So much has changed in space since Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series first aired in 1980. We discovered dark energy (but still have no clue what it is). We launched the space shuttle and built a football field-sized space station in orbit. We've found about 1,000 exoplanets orbiting other stars.
What hasn't changed, the producers of the new incarnation of Cosmos hope, is humanity's curiosity about the universe, our thirst to understand where we came from and where we're headed. A rebooted version of Cosmos premieres this Sunday on Fox (9 p.m. ET), hosted by the modern era's Carl Sagan—Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium, worked with executive producers Seth MacFarlane and Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's widow, among a larger team, to update Cosmos for today's viewers.
The show is impressive. Current visual effects can do a lot to illustrate the wonders of the universe that the graphics technology of the 1980s wasn't up to. Cosmos makes good use of the visual splendor of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, which was still 10 years away from launching when Cosmos first aired. Tyson is an affable, accessible and intelligent host. If the whole of cosmic history was 365 days long, he explains, recorded human history would fit within the last minute. "It was only in the very last second of the cosmic calendar," he says, "that we began to use science to reveal nature's secrets and her laws."
Tyson himself is a testament to the impact Carl Sagan had on previous generations. Toward the end of the first episode of the reboot, Tyson pulls out Sagan's day calendar from 1975, showing a Saturday where Sagan had scrawled "Neil Tyson" on his to-do list. The astronomer had invited Tyson, then a "17-year-old kid from the Bronx with dreams of becoming a scientist," in Tyson's words, to spend the day with him in Ithaca, N.Y. He even inscribed a book to him, writing to "Neil, a future astronomer."
If anyone today can spread passion for science like Sagan did, it's Tyson. And if any television show can start a modern conversation about science and the universe, this is it. The series is being broadcast in more than 170 countries and 45 languages, on Fox and on the National Geographic Channel, giving it television's largest global opening ever.
Yet a smaller portion of American households are watching broadcast networks—especially live during prime time—than in the 1980s. Our attention these days is divided between apps, emails, TV, podcasts, internet news, cell phone games and a host of other stimulations. Can any series be an event the way Cosmos was three decades ago?
I hope so. We live in an age where a quarter of the American public thinks the sun orbits Earth, and only three in 10 Americans say that “dealing with global warming” should be a priority for the president and Congress. A national, or even global, conversation about science and the scientific method sounds like just what the doctor ordered. As Dennis Overybye wrote in the New York Times, "we all need a unifying dose of curiosity and wonder." Ad astra, Mr. Tyson, and take the rest of us with you.