2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson talks ‘Cosmos,’ dark energy and Seth MacFarlane

Published: March 5, 2014, 6:23 pm, by Terry Terrones

Neil--deGrasse-Tyson

I recently sat in on a Fox conference call with Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of the new show “The Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey,” and the show’s writer/producer/director Ann Druyan. The show premieres this Sunday at 8 p.m. Here’s a transcript of the conversation.   

Q: How do you feel the public appetite for science has changed in the time since the original “Cosmos” series aired over 30 years ago?

Ann: Well, in the 1970s, I think that there was probably a higher degree of respect for science, of hope about the future, and the kind of future-oriented vision. We had just, you know, had our greatest achievements under our belt; the Apollo program, the Voyagers were being sent out into the furthest reaches of the solar system and beyond to do this epical reconnaissance of the outer planets and there was a high degree of confidence. Something which changed very dramatically sometime perhaps around the year 2000 when suddenly there was a public hostility to science, which was, you know—you could see it in many different manifestations, a sudden retreat on evolution and on the acceptance of other scientific facts, and so I think we began to turn inward, and our vision of the frontier was not as compelling as it once had been.

The good thing, I think, is that the pendulum is now swinging back our way and not only that, but we have these global meetings of becoming an interconnected organism.  We have the internet. We have these coalescing communities of people who are interested and that group I think is greater than it ever has been before.

Of course, you know, back in the day when Carl and I first presented the original “Cosmos” series, there were probably fewer than a dozen channels and none of these other platforms in which to receive this kind of information. Right now, you know, all of the knowledge of the world is at our fingertips. Just based on the kind of ground roar that I’ve been feeling about “Cosmos” and the enduring love of the original series, I think that this is the perfect moment for “Cosmos” and perhaps a chance for a much bigger response even than the original one, you know, the largest television rollout in history; 175 countries, I heard at last count in 45 languages and all of it presented in only a few spins of the globe. I think there couldn’t be a better moment for us.

Neil: Yes. I’d like to add that if I look at signs and now, as Ann said, a globally connected world, at least those who have access to the internet and that’s a growing number daily, of course, that you can read signs that there is an unserved hunger—an unserved curiosity for the world around us that manifests it in several ways.  Among them, I don’t even understand why I have 1.7 million Twitter followers.  Every day I want to remind them and say, “Do you realize I’m an astrophysicist? Do you know what you’re doing here?”

I see responses, just little tossups, about some insights about the universe and the relationship of science to everyday life that has such a warm and enthusiastic reception that it tells me that I think for many people this was something deep within them that they had lost since childhood or maybe they never knew they had, and I see “Cosmos” as a way to sort of reignite these flames or fan them if they had just simply gone dormant. I agree with Ann; I think it’s coming at quite a fertile time to make a difference in the world and not only in the United States, but in the world, especially given the distribution that it will enjoy.

Q: Why do you think it is that studying science right now is so important for the younger generation?

Neil: I think it’s important for everybody, especially since adults run the world. I’m a little fatigued of adults saying we’ve got to worry about the kids. And these are the same adults that don’t know science and are running things and wielding resources and legislation. The message of “Cosmos” is for everyone; and as Ann says, “If you have a beating heart, that’s good enough.” That’s the entry card to embrace what we do.

I think it’s important for all ages, because in the 21st Century, there are just so many issues that will confront us that require a literacy, not only in science, but in technology—that’s science’s close cousin—where, you know, energy, health, security, and transportation; you just look at all of this and if you don’t have access to that because of some illiteracy that you carry, you are not a participant in the future of the world and I think you want to be that. I don’t want to beat you over the head to require it of you. “Cosmos” is an offering so that you can feel empowered and you would have this antidote to people who would presume that science doesn’t matter going forward.

Q: Has there been any recent developments in understanding dark energy at all?

Neil: Not at all.

Ann: Not a one.

Neil: Nope. Dark energy: this mysterious pressure in the vacuum of space that is forcing the universe to accelerate in its expansion rather than just expand, as we had known since Hubble discovered that. Hubble, the man, discovered it in 1929. We would later discover in 1998 that we’re accelerating. We give it a name—a placeholder name, dark energy. We don’t know what’s causing it, but it’s real. The measurements have been made. A Nobel Prize has been awarded for it.

By the way, “Cosmos,” while the storytelling does intermittently concern itself with a moving and active frontier of discovery, those aren’t the destinations of the messaging; the destinations are how and why any of this matters to you. It’s the cosmic perspective that you can glean by putting all of this in a context in a way that Ann does best as the chief writer of the series because she feels the universe.

I can tell you about the universe, but she feels it; and when you feel the universe, it has a whole other meaning to you. Otherwise, you just put a Wiki page on camera.  You can learn something, but it won’t mean anything to you later on.

Q: The subject of the show is something that a lot of people may not know anything about at all, so I want to know how you tried to make the information easier for everyone to understand?

Ann: You know, I believe we are a story-driven species and that we understand how things are put together in the context of narrative and I think it’s a shame that science hasn’t been taught that way in a long time. It’s usually the fact completely denuded of any human experience or any idea of how the scientist came to that conclusion.

Carl Sagan always used to say that when he was trying to explain something to someone, he would go back to that time when he didn’t understand it and then he would retrace his thought steps so that he could make it absolutely clear, and that’s what I learned. That’s one of the infinite number of things I learned from him. I found that it was easiest to convey the information in the context of the life of the scientist or in the context of our own personal experience, and there was no idea that was too complicated that couldn’t be explained clearly and directly.

I think that was the major challenge was you know taking for example, bringing to life Michael Faraday’s experiments with magnetism, electricity, and light at a time which was really so complicated that the experiment itself wasn’t understood for another 100 years by other scientists and couldn’t easily be explained. Working with the animators and everyone involved, what we tried to do was bring these ideas to life so that you and everyone in the audience would own those ideas forevermore.

Q: Is going to tackle the subject of intelligent life outside of our solar system?

Ann: Of course. That’s one of the most compelling subjects in science and you know we’ve only been going at this scientifically for about 70 years, so we’re still very new to this subject as a species, but, yes, we have an episode that comes later in the series. It’s episode 11, and it’s a kind of meditation on immortality and on the potential we have to link up with other civilizations.

Everybody is fascinated by the question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe and we have a couple of hundred billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone. It is beginning to look like the Carl Sagan statement of 20/30 years ago that, “The planets in our galaxy likely outnumber the stars,” is coming true so the potential for worlds with life and possibly intelligent life seems very fertile even though we have no direct evidence yet of their existence. We may be living at that moment, on the cusp, when we go from being a species that feels a kind of loneliness in the cosmos to actually one sometime in the not too distant future being able to confirm the existence of other intelligent life.

Neil: I would say in the early days, now, about 30/40 years ago when people would mention the search for life, it almost was synonymous with the search for intelligent life, aliens, basically, and some people felt it was fringy to think that way. Others felt it was what we should be doing, but what has emerged out of that is an entire cottage industry of the search for life of any kind at all without specific reference to whether it’s what we would call intelligent and so experiments were devised.

The first time we landed on Mars, the Viking Lander had experiments to test for is there some kind of biological activity going on on the surface, whether or not there’s a creature that’s crawling on the back of the craft. So today, there’s a whole field called astrobiology. Carl Sagan is one of its earliest pioneers at a time where that wasn’t even really a word yet to cross pollinate astrophysics and biology and get astrobiology.

I have many colleagues now who are looking for biomarkers on the surface of Exoplanets—excuse me, biomarkers in the atmosphere of Exoplanets. These planets that are now rising through 1,000 in the catalog, so the discovery of any kind of life at all would be a tremendous watershed moment in biology, as well as all of science. So this series keeps us very open to all of these possibilities and it’s a reminder that we’ve hardly looked anywhere so the fact that we haven’t found it yet is—you know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Q: What do you think the benefits of having a science program of this scope air on network TV are and how did it end up at Fox in the first place?

Neil: When I first had the conversation with Seth MacFarlane about this, I was having lunch with him and Ann and I and Steve Soter and Mitchell, we were shopping around “Cosmos” to various possible producing stations; PBS among them.  I thought maybe he’d—you know, he’s not without money, I thought maybe he could put in some money to help us make a pilot and that way we can make it exactly the way we want and then possibly get interest beyond that, but that wasn’t his first thought. His first thought was why don’t I take it to Fox? And that’s when I remembered thinking, Oh, he doesn’t get it. This is a wasted lunch.

Then ten seconds later, I’m thinking well Fox, at the time, had the number one show on television. Fox is 20th Century Fox. Fox Searchlight Pictures. There’s Fox Business. Yes, there’s Fox News. There’s Fox network, and I realized Fox had more cultural demographics crossing their roads in their portfolio than any other station I could think of.

Then I realized that if “Cosmos” appeared on Fox, however remote that possibility was at that moment in my head, if it did appear on Fox, it would have the greatest possible distribution of any science programming there ever was right out of the box. I said, “This is the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard,” so I did a complete flip in ten seconds in that conversation and then the rest is history.

Ann: We did go to a number of other networks before we landed with Neil and Seth’s tremendous help at Fox, and the other networks wanted “Cosmos” very much because they knew it was a kind of one-of-a-kind evergreen series kind of gold standard for a very unique form of science-based entertainment, but they didn’t want to give me, as executive producer and writer and director, complete creative control. I kept saying, “No.” I think some of people my colleagues were thinking we’ll never get this on the air and running.

Then it was this wonderfully fortuitous meeting between Neil and Seth which ended up getting me my shot at pitching it to Peter Rice. He hadn’t seen the original series.  He asked to have a chance to watch it. He watched all 13 episodes with his family.

They loved it, and he called me back and he said, “Okay, you know, let’s order 13 of these.” I was like, “Don’t you want a pilot?” He pointed to the DVD of the original series and he said, “That’s your pilot.  You know how to do this, we don’t.” And that was the difference between Fox and everywhere else we went.

The experience of these last four years has in a daily way reinforced their genuine commitment to doing this. Now, you asked, what’s the virtue of having this on television now, and you know, on Fox, on National Geographic, with this global reach and I would say very simply, it’s the chance to make the case for the scientific perspective and scientific thinking and reasoning based on the evidence at a moment that we face many challenges that science has revealed to us, for instance, global warming being just one of them, and that we need to break down this kind of denial that keeps us from taking what science is telling us. Not just about the problems we face, but about the fantastic possibilities of the future and what we could do if we get our act together.

I guess at its heart, “Cosmos” is really about taking science to heart rather than compartmentalizing science as something separate from the things that we feel and the reasons that cause us to act.  That’s what “Cosmos” is.  It’s filled with hope, but it’s realistic too.  You know, who knows what the influence of the show will be, but if it turns out to be limited and fleeting, we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Q: We hear a lot about America’s decline in competitiveness in the STEM field: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. What would your advice be to help inspire young people to become more interested in science, you know, besides the obvious watching of “Cosmos?”

Neil: I would say, “Watch Cosmos.” You took away my best answer there.

Ann: Well, I would add that, you know, knowing a deep thing well, which is what science asks of its practitioners, is an empowerment that is very profound. It’s a liberation.

There’s this wonderful moment in one of our episodes where Neil looks to the camera and says, “Can you hear me?  Can you see me? How?” We’re off on this adventure, which gives us the life of two people who played a fundamental role, but it also points out that we are living in a society that is totally dependent on science and high technology; and yet most of us are effectively alienated and excluded from its workings, from the values of science, the methods of science, the language of science.

You know, were you inspired to have a democratic society? Well, a good place to start would be for as many of us as possible to begin to understand the decision making and the basis for those decisions and to act independently and not be manipulated into thinking one thing or another, but to learn how to think. That’s what science does.

One of its greatest powers is that it teaches you how to know when you are being lied to; and as a species, we tend to lie quite a bit, to ourselves, to each other. You know, it’s a primate thing, so I think that a reason to go into a career in science and technology or a reason to learn more about these subjects is to become a more powerful person and that’s what we hope that “Cosmos” will be the jumping off point for—

Neil: I would say that its capacity to influence adults who are in charge is no less important here. Adults outnumber children in the world and they wield resources, and so I don’t know what it would mean if we had a scientifically-literate population of children and scientifically-illiterate population of adults in charge. I think this is seeds falling on fallow ground, so “Cosmos’s” target audience is everyone. All it requires, as Ann likes to say, is if you have a beating heart; and so it needs to work on all these levels.

Otherwise, I think it becomes a one-off, you know, and the whole society has to recognize the importance of value and value of embracing what science is going into the 21st Century. Otherwise, we might as well start packing and moving back into the cave right now because that’s where we’ll end up.

Q: On the topic of adults is there anything in the world of science that these adults aren’t asking that maybe they should be? Is there anything important that perhaps is being overlooked that you feel that should be focused on more or looked into that isn’t?

Neil: Yes. That’s a really excellent question. I think it’s more subtle than that. It’s not that, oh, here’s something that should be on the table that isn’t. It’s, look at what’s on the table now and how are you bringing your capacity to ask questions, your capacity to interpret, your capacity to sift through the wheat from the chaff?

Part of what it is to be scientifically-literate, it’s not simply do you know what DNA is? Or what the Big Bang is? That’s an aspect of science literacy. The biggest part of it is do you know how to think about information that’s presented in front of you.

I think that’s the great challenge, and you have people who believe they do know how to think about the information, but don’t, and they’re in the position of power and legislation. You can’t base a society on non-objectively verifiable truth. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy land, and science is the pathway to those emerging truths that are hard earned, that some have taken decades, if not centuries, to emerge from experiments all around the world, and “Cosmos” is a celebration of just that adventure and just that kind of enterprise.