LOS ANGELES — Astronomer Carl Sagan become Mr. Science for a generation after his 1980 series, “Cosmos,” took audiences on a groundbreaking TV journey through the universe.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” the 21st-century edition debuting Sunday, has a head start with a Twitter following of 1.7 million that’s just edged by the starry likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee Lo Green.
Tyson, a go-to expert for news reports on Earth-threatening asteroids and other science developments, said his public profile frees him from comparisons to Sagan. The educator and author with a gift for conveying the wonder of discovery died in 1996 at age 62.
“If I didn’t have a following, I think people would say, ‘How is he going to fill Carl Sagan’s shoes? How is he going to pronounce billion?”’ said Tyson, referring to the “billions and billions of stars” phrase made famous by Sagan in “Cosmos” (although purists insist Sagan said “upon,” not “and”).
Sagan was the presenter for the first series, Tyson said, and he’s the presenter for the second. He gamely accepts an analogy, one he’s clearly heard before, to the string of actors who have starred in the “Doctor Who” title role.
Each contributes something different, but “you’re still with the franchise at the end of the day,” he said.
The new version begins its 13-episode run at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on Fox and other Fox Networks Group channels including National Geographic, FX and Nat Geo Mundo. Viewers have a second chance to catch each episode at 10 p.m. Monday on National Geographic, with added behind-the-scenes and other bonus footage. It will air in other countries on Fox channels and National Geographic Channels International.
Tyson, 55, brings to the program his distinguished credentials as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and an author whose works include “Space Chronicles” and “The Pluto Files.”
He’s the perfect modern media scientist: tall and good-looking, with a deep voice that he uses to charismatic and authoritative effect.
Proving he’s a stickler for accuracy, Tyson took “Gravity” to task for scientific gaffes and prompted a flurry of coverage ranging from Hollywood trade papers to geek-favored websites. Among the more lighthearted of his “Mysteries of (hash)Gravity” tweets: “Why Bullock’s hair, in otherwise convincing zero-G scenes, did not float freely on her head.”
He is also one of the nation’s most prominent African-American scientists, but says ethnicity isn’t in the forefront of his perspective.
“I’ve never divided my audience that way. My audience is, are you curious about the universe or not?” Tyson said. The father of two also rejects the idea of inspiring anyone to follow his career path because he is black.
“I don’t go around saying I’m going to be somebody’s role model. In fact, I think the concept of ‘role model’ is overrated and should be rethought,” he said. His argument: If it had taken a black astrophysicist to have been raised in Bronx, N.Y., as Tyson was, for him to become one, it wouldn’t have happened.
“Role models limit what it is you might want to be when you grow up, because you’re only allowed to do what others have done who have come before you,” Tyson said. “And no one should ever be limited in their imagination.”
His involvement in “Cosmos” brings him to a different and bigger stage. It gives him the chance to increase his profile with a new crowd, including the viewers who tune in to Fox for “Family Guy” laughs in the half-hour preceding “Cosmos” on Sunday and suddenly find themselves lost in space.
It was Seth MacFarlane, the comic mind behind “Family Guy” and other projects including Fox’s “American Dad!” and the movie “Ted,” who got the network involved in the project. MacFarlane, a fan of the original “Cosmos,” also turns out to be a Tyson admirer. The two met through a group that connects people in science and entertainment for the exchange of ideas.
MacFarlane told reporters in January that he “wanted to sit down and ask him (Tyson) a whole bunch of nerd questions, and so I asked if he wanted to have lunch, and astonishingly he said ‘yes.”’
They became collaborators on “Cosmos,” with MacFarlane an executive producer. The project has the look of a costly sci-fi film, reflecting what Tyson called a budget “commensurate” with its scope as well as the participation of top entertainment industry talent such as Bill Pope, director of photography on “Matrix” and “Spider-Man” movies.
Patrick Stewart, Richard Gere, Kirsten Dunst and other actors give voice to the scientists whose achievements are part of “Cosmos.”
Adding to its pedigree: Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, who wrote the original series with Sagan and Steven Soter and who joined again with Soter to craft the second.
She’s also an executive producer on the series, which she said avoids duplicating its predecessor aside from a few elements, such as the Ship of the Imagination and the Cosmic Calendar, and the audacity of its vision.
“Yes, it’s the same in that intersection of emotion and solid science and fabulous facts and animation and drama and history,” she told a news conference. “But it’s completely new.”
For Tyson, the series is a means to connect viewers to the “awe and wonder” of the universe and the role of science in helping them “become a better shepherd of this world.”
“We have huge issues confronting us in civilization today, in energy and transportation and health and asteroid risks and viruses, and all of these require scientific insights to address,” he said.
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)lynnelber.