Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (Documentary Mini-Series)
Picture: B - Sound: B
When famous individuals
pass away, we often experience a myriad of different emotions, sometimes shock
and always sadness. However, everyone
once in a while, hearing the news of a celebrity’s death invites a longing
smile, a reflection on the affirming impact he or she had on one’s life. Most recently for me, the passing Fred
Rodgers had such a poignant impact; a man beloved by all whose sole goal was the
education and betterment of children.
His passion for teaching and his desire to enrich the lives of the young
reminds us how magical the world really is.
Prior to the passing Mister Rodgers, the only time I experienced that
sense of loss was October 1996, when I learned of Carl Sagan’s death.
Like Fred Rodgers, Carl Sagan
was primarily a teacher. Sagan was
fascinated by the world and its scientific mysteries, maintaining enthusiasm
for humanity’s ingeniousness while illustrating a guarded optimism for its
ability to transcend the base impulse of self-destruction. Sagan’s contribution to science pedagogy came
in the form of his Emmy and Peabody Award winning series, Cosmos. Ironically, or
rather fittingly, Cosmos, as series
investigating the vast ocean of space, is subtitled “A Personal Voyage.” Therefore, it somehow seems appropriate to
speak about Cosmos anecdotally. I remember in the early 1980s watching Cosmos with my father, entranced not
only by the special effects, but also mesmerized by the possibility of
extraterrestrial life. Revisiting Cosmos some twenty years later, it is
remarkable how well the science fact holds up and I, again, found myself
feeling like an insignificant cosmic accident.
Currently writing a
dissertation on how science is communicated publicly, I became exceedingly
interested in how Cosmos conveyed
scientific fact for public consumption.
Replete with narratives of individual scientists, dramatizations of
scientifically important historic moments, and the frequent use of figurative
language, Cosmos possesses a
rhetorical flourish rarely seen in discussions on scientific fact and
theory. Sagan’s takes us along in his
“Spaceship of the Imagination” to explore not only the far reaches of space,
but also a vehicle for transporting us back to the beginnings of the
universe. The sweeping, epic (and
electronic) score itself invites us on Sagan’s journey of wonderment, human
curiosity, intelligence, and diminution (interestingly, even the spaceship is
reminiscent of Superman’s crystal
ship that brings him to Earth).
Although Cosmos is essentially an educational
text, Sagan, a vocal proponent of nuclear disarmament, promotes very targeted
philosophical, ethical, and political arguments. With Cosmos,
Sagan develops a sophisticated line of reasoning that illustrates humanity’s
responsibility to the planet and the universe.
Because science is a curious effort designed to better life, anything
that disrupts it (nuclear annihilation, global warming, environmental
pollution) becomes rationally unsound.
Ultimately, Sagan posits science as an epistemological framework that
allows, and even promotes, ethical claims.
While there are a few philosophers that would take exception to his
argumentative moves, notably Friedrich Nietzsche, Sagan does provide a
compelling case, even though his concerns seem anachronistic given the current
political climate and the remoteness of global nuclear exchange.
The Cosmos box set is complete with all thirteen original episodes, and
features updates from Sagan after the end of episodes where the science has
advanced since the original airing.
However, these updates are only ten years after the original showing,
which places it at the beginning of the 1990s, so some of the science has
advanced even further. Since Cosmos was originally a book, the
series feels rather repetitive, revisiting information or stories highlighted
in earlier episodes, as if they were footnotes.
Sagan seems most concerned
with not just relaying scientific fact to a general public, but illustrating a
particular paradigm of science influenced heavily by Karl Popper, a free and
open discussion of science mediated by rational argument. Sagan’s favorite phrase seems to be
“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” He is careful to clearly separate the
pseudoscience from “real” science, even when discussing influential figures in
the history of scientific discovery (e.g. Kepler).
Although Cosmos does not claim to be an
exhaustive history of science, or even an extensive survey of our understanding
of the cosmos, the selection of historical examples and which facts to present
are often very intriguing. Sagan
champions ancient civilizations and individuals who had a thirst for
knowledge. In particular, saddened by
the burning of the Library at Alexandria, Sagan extols Hypatia, the last
librarian, for her (and Sagan emphasizes her gender) love of knowledge and
acute pedagogical sensibilities. He also
narrativizes the stories of scientists such as Kepler and Einstein, personalizing
their scientific efforts, adding drama to their struggles.
All told, Sagan presents
an educational document global in nature and in scope. He argues that science is the universal
language, and Cosmos keeps with this
universality as a region-free set of seven DVDs. Even the menus and subtitles could read in
seven different languages (English, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Mandarin,
and Japanese). Cosmos is presented in full screen 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound
with a bonus sound music and effects track, also in 5.1. The picture is digitally remastered, and is
probably as good as it will ever be, given it was shot for television. There are no real extras, but a set like this
seems to function well by the series alone.
For those interested in
science, Cosmos is a wonderful
purchase. Although one would not revisit
it as often as a film, the series invites multiple viewings, not necessarily
for the scientific content, but as a reminder that great teachers, with their
love of learning and teaching, make a world of difference.
-Ron Von Burg