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Carl Sagan’s Unmade Second Show

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Two weeks ago, 5.8 million viewers tuned in to watch the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s highly-anticipated Cosmos reboot. The late Carl Sagan hosted the series’ original incarnation, which consisted of 13 mesmerizing episodes that forever changed science journalism. But few people know that Sagan had yet another TV show in the works—one that regrettably never saw the light of day.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was an astronomical hit. After airing on PBS in 1980, the program won a Peabody Award, an Emmy, and (until Ken Burns’ The Civil War came along ten years later) became the most-watched series in the history of Public Television. Sagan had teamed up with writer Ann Druyan (soon to be his wife) and fellow astrophysicist Steve Soter to create the cosmic documentary. Pleased by their success, it wasn’t long before the trio began discussing plans for a sequel.

Eventually, they hatched a plan for a second show, one that would focus on the looming Cold War arms race [PDF]. Its predecessor had delved into topics ranging from the Big Bang theory to neuropsychology. This new collaboration, however, would exclusively cover nuclear physics and the ethics of atomic warfare. Sagan called the project Nucleus.

Hoping to capitalize on Cosmos, ABC eagerly bought the rights to its sequel, meaning that Nucleus would find an even wider audience. But problems began to emerge when ABC released a controversial made-for-TV movie called The Day After in 1983. During the apocalyptic film, an atomic bomb detonates over Kansas City, Missouri. What follows is a graphic montage of civilians being burned to a crisp, as you can see in this clip:

The Day After had a grim, anti-nuclear tone which became a political lightning rod for conservative organizations across the country. In the face of all this controversy, ABC began to have second thoughts about putting yet another program on the subject into its lineup.

Sagan’s ongoing feud with Ronald Reagan certainly didn’t help matters. The science communicator was intensely critical of the president’s "Star Wars" defense program and turned down several invitations to the White House.

But it was the Soviet attack on Korean Air Liner 007 that August that drove the final nail into the Nucleus coffin. Two hundred and sixty-nine passengers were killed in this assault, including U.S. Congressman Lawrence McDonald of Georgia. According to Sagan biographer William Poundstone, “The international incident seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. ABC put Nucleus on the far-back burner and never brought it forward again.” 

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Pop Culture
Neil deGrasse Tyson Recruits George R.R. Martin to Work on His New Video Game
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George R.R. Martin has been keeping busy with the latest installment of his Song of Ice and Fire series, but that doesn’t mean he has no time for side projects. As The Daily Beast reports, the fantasy author is taking a departure from novel-writing to work on a video game helmed by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

DeGrasse Tyson’s game, titled Space Odyssey, is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. He envisions an interactive, desktop experience that will allow players to create and explore their own planets while learning about physics at the same time. To do this correctly, he and his team are working with some of the brightest minds in science like Bill Nye, former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino, and astrophysicist Charles Liu. The list of collaborators also includes a few unexpected names—like Martin, the man who gave us Game of Thrones.

Though Martin has more experience writing about dragons in Westeros than robots in outer space, deGrasse Tyson believes his world-building skills will be essential to the project. “For me [with] Game of Thrones ... I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent,” deGrasse Tyson told The Daily Beast. “Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of Mark Twain’s quote: ‘First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.’”

Other giants from the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, including Neil Gaiman and Len Wein (co-creator of Marvel's Wolverine character), have signed on to help with that same part of the process. The campaign for Space Odyssey has until Saturday, July 29 to reach its $314,159 funding goal—of which it has already raised more than $278,000. If the video game gets completed, you can expect it to be the nerdiest Neil deGrasse Tyson project since his audiobook with LeVar Burton.

[h/t The Daily Beast]

Flying Telescopes Will Watch the Total Solar Eclipse from the Air

If you've ever stood on the tips of your toes to reach something on a high shelf, you get it: Sometimes a little extra height makes all the difference. Although in this case, we're talking miles, not inches, as scientists are sending telescopes up on airplanes to monitor conditions on the Sun and Mercury during the upcoming total eclipse.

Weather permitting, the Great American Eclipse (as some are calling it) will be at least partially visible from anywhere in the continental U.S. on August 21. It will be the first time an eclipse has been so widely visible in the U.S. since 1918 and represents an incredible opportunity not only for amateur sky-watchers but also for scientists from coast to coast.

But why settle for gawking from the ground when there's an even better view up in the sky?

Scientists at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) have announced plans to mount monitoring equipment on NASA research planes. The telescopes, which contain super-sensitive, high-speed, and infrared cameras, will rise 50,000 feet (about 9.5 miles) above the Earth's surface to sneak a very special peek at the goings-on in our Sun and its nearest planetary buddy.

Gaining altitude will not only bring the instruments closer to their targets but should also help them avoid the meteorological chaos down below.

"Being above the weather guarantees perfect observing conditions, while being above more than 90 percent of Earth's atmosphere gives us much better image quality than on the ground," SwRI co-investigator Constantine Tsang said in a statement. "This mobile platform also allows us to chase the eclipse shadow, giving us over seven minutes of totality between the two planes, compared to just two minutes and 40 seconds for a stationary observer on the ground."

The darkness of that shadow will blot out much of the Sun's overpowering daily brightness, giving researchers a glimpse at rarely seen solar emissions.

"By looking for high-speed motion in the solar corona, we hope to understand what makes it so hot," senior investigator Amir Caspi said. "It's millions of degrees Celsius—hundreds of times hotter than the visible surface below. In addition, the corona is one of the major sources of electromagnetic storms here at Earth. These phenomena damage satellites, cause power grid blackouts, and disrupt communication and GPS signals, so it's important to better understand them."

The temporary blackout will also create fine conditions for peeping at Mercury's night side. Tsang says, "How the temperature changes across the surface gives us information about the thermophysical properties of Mercury's soil, down to depths of about a few centimeters—something that has never been measured before."


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