A Review of the New “Cosmos” with Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Elements of this review were reproduced in the Huffington Post article, “The World Needed the Return of ‘Cosmos'”

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Back in 1979, I was a 12 year old immigrant kid, youngest in a busy and stressed house of 7 people, and attending an inner city middle school in Toronto, which was not exactly the model of academic excellence (but which was, as an aside, the model for the TV show, DeGrassi Junior High).

I was a book-smart kid who excelled in mathematics and languages, and whose excellent memory made me a sponge for all sorts of knowledge, including scientific facts.  But, like the nerd stereotype, I was physically inept and socially timid.  As a poor immigrant and visible minority, like so many others like me, I discovered early on that excellence in the so-called objective areas, like math and science, was a quick path to self-esteem and some degree of acceptance.  Numbers don’t judge you or care where you’re from.

But I had no focus for my passions, no sense of where these skills could take me, or how they hung together into something resembling a life philosophy.  There were no role models for this in my life, no one to suggest a path.  I’d come from a long line of farmers, factory workers and labourers, and knew of no one in my familial or friendly circles who had ever sought education beyond the equivalent of middle school.

This was also the era, it’s important to remember, before mass media had truly taken hold of our society.  There was no internet, no cable TV, almost no access to ideas or content outside of your particular city, and certainly no well developed industry tailored to target communications content to 12 year olds.

Our family, typical for the time, had only one TV set, which only received about 6 channels.  If there was something educational on TV, it was likely to be childish and targeted to toddlers, or dry and unwatchable, and targeted to retired professors.  Moreover, it was unlikely that you’d be permitted to watch something like that, even if you wanted to, if there was a news or sports event on, or something else that was more preferred by the family.

Our society had not yet realized that there existed a market of young nerds with voracious minds needing to be fed.  I –and I assume others like me, whom I was not to meet till decades later– would read anything and everything.  The public library simply was not big enough or deep enough to satisfy my curiosity.  Looking back, how I would have revelled in the information depths of the Internet, had it existed.

And while, with great amounts of effort, knowledge could be obtained from various sources –books, tapes, TV shows– it was all without context, without guidance.

Enter into that world one Carl Sagan, a man who would quickly become my hero.  If you don’t know the story of Dr Sagan, you can read about him elsewhere; there’s certainly a lot written about him. He was a deep-thinking professional astronomer who took the challenge of public education quite seriously.  He suffered for his philosophy.  He was denied tenure at his first place of employment (Harvard), and accusations of frivolity would dog him all his life, due entirely to his focus on making science accessible to the laypeople.

It is no coincidence that my philosophy today, as both a scientist and educator, mirrors Sagan’s: that science is glorious, a manifestation of the greater human journey, superficial without the context of other human pursuits, and owned by all of us, not just arcane and secluded pointy-headed academics.

The fact that I am “permitted” by my University to engage in public education activities today is due in no small part to Sagan’s efforts to make such important activities acceptable.  (Even so, my academic mentors still advise me to eschew such activities, with many of the same tired old criticisms of perceived frivolity.)

In 1980, it seems out of nowhere, a TV show called Cosmos appeared on PBS, one of the handful of channels we could receive via our rooftop antenna.  From its opening scene, in which Sagan invites us on his “starship of the mind” and the otherworldly strains of Vangelis‘s “Heaven and Earth” fill the room, it is clear that this was not going to be another dry space documentary.  This was something different, something special, something profound.

To a pre-teen inner city kid with a thirst for knowledge, but whose surroundings were not capable of providing exactly the sort of mental stimulation he craved, Cosmos was a revelation.  In it, Sagan brought context,  What does history have to do with Physics?  What does Biology have to do with Philosophy?  What does religion have to do with Mathematics?  Sagan wove these elements together effortlessly, presenting for me the voyage of the human spirit, its quest for actualization and knowledge of its presence in the universe, as an accessible narrative.

Amazingly, it was also something the whole family learned to enjoy.  We would assemble nightly in front of the TV, all of us, and lap up an hour of exquisite mind expansion.  This, I quickly came to understand, was the brand of intellectualism I had sought all my young life; the strains of thought and spirit that I knew already defined my view of presence in the universe.

The late Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore  was given the title, guru dev, which means “divine teacher”.  I always felt that Carl Sagan deserved a similar honourific.  What he was able to do still amazes me: seamlessly bringing the relevance of science to the masses, not in a condescending preachy way, but in a way that celebrated the search for knowledge as a natural growth from other human quests for belonging.

It is an approach that I have humbly tried to emulate.  But I am a poor Sagan substitute.  Though I did have the pleasure of encountering the man himself in the early 1990s, when he gave a public lecture at the University of Toronto.  He was as affable, genuine and passionate in the flesh as on the TV.

So that brings us to the new Cosmos, this time hosted by TV science stalwart Dr Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  The first episode just aired an hour ago, nearly 35 years since the original.

There are so many wonderful parallels in having Tyson host the new show.  Like myself, Tyson was inspired as a youth by Sagan.  Like myself, Tyson is acutely aware of his role as a non-white academic in a field typically dominated by people who don’t look like him, and the subtle responsibilities that that might entail.  And like me, Tyson in his youth had an encounter with Sagan, though definitively a more personal encounter.

I had heard the Tyson-Sagan story before –about how Sagan had gone out of his way to reach out to a young Tyson– but was quite pleased that Tyson chose to re-tell it in the opening episode.  It speaks so well of Sagan the man, his legacy, and how intellectualism can be seated ultimately in being a decent human above all else, exposing that the show exudes from a heartfelt place of genuine awe and caring.

I am loathe to criticize the new Cosmos, since the world needs prime time media efforts like this.  I will say that I miss the Vangelis soundtrack.  As seemingly formless music, it was simultaneously thought-provoking, otherworldly, and pulse-pounding.  I loved the original so much that I even purchased the 8-track version back in the 80s, and would play it on an endless loop throughout the day, particularly when reading science fiction.  It still brings out in me feelings of wonder and hope.

The soundtrack of the new show is immediately forgettable.

Tyson is the natural and obvious host for the show, and it is unfair to compare him to Sagan, the guru dev.  Sagan bled passion and wonder in every sentence.  Somehow, that tonality and profundity is missing in Tyson’s delivery.  But that’s not his fault.

And perhaps this speaks more to the “dumbing down” of our society as a whole, but I felt that much of the first episode was talking down to its audience.  In fact, I am having a hard time understanding who the audience is intended to be.

In the original, Sagan assumed his audience had a basic familiarity with history and its players.  If we didn’t, we could pick up what we needed from context or –Zod forbid– seek out such knowledge on our own time.  But Tyson’s version seems to acknowledge and service the assumption of a lesser educated and intellectually lazy modern audience.  For example, he takes the time to explain what the Spanish Inquisition was.  Even Mel Brooks, in History of the World, assumed his audience had taken middle school history.

Obviously, it is not fair for a middle-aged professor to be expecting the same sense of wonder that he experienced 35 years ago.  But I did expect a little of that, and I’m a tad disappointed.

Still, I will watch the subsequent episodes, and will remain visibly thankful that Seth MacFarlane (of all people) decided to put his entertainment might behind seeking to educate and not just entertain.

I am especially thankful that the opening episode paid homage to the vision and efforts of Carl Sagan.  I expected a brief mention of his name, perhaps only in the opening segment.  But I was genuinely moved by Tyson’s clearly heartfelt words about Sagan’s legacy.  I will admit that my eyes were a bit moist then.  And this bodes well for the show: if it continues to touch the heart, then the head will follow.