Carl Sagan is a man of immense verbal power. His phrases are carefully chosen, his analogies focused and fascinating.
CosmosAirtime: Tuesdays, 9pm
Cast: Carl Sagan
Subtitle: 25th Anniversary Edition
Network: The Science Channel
We live in frightening times. All around the United States, school districts are considering teaching creationism (or the new whacked out wolf in sheep's clothing, "intelligent design") as a companion, or in some cases, alternative, to evolution. For nearly a decade, science has been under systematic attack by individuals who believe -- for better or worse -- that chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy are flawed, imperfect guides to how we got here. To them, informing youth about a universe formed by "a higher power" is fairer. They pursue "objectivity," not necessarily truth.
Sadly, Carl Sagan is not around to defend his apparently voiceless brethren. Sagan was the first multimedia man of science, an endless protector of the disciplines that aimed for a greater understanding of our beginnings and our being. A well-known author, speaker, and educator, Sagan was at the center of many of the United States' early forays into space. He advocated the search for intelligent life outside our galaxy, and wrote extensively on evolution and the development of life on Earth. In 1980, he brought the mysteries of the universe to households all over America with his 13 part PBS series Cosmos. It made Sagan a kind of superstar. Yet today, his promotion of knowledge over belief seems like nothing more than a forgotten folly.
Fortunately, the Science Channel (a subsidiary of the Discovery Network) has made the wise decision to re-air Sagan's exceptional series in a brand new, CGI-infused 25th anniversary edition (Tuesdays at 9pm, from now through December). It's still the same sensational experience, but now it seems more prescient than ever.
The basic premise of Cosmos is that the universe resulted from a Big Bang, that space is loaded with potential sites for the development of intelligent life, and as proof of the hypothesis, Sagan traces the origins of man, up and through the scientific discoveries that made such a discussion even possible. Each hour long episode is a narrative strand in the scientist's overall explanation, a link to a larger conceptual ideal of humanity's place in a heavens potentially teaming with life.
There are two aims to this approach. First Sagan is a premier skeptic. He abhors the kind of "pseudo-science" -- astrology, parapsychology -- that occasionally replaces rational, real disciplines. But he is also angry at religion. He doesn't say it overtly, but it's designed into the dynamic of the show. Take Episode Three, "Harmony of the Worlds." For the majority of the running time, Sagan discusses the revolutionary work of Johannes Kepler, whose three laws of planetary motion proved, mathematically, the elliptical orbits and gravitational movement of the Earth (and other entities) around the sun. The man's tale is one of theological indoctrination, faith based guilt and decades spent in exile from religious persecution. Throughout the informative hour, we see various images of the Church -- as dark dank retreat from enlightenment, as the purveyor of the 30 Years War, as the stronghold that imprisoned Kepler's mother as a witch for over six years.
Thorough it all, the quest for scientific knowledge and the longing to prove with practical certainty what seemed to be God's own private mystery become the central storyline. Indeed, Sagan condemns the wasting of talents, as Kepler's association with the flamboyant and flawed nobleman Thus Brahe (whose key observations would help the scientist) illustrates that a life of excess without discipline will lead to literal dead ends.
There is a lot of preaching in Cosmos, as it attempts to revive erudition. Sagan lays down the law, as if to grab the Gospel out of the hands of priests and politicians and place it under the scrutiny of astronomers and physicists. He does not argue against "a God," or people's persistent desire to believe in one, but he does dismiss the fervent acceptance of myth and legend as the argument for the natural order of the universe. He famously said,
The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard, who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by "God," one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying... it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.
Still, why people seek a spiritual guideline to scientific fact is not all that puzzling to Sagan. The answer lies within the multiple mind-bending statements Cosmos has in store for its audience. During this trip through the stars, we are introduced to ideas and privy to particulars so spellbinding (pulsars, quasars, and novas), so unbelievably immense in their size and importance (his DNA/evolution discussion is devastating) that they tend to dwarf our sense of self. When viewing the Earth as one of billions of potential planets traveling around trillions of stars, as humans rising up from the cosmic soup created by the Big Bang, it's bloody obvious why we need a kind of metaphysical security blanket. Sagan would prefer it to be natural law, however, not an omnipresent Lord.
And he just may be the person to convert you. Though his clipped diction has inspired impersonation (flattering and unflattering), he is a man of immense verbal power. His phrases are carefully chosen, his analogies focused and fascinating. He relies on history -- mostly ancient -- to prove his points, and spends a great deal of time lamenting the loss of astounding antiquities (The Library at Alexandria in Egypt for one) that would help clarify our current confusion over science and Supreme Being. Sadly, this 25th Anniversary edition is missing some material. The series was repeated on PBS for its 10th anniversary, and included addendums and updates that were added to the end of each episode. They are not included here. The effects, however, are clearly bolstered, and many of the computer-generated starscapes are magnificent.
It's the ideas that are the most intriguing, a true attempt at placing the human race within the vastness of an ever-expanding universe. Future episodes track the exploration of space, the search for signs of intelligent life, and the finer points of infinity. Taken in total, it becomes, as the show is subtitled, a "personal voyage," not just for its creator, but for the audience as well. Sagan's Cosmos opens the doors of perception, allows individuals to think beyond ordinary restrictions and to grasp the importance of science in solving the mysteries of the universe. Some 25 years later, it's a message we need more than ever.