When a man known for vulgar humour combines with a beautiful mind, the resulting TV is no joke. By Helen Razer.

National Geographic Channel’s Cosmos a win for learning

Astrophysicist and broadcaster Neil deGrasse Tyson ponders the bigger picture.
Astrophysicist and broadcaster Neil deGrasse Tyson ponders the bigger picture.

US writer Seth MacFarlane built his immodest wealth and influence on a foundation of solid bathroom comedy. Now, the creator of vulgar animated sitcom Family Guy, and Ted, a hit movie whose central character is a plush toy with leisure interests including sodomy and bucket bongs, is wielding his power for good as well as wickedness. MacFarlane wants to give the civic gift of rational thought.

At a 2009 New York City lunch, MacFarlane asked lauded astrophysicist and broadcaster Neil deGrasse Tyson what he could do to advance the national understanding of reason and science. The answer was Cosmos; currently airing on Australia’s National Geographic Channel. 

Tyson, a communicator whose knack of making even the electromagnetic spectrum seem fun turned him into a talk-show star, had been striving to reboot the original 1980 blockbuster for more than a decade. A mentee of initial Cosmos host Carl Sagan, he’d been shopping his expensive hopes for a new mass market in science since Sagan’s death in 1996. But Tyson wasn’t prepared for the help that the lyricist for the Oscars musical number “We Saw Your Boobs” could afford.

“Seth MacFarlane,” said Tyson at a Cosmos screening at the Austin, Texas, South by Southwest festival this year. “Perhaps best known at the time for fart jokes.”

When MacFarlane proposed taking the program to the American free-to-air Fox network, Tyson was chary. This, after all, was a Rupert Murdoch-owned news network that gave credence to creationism. There are many in the Murdoch stable opposed to the idea of an expanding universe generally and the idea of Tyson specifically. But when Tyson considered the bigger-than-Betelgeuse potential audience for the new Cosmos, he said, “That’s the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard.”

Coming from a student of relativity, that’s saying something.

MacFarlane made good on his promise. Earlier this month, a lavish moment in popular science debuted on Fox with a Family Guy lead-in. Cosmos was simulcast on a dozen US subscription channels and is broadcast in 181 countries on 220 networks. In a week, MacFarlane delivered as many viewers to Tyson as there have been galaxies and stars mapped (which, by the way, is about 40 million). 

Actually, if we’re talking about charted stars, it’s 44 million. Extrapolating on principles first proposed by Newton, there are trillions of stars in the elliptical galaxies of the observable universe, which is itself about 13 billion years old. These are some of the data I have not considered since, as a little girl, seeing the original, and less visually extravagant, Cosmos.

That I and those other viewers whose Enlightenment education is underdone would sit through a dense hour of astrophysics could be seen as a proof of MacFarlane’s success. This unique program, arguably the handiest primer on cosmic evolution in any medium, looks as good as a Pixar film and is as intellectually seductive as Hitchens in good humour. As a host, Tyson is charming and leaves his closest popular science competitor, Brian Cox (Wonders of the Solar System, BBC), gasping for air in the exosphere. As a catalyst for junior scientists, Cosmos may very well do for professional interest in astrophysics what Breaking Bad did for applied chemistry. 

There is not much that is unflattering to be said about a work whose use of animation, storytelling, CGI and emotion makes us forget every unpleasant hour spent with Richard Dawkins (Beautiful Minds, BBC). The critique of humourless creationists and finicky scientists notwithstanding, Cosmos is an edutainment victory. In short, it makes learning fun.

But that it achieves MacFarlane’s explicit aim of making us more reasonable is in question. It’s difficult to miss in Cosmos the rational impatience with a world that increasingly spurns science. Just as the original Cosmos was inspired by social and political conditions, this iteration is fuelled by an agenda. Where Sagan’s urging was away from Cold War and the likelihood of a nuclear winter, Tyson’s is against the mysticism of religion, homoeopathy and encroaching everyday denialism. 

“People say, ‘It’s just a theory’,” says Tyson of evolution, doing nothing to conceal his revulsion for those who dismiss three centuries of inquiry in natural law. “Well, gravity’s ‘just a theory!’ ” he snaps, allowing himself a moment of irritation in a program otherwise spent in childlike awe.

Actually, I prefer the former Tyson. Not the one who is awed at the immensity of space from his simulated “ship of the imagination”, but the one who is really, really annoyed by idiots unable to see that scientific method gives us penicillin, a foundation for reasonable action, and the truest account of existence yet written. 

The universe and the natural laws that explain it are, of course, awesome. Tyson’s reminder that our night sky is full with suns in systems long since dead is now, and likely will forever be, a total mind-fuck. But this sense of awe, even at the awesome, is of no real value if one’s aim is to remind us of all the promise of the Enlightenment. “Have the courage to use your own reason,” said Kant. He did not say, “Look at this awesome stuff!”

If we agree that the Enlightenment challenge to make the world transparent through investigation is one that desperately needs revival, then the awe of Cosmos is a mistake. Whereas the original Cosmos explicitly critiqued the science industry, half of whose number was then employed in the nuclear arms race, this newer version upholds scientists themselves so deserving of awe as the universe they map.

Only a fool or a creationist would argue against the methodical doubt of science. But, only a naïf argues for an understanding of science that ignores its instrumentality. 

Instrumental reason has given us viable, wonderful accounts of the cosmos but it has also given us the possibility of apocalypse by bombs and industry. To rescue science from its development in lockstep with that of market economics is to tell only part of its story.

Cosmos gives us brave souls of science crying “reason” in times of extreme unreason. And in so doing, it mystifies science itself.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 29, 2014 as "Star chart".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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