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Cosmos: Written in the stars

The universe gets a visual upgrade in a series based on the show that made a star of astrophysicist Carl Sagan

Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.
Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey.

For people who spend much of their time with their heads among the stars, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Ann Druyan are very down to earth.

Speaking over the phone from Sydney, Tyson and Druyan are discussing Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a continuation of late astrophysicist Carl Sagan's pioneering 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Druyan, Sagan's former collaborator and widow, writes and produces and Tyson presents.

The 13-part series also has in its credits the unlikely name of Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane, who as an executive producer feeds his own passion for science, which was ignited by the original Cosmos series.

MacFarlane contributes his knowledge of animation to the show, which uses cartoons to tell the stories of scientists from the past. Paired with slick production values and scenes shot around the world, Cosmos is a rich mix of information and entertainment.

Tyson and Druyan say this series will provide intelligent but accessible information to viewers, regardless of their science knowledge.

"I'm not interested in attracting scientists to science," says Druyan. "What I want is to reach people like myself ... who only really discovered their interest in science as a result of searching after school. School, for me, was a curiosity killer."

Tyson agrees Cosmos will not sound like a dense textbook regurgitated on screen. "The primary goal is to convey to you why science matters, and that does not require a high science background to recognise, appreciate, or embrace why science matters to you the individual, to our culture, to our civilisation."

For those with appetites for science and science programming, Tyson may be a familiar face.

The astrophysicist, often referred to in the press as a "rock star scientist", is currently director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A frequent guest on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, Tyson has even made a cameo appearance on sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Following Cosmos, his fame could reach further astronomical heights, though that's a thought that doesn't faze Tyson.

"The pleasure is not being recognised but when they come up and say 'are you Neil Tyson?' and I say 'yes' and they say 'tell me more about black holes' or 'tell me more about the Big Bang or the search for life'. That's an immensely gratifying feeling for an educator because I'm not the object of their interest, the subject matter that I've been sharing with them is, and they come to me because they want more of it."

Druyan says Tyson was her first and only choice as a presenter of the new Cosmos.

"What I was looking for was someone who, like my beloved late husband and longtime collaborator Carl Sagan, had a passion to communicate. No snobbery, no sense of wanting to show people how smart he is, or how much he knew, but a desire to connect with the audience - because I think one of the many things that Carl and Neil share is that sense that this information belongs to all of us."

Tyson met Sagan as a teenager when he was considering which university to attend. Sagan actually took the time to write, inviting Tyson to meet and have a tour of his lab at Cornell University.

Though Tyson did not end up studying at Cornell, he says Sagan has still taught him a lot.

"He made it clear to me that if you speak to an audience, not as their professor, not from up high, but you speak to them as though you're a personal tour guide, as though you step out of the screen and you're sitting on the living room couch with them describing the stories of the universe, then people will actually listen and they'll want more of that.

"What [Sagan] did was merge the very long-known and understood craft of storytelling with science, a topic that people don't normally think of as a repository of storytelling, yet there's a sweep of information stretching from the Big Bang to emergence of life on earth."

Druyan and Tyson are hopeful that this Cosmos will engage, enrich and inspire people to want to learn more about science.

Says Druyan: "If Cosmos succeeds, it is the beginning of a new epoch of science-based entertainment that respects the value of science and honours the fragility of life on the planet ... if that happens then my heart will be even more filled with a sense of joy."

Lowdown

What: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a new series about life, the universe and everything based on Carl Sagan's Cosmos A Personal Voyage from 1980

Where: National Geographic Channel

When: Starts Sunday March 16, 7.30pm

- NZ Herald

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