On Cosmos and Cosmos

Here’s something I published first on this blog back in August 2001, explaining my feelings about Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I thought I’d republish it in light of the new one that started airing on Fox last night.

I purchased the Cosmos DVD set last week. Owning this wondrous series on DVD is a bit of a dream for me, but I have to give a bit of history to explain why.

Cosmos first aired on PBS in 1980. The series quickly won critical acclaim but more fortuitously, it premiered during an actor’s strike that temporarily crippled the broadcast networks (this, in days before cable had reached most U.S. households). Cosmos quickly became one the most popular programs ever to air on PBS. I can’t recall when I first saw it. I believe it must have been during one of the many repeated broadcasts of Cosmos. My copy of Carl Sagan’s companion hardcover dates to Christmas 1983, and I know I requested the book because of my deep love for the series, so I saw it sometime between my eleventh and fourteenth birthdays.

Sagan’s clear love of science, his eloquence, and the high production values of the program captivated me. (Cosmos employed some of the special effects artists from the Star Wars films.) Sagan expressed complex scientific ideas such as evolution and the origins of stars in clear, concise, down-to-earth language that was both clear to grasp and, in retrospect, poetic. Sagan did not merely educate, he inspired. Pay attention when some young Turk scientist explains a breakthrough in physics or astronomy; quite often if asked for her inspiration, she’ll be quick to cite Sagan and Cosmos.

In watching the first episode again Sunday night, I was surprised at how lucid and energized Sagan seemed. His sense of wonder and awe permeate this series and I quickly felt myself transported back to those days when I would race upstairs to watch Cosmos on the old TV in my mom’s bedroom. If I missed a single episode, it sure as hell wasn’t my idea; my passion and excitement for it were boundless. I vividly recall being overwhelmed by the sheer immensity of the universe (“Our own galaxy takes a quarter billion years to make a single rotation?”) and brimming with admiration for the ingenuity and genius of the scientists who uncovered the mysteries and secrets of our origins.

Cosmos was also my first real introduction to the idea of life on other planets. Now, when you read that, you might think I’m nuts. How could I have missed Star Wars? Star Trek? The Day the Earth Stood Still? Of course I was immersed in science-fiction as a child, but I knew instinctively that most science-fiction was mere fantasy. Cosmos, however, was my first inkling that there was a scientific likelihood of intelligent alien life. As Sagan explains, in a universe with ten billion trillion stars, what are the chances that ours is the only one with an inhabited planet?

But Sagan didn’t stop at astronomy or physics. Cosmos was significant for another fact: It rather brilliantly explained the philosophy of science and the methods of scientific inquiry. By explaining how scientists such as Eratosthenes and Aristotle, Democritus and Darwin reached their conclusions, Sagan opened my eyes to the wonder of science and the possibilities of human inquiry. These men and women weren’t handed revelation in a book or burning bush; they realized and understood the universe through their own ingenuity and determination.

And this leads to the other great understanding I owe to Carl Sagan, one I sadly forgot during my inane slide into religiosity: We are not here by design. This Earth and its inhabitants are the product of a wondrous cosmic randomness, a toss of the dice. We exist because a chance collection of molecules and organic matter coalesced into life, billions of years ago, and eventually evolved into sequoia and elk and herons and humans.

In my imagination, the notion that everyone I love, everyone I admire, and every beautiful thing I’ve ever seen is a cosmic accident is far more wondrous and awe-inspiring than the concept that it was all carefully designed. Understanding how hydrogen and other gases ignite into baby stars, how amino acids form into proteins, and how simple mechanisms for detecting light evolve over millennia into the human eye are far more satisfying to me than reading “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

Knowing this also teaches me that the universe didn’t come into being for the sake of humanity, as some religions teach. We’re merely a happy accident. This world, this galaxy–they are not our playthings. Understanding this, I hope, inspires humility and a desire to walk lightly.

I owe all this to Carl Sagan and Cosmos. Virtually all I know about human origins and the births of stars I can trace back to the wonder and fascination with learning that Dr. Sagan inspired. To call Sagan a hero would diminish the regard in which I hold him. And yet, please don’t misunderstand. Sagan opened a door and lit a path. I don’t believe for a moment he paved that path. What I owe to Dr. Sagan is the debt of inquiry, the desire to study Richard Dawkins and his explanations of Darwin’s theories, Timothy Ferris and his apt explanations of cosmology, Richard Rhodes and his accounts of the harnessing of atomic power, and Eileen Welsome and the dangers of scientific abuse.

To me, Cosmos is a lamp, a teacher, and a guidebook, and Sagan a mentor. His contributions to science education are, I believe, immeasurable. Perhaps now you understand why, when I watched the first episode again Sunday evening and recalled the many ways it has inspired me, I actually wept.

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