Q&A: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tour Guide to the 'Cosmos'

The host to the revamped science show talks astrophysics, "extremophiles" and working with Seth MacFarlane

Neil deGrasse Tyson
Courtesy FOX
Neil deGrasse Tyson on 'Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey'
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Calling Neil deGrasse Tyson America's best-known astrophysicist isn't just recognizing his excellence and prominence in a fairly specialized field; it's in no small part due to his ceaseless efforts above and beyond his work at the Hayden Planetarium and the American Museum of Natural History, appearing everywhere from Jeopardy! to The Daily Show to wittily explain big scientific ideas with pop culture references and a purring baritone. Now, Tyson is the new host of the revived Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey — a Fox-sponsored, Seth "Family Guy" MacFarlane-executive-produced reinterpretation of the original 1980's Carl Sagan PBS program that introduced earlier generations to the existential wonders of time, space, and the natural world. (The show premieres March 9th.)

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Tyson spoke with us by phone during a busy week before the show's Sunday debut about how the show re-vamped Sagan's old ride through the universe on "The Ship of the Imagination" for the 21st Century. As Tyson explains, "Cosmos is how and why any of this science matters; what effect does it have on your outlook, your cosmic perspective? Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally, and with its good doses of awe and wonder, it can even affect you spiritually ..." 

We live in an era of technological and scientific wonders ... and we still mess up the programming on our DVRs, or confuse electrons with neutrons. As we get more scientifically advanced, is human fallibility going to limit what we can do and know, or do we keep moving past that
No, because human fallibility is up to the fallibility of the individual. If you get enough people together you can do things that are without error; now you have computers that fly airplanes, because they've been doing it long enough that any situation that an aircraft can get into has been properly programmed in. There's a saying from the early days of computing: "To err is human, but to really screw things up requires a computer."

Now, however, no one would say that; computers make everything better, and it's because the sum of all the programming talents of talented people. So we're limited by the best our species can create — not by the likelihood of an individual to make an error.

The best?
Our species has put forth Newton and Darwin, Einstein and Marie Curie. It's put forth people who have truly transformed our understanding of the natural world; in fact, the Cosmos series features many such individuals, who have left us in a neat place. So no, I think we may be limited by the total intelligence of our species — but not by individuals.

In the 34 years since the original "Cosmos," has our understanding of science changed substantially in terms of new theories and new principles? Has it deepened in terms of better understanding the theories of the past? 
It's done both. In the last 34 years, for example, we've discovered that the expanding universe is accelerating; it's a major discovery that led to a Nobel Prize. Yet it remains a mystery: The Nobel Prize was given to the discovery, but that doesn't mean we yet understand what's causing the acceleration. 

What else have we discovered?
We've discovered a thousand planets orbiting other stars. We've discovered a new branch of the tree of life called, collectively, "extremophiles," that thrive in conditions that can kill other animal and humans — conditions of high pressure, high radiation, high density — or low density, low pressure; anything that we would think of as extreme is just natural for this branch of life. And the reason why that's interesting is that it broadens the net that we cast in our search for life in the universe, because it gives us more kinds of zones, more kinds of niches, more conditions under which we would find life as we know it ...

If we can find vent-worms on earth, it might help us find similar lifeforms at the bottom of the ocean on, say, Jupiter's moon Europa….
…Or maybe the surface conditions are equal to the conditions at the bottom of our ocean, so that you would find life thriving on the surface of a planet that has conditions very unlike anything we would find ourselves. So our knowledge has broadened immensely and has also deepened. 

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What kinds of theories and understandings have gotten deeper and richer in the past 34 years?
The whole field of astrobiology has come of age; we're searching for the signatures of life in the atmospheres of the exoplanets, for example. We've confirmed that the dinosaurs died by asteroid, and that asteroid crater is in the Yucatan Peninsula in what is now Mexico. So the idea that such an event could render 70%of the world's species extinct is itself an extraordinary result. 

What else has deepened? We know the age of the universe with more precision than ever before; we know a little bit more about the behavior of subatomic particles with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, a field made by a particle that gives mass to other particles; there's discussion of the multiverse, where we are just one bubble out of an uncountable number of other bubbles of universes coming in and out of existence. So there's a lot more science, but Cosmos is not about bringing the latest science to the public. There are documentaries that do that, and very good documentaries at that. 

So, what to you separates Cosmos from those documentaries?
What distinguishes us is the context in which this information is presented, and the context for Cosmos is how and why any of this science matters; what effect does it have on your outlook, your cosmic perspective; and in that way Cosmos can be taken to heart; Cosmos can influence you not only intellectually but emotionally. And with its good doses of awe and wonder, it can even affect you spiritually. 

You're working with Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane as one of the producers; you're working with Brannon Braga, who has experience with a more fun form of space exploration as a producer on several Star Trek offshootsAre there ever concerns about getting the ratio of steak-to-sizzle correct? 
Well, that presupposes that the steak and the sizzle are opposing forces, and that one has to be compromised for the other. I just don't agree with that. When I look up at the night sky, I see steak and sizzle simultaneously. [Laughs] I see black holes — or I know they're there, I know the data that tells me they're there — and I wonder what it would be like to fall into a black hole, how extraordinary the forces of nature are near the center of a black hole. I think of the majesty of galaxies as the collide in this hundred-million-year-long ballet, this cosmic ballet choreographed by the forces of gravity. We have people [in special effects] who make good explosions on TV, but they're usually exploding buildings or cars; with Cosmos, they now get to explode real things that really do explode in the real universe!

The steak and the sizzle, or the science and the entertainment — to me they're all one and the same. No element on one side of that equation has to compromise the other. And I think anyone who thinks that's the case hasn't thought long and hard and deep enough about both.

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I accept your thesis, but at the same time, there's a sequence where you, beholding the glory of the creation of the universe in the Big Bang, slip on your sunglasses. Is that fun and humanity a big part of it?
[Laughs] Well, it's the only time I don sunglasses; I figured if I put them on at all, it should be for the Big Bang. We had this whole discussion: Should I put them on when I go close to the sun, or anywhere else? "No, if need them for the Big Bang, that's all I need them for." [Laughs] It was just as a sort of a tip of the hat to the fact that I'm still a human being as your tour guide, and I want you to have fun right alongside me. 

So, a little bit of showmanship.
I just put them on; I don't announce the brand, or pause while the camera zooms in on me pulling them out. It's just something I felt it was natural to do. But otherwise everything in "Cosmos," all 13 episodes, is carefully selected for its scientific accuracy and for the messaging the particularly-selected content delivered. 

But you were also saying the "Ship of the Imagination" Mr. Sagan used to fly through space and time in during the first program has been revamped to now be, in your words, a little more "badass." 
The original Ship of the Imagination had mixed reviews: "Why is it there? What is it?" We just re-imagined it. And now you like being there because it's the nexus of space and time; if we go into the ship, you know you're going to come out in a new place or a new time, and that creates a little bit of anticipation for the viewer. It also gives me a place to stand to continue to tell the story, so I can help the viewer pivot into one space/time coordinate from another. (The Ship of the Imagination) is just badass; not "a little more," it's just badass ... but I shouldn't be the judge of that. I'll let others come to that conclusion on their own.