The universe has wonders that extend far beyond our wildest dreams. It is hard to conceptualize the actual size of the universe, let alone all of the stars, planets, and galaxies that exist within this massive space. There are two spectacular astronomers in particular who attempt to explain the extraordinary wonders of the cosmos in a way that is engaging for all. These astonishing scientific communicators have used television to pique our interest and expand our knowledge of the astronomical universe, about which most people know so little.
Cosmos is the platform that both Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson choose as their medium for educating others about the scientific wonders of space, otherwise known as astronomy. In 1980 Carl Sagan hosted a 13-episode series on PBS called Cosmos: A Personal Journey, while in 2014 Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted the the followup series – Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey – from National Geographic and Fox. Both hosts make a sincere effort to spread scientific knowledge, specifically about astronomy, to the younger generation of our planet.
They both also follow the same storytelling approach throughout their respective television series’. They use teaching aids which cater to children, such as the “ship of imagination” and the “cosmic calendar,” to make their message accessible and help simplify the universe. In doing so, they allow children to use their imagination to understand the significance of each part of the universe and of the extremely small part we play within it.
Despite sharing an ultimate purpose, there are of course differences between the programs. Their teachings have the same sound science as their basis, but the presentation styles of Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson are at different ends of the spectrum. What are some of the noticeable differences between the old Cosmos and the new one?
Most of the differences are merely aesthetic. For instance, one key distinction between the programs is that the newer Cosmos features animations that were created by a team supervised by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy. MacFarlane is, incidentally, also a producer of the new Cosmos. There are other tonal differences, however, that can be attributed to their individual hosting styles. Sagan starts the journey of discovery in space and then moves inwards, coming back to us on earth, implying a personalized voyage that directly interpolates the viewer. Neil deGrasse Tyson does the exact opposite, making us feel small compared to the rest of the universe. The use of the cosmic calendar shows how truly insignificant we are, but Sagan is able to soften that blow through his delivery methods — particularly with his slow, deliberate speech pattern that feels almost like poetry. He pulls you in with a soft, hypnotic voice. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a bit more abrupt with his delivery. He does not give off the impression that he is speaking directly to you; rather, it feels more like attending a college lecture.
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s delivery is more impersonal, making space travel and astronomy seem like a cold journey through a dark and quiet universe. The “ship of imagination” is depicted as a literal spacecraft that leaves little to the imagination. Carl Sagan believed that a trip through the universe needed to be framed as a very personal experience. He often took a metaphorical approach to delivering scientific information, which we can see in his version of the “ship of imagination.”
And for all the aesthetic differences between the two men and their approach to hosting the program, there are many ways that the two men themselves are refreshingly similar. Sagan was never entirely transparent about what his spiritual beliefs were, and never engaged in debate about theology in the way that Tyson has. Nevertheless, it’s safe to infer that the two men were on similar pages with respect to their skepticism. Tyson courts controversy in a way that Sagan never did, even suggesting that scientific literacy should inform political opinions. As Tyson said in an interview with Parade, there are contentious political issues which could be more easily “settled or informed if we [as a culture] became more scientifically literate.” This is the very sort of stance that could easily draw the ire of some creationism advocates.
Both men are also notable for their environmental advocacy. Sagan wrote about the potential harm of climate change as early as 1980, and Tyson has consistently advocated for the use of alternative energy sources. In this 1990 lecture, as well as in his work Pale Blue Dot, Sagan spoke of the Earth’s fragility and our role as stewards of its care. Tyson, speaking on the topic two decades later, has called out public figures who have openly denied the reality of climate change. Both men realized that the fate of the environment would not be determined by any one individual, but by large groups of individuals, dead set on voting out recalcitrant politicians.
Both scientific communicators excel in different aspects of their delivery. Neither is “better” or “worse,” it all comes down to which you prefer. Do the poetic words of Carl Sagan excite your imagination, or do the brash scientific teachings of Neil deGrasse Tyson tickle your fancy? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter – as long as you’re listening and paying attention to what they’d like to teach you, both of these men can make a profoundly positive impact on your life.
About the author:
Beth Kelly is a freelance blogger and writer based in Chicago, IL. With a lifelong passion for both science and literature, she holds a degree in Communications and Media from DePaul University. In her free time she loves training for triathlons and shooting film photography.
Follow her on Twitter @ bkelly_88
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