Friday, March 14, 2014

Telling a big story - Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

Last Sunday evening Fox showed the first episode of a stunning new television series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. It is a fitting update to the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage that was hosted by Carl Sagan. I’m looking forward to seeing the other dozen episodes. As shown above, it told how our planet fits into the six levels of a cosmic address.

Like the earlier series, it uses a Cosmic Calendar to compress the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang into a single year. On this time scale civilization only came along in the last day of the year, just a few seconds ago.

The new series is hosted by Neil Degrasse Tyson, who is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Near the end of the episode Neil brought things down to a human scale.He talked about back when he was a 17 year old high school student from the Bronx. Neil told the story of how on a snowy Saturday back in 1975, Carl Sagan picked him up at the bus station in Ithaca, New York, showed him around his lab at Cornell University, and gave him an autographed book. Then Carl gave him his home phone number, and said that if the bus back to New York City can’t get through, call me and you can stay overnight at my home.   

On March 11th Garr Reynolds blogged about More storytelling lessons from Cosmos.

On February 27th Neil Degrasse Tyson was interviewed by National Public Radio. I was impressed by Neil’s description of preparing to appear on the Comedy Central TV program, The Daily Show, with Jon Stewart. Neil was asked when he realized that he had a gift for communicating with people about science. He replied:

“People call it a gift, and that implies you sit there and someone hands it to you. I want to encourage people to not think in terms of gifts, but think in terms of ‘wow, you work hard to succeed at that’, because that’s exactly what I do.

For an example, before my first interview on Jon Stewart. You know, that’s a tough interview right there, alright because he’s brilliant and he’s laden with pop culture referencing. And so, I said to myself, if I’m going to have a successful interview with Jon Stewart, I want to study how he talks to his guests.

So, I sat there and I timed how long he lets you speak before he comes in with some kind of wisecrack, or a joke and what’s the average time interval of that. Is it a minute, ninety seconds, thirty seconds? And, I would create a rhythm in the parceling of the information I would deliver to him, so that a complete thought would come out, so that when he does interrupt there’s a complete thought and then a fun joke, and then there’s a resonance to that so then you can move on. Yeah! No, it’s not a gift, I work at it.”

Watch two clips from The Daily Show about the fossil record and a meteor explosion and Buzzkill of Science. In the first one Neil deadpans that:

“The universe has always been trying to kill us.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Missing this show is definitely something that (almost) makes me want to get cable again. I loved Reynolds' article and your anecdote by Tyson on his experience interviewing for The Daily Show speaks directly to the idea that presentation skills are not something one is born with--each of us must develop and cultivate those skills!