The real Encyclopaedia Galactica.
KNOWLEDGE! Not just physics, not just astronomy, not just biology, or philosophy or mathematics; knowledge from every strand of human endeavor. Astronomer Carl Sagan ties it all together in an immense library of congress called COSMOS.
First broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1980, to date COSMOS is still the most widely watched PBS television series in the world. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award and was viewed by over half a billion people.
Not merely a dry, didactic statement of facts, COSMOS appeals to such a wide audience because Sagan makes every episode, every topic, every nuanced syllable as interesting as possible, using props, special effects, reenactments, shooting on location around the world – the brilliant scientist himself, turtled to the neck, the most interesting prop of all.
COSMOS is also an optimistic cry to humanity; an understanding of our place in the universe; a plea that we are all in this together on a small blue rock drifting in an endless ocean of night…
Directed by Adrian Malone, COSMOS has dated, yes, and the special effects look quaintly chumbly-wumbly (especially the hokey “Spaceship of the Imagination” Sagan supposedly travels the cosmos in), but COSMOS remains a perfect example of what the methodology of science is: a continually-changing facility, presenting the facts from evidence gleaned up to that point, but knowing those facts will change with more precise measurements, images, monitoring, researching – and welcoming those changes. No one – not even Sagan himself – would claim this series or his book of the same name was the ultimate be-all and end-all of knowledge (matter of fact, in 2005 The Science Channel rebroadcast COSMOS with updated computer graphics, new satellite photos of our solar system’s planets, and digital sound). It was a placeholder until more current facts could be verified about the nature of things. Even so, COSMOS is one helluva placeholder, Sagan bringing together strands of philosophy, sociology and science into a fascinating wrecking ball of entertaining intellectualism.
1. The Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean.
First, there’s the music. Every episode of COSMOS opens with an ethereal string pad overlaid with a relaxed, uplifting piano, taking us to a quiet place; a place where we leave the jetstream and immerse ourselves in Mind.Carl Sagan calls this adventure “A Personal Voyage,” as if it may get esoteric and jargony. But it is exactly the opposite – a clear, lucid, well-explained journey through nothing less than life, the universe and everything. And who better to take us there than this man well-versed in life, the universe and everything? The voyage begins with Sagan’s voiceover: “The cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be…”
His poetic aphorisms in the first introductory minutes prove to be inestimably profound. “We are made of starstuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Upon examining that statement, knowing the same elements that fuel the stars (carbon, hydrogen, et al) have evolved into our cells, we realize these are not merely platitudes. They are fact!
“The same laws of physics apply everywhere throughout the cosmos.”
- An overview, taking us outward from Earth to view faroff pulsars, nebulae, galaxies and stars, eventually showing us what our own Milky Way galaxy might look like outside its spiral edge. Then into this solar system and its array of planets and back down to Earth.
- Eratosthenes, the first man to measure the circumference of the Earth.
- The Library of Alexandria and its lost knowledge.
- Cosmic calendar of the 15-billion-year-old universe.
2. One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue.
The boy is cut from the cloth of profundity. His opening statement in the second episode: “In the vast Milky Way galaxy, how common is what we call Life?Sagan was one of the most optimistic proponents of life elsewhere in the universe. In his welcoming, personable manner he gives us his reasons, outlining natural selection, artificial selection, evolution. And very courteously debunking creationism in the process.
- Artificial selection of Heike crabs and their connection to the ancient Japanese Heike warriors.
- The four-billion-year Tree of Life, shown as evolutionary development in morphing diagrams from single cells to vertebrates.
- The mechanisms of cells, including DNA molecules. “Every cell is a triumph of natural selection… Within us is a little universe.”
- Sagan creates the Molecules of Life in Cornell University lab experiments.
3. Harmony Of The Worlds.
From the Pleiades to the Crab Nebula – the birthplace and graveyard of stars; from Jupiter to Mars, as planets and the names of ancient gods, Sagan explores the age when Astronomy escaped the confines of Astrology.
- Johannes Kepler (the first astrophysicist and the last “scientific astrologer”) and his laws of planetary motion.
- The harmony of planetary orbits.
- Ptolemy and Copernicus, the geocentric universe and the Copernican Revolution.
- Tycho Brahe, Kepler’s mentor.
4. Heaven And Hell.
An example of how Sagan shines as a teacher of men, as he tells of Canterbury monks in 1178 witnessing and recording an explosion on the Moon – an asteroid impact – and then showing us how it was proved centuries later that an asteroid actually impacted the Moon, rather than an “evil apparition” (as the monks superstitiously surmised).
Sagan instructs us on how an impact of the magnitude described would set the Moon swinging like a bell (back and forth in its orbit, with the tremors dying down eventually but not in a mere 800 years); of how Apollo astronauts placed arrays of mirrors on the Moon’s surface, reflectors that Earthbound astronomers would shoot lasers at and track the reflection time over a period of years; of how the results show that the Moon does in fact retain an infinitesimal “wobble” that can be calculated back to the impact; final evidence being the impact crater itself in the location that the wobble stems from – named Giordano Bruno.
It’s fascinating! It’s mathematics, it’s physics, it’s what “science” is – when theory meets experiment, evidence and observation, and becomes fact. Science is not an alternate “religion,” not diametrically opposite to superstition, magic or stupidity; it is a methodology, Sagan showing us wonderfully how it’s actually utilized.
The Heaven and Hell of the title pertains to Earth and its sister planet Venus. If Earth is the planet that nurtures Life (which is what we prize as cognizant beings), then it must, by definition, be “heaven,” as opposed to the broiling pressure-cooked surface of Venus, its surface covered by sulfuric acid clouds, contra to Life as we know it, a real life version of the medieval superstition “hell.” Again, Sagan doesn’t just blurt these facts, but shows us how they were arrived at through describing light waves, spectroscopic analysis, and Venera lander photos, explaining clearly the “greenhouse effect” rather than using it as a political hammer.
Brings a tear to the eye how Sagan would refer to our humble planet as “heaven,” again demonstrating his unbounded optimism (I keep using that word in this article because the series and the man is aglow with it), yet tempered by his warnings on industrially destroying that heaven. “If we ruin the Earth, there is no place else to go… And we are not yet able to re-engineer other planets.”
- The Tunguska Event in Siberia, 1908 (probable fragment of comet Encke).
- Comets, asteroids, meteors, impact craters on Earth, the Moon, Jupiter’s Moons.
- The light spectrum, from gamma rays to x-rays to ultraviolet to visible light to infrared to radio waves.
5. Blues For A Red Planet.
It’s about Mars, of course.From H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds to Percival Lowell’s erroneous canali conclusions, to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s fantasy land called Barsoom, Sagan first outlines the fascination of Mars in human history and culture and then details the findings of the Mars probes and Viking landers.
Though he laments the lack of life on Mars, by explaining the criteria for organic life and pinpointing those criteria in microbes that can be easily formed in lab experiments, Sagan makes Life seem so… attainable.
Speaking of humans: “Is there nothing in here but molecules? Some people find that idea demeaning to human dignity. But for myself, I find it elevating and exhilarating to discover that we live in a universe which permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we. The essence of life is not so much the atoms and molecules that go into us, as the way those molecules are put together.”
- Robert Goddard’s early rockets.
- Wolf V. Vishniac’s microbiology experiments.
- Discussing terraforming Mars, using – ironically – canals!
6. Traveller’s Tales.
“The modern ships that sail to the planets…” The fantastic voyage of Voyager 2, as it nears the giant planets of our solar system.
Not spoken of here is what Sagan suggested when Voyager 2 was beyond the orbit of Neptune. He made NASA turn the Voyager 2’s camera back towards Earth and snap a picture from deep space. It would become the basis of his wondrous book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), which is regarded as the sequel to Cosmos (1980). The frontispiece shows that Voyager photo: Earth as a tiny bluish dot, surrounded by eternal black, caught in a reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft, his accompanying text as sobering, poetic and inspiring as Hunter S. Thompson’s “Wave Speech,” as Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you,” as King’s “I have a dream”:
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… every mother and father, every hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
- The great voyages around the Earth.
- Galileo Galilei’s telescopic discoveries and trials.
- Christiaan Huygens’ telescopic discoveries, Venus, Saturn, Mars, Titan.
- Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopic discoveries, that he called “animalcules.”
- Jupiter and its Galilean moons, Io, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa.
- Saturn and its moon Titan.
7. The Backbone Of Night.
When you look into the night sky, sometimes you make out a thicker sea of stars, winding through the seeming random smattering of stars. That’s the plane of the Milky Way, what Carl Sagan (in his inimitable diphthongs) calls The Backbone of Night.
“What are the stars?” Sagan takes us from his Brooklyn childhood neighborhood (where he first contemplated that question) to Greece, where in ancient ages an explosion of inquiring minds sought that same answer: “The universe was knowable because it was ordered; there were regularities in nature. Nature was not entirely unpredictable; there were rules that even she had to obey. This ordered and admirable character of the universe was called ‘Cosmos.’ And it was set in stark contradiction to the idea of ‘Chaos.’ This was the first conflict of which we know between science and mysticism.”
In his undying optimism, after answers have been gleaned through inquiry, research and evidence, Sagan entreats us not just to ask – but to do: “We began as wanderers. And we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.”
- The great Greek scientists: Anaximander, Empedocles, Democritus, Pythagoras, Theodorus, Anaxagoras…
- Pythagorean solids (including the dodecahedron) and the origin of the word “irrational” pertaining to numbers which had no “ratio.”
- Aristarchus and Copernicus reveal the Sun as the center of the Solar system.
8. Journeys In Space And Time.
Sagan tells us what we know, yet makes us realize we were unaware of it: “We are carried with our planet around the Sun; the Earth has made more than four billion circuits of our star; the Sun itself travels about the core of the Milky Way Galaxy; our galaxy is moving among the other galaxies.”
“We have always been space travellers.”
- Computer renderings of well-known constellations from different angles in the sky, in the past and future.
- Putting into perspective galaxies that are light-years away: the light from the Andromeda Galaxy (2.5 million light years away) started towards Earth when humans had not yet evolved.
- Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for flying vehicles.
- Albert Einstein: relativity, time dilation, the speed of light.
- Designs for spaceships that can travel near light speed.
- Contemplating alternate timelines.
9. The Lives Of Stars.
“Atoms are mainly empty space. Matter is composed chiefly – of nothing!”
Accompanied by sedate classical music, Sagan displays the elementary table in little vials; all the natural elements occurring in nature, from simple to complex – Hydrogen to Uranium, explaining their atomic numbers. (Hydrogen is “1” meaning it has only 1 proton. Nitrogen is number 7, which means 7 protons, Oxygen 8, which means 8 protons, and so on.) “The fact that atoms are composed of only three kinds of elementary particles – protons, neutrons and electrons… means modern physics and chemistry have reduced the complexity of the sensible world to astonishing simplicity: three units put together in different patterns make essentially – everything!”
From our new understanding of atoms, we can follow where Sagan leads – from the infinities of the very small to the infinities of the very large – stars.
Sagan foretells: “Some five billion years from now, there will be a last perfect day on Earth,” as he describes the death of the Sun through the exhaustion of its hydrogen fuel for nuclear fusion. This is not some uneducated IDJIT pronouncing “end times” or “Mayan prophecy” or “Doi, sorry, I misread the scriptures…” Then the optimism kicks in as he describes how the outpouring of matter into space goes towards birthing other stars. “Stars are phoenixes rising from their own ashes…”
“Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the Sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals, were all made thousands of light years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society – and we ourselves – are built of starstuff!”…
- The birth of stars: Orion Nebula, Pleiades.
- The nuclear furnace of the Sun,
- Red giants, white dwarfs, neutron stars, supernovas and black holes.
- Birth of the Crab Nebula, observed in 1054.
- Gravity, mass, and the warping of space.
10. The Edge Of Forever.
Sagan eventually addresses the elephant in the room: Is the universe infinite or was it created? Firstly, he helps creationists understand the observed science behind the Big Bang theory, and then addresses Hindu cosmology and creation myths. And then he does something amazing, that conjecturists like Erich von Däniken or Immanuel Velikovsky can’t seem to do without getting themselves deeper into asinine conjecture – he relates Hindu myth to theoretical physics!
Sagan recounts the Hindu precept of the universe being a god’s dream, who, after a time, dissolves himself into a deep sleep, the universe dissolving with him. After a period, the god rouses himself and begins to dream again, and another universe materializes; there being an infinite number of gods dreaming their cosmic dreams. Sagan relates this myth to the theories of expanding and contracting universes. (Of course, the ancient-astronaut fanatics will pule, “So who told the Hindus about contracting universes – except ancient astronauts?!” thereby creating another straw man.) Ever the objective scientist, Sagan reveals the other “perhaps greater” Hindu precept: “It is said that men may not be the dreams of the gods, but rather, that the gods are the dreams of men.” (Echoing the great Harlan Ellison: “When belief in a god dies, the god dies.”)
The elephant cometh and Sagan meets it head-on: “What happened before the Big Bang? For many cultures, the customary answer is that a god or gods created the universe out of nothing. But if we wish to pursue this question courageously, we must of course ask the next question: ‘Where did god come from?’ If we decide that this is an unanswerable question, why not save a step and conclude the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Or if we say that god always existed, why not save a step and say the universe always existed?”
- On location in India.
- The Big Bang theory, origin of the universe.
- The Doppler Effect and red shifts, applied to distant galaxies, spawning the twofold discovery of the expanding universe providing direct evidence for the singularity known as the Big Bang.
- Galaxy types, galaxy collisions, quasars
- More than three dimensions – the hypercube, multi-verses, four-dimensional universes, curved universes and closed universe models.
- The Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico, peering to the edge of the universe.
11. The Persistence Of Memory.
Sagan explores every aspect of the title, from the development and workings of the human brain, to writing, the history of books, outgrowth of cities, ultimately to computers and the “global collective intelligence.”
“…they and we, and all the creatures in between possess similar genetic instructions; our separate gene libraries have many pages in common, which is another reminder of the deep interconnection of all living things on our planet because of a common evolutionary heritage.”
We visit the undersea world: “…there are hungry flowers that devour passersby, gesticulating trees; all manner of creatures that seem to violate the boundaries between plants and animals.”
- Communication of whales, whaling; life in the oceans.
- Genes and DNA.
- Structure of the human brain; the stem, hemispheres, reptilian brain, corpus callosum, limbic system, cerebral cortex. “The equivalent of 20 million volumes of information is inside the heads of every one of us.”
- Intelligences on other worlds.
- Spreading our memories outwards from Earth: revisiting the Voyagers and their gold phonograph records – messages to distant beings: the Sounds Of Earth.
12. Encyclopaedia Galactica.
As an astronomer, Sagan must debunk the OTHER elephant in the room: “In the vastness of the cosmos, there must be other civilizations far older and more advanced than ours, so shouldn’t we have been visited?”
Uh-oh. Ancient astro-NUTS Alert.
But, as with the “god” issue, Sagan again does a magnificent thing: though the UFO nuts display an anathema to knowledge, he doesn’t mock or chide these obvious imbeciles (as I would – ahem!), instead, recounts an alleged abduction anecdote (and its problems as a verifiable event), and then starts educating his “UFO” viewership on how to intelligently seek extraterrestrial life – not by reporting lights in the sky and formulating conspiracy theories or being anal-probed, but on first learning the language of science – mathematics, physics, astronomy – and then seeking out objective evidence.
He makes it clear no one would be happier than he to discover whether extraterrestrial intelligent life did exist, but (like most of us who thumb our noses at “UFOlogists”) what he cannot abide are unsubstantiated claims born of ignorance.
He states his famous dictum: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
On location in Karnak, Egypt, elegant segues take us from deciphering the Rosetta Stone to SETI (The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope, to the fact that extraterrestrial beings and humans have something in common – an aspect most UFO-beciles won’t comprehend – that the laws of physics are the same everywhere, so other beings within our intelligence paradigm would have to conform to certain physics laws.
With that in mind, Sagan unleashes the Drake Equation (the optimistic theoretical calculation of how many technological civilizations might be existent in the galaxy).
Much of what Sagan covers in this episode (SETI, prime numbers as greetings, intergalactic civilizations establishing outposts) would appear as plot points in his novel Contact (1985), and later in the movie CONTACT (1997) which, sadly, he would not live to see completed.
And what is the Encyclopaedia Galactica of which Sagan speaks? He conjectures it is what an intergalactic race might compile to share its knowledge. But really… you’re looking at it. It’s COSMOS. And Sagan knows it. Of all his awards and achievements, this is his Thriller.
In conjunction with the book of the same name (more wondrously detailed than the TV series), COSMOS remains one of the best documents of humankind at that period in its scientific history. Probably a little more optimistic than humankind actually is, but that can’t be harmful to future generations who will need as much optimism as possible to survive their duplicitous, fractured societies (oh, and the death of the Sun).
- The Great Temple of Karnak, Egypt.
- Jean-François Champollion’s translation of the Rosetta Stone.
- The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)
- Arecibo, searching the skies; Sagan tells of its one transmitted message – to star cluster M13.
13. Who Speaks For Earth?
“We know who speaks for the nations, but who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?”
Well, if this magnum opus is any indication, uh, you do, Carl. There is no better overarching testament of Earth’s planetary status and the accomplishments and foibles of its major terraforming species than COSMOS, to present to extraterrestrial beings as a gift-wrapped box set of DVDs.
But this final episode is not a rhetorical flourish. It is a dire warning against despoiling this planet which is precious for being our only abode. Sagan speaks of the technology and politics of war and nuclear weapons (“genies of death patiently awaiting the rubbing of the lamps”), as visibly distressed as an objective host can afford to be. We feel his discomfiture as he laments “world leaders” wielding a global balance of terror, holding hostage all the citizens of the Earth, while spending a trillion dollars a year on military endeavors. To a dispassionate extraterrestrial, “What account would we give of our stewardship of the planet Earth?”
Sagan would go on to write (with Richard Turco) A Path Where No Man Thought: Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race (1990).
The best thing about COSMOS is that as detailed and encompassing as each segment is, it piques your interest in wanting to discover more. As the series winds to its conclusion, there is – as Sagan laments – a sadness. As mighty as he has painted mankind’s cognizance, he admits to a loneliness of the species, as we drift seemingly alone amongst the 400 billion stars of our galaxy.
In majestic classical music, a wrap-up: “Science is not perfect. It’s often misused. It’s only a tool – but it’s the best tool we have; self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything.” A montage of humanity swirls before our eyes, all manner of endeavor and achievement: “These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.”
In his final dialogue: “WE speak for Earth; our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves, but to that cosmos ancient and vast from which we sprang.”
14. Sagan-Turner: A Dialogue.
(Excerpt from imdb: When Turner Broadcasting bought the rights to release Cosmos on VHS for the 10th anniversary of the original PBS series, CNN filmed a special 1-hour program titled Cosmos, Episode 14: Ted Turner Interviews Dr. Sagan.)
We came for Carl the Scientist, but Ted Turner brings out Carl the Politician, as they interminably discuss the nuclear arms race (for which Sagan is, naturally, very critical), nuclear winter and political environmental will. Turner is admittedly a science proponent and Sagan fan, so it was a nice gesture to give Carl a platform to “discuss COSMOS” – trouble is, they hardly discuss COSMOS.
There are too few interesting questions, and Turner is not versed enough in science or in Sagan’s narratives to be able to follow up Sagan’s scientific replies effectively.
Out of nowhere, Turner asks, “Carl, do you think time travel is possible?” As most educated people know, there is no suitable answer to this question, except to educate the questioner. Because when people ask this supposedly profound question, you know they really simplistically mean, “Can you go back in time like Michael J. Fox?”
Turner has no interviewing style to speak of and Sagan never knows when to stop repeating himself. This episode, which is not available on all series releases, is for diehard Sagan fans only.
And for those who feel I have been too effusive over Sagan’s intelligence and largesse and sexy sweaters, I am fully aware of the man’s faults: His definitive biography (Carl Sagan, A Life, 1999, by Keay Davidson) confirms he was not the best father, or spouse (after two marriages, he would settle with his co-author and producer, Ann Druyan), and he was apparently an unforgiving taskmaster to work for. Such is the nature of genius — oops! I did it again!
He was but a human, like you or I, and over the course of his storied life Sagan garnered enemies and detractors, most irrational, some judiciously critical. And he was simultaneously lauded and reviled for being an iconoclast, a popularizer, a celebrity. Yet his legacy is a monument such as COSMOS. You or I, or his enemies and detractors, should be so lucky to leave behind something one-hundredth as megalithic.
At last the eternal question can be answered: Why is the Universe here?
Well, where else would it be?…