Arisia Panels – “COSMOS: A Space Time Odyssey”

I had the honor of serving as a panelist on four panels at Arisia 2015. I’ll be summarizing what I recall from each discussion in a series of posts.

COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey ( Mark L Amidon, Justine Graykin, Gordon Linzner (m), Marlin May, N.A. Ratnayake)
Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a successful season of “Cosmos”. Seen by many as a “remake” of Carl Sagan’s PBS show, others consider it a bold shot back from scientists at the anti-science nabobs of our day. Let’s talk about how much it has (or hasn’t) changed the discussion.

I enjoyed connecting with fans of the Sagan and NdGT variants of the series. We opened with a comparison of Sagan’s original to the “reboot”, and concluded that they each have their own way of speaking a core message to slightly audiences. Sagan’s, with its PBS base and loftier language, was geared a little more toward those already educated and with a bent towards science. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s, by contrast, seems to aim for the masses with a more image-driven and “science is awesome” approach on a major network. Both are clearly linked in continuing the same mission — instilling a wonder at the universe as a hook towards a more scientifically literate populace.

I spoke to how the COSMOS reaches my high school students and prompts insightful discussions and questions from them. Especially in an age where science has to compete with so many other information streams and forms of content, it is so valuable as an educator to have a tool like the new COSMOS in the box. It is media-rich, features a host that looks and talks more like our current young population, and speaks in more concrete terms (contrasted with Sagan’s lofty speeches), with no less a sense of wonder at the universe. We all admired the choice of the artistic team to show scenes from the past in woodblock-style animation, which contrast nicely with the eye-popping digital graphics to depict our current understanding of scientific phenomena.

We discussed the sociopolitical context for each of the series, noting that Sagan was speaking to a world under the shadow of the Cold War, on the verge of nuclear destruction at any moment. The Sagan version of COSMOS is then understandably a non-so-subtle blend of an inspirational look at our place in the universe and a dire warning of the consequences of our self-destructive behaviors as a species — our fragility and stupidity are a volatile combination.

In contemporary times, NdGT has no less a challenge — fighting the good fight in the sadly ongoing culture wars and a political climate that has become hyper-polarized. These forces threaten not just the advancement of knowledge but also good policy that directly affects the present and future well being of humanity. Our modern warrior for science laudably pulls no punches in his discussion of climate change, the evolution of life, corporate influence over science policy, and the origin of the universe.

We had many accolades for Ann Druyan, who was a driving force behind both the original series and the reboot. Sagan and NdGT are both such unique and compelling personae, and certainly great minds themselves in their own right. But behind them both in across several decades of one COSMOS or another was the woman with the vision, knowledge, and grit to get the message to the public. Despite several notable awards for her work on both series, in terms of public awareness she remains the unsung hero of modern America’s epic battle for broader scientific literacy.

In closing, an audience member asked who we’d each like to see host the next reboot of COSMOS, if there ever were one. Personally, I’d love to see Dr. Pamela Gay in that role. She is a bonafide nerd and an enthusiastic communicator of science!

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