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Cosmos – A Space Time Odyssey

by Philip Chien

'Cosmos - A Space Time Odyssey'. Popular astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson is hosting a thirteen episode mini series, “Cosmos – A Space Time Odyssey.”

Astronomer Carl Sagan hosted the original “Cosmos” on PBS in 1980. It was an extremely well produced series about Sagan’s views on astronomy and the evolution of the universe. It shot Sagan to fame and high visibility and he became one of the best known scientists to the general public.

As a planetary astronomer in the 1960s and 1970s Sagan was an important scientist. But after “Cosmos” made him famous, Sagan spent more and more time doing public-oriented activities –lectures, writing books, testifying before Congress, doing interviews, etc. and less and less time doing actual science.

Astronomer Carl Sagan hosted 'Cosmos' in 1980. In the first episode of the new series Tyson narrates, “[Carl Sagan] played a leading role in every major spacecraft mission to explore the solar system during the first 40 years of the space age.” That’s incorrect. Sagan did not participate in most planetary missions. Even on the later missions where Sagan was a member of the science team it was primarily as a courtesy and because his name gave that spacecraft added visibility.

Many scientists were openly critical of Sagan. They resented when he presented their research to the public as his own without giving credit, or presented an opposing theory without offering that their work was just as valid. Supporters of Sagan claim that this was just sour grapes by scientists who were upset that Sagan had more fame than they did.

According to the new Cosmos’s creators Neil deGrasse Tyson is the logical successor to Carl Sagan and unfortunately they’re probably right. Tyson became famous when he made the unilateral decision to leave Pluto off of the list of planets. It was a decision intended to cause controversy, which it did.

The whole debate about whether or not Pluto should have been demoted to dwarf planet is as absurd as deciding whether or not Europe should be demoted to subcontinent (it’s clearly part of Asia without any non-arbitrary boundaries). Tyson’s contributions to the Pluto controversy had the benefit of bringing his name to the attention of the press and public.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Curriculum Vitae on his web page lists all of his published scientific papers. The last paper where he was listed as a contributor was 2008. He has not been a primary author since 1993. Tyson has certainly continued writing; but mass market books for the public, not papers for scientific journals.

Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts 'Cosmos - A Space Time Odyssey'. Executive producer Seth McFarland (“Family Guy”) called Tyson the most renowned scientist today. If “renowned” means famous without actually doing any current scientific work he’s correct. Far less famous, but far more important current physicists include Mike Brown (the actual astronomer who discovered the dwarf planets which led to Pluto’s reclassification), Peter Higgs (of Higgs Boson fame), George Smoot (who confirmed the Big Bang), Ed Stone (age 78 and still going strong – the lead scientist for the Voyager probes, former head of JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), and scientist on the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft, Sam Ting (Nobel laureate working on the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer), Francis Everett (Nobel laureate working on the Gravity Probe-B mission), and Franklin Chang-Diaz (former astronaut who’s developing a plasma drive capable of sending humans to Mars in under three months). But of course none of those scientists spends most of their time appearing on television shows or writing pop-culture science books. And that’s just a handful of the many physicists and astronomers who are doing actual research.

It would be accurate to refer to Sagan, Tyson, and similar scientists as people who are wonderful at inspiring the public and encouraging interest in science – which is a wonderful worthwhile endeavor. But that doesn’t make them great scientists.

Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, is an executive producer and writer on the new series. She said, “What we wanted to do was really take the audience on as exciting a journey across space and time so that at the end of those 13 episodes, everyone seeing it would’ve been on this great wonderful ride.” She added, “In the process of that adventure [the viewer has] learned something about virtually each of the scientific disciplines and really would have a better understanding of how we as a species found our coordinates in space and time.”

This author is looking forward to “Cosmos – A Space Time Odyssey.” I hope it’s well made, accurate, fair, and increases the public’s interest in science. But I hope it doesn’t have the side effect of making the public believe Tyson’s a more capable scientist than what he actually is.

“Cosmos – A Space Time Odyssey” premieres Sunday, March 9 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. A version with additional footage will air on the National Geographic Channel.

Photo provided by Fox Broadcasting and used with permission.


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About the author

Philip Chien watched “Cosmos” when it first aired. He admires scientists, like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, who go to the effort to educate the public; but also recognizes that the true scientists are the ones who do the actual scientific research, even if they aren’t as famous.

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