Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much

This Sunday, March 9th, what is arguably the most important science show of all time returns to TV as Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts an all-new, updated version of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. We caught up with Neil DeGrasse Tyson on his whirlwind tour of the universe to discuss the what the show is and isn't, explaining why science matters to modern audiences, and his personal asteroid.

io9: How has the press tour been treating you?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: It's exhausting but exhilarating. While it's a huge hit to my day's calendar, I'm persistently reminded that for most people who are conducting interviews it's not "oh, this show is coming out and I gotta do an article." There's an enthusiasm and an anticipation. I find I'm deeply hopeful about what this means for the future of America and the world, that science literacy is something that can be embraced and nurtured and that the comfort level people have with science can change.

We were certainly excited to hear that you would be updating this series. We've come so far since 1980, not just in science but in visual effects and filmmaking that this is a great way to carry forward Dr. Sagan's legacy.

Tyson: The methods and tools of storytelling are significantly advanced, yes, but it's not only that. Because it's on network, we have some resources that have allowed us access to people who have previously brought their craft to cinema. Our director of photography is Bill Pope, who was the director of photography for the Matrix trilogy and Spider-Man.

When you think of a typical documentary, you think of somebody in a lab coat with a test tube and there's a camera on a tripod and they get asked a question and they answer it. In that scenario, the camera is visiting the scene. It's you, listening to the person.

When Bill Pope gets ahold of a camera, he brings the methods and tools he developed working on those films to bear on our telling of the story of the universe. So now when you see Cosmos, it doesn't just affect you intellectually, as it should, but also emotionally and spiritually. Spiritually with a small "s" — the awe and wonder of looking up. Because of this we have high expectations for the potency of the series.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much

Were there other factors that went into the decision to air this on commercial television, as opposed to PBS?

Tyson: When we first shopped around the idea, we went to the normal list of networks, PBS, Discovery Channel, Science Channel and National Geographic. While we were doing this, I met Seth MacFarlane at a special meeting in California intended to connect Hollywood storytellers and artists with scientists. I didn't think much would come of it, but Seth called me one day when he was in New York and invited me to lunch. He told me he wanted to do something to serve science in America and he asked me what he should do. I thought maybe he could invest in a pilot that we could use to show sponsors. He said "I have a good idea, let's take it to Fox."

Now, there are a series of thoughts I'm about to share with you that I think lasted about 12 seconds. My first thought was "This is the stupidest idea I've ever heard, he doesn't get it, this is a waste of a lunch."

But then I said, "Wait a minute, Fox is 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures, they brought Avatar and Slumdog Millionaire to the screen. Yes, there's Fox News, but also the Fox Network which has acerbic liberal commentary of The Simpsons and Family Guy. And there's Fox Sports. I realized Fox has more demographics of American culture going through their portfolio than any other network. And so, I concluded that there's no better place to be than on Fox.

So 12 seconds later I told him it was a great idea.

You often talk about the need for science to feed our everyday needs, to spur innovation and fuel the economy. Now you're working in an industry, filmmaking and visual effects, that has benefitted greatly from that kind of technological achievement. Do you feel that validates your point of view on the role of science in culture?

Tyson: My view is slightly different from that. It's not that space itself is what will be our savior. It's that when you go into space, it stimulates an interest in the STEM fields. It's the stimulated interest that promotes innovation in science and technology that leads to the 21st century economy. It's not "let's go to space because space does all this." It doesn't do it directly. It does it indirectly. And you get to make discoveries along the way. That's the fun part.

The IT revolution, as significant as it is, has left us unfulfilled with regard to transportation, energy use and infrastructure. There's more to society than information. We've been distracted by the stunning advances that information technology has brought us, to the exclusion of very deeply held needs that we have in society.

What is our control over natural forces so we don't have disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes? Do we run away from them? Or do we find a way to tap the energy of a hurricane and have that energy drive the city that the storm would have otherwise leveled? This is a whole other frontier that would be addressed if we go into space, because space involves hardware, people, going places you've never been before, life support, a knowledge of the solar system and the sun, and I see that as a transformative force that can turn a sleepy nation into an innovation nation.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much

You've been somewhat critical of people who say that our problem is leadership, that we need another Kennedy to lead us back into space. Did I see that you called Buzz Aldrin "clueless?"

Tyson: Ha ha! I don't remember calling him "clueless." I at one point said that there are factions among us who suffer from "Apollo necrophilia."

The context was he said something about our need to go into space being driven by our destiny or our DNA.

Tyson: I certainly have arguments against that. If I said something halfway disrespectful it's because we're friends and I can get away with it. He longed for the days when people remembered every astronaut that was launched. That was one of my early disagreements with him. It's the fact that we don't know the names of astronauts that makes it evident that going into space has become routine, and that's a good thing.

Speaking of things becoming routine, how do audiences today compare with 1980? Do you feel that people need less basic science explained to them today? Or more?

Tyson: As an educator in modern times, I'm going to answer you differently than I would have 35 years ago, because I'm just that old. My day job is in a museum. How long does a person stay at a museum? A couple of hours? There are people who would want exhibits at a museum to have a whole lesson plan so you can poll people and ask them "What did you learn?" Then you'd judge the success of the exhibit based on how well people do on these exams.

I have a different view. The person is going to spend incalculably more time in a classroom than they ever will in a museum. So a museum shouldn't be a supplement to a classroom. It should be a force to ignite flames within a person's soul of curiosity. An exhibit should make a person say "Wow! I've got to find out more about this!" and trigger them to explore more advanced accountings of the topic, in books or science videos. Once the flame is lit, the learning becomes self-motivating.

Cosmos at its best should be about that, and not about presenting you Wikipedia pages to read.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much

What would Carl Sagan learn if he was able to see your version of Cosmos?

Tyson: I want to clarify that the goal of this Cosmos is not to update the science. A lot of science has happened in the last 35 years. We've discovered a thousand exoplanets, for example. But that's not the goal, because any time of day you can channel surf and find a documentary about black holes, colliding galaxies, the search for life, the Big Bang, dark matter, the Higgs-Boson, etc. There's no end of documentaries that serve that goal.

Cosmos has, as its mission statement, the effort to convey to you why science matters. That is a different motivating factor than "Here's all this science I want to teach you." When you take ownership of why science matters, then you are self-motivated, driven. You take the responsibility yourself to continue to learn. It's a new Cosmos not because there's so much more universe to talk about, but because the country and the world needs to know more than ever why science matters.

You've said that astrophysicists are the most humble people in the world because they confront their ignorance on a daily basis.

Tyson: Ha ha! Precisely. If you ask me what was around before the Big Bang, I have no idea. What's at the center of a black hole? I have no idea. What is dark matter? Dark energy? I have no idea. These are not complex questions that require an advanced degree to ask. There are things we do know, and we're proud of that, but as scientists we use that to put a foot in the unknown and use what we know as a carrot to keep us searching.

You've said that dark matter and dark energy should be renamed "Fred" and "Wilma." Care to elaborate on that?

Tyson: Yeah, because if I say "dark matter" you say "What kind of matter is that?" Well, we don't even know if it's matter. It's really dark gravity. Dark matter is a misleading term. There is so much first impression in the word. People ask "What do dark matter and dark energy have in common?" because they sound the same.

If I called them Fred and Wilma you wouldn't ask what they have in common. You'd ask about them separately. But because they both have the word "dark" in them, people think they're related. Maybe they are, but at the moment there's no evidence that's at all the case. These are two entities that got involved in the name game earlier than I think they should have.

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why the new Cosmos matters so much

The main belt asteroid 13123, discovered by Shoemaker and Levy, was named "Tyson" after you. How does it feel to be a literal rock star?

Tyson: Ha! I never thought about it that way! In fact, the very word "asteroid" means "star-like" in Latin. In a telescope, they look just like stars, dots of light. In the early days, people just named things after what they look like.

But it is a high honor, although given the number on my asteroid, it should tell you that there 13,122 other asteroids with names on them. So, it's not a very exclusive club. I have many more achievements that fewer other people have achieved than had asteroid named after them.

Yet, it's still kind of a cool thing. Yeah, asteroid. Still kind of cool.

Cosmos premieres on March 9th on Fox. Full audio of this interview can be heard on the Natter Cast.