In The Mix

Cosmic Encounters

A reborn Cosmos  probes space and time with an assist from Seth MacFarlane.

Curt Schleier
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson

When Carl Sagan boarded the Ship of the Imagination in 1980 for a trip through the universe’s 100 billion galaxies, few could have guessed that PBS’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage would become the network’s highest-rated show.

But the science series, hosted and written by the famed astrophysicist, would hold that record for a decade. It ultimately aired in 60 countries and has been seen by some 700 million viewers.

Sagan died in 1996 at 62, but thanks to his widow (and cowriter) Ann Druyan — and her partnership with actor-writer-producer Seth MacFarlane — the show will find new life this spring as Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey. The docu-series debuts March 9 on Fox and March 10 on National Geographic Channel, hosted by renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“I had 20 trips around the sun with Carl,” says Druyan, an executive producer of the new series, as is MacFarlane. “We had 2 children. We wrote articles and speeches and books together. I’d found my soulmate and had the most remarkable time with him.”

Revisiting Cosmos is something she’d been thinking about for some time. After “a period of antagonism toward science, I think the pendulum is starting to swing back our way.” She wanted the new show to “renew the excitement about the future,” as the original series had. But, as every scientist knows, wishing doesn’t make it so.

But, then, Druyan relates, “Seth MacFarlane came along.”

Turns out that the executive producer of Fox’s Family Guy and Dads “has a commitment to science,” Druyan says. He was a fan of the original Cosmos, and when he heard that Druyan was searching for a platform for the new one, he stepped in.

MacFarlane met with Druyan and astrophysicist Steven Soter (a collaborator on the original series and on the new). MacFarlane “immediately wanted to take it to Peter Rice [chairman, Fox Networks Group],” Druyan recalls. “Seth believed the new Cosmos belonged there and was very persuasive.” 

For the host, they turned to Tyson. The respected scientist not only serves as Director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, but has also proved a witty guest on shows like The Colbert Report and Real Time with Bill Maher.

“I met him only about 4 times, but they were quite significant,” Tyson recalls of Sagan.

As a high school senior applying to Cornell University, “my application was forwarded to him, and he sent me a personal letter of invitation to come up and visit. This was an extraordinary gesture, to take time out for a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx. To this day I shape my relationship with students based on that.”

Tyson (who, incidentally, opted for Harvard) is undaunted at the prospect of stepping into Sagan’s shoes. “I’m a scientist, an educator. I’m not thinking about ratings. I’m just thinking about how I can be the best educator I can be.”

He is not as certain as Druyan about the current direction of the science pendulum. The new Cosmos is particularly important, he says, “given how much people have discounted the role of science in their lives, especially in recent years.

Our task is not to tell them what is and isn’t true, but to empower them on how to think about problems, how to question people who you would otherwise believe are telling the truth.”