Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson & Ann Druyan interview: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

On the eve of their blockbuster science series' UK premiere, we chat to Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’s Neil Tyson and Ann Druyan…

In 1980, PBS aired the TV series that made US cosmologist, astronomer and writer Carl Sagan’s name. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a thirteen-hour exploration of the universe, a wide-reaching, poetic tale of scientific discovery through the centuries, tracking the progress of life on Earth and the possibility of it elsewhere.

Cosmos returns to television this weekend as sequel A Spacetime Odyssey. Writer and producer Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the original series with Sagan, is back driving thirteen new episodes of scientific storytelling for a new audience. Presenting the series is US astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, supported this time around by the gloss and VFX of a blockbuster movie (The Matrix series and Spider-Man 2 cinematographer Bill Pope directs, with music from veteran Hollywood composer Alan Silvestri). Making all this possible are the industry connections of Seth MacFarlane, whose relationship with the Fox network was instrumental in Cosmos big-budget return to television.

We spoke to Ann Druyan and Dr Tyson about why now was the right time for another Cosmos, and the importance of storytelling in science…

How do you think your audience’s understanding of science has changed between the original Cosmos and 2014?

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Ann Druyan: When the original Cosmos came out in 1980, the prevailing cultural norm at the time was a kind of reverence for science, an excitement about what science could do. There were visions of the future which depended entirely on science and high technology, and they were visions of a better future. Then in the intervening decades I think we’ve come through a period of intense hostility to science, which we’re just coming out of. We’re very lucky to ride that wave, because what I detect – and I think Neil [deGrasse Tyson] would agree – is an overwhelming hunger for that feeling of being part of something greater than yourself and having a soaring spiritual experience without having to lie to yourself. That’s one of the wellsprings that we hope to tap into.

Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson: I agree with Ann. In the late 1970s, with all of the challenges society still had, the fruits of scientific and technological research still had a place where people said ‘that’s our ticket to the future, even if I don’t understand it, I know that I have to support it, because that’s what got us to where we are and that will continue us along’. Somewhere in there we became complacent. Maybe we took technology for granted, maybe there weren’t enough visible science achievements to keep people stoked, I don’t know, but the distrust of science and scientists, and the idea that you could just not like a scientific result and assert it to not be true… this was going on in the United States, and you take a step back and say, why is this? You can start blaming people for it but that’s too easy, you have to ask, what is absent from society which, if it were there, would somehow then reduce or eliminate this kind of thinking? And then you realise [laughing] we need another Cosmos!

The distrust of science you mention is something we often see played out in fiction – the cliché of a mad, world-ending scientist. Do you think those portrayals have fed into the hostility you describe?

AD: I certainly do. I think it goes back to the Old Testament, actually, to Genesis and the idea that everything will be great if you live in ignorance, but the moment you partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, you’re doomed and you’ll never be happy again. The popular manifestation is just echoes of that first nightmare where we wake up in this maximum security prison called Eden and we become our human selves and God is never happy with us ever again. That’s the cultural baggage that we all carry.

Science is such a revolutionary way of looking at things and that’s precisely why I find it so compelling, because it’s a permanent revolution, it’s never satisfied, it’s never done. We hope that the series of Cosmos will convey something of that ethos and the awesome power of what you get – living twice as longer, communicating at the speed of light with each other – those are the real by-products of science, and it’s time we started appreciating those as well as some of the sins that science has known.

What do you hope this series of Cosmos accomplishes?

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AD: Well, the greatest thing that science teaches you is the law of unintended consequences. One of my nightmares when people ask what we hope Cosmos accomplishes, one of my fears is that someone out there who doesn’t know that they have any interest in science but has some kind of really malevolent streak will suddenly be attracted to science through Cosmos, and then do something that we’re all going to be sorry about!

Wow, that’s quite a thought.

AD: Well that’s part of it too! That’s the fact, we just cast out this great net, we don’t know who’s going to get caught up in it.

Dr Tyson, how would you describe the call to action for this series of Cosmos?

NdT: I don’t think about it that way. I think that if you present science as it has come to be crafted by our culture and our civilisation, if you present the discoveries of science, if you present the stories of the scientists, some of whom struggled mightily to find the truth only then to learn that their own culture, their family, their civilisation rejected what it is they found because of some political cultural ideology not found in an objective truth, once you are exposed to this? You can’t help but come away saying, ‘Science matters, it matters to my survival, to my health, to my wealth, to the future, not just to my survival but the survival of our civilisation, the survival of us on our planet’. Confronted with this, I think you have to land there, otherwise, it’s not obvious that you’re alive and sentient.

The issue is, what distinguishes Cosmos, is that it brings together what science is and why it matters in such a way that you are compelled to feel this way, otherwise, it’s just a documentary giving you knowledge about the world, pages torn from an encyclopaedia, here’s the next thing you learn and here’s the next thing… but none of it do you feel compelled to take ownership of, none of it do you take to heart.

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You, Neil, have spoken about taking science to heart at a very young age at the Hayden Planetarium. It happened later in life for you, Ann. For many of us, that process starts with science-fiction, it begins with watching Doctor Who or Star Trek, or perhaps Contact (the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film adapted from Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name, co-produced by Druyan). What part would you say science-fiction plays in getting people to take science to heart?

NdT: While I’m a big fan of science fiction, especially as rendered in expensive Hollywood blockbusters, it’s the real universe that calls to me. To fall into a black hole, that is more amazing than anything I’ve ever read in a science-fiction story. The beginning of the universe, the formation of our moon, the evolution of life on earth, these are stories. Science is not just [starts moving objects – a glass, a phone – around the table] ‘Here are some facts, learn that’. There’s a thread through these stories that, if you know how to tell it because you know how they connect, then it’s a thread that will land right in your [touches his chest] mind, body and soul and that’s what Cosmos accomplishes.

Neil Gaiman recently wrote a great piece about the importance of reading fiction in which he talked about attending the first ever Chinese state-sanctioned sci-fi convention.

NdT: Oh yes. I read that. It was extraordinary actually.

In it, he wrote that the Chinese state had decided to approve such a convention because it was thought crucial to a nation’s scientific development that its citizens read science-fiction. If you don’t start with science-fiction at a young age, you don’t have that sense of innovation and creation…

NdT: You don’t have a sense of tomorrow. And of what role science and technology would play in that tomorrow. Most science fiction is about tomorrow, a tomorrow brought to you by innovations in science and technology, and China was worried that if they just have everybody learning what is, they’re not going to be in a position to invent a tomorrow because their brain isn’t even wired to go in that direction. So I agree entirely with Neil Gaiman’s assessment of that.

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I think though, don’t confuse the absence of science-fiction with the presence of a society in which free thought is stimulated on any or all frontiers. In America, there are people who don’t read science fiction but still think about tomorrow, so it’s not only the force of science-fiction that makes you a tomorrow thinker, it’s how free are you? How much freedom do you have to have any kind of thought at all? Or are you forced to only think about the past or the present?

AD: I would agree with Neil Gaiman – as well as Neil Tyson.

NdT: The Neils!

AD: The Neils. I would agree that we are a story-driven species. I’m not a scientist, I was not a good science student, I felt effectively alienated from science throughout my young life, and it was only when I became an adult that I began to really appreciate from a completely different angle the power of science. Knowing how story-driven I am, I felt that Cosmos had to be completely story-driven because I think science has a better story to tell than anyone else has been able to tell and that’s because it’s based on the rigorous winnowing that science and scientists are always doing in order to find out what’s really happening. I think it’s really good to encourage generally our ability to tell stories and that’s a great skill that we come by naturally, so I’m excited about that.

I wasn’t a good science student either, and the great thing about the original Cosmos series – which I’ve just watched for the first time – was its combination of poetry, metaphor and storytelling with the facts of science. It made science accessible to me, a no-nothing literature student.

NdT: Cosmos wouldn’t deserve its place in primetime evening network television were it not a landscape on which compelling stories were told. People, when they watch TV in the evening, want to see stories, and science simply tells the best stories.

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Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan, thank you very much!

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey begins this Sunday the 16th of March at 7pm on National Geographic in the UK. Read more from our interview, here.

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