As you read this, Neil deGrasse Tyson could conceivably be on a Bahamian beach.
“I want to go there with maybe an Internet connection for five years, but people having no idea where I am,” says the astrophysicist/host of the rebooted science series Cosmos. “And when it’s over, I can go back to being a scientist rather than playing one on TV.”
It’s not that he’s gotten beaten up over his assertions about evolution and climate change that have been intrinsic to his remake of the signature series by his mentor Carl Sagan in the ‘80s. He has, actually, but you won’t find him trolling the websites of Creation Scientists and Intelligent Designers looking for trouble.
“I don’t debate people. I have a different outlook on education and enlightenment,” he says in a phone interview promoting the Blu-ray release of Cosmos (out today). “When I see people cherry-picking science in the service of their belief system, I think to myself, they don’t really know what science is.
“So we have to work harder to teach that – not teaching them that they’re wrong, but teaching them what science is. When they learn what science is, they’ll understand why they’re wrong, and arrive at that conclusion on their own.”
Still, it’s not hard to envision certain people’s heads exploding as Tyson made his 13-episode voyage through the universe on his Ship of the Imagination. The penultimate episode began on Venus, a world that once almost certainly had an ocean and is now hot enough to melt lead due to a catastrophic greenhouse effect. It continued practically molecule-by-molecule to explain how carbon dioxide (which has doubled in our atmosphere) traps solar energy.
“There were many references to climate change in other episodes,” Tyson says. “I was intrigued that you’d read the blogosphere, ‘Cosmos finally sticks it to the climate deniers,’ referencing a two-minute bit in one of the shows. And of course, I knew what was coming in episode 12, that an entire episode would be devoted to just that.”
In this week’s finale, Tyson revisited Sagan and the anecdote that began his mentor’s series, when the library of Alexandra – the holding place of most of the world’s classical knowledge – was burned to the ground by an early Christian mob, killing its defender, a woman of science named Hypatia.
“What will we do the next time the mob comes to destroy knowledge?” Tyson asked as narrator.
It happens that Tyson opened his version of Cosmos with the tale of Giordano Bruno, who made his contemporary Galileo look like a minor offender with his theory that the stars were other suns, with planets circling them. He was executed for this belief.
The moral Sagan took from Hypatia was that science must be widely shared or it sows its own destruction.
The moral of Bruno? “No matter your political, cultural, religious or economic system,” Tyson says, “if there is an emergent truth about the nature of the universe, you might be able to temporarily suppress it, but you can’t forever hide it.
“And so there’s Bruno in conflict with the Cardinals saying ‘I found a bigger thing for God to be head of. Your God is too small.’
“So Cosmos is a celebration of what science is – what it can do for us, why it works, how it works. And it’s a celebration of the martyrs of science over the years, who were on to something where others did all they can to suppress it.”