Bringing the Universe Down to Earth with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

March 11, 2014

Forget what you learned in school. Or at least what you learned in science class. Last Sunday night, down-to-earth astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson took 8.5 million viewers on an immensely entertaining trip through space and time in Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. Together with executive producer/director/writer Ann Druyan (who co-wrote with Carl Sagan the original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, in 1980), and executive producer Seth MacFarlane, Tyson succeeded in making the universe approachable, inspiring, and feel a little less vast.

DIRECTV stole a few minutes with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan for a conversation about making Cosmos, working with Seth MacFarlane, and finding the amazing stories that live within science.

How did the idea to reboot Cosmos—and not a new show—come about?

Ann Druyan: I was the co-writer, with Carl Sagan, of the original series, and that aired nearly 34 years ago. I began thinking of creating a new series seven years ago because, for one thing, the national conversation about science had deteriorated. There was a kind of hostility toward science, and it didn’t feel as if all of us were getting the full benefit of the glorious universe revealed by science. And I wanted to change that and bring it to the largest possible audience.

That sounds like a tremendous undertaking. Given that the original Cosmos was so iconic, did you feel any pressure to top it?

Ann: There was pressure. But having been part of creating the original series, I felt that I knew what Cosmos is. And since there hadn’t been another series that hit all the great notes that Cosmos did—that made you feel it, that made you feel a kind of spiritual exaltation, as well as a feeling of learning so much—I felt like I knew how to do that because Carl Sagan and I learned together, side by side.

I’m glad you mentioned that because everyone here has been watching the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey promos and it looks so amazing—the fact that it can be used as a teaching aid as well as being so thoroughly entertaining. But I sense there’s another aspect. It’s as if the show is trying to get people comfortable with asking questions about space, science, and life, and seeking their own answers. Was this intentional?

Ann: Absolutely. I mean, I was not a great student. I was not a student of science when I was in school. I kind of hated it. And so it was easy for me to remember how that felt. To strip away all the stuff that’s extraneous—that you don’t really have to know—to get to the essence, the thing that moves people, to find the stories. Cosmos is a great adventure and every episode is a series of stories. And it’s much easier to find your way into the information if you identify with the hero, fear the antagonist, and you’re in the drama of it. Then you find yourself at the end of it having learned so much without having been bored or confused at any time.

Neil, you’ve spoken at length about the influence Dr. Carl Sagan has had on your life, career, and even your approach to students interested in the universe. Does that influence affect your approach to Cosmos?

Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Yes, actually because when the original Cosmos came out in 1980, I was actually in graduate school at the time. So I personally can’t credit the original Cosmos for getting me interested in science or astrophysics. But what I do credit it for is seeing and noticing that a professor who normally stands in front of lecture hall, as any professor does—that format, that’s how many people make documentaries: there’s an expert, you put a camera in front of them on a tripod, and you just have them talk. And to see Cosmos unfold, as it was written and conceived, and storyboarded, it told me that a professor can actually communicate in a way that you feel like they’re on the couch next to you. And you’re just chillin’. At a fireside chat, about how the universe is unfolding. And I said to myself, if I’m ever in a position to bring the universe down to earth, that’s how I’m going to do it. Because it’s so comfortable.

And, by the way, it’s not a matter of “Oh, we have to dumb it down.” No, you can just celebrate the whole universe as it is, coupled with the stunning visual effects that we have access to. The talent, because it’s FOX, with resources that in a previous generation we might not have been able to reach. So there you have it. The script, the delivery, the visualization, the music by Alan Silvestri, you’re effected not only intellectually but emotionally and even a little bit spiritually.

There’s real passion in your voice right now. It’s no secret that both you and Ann bring a lot of passion to these subjects. But I think a lot be people will be surprised to learn about that side of Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy, who executive-produced Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. I didn’t know how interested he was about space and science until I watched the Cosmos promos. The three of you together are such an amazing combination. Can you talk about what it’s like working in this dream team?

Ann: I have loved every moment I have spent with Seth. Neil actually introduced Seth to me, because by that time I had already asked Neil to be our host. Seth met Neil, and wanted to know how he could help further science education. And Neil said, “Why don’t you help us get Cosmos produced?” [Seth] told me later that the original Cosmos was an enormous influence on his life.

Neil brought Seth and me, and some of our colleagues, together for dinner in Hollywood one night. I was talking to Seth and he was making all kinds of extravagant promises. It was Hollywood and I had been warned against this kind of experience, but the great thing is that Seth kept, and continues to keep, every promise. He brought us to Peter Rice [Chairman/CEO, Fox Networks Group]. Peter hadn’t seen the original series and was, reasonably, a little bit skeptical that Cosmos would resonate with the FOX audience. I asked him to watch the DVD of the original series that I made with Carl. He came back very shortly afterwards and said, “Go ahead.” And I was like, “Don’t you want a pilot?” And he pointed to the DVD and said, “That’s your pilot.”

What was so amazing about FOX was that all the other networks that I’d met with, they all wanted Cosmos because it’s the gold-standard for a certain kind of science-based entertainment. But nobody would give me total creative control on the show until Seth brought me to FOX, and that’s what I was given. And I’m really thrilled with the outcome.

Wow, that’s an incredible testament to the original Cosmos. And I’m glad you mentioned that. Since you both had history with Dr. Sagan—Ann, he was your husband and creative partner, and Neil, he was your mentor—what do you think he would say about the Cosmos reboot? What would his opinion be?

Neil: I’ll talk a bit about my history with the man. I met him when I was 17 years old, and he invited me to visit him at Cornell to help me decide what school I would choose for college. Unsolicited, he writes to me—just a kid from the Bronx—to say, “I heard you’re interested in the universe and that you’ve applied here.” The admissions office must have clued him in to my application. And so to meet him, and to look at his generosity—he was already famous at the time; he’d been on the Tonight Show—he reached back behind his desk and signed one of his books to me, “To Neil Tyson, future astronomer.” I still have that book. And so, I think to myself, how could he not just be beaming with what we have created because it derives from his initial investments in this whole kind of activity to begin with. So, I’m thinking he’s smiling.

Ann: I had the honor of spending 20 years, day and night, with Carl. We wrote half a dozen books together. We wrote [the original] Cosmos. We created the movie Contact together. He’s also the father of my children, so I feel like I knew him very well. I would never speak for him but I know that my dream for the new Cosmos series was virtually identical with his dreams that all of us would get this birthright, this understanding of our coordinates in space and in time, and know how we got them. That it would belong to everyone.

His biggest concern was that we [should] live in a society wholly based on science and high technology, and we aspire to be a democracy. And if that knowledge is the preserve of a tiny few, our chances of realizing a true democracy one day are in danger. And so Cosmos is a great ride, it’s an adventure across the universe and across all of time, with many beautiful stories interwoven into it. And it belongs to all of us. So I hope he would be happy. I don’t think he’s smiling—I don’t believe in that. But I hope that if he were to see it, he would be smiling.

Catch Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey Sundays 9/8c on FOX and Mondays 10/9c on National Geographic.

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