The breakout star of the current TV season is a big, amiable former wrestler who also happens to be a genius of an astrophysicist. Neil deGrasse Tyson has made science cool again in his reboot of Carl Sagan's Cosmos, which just wrapped up its run on FOX.
His show came along at a pivotal time, when America can't seem to decide if it's going to believe in the facts science presents. Many of our elected leaders simply won't buy some of its toughest findings, like the conclusion that we are causing climate change. It's hard to let science go to work on fixing something if we can't even agree it's real.
And like the early scientists introduced to us in Cosmos — men like Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600 for pointing out the universe is ever-expanding — Tyson took a weekly beating after each show. Groups like Answers in Genesis (which brings us the Creation Museum in Kentucky), the Discovery Institute and even — ironically — FOX News have pounded Tyson and his message.
Some of these groups object on religious grounds, holding fast to the notion that the Earth was created some 6,000 years ago. They argue that carbon dating is bogus and that the theory of evolution is full of holes. Eventually they fall back on quoting the Bible. Point by point, Cosmos marshaled the facts and set the record straight. It's odd, because most religions have long ago reconciled science and faith — Pope Francis is a chemist by training, and it was a Jesuit priest, Georges Lemaître, who first articulated the Big Bang theory.
But in some circles, it's become fashionable to pooh-pooh pointy-headed Harvard types like Tyson. If you dig a little deeper, it's often in the service of ideology, politics and/or money, but it is dragging the rest of us down. We badly needed an authority like Tyson to prove in a simple, straightforward way that "facts are facts."
Tyson tells the story of when he was 17 and, considering his higher ed options, spent a day at Cornell with his hero, Carl Sagan. That changed his life. "I already knew I wanted to become a scientist," Tyson told the New York Times. "But that afternoon, I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become."
America's kids need that kind of inspiration, too — to be awed by our planet (or, as Sagan famously described it, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam"), to follow science as a personal calling, and to always seek the light of truth. ♦