An eclectic group that includes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, who co-wrote the 1980 Cosmos: A Personal Voyage with her late husband, Carl Sagan, will put that theory to the test. A 13-part journey through the universe and beyond kicks off Sunday (9 p.m. ET/PT) on 10 networks, led by Fox and National Geographic Channel, with an introduction by President Obama.
"The goal is to convey why science matters to the person, to our society, to us as shepherds of this planet. It involves presenting science in ways that connect to you, so Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, with a celebration of wonder and awe," says Tyson. "Science should be part of everybody's life. The prerequisite is not that you become a scientist. It's that at the end of the series, you will embrace science and recognize its role in who and what you are."
Host Tyson traveled to several locations around the world as part of the big-budget production, but he ventures much farther onscreen via the Ship of the Imagination, a souped-up, modern version of the vehicle in astronomer and author Carl Sagan's original Cosmos on PBS. This ship can go near - as in a nine-minute voyage to the bottom of a dew drop - and far, as in the Kraken sea on Saturn's moon Titan. And even farther, as Tyson speculates about the Multiverse, an infinite sea of universes.
He credits MacFarlane, a science enthusiast who enjoyed the original Cosmos, for taking the production somewhere he didn't originally expect it would go: A big, commercial broadcast network, where it might reach beyond core science fans who would watch on a more narrowly focused cable channel. (Episodes will air weekly on Fox, followed by a repeat broadcast with bonus material Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on National Geographic.)
Fox executives Peter Rice and Kevin Reilly "both liked the idea of doing something that no one had ever done before. There's really no way of telling how it's going to do. It could be a disaster or it could be a huge hit or somewhere in between," says MacFarlane, who likes having the time slot after Family Guy. "The fans of animation, there's a big crossover (with science), so it's obviously not a hard leap to something like Cosmos."
He suggested using animation, with a graphic-novel look, instead of stuffy, real-life re-enactments with bewigged actors to tell the stories of scientific heroes, "the men and women who helped us find our bearings in space and time," Druyan says. Many are not well known, including Giordano Bruno, a 16th-century Dominican monk eventually burned at the stake for a theory of the universe that contradicted church teachings.
The new Cosmos shares the DNA of the original, says Druyan.
"Both series combine rigorous scientific skepticism with a soaring sense of the romance of life in the cosmos. We tell different stories in the new series, and we have greater capabilities in terms of how much more visually stunning we can make the experience than we could back then," she says.
Besides the ship, the new production brings back the Cosmic Calendar, which tries to put the unfathomable 13.8-billion-year history of the universe in the context of a year, with all of recorded history taking up just the last 14 seconds of Dec. 31.
Showmanship can enhance material that is inherently interesting but often presented in a dry way, says MacFarlane, but he says Cosmos does not "dumb down" its science. A mix of real images and high-tech special effects includes contributions from Matrix and Spider-Man 2 cinematographer Bill Pope, Star Trek series producer Brannon Braga and The Avengers composer Alan Silvestri.
"The best teachers I had in school were the ones who found creative ways to present the material and communicate their own enthusiasm in inventive ways," MacFarlane says, praising Tyson's communication skills and Druyan's narrative style. "It's a show that's supposed to be exciting. When the original Cosmos came out, Carl Sagan said (he wanted) it to be entertaining and flashy, that people who have no interest in science (would) watch just for the spectacle. One of the things that requires is a flashy production style."
Cosmos does not shy from topics that have become politically controversial in some circles, such as climate change and evolution. In the premiere, Tyson notes how forests that grew 300 million years ago became the coal that we burn "to power and imperil our civilization."
He asks: "Is it political if I tell you that if we burn coal, you're going to warm the atmosphere? Or is that a statement of fact that you've made political? It's a scientific statement. The fact that there are elements of society that have made it political, that's a whole other thing," Tyson says. "We're telling you what science tells us about the world and what you do with that information, that's what you do. But I worry that people are making decisions about the world under-informed about what science has to say about the world."
Sunday's premiere opens with Sagan's recorded voice from the original series, which will be woven into episodes along the way, Druyan says. "It's one more way for me to affirm my profound love and respect for him and to continue what he was trying to do, to (share) the knowledge he treasured with everyone."
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