During a November appearance on "The Daily Show," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told Jon Stewart the globe in the program's opening spins in the wrong direction – leading the host to declare him the "Buzzkill of Science."
The segment, in which Tyson also earned buzzkill demerits for nixing the possibility of a zombie apocalypse, marked one of the more memorable appearances by the frequent "Daily Show" guest. The Stewart-Tyson exchange also recalled the comic chemistry generated a couple of generations back by then-regular “Tonight Show” guest Carl Sagan and Johnny Carson, who knew how to mix serious subjects and humor like few other late night hosts.
Tyson takes a giant leap into both the past and future Sunday with the reboot of "Cosmos," the show that made Sagan the top TV friendly scientist of his time. The 13-episode new version is poised not only to shed light on the universe – but on the link between science and pop culture.
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When "Cosmos: A Personal Voyage," premiered on PBS in 1980, few likely expected a show starring a professor talking about stars and planets to takeoff. But Sagan, who combined an expert’s authority with layman’s language and boyish enthusiasm, tapped into the eternal hunger for knowledge about life beyond Earth.
Perhaps more significantly, “Cosmos” proved entertaining, with the turtleneck-favoring academic bouncing around an otherworldly set of planets and some of the "billions and billions" of stars that became his catchphrase and a punch line for Carson and others.
Sagan’s timing proved strong: His show arrived just months after the release “The Empire Strikes Back” (the middle installment of the original “Star Wars” trilogy) and months before the launch of the space shuttle Columbia.
Stars are aligning for Tyson’s “Cosmos” adventure. New “Star Wars” flicks are on the way. President Obama, a “Star Trek” fan, has spoken of a manned mission to Mars in two decades.
The return of “Cosmos” also comes at a time when the public’s relationship with technology is varied and changing, thanks to advances that Sagan, who died in 1996, probably saw on the horizon. The digital revolution has fueled geek culture and put a premium on innovation.
But even amid the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) push, by some measures, the nation is lagging in key areas: The U.S. reportedly ranks 30th in world in math education and 23rd in science. Meanwhile, not all scientists, citizens and politicians are on the same planet, particularly when it comes to climate change. Bill Nye the Science Guy’s recent comeback ranges from his cameo on “The Big Bang Theory” to his “Dancing With the Stars” stint to his debating debunkers of evolution.
Stephen Hawking, who hasn’t let his physical limitations define him, is still the world’s resident genius – and a pop star, appearing over the years on “The Big Bang Theory” and “Futurama,” among other shows. But Tyson has emerged as the most appropriate celebrity scientist to reintroduce “Cosmos.”
Like Sagan, Tyson is a strong communicator with an infectious passion for his subject. As we’ve seen from his “Daily Show” appearances, Tyson wields a strong sense of humor – reinforced by his “Cosmos” executive producer, Seth MacFarlane, a science and science-fiction geek who brought William Shatner to the Oscars last year and turned some “Family Guy” episodes into “Star Wars” homages.
MacFarlane’s involvement, no doubt, helped the show secure a perch on Fox, with Sunday’s premiere also set to air on stations ranging from National Geographic to FX. The duo recognize the power of TV to entertain and educate, if not billions and billions, at least millions and millions, about the universe. As the buzz builds for Tyson’s “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” check out a preview below:
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.