Neil Degrasse Tyson’s cultural value needs company. As a popularizer of science, Tyson introduced audiences to the wonders of the universe with an approachable tone that expanded its appeal beyond physics classrooms and laboratories. Like Carl Sagan before him, Tyson excels at translating the dense field of astrophysics into riveting cosmic terms that anyone can appreciate.
Lately, however, Tyson’s folk-hero status has hobbled, as various developments — from sexual harassment charges to insensitive tweets — have made him more of a burden for the field. None of this has changed Tyson’s underlying value in bringing scientific concepts to the masses, but the backlash is a clear reminder that he shouldn’t be the only famous scientist on TV.
Over the weekend, Tyson issued a bizarre tweet in response to America’s mass shooting debate, listing a range of other death statistics — from suicide to car accidents — and concluding that “our emotions respond more to spectacle than to data.” He faced such dramatic backlash that he was forced to issue a begrudging apology and defense, but the tone-deaf incident highlighted the extent to which Tyson’s smart-alecky approach has reached a breaking point.
Tyson’s brand was already in trouble. His employers at the American Museum of Natural History, where he serves as the director of the Hayden Planetarium, recently closed an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against the scientist. In March, National Geographic and Fox announced that it had completed its own investigation, and would keep Tyson as the host of “Star Talk With Neil deGrasse Tyson” as well as his “Cosmos” reboot. Regardless of those outcomes, the allegations against Tyson suggested that his dominance in the field was anything but a given, and that field could use some shaking up.
We need Tyson and his ilk the same way we needed Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, and Stephen Hawking in previous generations — to wrestle with complex epistemological questions in terms that anyone can understand. Sagan’s effusive discussion of the “billions and billions” of stars in the universe on the original “Cosmos” helped America understand the sheer scale of the cosmos, and Asimov’s dazzling tales of artificial intelligence and space travel turned the future into a tangible possibility. Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” put the entire nature of the universe into an abstract adventure. These achievements turn complex epistemological questions (Where did we come from, where are we going, etc.) into tangible conceits. And we need that power now more than ever.
Civilization has entered a scary chapter in its relationship to the natural world: the persistence of climate change denial in the face of blatant evidence, religious values trouncing the need for scientific debate in the classroom, and so on. At the same time, the advance of technology and space travel has taken on exciting sci-fi ramifications that demand pundits who can demystify the rapid-fire change. SpaceX and other entities are exploring space tourism, Mars is filled with geological mysteries that could teach us about Earth, Japan is doing somersaults on an asteroid, and China killed a plant on the moon, where we may actually land more astronauts in the next five years. These circumstances may have long-term commercial, industrial, and scientific impacts that every citizen of Earth should understand.
That turns the rock star scientist into the ultimate 21st century explainer, and to be fair, Tyson has done important work in that regard; in the process, he has brought many other strong voices with him. These include Bill Nye, himself a major popularizer of science going back to the 90s, for whom Tyson helped provide a second wind. But Nye has yet to achieve the kind of stardom Tyson has accumulated in recent years. The same could be said for other science figures with some modicum of fame, such as Michio Kaku, Phil Plate, and Brian Cox.
But none of them have captured the cheery, inviting tone that made Tyson so appealing in the first place. He’s the only member of his field who has become a kind of pop culture object himself, with cameos in everything from “Family Guy” to “Ice Age.” He may come across as smarmy, but his popularity as a signifier of science is an end unto itself: He keeps the field in the public eye even when reducing it to a punchline.
I remember watching an early recording of Tyson’s “Star Talk” podcast at the Bell House in Brooklyn, long before he was selling out larger venues, and marveling at the way he was able to energize young students of science while entertaining the rest of the room with mind-blowing concepts. This is what we need, I thought.
And we still do: Whether or not Tyson alters his tone and wins back some of the audience he’s alienated lately, networks should assess the forces behind his star power and consider whether there may be others out there in his field who deserve a similar perch. In 2014, the first season of “Cosmos” ranked as the most-watched series in the history of the National Geographic International channel. If there’s a global audience for Neil deGrasse Tyson, he can’t be alone, and his popularity represents a major skillset that the entertainment world should evaluate as a serious asset in its quest to develop successful content.
I grew up in a household that took the value of science for granted: My father worked as an engineer at NASA, developing some of the software that controlled the robotic arm of the space shuttle. That sounds exciting on paper. But I got used to watching him elaborate on the more complex aspects of his profession to dinner guests as their eyes glazed over. It’s no easy task to elucidate concepts that usually require years of study to appreciate. Yet it’s those same concepts that govern the very fabric of our reality, and where it might go next.
Last month, I traveled to the Elqui Valley in Chile to watch the 2019 total solar eclipse. Standing in the shadow of the moon in the middle of the desert, as the stars came out and the temperature dropped, I witnessed the best short film of the year: an astounding show produced by no less than Mother Nature, with homemade special effects, and I was surrounded by thousands of awe-stricken viewers who felt the same way. However, when I returned home, I was astounded to find such minimal media coverage of the event. The news cycle is bogged down by distressing reports about political dysfunction and partisan debates. Science provides a welcome contrast: It’s a neutral place where anyone can bask in the natural splendor of the world. We just need more voices to explain it.