Latin Heat: Neil deGrasse Tyson: Our Guide to the Cosmos and Beyond

By Justina Bonilla

With the success of the FOX series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey comes the newest installment Cosmos: Possible Worlds, hosted by one of America’s most esteemed and well-known science personalities, astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Broadcast Premiere of Cosmos: Possible Worlds is Tuesday, September 22 (8/7c).

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson
Photo: Miranda Penn Turin/Fox

In the world of science and nature television programs, Dr. Tyson has become a positive influence in the promotion of science literacy and respect for nature, alongside contemporaries Bill Nye (Bill Nye the Science Guy), Dr. Michio Kaku (How the Universe Works), Sir David Attenborough (Planet Earth and Life on Earth), and the late Dr. Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time and Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking) (1942-2018). 

Dr. Tyson was born in 1958, in Manhattan, New York, to sociologist and civil rights activist father Cyril Tyson and to gerontologist and Puerto Rican mother Sunchita Feliciano Tyson. At 9-years-old Dr. Tyson first visited his local planetarium, igniting his interest in the universe. By age 11 he decided he wanted to be an astrophysicist.

“I grew up in a house where curiosity was nurtured, and my ambitions were supported,” Dr. Tyson shared in an exclusive interview with Latin Heat. “It was the attitude that pervaded the household that I think served me.” As a part of their parental nurturing of his interest, Feliciano Tyson took Dr. Tyson as a child, to her family’s native Arecibo, Puerto Rico to see the Arecibo Observatory, which is a radio telescope.

In 1980, Dr. Tyson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. Later, he received his MA degree in Astronomy in 1983, from the University of Texas at Austin. At Columbia University, Dr. Tyson earned an MPhil (Masters in Philosophy) degree in astrophysics, in 1989 followed by his Ph.D. degree in astrophysics in 1991.

Currently, alongside his Cosmos hosting duties, Dr. Tyson is also the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, NY. He also hosts his own talk show StarTalk, with over 1.29 million subscribers on YouTube, where “Science meets pop culture”… StarTalk.

Someday Dr. Tyson hopes to have both former President Obama as a guest on StarTalk. “[President Obama] is actually highly scientifically literate,” Dr. Tyson noted. “Rumor has it, I haven’t double-checked this, that when he was in law school he wrote a paper, a law paper, that explored some intersection between some legal case and quantum physics. So I always wanted to sit him down and ask him about that.” Previous presidential guest includes President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton, and Vice-President Al Gore.

As an author Dr. Tyson has written sixteen books, including The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (2009), Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017), and Letters from an Astrophysicist (2019).  Along with public speaking engagements, he has also appeared on an array of films and television shows such as Superman v Batman Dawn of JusticeThe Big Bang TheoryGravity Falls, and is a frequent guest on multiple talk shows.

Dr. Carl Sagan
Photo: Tony Kordy Sygma/Corbis

The original 1980 PBS Cosmos program, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, was hosted by Dr. Carl Sagan (1934-1996). Dr. Sagan was an immensely influential scientific figure in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably, as an author, science communicator, and college professor. He specialized in numerous scientific fields, including astronomy, astrobiology, astrophysics, cosmology, planetary science, and space science. Dr. Sagan co-wrote Cosmos: A Personal Journey, with wife Ann Druyan. Druyan is the creator, as well as a producer and writer for both Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey and Cosmos: Possible Worlds.

Seth MacFarlane
Photo: Art Streiber

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, found its way to FOX TV, as a result of animation trailblazer Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) meeting Dr. Tyson through The Science and Entertainment Exchange. Inspired, by what Dr. Tyson shared with him about revitalizing Cosmos for the 21st Century, MacFarlane, both an admirer of Dr. Sagan and the original Cosmos series, brought Cosmos to FOX, beginning his collaboration with Dr. Tyson and Druyan. Thus, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiered in 2014 to both critical praise and audience popularity.

Dr. Tyson is a fitting successor to Dr. Sagan as host for Cosmos due to his immense passion and eternal curiosity of science. According to Dr. Tyson’s sister Lynn Tyson, “What [Neil] is able to do is to demystify science. And that is the ultimate equalizer.” Adding “I think particularly with science, some people feel there is a barrier. Scientist talk formulas, scientists use big words. Neil has broken all that down, and has a way of communicating that allows for people to connect to the information.” (Quoted from an interview on CBS Sunday Morning, 2017).

In both A Spacetime Odyssey and Possible Worlds, Dr. Tyson uses the “Ship of Imagination” to travel far into space, time, and the unseen worlds of Earth. If Dr. Tyson had access to this versatile ship in real life, “I would choose an occasion in the past, where major events unfolded.” He went on to elaborate, “I would want to observe the formation of the solar system, for example, and watch the planets corrales out of the swirling gases that is the disc of material, of the newborn star system, and the newborn star we call the sun. Then I would want to watch the formation of the moon.” Dr. Tyson continued, “All evidence suggests that it’s the consequence of a sideswiping collision that Earth had with a Mars-sized protoplanet.”

Finally, Dr. Tyson would want to watch the asteroid which took out the dinosaurs. “You don’t want to interfere with that.” Because, as Dr. Tyson explained, “You want to make sure it takes them out so that mammals have some chance of rising up from underfoot, under T-Rex’s feet, where he would otherwise be serving us up as Hors d’Oeuvres”.

For Cosmos: Possible Worlds, one of Dr. Tyson’s favorite locations to film pre-COVID, is FAST (the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical radio Telescope), in southwest China. Putting the vast size of FAST into perspective, Dr. Tyson elaborated, “We began [this interview] talking about the Arecibo radio telescope. That’s a huge telescope. Its three-football field across. The FAST telescope, has twice the collecting area of the Arecibo telescope. So, no longer does the United States have the largest telescope in the world, China does”.

Ann Druyan
Photo: Miranda Penn Turin/FOX

When asking about the possibility of a fourth season of Cosmos, Dr. Tyson mentioned that that decision would be heavily influenced by Druyan. “[Druyan] is a brilliant storyteller,” Dr. Tyson reveals. She is the notable writing talent whose work has majorly impacted all three Cosmos series. Dr. Tyson noted with admiration, “When you’re that creative you’re thinking all the time. And even if there isn’t a show scheduled, or funded, or planned, you would still research that, and have it ready to roll.”

Observing the influence Cosmos has had on media, pop culture, and science, Dr. Tyson concluded, “What Cosmos has done successfully, I think, is highlighting for people the history of this quest to understand this world around us. And, how we can harness our discoveries, the fruits of that quest, to empower us to become shepherds of our own lives, our own loved ones, and civilization itself”.

Cosmos: Possible Worlds airs on Fox, September 22, at 8/7c.


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