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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

SXSW Interview: Neil DeGrasse Tyson Explains the Scientific Agenda Behind 'Cosmos' And Why He's Not Afraid of the Religious Right

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.

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.

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?

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.

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