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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Page One: Cosmos

Page One: Cosmos

I was in fourth grade when Cosmos first aired. My teacher had a poster up about it in the classroom and encouraged us to watch it. I was quite the space geek at the time, and I expected the show to be about space and nothing else, so when it actually aired, I was baffled that it was about the entire history and breadth of science from a truly cosmic perspective. I didn't understand much of the show, but I faithfully watched each episode. I remember to this day sitting in my living room, watching Carl Sagan standing on the cliffs above the sea, saying in that wonderful baritone of his, "The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be."

After three or four episodes aired, we were shopping in one of the local malls (this was when we lived in Portland, OR, so I think it was actually the Washington Square mall), when we spotted the show's companion book. It was something like $19 (hardcovers were expensive back then!), but my parents allowed me an advance of a whole bunch of weeks' allowance to buy it. So for the rest of the series's run, I'd watch and try to follow along in the book. This turned out a little more difficult than I'd expected, as the book is not a transcription of the show (and nor is the show a filming of the book). Both contain material not in the other, and in different sequences.

I was, as I said, only nine. I didn't understand much of the material. A lot of it sailed right over my head. Most of it, actually. But I could sense something big there, and even now, I remember the sense of wonder certain passages of the show and book created in me: the animation detailing the history of human evolution. The 'Cosmic Calendar'. The depiction of Johannes Kepler. Sagan's concern over nuclear weapons. The anecdote of the mathematician who asked his nine-year-old son to name the number depicted by a 1 followed by one hundred zeroes, which the kid called a "googol". (Sagan pointed out that making up names for numbers has a certain charm, especially if you happen to be nine. Which I was.) And all those poetic turns of phrase: "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the Universe." "The Martians will be us." "Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves, but to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring."

No, I didn't understand much of Cosmos. But I sensed it. (And I sure loved the pictures. Cosmos was the first truly beautiful book I ever owned. The mass-market paperback edition of the book, with only a small selection of the art in a section at the middle of the book, strikes me as a publishing error of high magnitude.)

Cosmos receded into the background of my life a bit over the rest of my school years. The show never repeated at a point where I could watch it again, and it wasn't until college that I decided to re-read the book in its entirety. This time I understood a lot more of it. During 'May Term' of my junior year of college -- 'May Term' was a four-week 'semester' that came in May, during which students took a single course -- I discovered that this little dump of a video store up on the corner actually had the entire Cosmos series on VHS. I rented them all and, more than ten years after originally watching the show, saw it again. And it deeply thrilled me, again.

I've watched Cosmos again one time since college, although I am in the midst of a re-watch again right now. I'm waiting until I'm done to blog anything about it, if even then; Cosmos is now a classic of science documentary film making, and most folks interested in such things have already seen it. I can say that as a production, it stands up beautifully; some of the science is obviously dated, but the show's overall theme of science as a candle in the dark (as Sagan would later call it in his book The Demon Haunted World) is as important and hopeful as it always was. And you know what? Over the last few years, as the Buffalo Bills have turned in one crappy season after another, I've turned to movies when I've reached a point where I no longer wanted to watch the Bills. And Cosmos is perfect viewing for turning around that "My football team just got crushed" funk. Who cares that the Bills just lost 39-2! The Cosmos awaits, man!

Carl Sagan's death continues to strike me as an awful tragedy. I'm not sure anyone is out there right now who can bring such a sense of poetry to writing about science. There's precious little science writing out there right now that shows that Sagan-esque quality of evocation of "sensawunda", and some of what's out there right now is smug in tone when it should soar.

I've read a large number of Sagan's other works -- not all of them, but a bunch. I must admit that when I tried his one novel, Contact, I did not much like it, although I greatly admired the film that was eventually made from it. I wish he'd had the opportunity to write more. As a close to this post, here's another quote of his, not from Cosmos, but from his essay "A Sunday Sermon", reprinted in the collection Broca's Brain. I've had cause to think of this quote a great deal lately.

My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the tradition sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence are provided by such a god. We would be unappreciative of those gifts (as well as unable to take such a course of action) if we suppressed our passion to explore the universe and ourselves. On the other hand, if such a traditional god does not exist, our curiosity and our intelligence are the essential tools for managing our survival. In either case, the enterprise of knowledge is consistent with both science and religion, and is essential for the welfare of the human species.

Thank you, Dr. Sagan.


SK Waller said...

I'll never forget the first airing of Cosmos. You perfectly describe the wonder it instilled in me, although I'm much older (my eldest son is your age). I think this only proves Dr. Sagan's genius at touching the 9 year-old in all of us. He is much missed.

Excellent post!

Jedediah said...

Carl Sagan is a hero of mine. I saw Cosmos only fairly recently, although I had read the book years before, and what I like most is Sagan's enthusiasm for the things he's talking about. The best teachers are those who love what they teach and Sagan certainly was an excellent teacher.

Doug said...

Yes, I liked Cosmos, his sense of wonder of the universe helped me to appreciate science and got me to study it.

I read Contact years ago and the funny thing is, I thought it was a great book and I'll give the disclaimer here "I about to complain about the movie compared to the book." I didn't think it did justice to the book, I thought the movie was ok, I felt it missed out a lot of book that should have been there.