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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Science > Space > Cosmos (Carl Sagan)

Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (Documentary Mini-Series)


Picture: B -    Sound: B     Extras:  D     Episodes: A



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 


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