” and “Nature” on PBS, “The Blue Planet” and “Planet Earth” on the BBC), much of what passes for “educational” science programming is at best rank sensationalism, if not flagrantly unethical. Allegations of animal abuse directed at Animal Planet’s hit series “Call of the Wildman” may constitute an extreme case, but it’s clear that executives prefer reality TV’s seductive promise of easy money to the more challenging work of rational investigation. And lest you consider “Shark Week,” “Ghost Hunters,” and Dr. Oz niche expressions of the obsession with pseudo-science, tune to the networks’ nightly news reports. Last bastions of “the mainstream” (or what’s left of it), they’re half consumed by dramatic images of wildfires, landslides, blizzards, tornadoes, and floods, with barely a mention of climate change. When Bill Nye the Science Guy is the culture’s foremost advocate for the scientific consensus, that culture is on dangerous ground.

With all due respect to Mr. Nye, Tyson, of sonorous voice and serious bearing, possesses gravitas, and “Cosmos,” created by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan and Steven Soter (with executive producer Seth MacFarlane among others), strikes a tone of authoritative, impassioned intelligence. Indeed, from the beginning of the first episode, Tyson’s narration emphasizes the importance of the scientific method, which is the series’ Rosetta Stone. “Accept these terms,” he says, “and the cosmos is yours.” At heart, “Cosmos” is a clarion call of logic and experimentation in an anti-intellectual age.

Yet the series is no hectoring jeremiad or bone-dry lecture. Wait until nightfall, turn out all the lights, and watch it on the largest, clearest screen you own — the immersive visual journey of Tyson’s CGI-generated “Ship of the Imagination,” from the “staggering immensity” of the multiverse to the microscopic detail of the double helix, forges a gorgeous synergy between science and art. A split-screen sequence depicting the evolution of sight digitally reconstructs both the alien appearance of Earth’s earliest life forms and the “creature’s-eye view” with ingenious immediacy. A rendering of the many galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster dancing through space, each one comprised of countless stars and planets, provides a potent reminder of our infinitesimal existence. To marvel at nature’s brilliance, “Cosmos” suggests, requires none of creationism’s narrative magic: from the right perspective, the evidence speaks for itself.

Like 16th-century Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno — whose defense of the infinite universe and death at the hands of the Inquisition is portrayed in one of several animated sequences about the history of science — “Cosmos” lobs a blazing salvo at the status quo. Against television’s impoverished version of “reality,” against the misleading tendency to frame the basic science behind vaccinations, natural selection, and climate change as subject to “debate,” “Cosmos” treats rational inquiry as an act of heroism. “Science works on the frontier between knowledge and ignorance,” Tyson says near the end of the second episode. “We’re not afraid to admit what we don’t know. There’s no shame in that. The only shame is to pretend we have all the answers.”

Indeed, the poetry “Cosmos” uncovers in Big Bang Theory and the icy tails of comets, in primordial forests and pristine seas, quickly becomes the foremost proof of its argument that science matters. “Imagination alone is not enough,” Tyson notes, “because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than we can imagine.” Whether “Cosmos” will lead to a proliferation of rigorous and engaging science programming remains to be seen, but nevertheless the series’ unabashed critique of anti-intellectualism is a vital tonic. Every revolution has to start somewhere.

“Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” airs Sundays at 9/8c on FOX and Mondays at 10/9c on National Geographic.

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