Astronomer Carl Sagan become Mr. Science for a generation after his 1980 series, "Cosmos," took audiences on a groundbreaking TV journey through the universe.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," the 21st-century edition which debuted Sunday, has a head start with a Twitter following of 1.7 million that's just edged by the starry likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Cee Lo Green.
Tyson, a go-to expert for news reports on Earth-threatening asteroids and other science developments, said his public profile frees him from comparisons to Sagan. The educator and author with a gift for conveying the wonder of discovery died in 1996 at age 62.
"If I didn't have a following, I think people would say, 'How is he going to fill Carl Sagan's shoes? How is he going to pronounce billion?'" said Tyson, referring to the "billions and billions of stars" phrase made famous by Sagan in "Cosmos" (although purists insist Sagan said "upon," not "and").
Sagan was the presenter for the first series, Tyson said, and he's the presenter for the second. He gamely accepts an analogy, one he's clearly heard before, to the string of actors who have starred in the "Doctor Who" title role.
Each contributes something different, but "you're still with the franchise at the end of the day," he said.
The new version began its 13-episode run at 9 p.m. EDT Sunday on Fox and other Fox Networks Group channels including National Geographic, FX and Nat Geo Mundo. Viewers have a second chance to catch each episode at 10 p.m. Monday on National Geographic, with added behind-the-scenes and other bonus footage. It will air in other countries on Fox channels and National Geographic Channels International.
Tyson, 55, brings to the program his distinguished credentials as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and an author whose works include "Space Chronicles" and "The Pluto Files."
He's the perfect modern media scientist: tall and good-looking, with a deep voice that he uses to charismatic and authoritative effect.
Proving he's a stickler for accuracy, Tyson took "Gravity" to task for scientific gaffes and prompted a flurry of coverage ranging from Hollywood trade papers to geek-favored websites. Among the more lighthearted of his "Mysteries of #Gravity" tweets: "Why Bullock's hair, in otherwise convincing zero-G scenes, did not float freely on her head."
He is also one of the nation's most prominent African-American scientists, but says ethnicity isn't in the forefront of his perspective.
"I've never divided my audience that way. My audience is, are you curious about the universe or not?" Tyson said. The father of two also rejects the idea of inspiring anyone to follow his career path because he is black.
"I don't go around saying I'm going to be somebody's role model. In fact, I think the concept of 'role model' is overrated and should be rethought," he said. His argument: If it had taken a black astrophysicist to have been raised in Bronx, N.Y., as Tyson was, for him to become one, it wouldn't have happened.