Carl Sagan was not god.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire Sagan very much, both for his science and his outreach efforts. (Quick quiz: who knows what Dr. Sagan’s research was in? Sarah Hörst, you’re disqualified from answering.) I used a famous quote of his from Cosmos as a starting point for a recent piece in Nautilus and wrote a post in homage to him. I even subtitled my book-in-progress A Cosmological Journey in homage to the subtitle of Cosmos, which is A Personal Journey. However, I balk at the suggestion that nobody will ever live up to his example, or automatically dismiss the forthcoming Cosmos series starring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. (For more about the show, see Phil Plait’s recent blog post about talking with the creative team bringing it to Fox next year.)I recently watched Cosmos — all 13 hours of it — and I’d say a lot of it holds up very well for a show that’s more than 30 years old. Obviously we’ve learned a lot since 1980: observational cosmology really came of age in the 1990s, and exoplanets (which would have made Sagan wet his pants on camera with excitement) were completely unknown when the series aired. That’s not a criticism, and it shows that we need updates. Science moves at a fast pace, overwriting old knowledge, updating, and refining.
However, even taking into account the differences in TV between 1980 and 2013, the show is very slow-paced at times. I’m not talking about the mellow oh-so-1970s Vangelis score, or Sagan’s measured style of speech: I mean the obvious stretching of material to make hour-long episodes. I have a long attention span, so I’m not saying Cosmos should be like the frenetic Star Trek reboot; I’m just saying that a serious show about serious science need not be ponderous.
A more problematic concern is the history in Cosmos, which takes up a significant chunk of several episodes. Much of this history is (to put it kindly) misleading, from the relationship of Tycho with Kepler to Sagan’s version of the Greek philosophers and their schools of thought. (For example, while I applaud the show’s desire to highlight some lesser known contributions to the development of science, I also find it odd to focus on Milton Humason’s contributions to the discovery of cosmic expansion, almost as though he was the only person working on it.) When we present the history of science, it’s important to get our facts right. I don’t go as far as some of my colleagues in tearing down famous figures — I think there’s room between the Great Man mythology and the “everybody sucks” school of focusing on scientists’ flaws alone. I worry that Tyson’s new show similarly will err on the side of mythology over good history.
At its best, Cosmos is poetic and informative, inspirational science communication that we all can learn from. At its worst, the pace drags, drifts into misleading history, and at moments can feel like a stoned college student’s version of cosmology. (I laughed out loud at one scene where Sagan practically pulled a “Dude, look at this water, man”.) People’s tastes will vary, of course; while I liked the “starship of the imagination” segments of the original Cosmos, several of my friends didn’t and were annoyed that Tyson is using that motif in the new series. Maybe you like the “dude, science” bits and don’t mind the slow pace.
I think the good far outweighs the bad in Cosmos, and I count Sagan as one of my inspirations. A lot of people were first introduced to cosmology and other aspects of modern science through the program. I’ve never run across a show quite like it, in terms of the depth of scientific content and length of the series. The fact that it was put together and hosted by a working research scientist speaks strongly in its favor, as most TV shows then and now are hosted by “personalities” rather than experts. (At the time, many astronomers were critical of Sagan, on the grounds that public outreach was unserious.) Neil Tyson is far more of a personality than Sagan, since his primary job is public science outreach, but he also brings legitimate science credentials.
The potential value of TV programs like Cosmos can’t be overstated. Most people still get their news from TV, not from the internet. With utter garbage being shown on the History Channel and Animal Planet bearing the name of “science”, I appreciate that the new series will air on Fox, where it potentially will reach a large audience that wouldn’t watch PBS or one of the science-focused channels. My hope is that Neil Tyson will not make the mistakes of the earlier Cosmos and will see the show for what it is — a wonderful but imperfect example of science communication on TV. If he can see past the mythos of Cosmos and Sagan, maybe he can make a show that’s even better.