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‘Cosmos’ closes with a tough call for faith in science

“What will happen the next time the mob comes?” Neil deGrasse Tyson asked at the beginning of the finale episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” which finished its meditation on the universe on Fox last night. Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, was referring to the destruction of the ancient Library of Alexandria. While “Cosmos” has ranged through scientific history and across the universe, this latest stop in the timeline, like many others Tyson has made during the run of the show, was really about our present moment.

“Cosmos” had beautiful animation, a great score and a clear respect for Carl Sagan, who starred in the original “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” But what has ultimately distinguished the show, particularly at a moment where news and educational programs are often under pressure to give equal time to both sides in a debate, however unequal the case might be, is a tough-minded independence.

Ann Druyan, who collaborated with Sagan (her husband) on the first edition of “Cosmos,” said she had been gratified by how much the two networks that aired this series supported her intellectual independence.

“I was amazed that Fox and National Geographic, but more about Fox, never wanted to change a word in my scripts,” she told me in an interview last week. “That was revelatory. That Standards and Practices would write back to me after reading the script and say ‘Cannot wait to see this on television.'”

From its first episode to its last, “Cosmos” has staked out the idea that the pursuit of science can be an act of faith. “The Old Testament Bible comes down to us mostly from the Greek translations made here,” Tyson said last night of the Library of Alexandria, reminding viewers that the secular pursuit of knowledge can have benefits for believers, too.

He emphasized that his devotion to science had an element of religious awe to it. “Some of us like it small. And that’s fine. Understandable. But I like it big,” he explained in the conclusion to the episode. “It matters what’s true.”

“For me personally, the most fulfilling spiritual experiences I’ve ever had have come to me via the insights of science,” Druyan told me, echoing Tyson’s on-screen sentiment. “And I have no argument with anyone and their belief, and I respect their right to believe anyone. And I hope that no one felt that ‘Cosmos’ was ever putting a finger in anyone’s eye. But what I’m trying to say in ‘Cosmos’ is that the universe that science reveals is more glorious than any of our ancestors anticipated. So I don’t understand why there should be a resistance to that more ancient, more vast universe than anyone dreamed.”

The final episode also suggested that science, in its own way, carries fewer risks for those who believe in it than religion does. “It’s one of the things I love about science,” Tyson said. “We don’t have to pretend we have all the answers.”

In our conversation, Druyan acknowledged that there was no way to completely reconcile the two very different ways of thinking.

“There are ways in which they are antithetical, because faith is at the heart of many religions, and it’s really contrary to the methodology of science,” she told me. “So there are areas of conflict. But you know, the problems we face, the universe that we inhabit, it’s inaccessible without science. And I guess if you think of life and spirituality as being at home in the cosmos, then for me, science is the natural root.”

“Cosmos” spent its last episode making clear that scientific thinking faces real threats in the political climate. “Pretending to know everything closes the door to finding out what’s really there,” Tyson told audiences.

But Druyan closed our conversation on an optimistic note.

“I think [science is] less under threat today than it was seven or eight years ago, when I felt there was much more of a kind of palpable public hostility to science,” she said. “I feel that less. In fact, I was really surprised and delighted that the negative reaction to ‘Cosmos’ has been so meek and so fringe.”