On public TV, scientists chart path to celebrity, influence

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Neil deGrasse Tyson visits an observatory on Mount Hopkins in an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. Since he began hosting programs for PBS’s Nova more than a decade ago, the astrophysicist acquired fame and influence to become as one of the most prominent scientists in the U.S. (Photo: Julia Cort)

Neil deGrasse Tyson visits an observatory on Mount Hopkins in an episode of Nova ScienceNOW. Since he began hosting programs for PBS’s Nova more than a decade ago, the astrophysicist acquired fame and influence to become as one of the most prominent scientists in the U.S. (Photo: Julia Cort)

As a reviewer for the New York Times wrote, the four-part show was designed to “send the young astrophysicist into orbit as a space-savvy celebrity.”

At the time, Tyson was mainly recognized within science circles and among devotees of popular science. He wrote a monthly column about the universe for Natural History and directed New York’s prestigious Hayden Planetarium, where he had achieved some benign notoriety after the institution’s controversial decision to exclude Pluto from its classification of the planets. He’d also been profiled by publications such as Scientific American and Ebony.

But Origins pushed him deeper into public consciousness. He went on to become perhaps the most prominent living scientist in the U.S., writing several popular science books, hosting PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW, last year’s remake of Cosmos on Fox and StarTalk, a podcast and radio show. Next month, he’ll bring StarTalk to television as a late-night talk show for the National Geographic Channel.

I traced Tyson’s decades-long public career at length in my book The New Celebrity Scientists, which examines how our media-driven celebrity culture produces popular scientific stars.

For Tyson and other scientists I examined, including theoretical physicist Brian Greene, public television played a crucial role in constructing their scientific fame. It gave each a vehicle to reach audiences beyond their scientific peers, shaped their public images in key ways and spread their often-controversial ideas through the broader society.

It was not Nova, however, that first demonstrated the power of public television to create a global scientific star. It was another PBS show, first broadcast on Sept. 28, 1980 — Cosmos.

Promise of stardom

The miniseries, produced by KCET in Los Angeles at a cost of more than $8 million, featured lavish special effects and was shot in Europe, Asia and the U.S. Yet despite the high production values, the 13-part show was built around its charismatic host, Carl Sagan.

American TV viewers already knew the planetary scientist as a Pulitzer Prize–winning popular science writer who regularly explained astronomy to the millions of nightly viewers of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. But Adrian Malone, a producer of Cosmos, vowed that the documentary series would “make Carl a star.”

Malone succeeded. When half a billion viewers in 60 nations followed Sagan on his voyage through the universe in a Cosmos show subtitled “A Personal Voyage,” he vaulted to a global fame unprecedented for a modern scientist.

“Sagan already had modest fame outside academe,” wrote science historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette in Science on American Television. “Cosmos now propelled him to international stardom.”

Time magazine featured Sagan on its cover in 1980 and called him a “Showman of Science,” “the nation’s scientific mentor to the masses” and “America’s most effective salesman of science.”

Sagan symbolized an era when the television age met the space age. He was a planetary scientist at a time when space became a proxy battleground for rival Cold War superpowers. He was telegenic when it had become clear that television favored personalities, like him, who were articulate, attractive, eloquent and enthusiastic.

Moreover, the show was broadcast as the U.S. experienced a surge in media attention to science. In the 1970s and 1980s, new science magazines, including Time Inc.’s Discover and the short-lived Science (1980–86) were published. Dozens of newspapers around the country published science sections.

Nova debuts

During this period, PBS’s Nova was born at WGBH in Boston as a vehicle to enhance public understanding of science. It debuted in March 1974 with major funding from the National Science Foundation, CPB, the Carnegie Corporation and Polaroid.

“From the outset,” wrote historian LaFollette, “Nova was unashamedly an insiders’ program, populated with scientific elite, unlikely to approach any topic from outside the lines.”

Typically, its documentaries reported on how science addressed contemporary problems. The personal histories and public careers of specific scientists, argued LaFollette, did not feature prominently.

“During the first 16 years,” she wrote, “about one-tenth of new Nova programs focused on individual scientists, most of them biologists or medical researchers.”

“When scientists were interviewed in programs,” she continued, “they appeared primarily as experts on a topic, rather than as individuals with personal lives and families outside the laboratory.”

But in December 1984, Nova devoted an hour-long episode to one prominent scientist, evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould. Produced by Linda Harrar, the show profiled the Harvard-based researcher who was well known within science for his controversial idea, formulated with his colleague Niles Eldredge, of punctuated equilibrium.

According to the theory, evolution featured long episodes of stability that were disrupted, or punctuated, by rapid short-term bursts of species change. The idea was controversial because it cut against the dominant view that evolution occurred slowly and gradually.

By the time the show aired, Gould was known outside science. He had written since 1974 a monthly column on evolution for Natural History and testified in 1981 in the historic McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education case, which prompted a federal ruling declaring the teaching of creationism in public schools unconstitutional. He also won a National Book Critics Circle award for his attack on scientific racism, The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981.

But the Nova show was important because it blended Gould’s personal and private lives — a key feature of fame. The first words of the show’s narrator were: “Stephen Jay Gould, baseball fan and evolutionary biologist, is one of the liveliest voices in science today.”

The opening scene showed him playing baseball with his son Ethan. Later, viewers saw Gould as he met one of the most inspirational figures in his life — former New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio. Gould was also shown hunting specimens in a forest, lecturing on science and race in apartheid South Africa, and testifying before Congress about the consequences of nuclear war.

One scene took viewers into a Harvard lecture hall where Gould outlined his views to 300 freshmen. Science “creates culture by instigating change through its discoveries,” he said, “but it also reflects culture because it’s done by human beings who are enmeshed in the biases and thoughts of their age. They’re no different from anybody else. Scientists aren’t special.”

Other scientists rarely acknowledged such a controversial view, as Gould noted in his writings. By broadcasting it to its own audience, Nova provided one counterpoint to criticisms in a 1990 study that found Nova presented scientists as special, rational workers.

Scientists as storytellers

By the end of the next decade, broadcasters increasingly favored “presenter-led” programming, wrote media studies scholar Frances Bonner in her book Personality Presenters. On-air talent who appeared in these programs were known to audiences before they became show hosts; therefore they brought their fans to the show and their name recognition exposed the show to more viewers.

Nearly a quarter-century after Sagan’s Cosmos proved there was a space in U.S. public life for a charismatic scientific communicator who could explain vividly esoteric ideas to broad audiences, Tyson stepped into that role with Nova’s Origins. A New York Times review drew the parallel to Sagan’s groundbreaking role and declared, “television’s astro-impresario is Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

Nova continued to invest in Tyson after Origins accelerated his public career. In 2006, he became the host of the second season of Nova ScienceNOW, a magazine-format science program.

Promotion for the show framed him as a distinctive personality, enhancing his celebrity persona. “Neil’s scientific background and the passion he brings to his work complement perfectly the series’ commitment to reporting the most astonishing stories from the frontlines of science-in-process,” said Paula Apsell, Nova’s senior e.p., in a press release “He loves a good story — and it shows. His enthusiasm is palpable and infectious — a winning combination.”

Tyson embraced his role as enthusiastic presenter, ending episodes with a short monologue in which he discussed his view of the “cosmic perspective.” In this view, human life and thought are placed in the context of the entirety of cosmological history.

As well as instilling the show with philosophy, Tyson was unafraid to use his popular touch. In the first episode of the 2009 season, for example, he was filmed singing in the shower to introduce a segment on how technology could enhance voices. In a segment about the engineering of artificial diamonds in the same episode, he was dressed as Indiana Jones.

Apsell’s idea of documenting science-in-progress — reporting on often-uncertain science as it happens — was also evident in two multi-episode shows devoted to the work of Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene, whose specialty is string theory, which postulates that the fundamental elements of reality are subatomic strings.

In 2003, Greene hosted the Nova miniseries The Elegant Universe, which brought to television the ideas from Greene’s 1999 book of the same title. The New York Times in 2003 estimated that it cost $3.5 million to produce the series.

Popularizing string theory

Television was ideal for exploring string theory. The medium’s ability to use special effects to illustrate ideas meant it permitted, in the words of New York Times science writer Dennis Overbye, the “visualization of weirdness.”

Television was the ideal medium for popularizing string theory, and Nova’s miniseries featuring physicist Brian Greene was so persuasive that some physicists objected to the influence in legitimizing unprovable claims. (Photo: A. Cross/J. Dunn/Edgeworx for Nova/WGBH)

Television was the ideal medium for popularizing string theory, and Nova’s miniseries featuring physicist Brian Greene was so persuasive that some physicists objected to the influence in legitimizing unprovable claims. (Photo: A. Cross/J. Dunn/Edgeworx for Nova/WGBH)

Visual effects allowed Greene to show viewers — as Greene said during the program — “where reality meets science fiction.” Greene made string theory vivid and vibrant by playing the cello to explain string vibrations, for example. To illustrate electromagnetism’s effect on gravity, he leapt from a tall building to land on his feet.

Greene proved a reliable host amid the visual effects and mind-bending ideas. He came across as passionate and authoritative as he brought viewers on a tour of the ideas from the outer reaches of physics.

New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan found him to be a persuasive host. “He seems to pirouette through the odd hallucinations,” she wrote, “talking like a maniac about how dang amazing string theory is, it becomes increasingly impossible to doubt that he’s feeling it.”

The physicist had another advantage — he looked good on television. A journalist for the Sunday Times noted: “He is conventionally attractive (tall, dark-haired, dresses in the comforting casual-Friday-style of modern academia).” In 2003, Paula Apsell described Greene a “sexy, smart scientist.”

In 2011, Greene would go on to present another series based on, and named after, another of his books, The Fabric of the Cosmos. But scholars and some of Greene’s peers critiqued his association with Nova.

String theory is controversial among some physicists because its theories have not and cannot be tested through experimentation, the traditional way theories were proven true or false. Researcher José van Dijck wrote that The Elegant Universe “presents a multimedia spectacle which magically turns . . . speculation into proven claim.”

Moreover, physicist-turned-mathematician Peter Woit argued that string theory had been “spectacularly successful on one front — public relations.”

Woit included the NSF-based Nova shows among the PR achievements of string theorists that, in part, reshaped the field of physics. As a result, he argued, funding and talented students flocked to string theory rather than other areas of physics that were less glamorous and less publicized.

But, as I argue in my book, the popularization of Greene’s work demonstrates most vividly the new power of science celebrity. The Nova miniseries not only explained science to non-experts; they also played a role in legitimizing string theory for other scientists.

As a consequence, television has a degree of power not only in popular culture — but also within science itself.

Declan Fahy, author of The New Celebrity Scientists, is assistant professor at the American University School of Communication where he teaches, researches and writes about science and the media. His scholarship has been published in Journalism, Journalism Studies, Nature Chemistry, Science Communication, BMC Medical Ethics and Irish Communications Review. Before joining academia, he worked as a reporter and features writer for newspapers in Ireland, including The Irish Times. Current operates as an independent journalism center within American University’s SOC.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story overstated the National Science Foundation’s support for the launch of Nova.