June 06, 2014 by Brionne Powell
In the words of Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler, “Smart is the new sexy.” If you’ve been paying attention to the hype around a new Fox mini-series, you might just believe that’s true. The popularity of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a collaboration between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Seth MacFarlane, among others, is the latest example of efforts to influence popular culture.
From TED talks and the Khan Academy to a Kickstarter campaign to bring back “Reading Rainbow” (which raised its $1 million goal in just 12 hours), there is a strong interest in nurturing the curiosity of this hyper-stimulated, media-obsessed generation. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the days of “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and Carl Sagan’s original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” the world was looking up at the night sky, wondering what was out there, and our entertainment reflected this scientific curiosity.
Many of the people who consider themselves science enthusiasts are no stranger to Tyson’s very public and surprisingly popular campaign to bring complex scientific concepts to the layman’s awareness; but Tyson, Fox and funny man “Family Guy” creator MacFarlane make strange bedfellows to the casual viewer. While MacFarlane has been quite vocal — though perhaps less visible than Tyson, an astrophysicist — about his enthusiasm for scientific discovery, this mixing of science and Hollywood seems to be the latest and perhaps most successful pivot toward America’s renewed interest in scientific popular culture.
With the popularity of “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS), “Doctor Who” (BBC America), “CSI” and “NCIS” (CBS), the short lived “Firefly” (Fox), and the box office success of films like “Gravity” and the “Star Trek” reboot, it seems that “nerd culture” is making the slow and sometimes painful transition from the realms of subculture to the mainstream.
While some people can sit down and enjoy these shows for their entertainment value, there is a group of people who find true inspiration in science fiction. In the days of the original “Cosmos,” MacFarlane was one of those people, and his investment in the reboot is his effort to bring that sense of wonder and discovery that characterized the days when humans were determined to go “where no one has gone before,” to a new generation.
When “Cosmos” first premiered in 1980, it was part of a culture that was obsessed with space and the distant future. Today, its modern update exists in a new political and cultural environment, attempting to bring back some of that sense of wonder and discovery. At its peak in 1966, NASA’s budget was around $5 billion, or about 4.41 percent of that year’s budget. That means that less than 4.5 percent of the budget launched the Apollo program that sent a man to the moon and the Voyager program that sent a satellite further out of this solar system than any other manmade object.
When the American economy suffers, science programs at all levels are among the first things to go. It’s very easy to see million dollar research projects or extracurricular school initiatives as luxuries that can be cut when times are tough, but the short term savings that result from cutting science investments don’t outweigh the consequences of a generation of students who don’t value scientific literacy.
Shows like “Cosmos” and “Star Trek” as well as films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” sparked an interest in scientific exploration and new technology. The gadgets and gizmos that seemed more like magic than science are becoming realities today. Things like flip phones, smaller and more accurate medical scanners, and tablet computers were called communicators, medical tricorders, and “pads” in Star Trek. Finding the creative inspiration that sometimes comes from experiencing a thought-out fictional universe is the first step to making that future a reality. It’s that inspiration, that sense of wonder and discovery that “Cosmos” attempts to provide, and it doesn’t disappoint.
When we have a goal to achieve we can do amazing things: we put a man on the moon, build marble monuments to love and engineer structures that seem to defy the laws of physics but somehow manage to stand for centuries. History is full of testaments to human ingenuity and creativity, but it requires an initial investment. If we want to secure our place as global leaders, not to be displaced by growing powers in other parts of the world, we can’t neglect our scientific ambitions.
There’s a need for more than just scientists and doctors, we need that curiosity that sparks a new wave of technological advancement, medical discoveries and scientific breakthroughs. “Cosmos” is the brain-child of like-minded people from different worlds who saw the need to revisit our nation’s sense of exploration and wonder. It’s the rallying cry for those in my generation who would give anything to experience the moon landing for the first time, for the nerds who pour over images of multi-colored nebulae and the bright lights of distant galaxies from the Hubble Telescope and wonder what else is out there. This show can be the beginning of our journey to new discoveries, but we can’t let the moment pass without something to show for it.
In 2012, NASA’s budget (approximately $17 billion) was less than 0.48 percent — you aren’t mistaken, less than one half of one percent — of the federal budget; and we continue to cut it. This year, Congress is set to approve a budget that would put the agency’s funding back around to the same level as the 2007 fiscal year.
With the rise of Silicon Valley and the rapid expansion of the tech industry, it would be easy to assume that America has a secure footing in the world of science and industry, but we can’t afford to let our curiosity wane or we’ll be forced to watch from the sidelines as other countries pass us by. Our fascination with intelligence has to be more than just a fad. As “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” wraps up this Sunday, it should serve as a reminder to always stay curious.
Brionne Powell is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.