When Neil deGrasse Tyson was last in New Zealand in 2017, he did what comes naturally to an astrophysicist when outside at night.
“I always look up,” he laughs. “And I try to get other people to look up as well.”
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Tyson says he was “just delighted” by what he saw. “Because you take so much for granted – whatever sky you’re born under – it just always looks that way.”
But here in Aotearoa, “everything otherwise familiar to me is upside down, so that’s fun to sort of reorient my brain,” he softly chuckles.
In Cosmos: Possible Worlds, Tyson is not only looking up but also looking to the future. This is the third season of the Cosmos series, beginning with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage in 1980 and Cosmos: Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Tyson in 2014.
Tyson, who was fascinated by astronomy at a young age, was a teenager when he met Sagan and was invited to spend a day with the scientist at Cornell University.
He says “it is a huge honour and an even huger responsibility” to carry on Sagan’s legacy.
Cosmos: Possible Worlds blends science and history to take viewers to locations around the globe, from Charles Darwin’s garden to the ancient stone monument of the Tower of Jericho. Stunning visual effects and animated sequences tell stories of scientists from the past and illustrate a vision of the future.
Tyson, who also hosts his own podcast and talk show, StarTalk, says that several high-profile people from the world of film have contributed to creating the look and sound of the series.
“They bring this level of artistry to the programme and so the programme feels cinematic on a level where you’re not thinking you’re watching a documentary.”
As the title suggests, Cosmos: Possible Worlds explores whether there are other planets where humans could survive. Tyson believes it’s feasible that there is another place we could call home – after all it wouldn’t be the first time, he says, citing the Polynesian explorers as a prime example.
“They navigated, they were wayfinders. Then they discovered all the islands of the South Pacific including New Zealand…
“When I look at the history of human exploration, I say to myself, ‘No, we’ve done it before’, and there’s no reason we can’t do it again – especially if we have to.”
In Cosmos: Possible Worlds, Tyson takes us across the universe but he also explores places that are much closer to home.
“We also hang out on Earth and look at worlds even beneath our feet. Possible Worlds is not just ‘Find a planet, let’s move there’. It’s ‘Let’s think about what’s going on around us’ and learn on the deepest level, what our relationship is – not only to the ecosystem but to nature at large.”
Through his TV appearances and social media platforms where he frequently uses pop culture references to explain scientific concepts, Tyson has popularised and, in many ways, demystified science for a broad audience.
The 61 year old, who has two children with his mathematical physicist wife Alice Young, says that “science and technology in modern times plays a fundamental role in assuring our survival”.
“We live in a time where people have lost track of what is true and what is not. And so science gives you tools to winnow out what has no foundation in reality and what does. And goodness knows we’ve got people walking among us who have lost track of that distinction.”
One question that we’ve long sought the truth to is whether we are alone in the universe?
Tyson, who is also the director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, says that Cosmos: Possible Worlds “handles the search for intelligent life in a very measured way,” before adding that “it’s sometimes fun to just become unhinged” about the possibilities.
He notes that, traditionally, aliens have been depicted as “evil” creatures who “just want to destroy us” – and there’s probably good reason for that.
“If you have some technologically advanced civilisation discovering a less advanced civilisation, that has never boded well for the less advanced civilisation.
“Maybe all these movies are parables for ourselves. It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, if aliens treated us the way we treat each other, we’re doomed, right? And of course, if they come to us, they’re more advanced, right? We haven’t left low Earth orbit since 1972.
“So if they cross the galaxy to visit us,” he laughs, “we should just hope that all they do is make us their pets.”
Cosmos: Possible Worlds, National Geographic, Monday March 9