The Last Light in the Universe

Why “Cosmos” is a Beacon of Hope


When I was little, the Discovery Channel ran cultural and wildlife documentaries and history specials. It was stuff that made me want to become a paleontologist. Now, the station runs shows like “Amish Mafia,” “Game of Stones,” and “Rods N’Wheels,” not to be confused with the similarly named — and similarly themed — “Fast N’Loud.” And if we’re getting into the degradation of the channel’s educational programming, how could I avoid mentioning “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, a Discovery Channel docufiction that claimed that Megalodon, a 50-foot shark that roamed the ocean during the Cenozoic era, recently capsized a South African charter vessel, or the self-explanatory (and terrible) “Mermaids: The Body Found”? Even the channel’s motto has changed, from the innocuous and awe-inspiring “Explore Your World” to the unfunny, suggestive, and absolutely nonsensical “Grab Life By The Globe”. By all evidence, none of the station’s modern programming makes me want to become a paleontologist. It makes me want to slip into deep despair for the state of science education in America.

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In these dark times, the upcoming Cosmos reboot offers a glimmer of hope. First launched as Cosmos: A Personal Voyage on September 28th, 1980, the show followed Carl Sagan, the Mr. Rogers of space (or was Mr. Rogers the Carl Sagan of the neighborhood?), as he expounded on some of science’s most interesting topics. For over a decade, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was the most watched show in the history of American public television, and still remains one of PBS’s most popular series of all time. During its run, the show collected an Emmy and a Peabody — but, more importantly, it introduced an entire generation to the wonders of the universe.

This weekend, Sagan protégé and director of the Hayden Planetarium Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson will take the reigns as the host of Cosmos from his predecessor, who died in 1996. The new show, officially titled Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is being co-produced by Seth MacFarlane (yes, that Seth MacFarlane) and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan. It’ll air on Sunday nights on Fox at 9/8c and Monday nights on the National Geographic Channel at 10/9c.

For the sake of science, I hope that the show will be a (particle) smashing success. Not just a ratings success, like that of “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives”, which now ranks as Shark Week’s most popular episode, or “Mermaids: The Body Found”, the network’s most watched telecast since the Steve Irwin memorial, but a cultural success, something that a young writer, thirty years down the road, might cite as the new benchmark for educational programming. At that time, I hope Dr. Tyson’s own protégé takes up the mantle, raising the bar yet again.

Perhaps Dennis Overbye, former editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, said it best when, in a recent article for The New York Times, he wrote, “I’m not going to pretend to be neutral here. I hope it succeeds and that everyone watches it, not just because I have known Ms. Druyan and admired Dr. Tyson for years, but because we all need a unifying dose of curiosity and wonder.”

Good luck, Dr. Tyson. Knock it out of this world.

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